Stéphane Rancourt (oboe),
Alexander Baillie (cello), Royal National Scottish Orchestra, David Lloyd-Jones
The belated appearance of Alan Rawsthorne's Symphonic Studies, his finest
orchestral work, on CD in a modern recording would be a cause for celebration
even if the performance was disappointing: fortunately it is far from that.
The RSNO under the authoritative direction of David Lloyd-Jones gives an
assured and dedicated reading which reinforces the stature of this masterpiece.
It is astonishing to reflect that this is the composer's first orchestral
work so confident and masterly is the handling of his forces and so inspired
and diverse the material. Part Concerto for Orchestra, part one-movement
symphony, the Symphonic Studies is much more than a set of variations. The
total contrast between the slow movements and the more energetic passages
reveals a composer capable of creating totally opposing moods and able to
speak with an equally convincing and highly personal voice in both. Freshly
inventive and already establishing a vein of defiant stoicism which characterises
much of Alan Rawsthorne's later work, this 1938 tour de force presages the
infectious gaiety of the Street Corner Overture and the intellectual toughness
of Symphonies 1 and 3. Forced to take one Rawsthorne work to a desert island,
the Symphonic Studies would have to be my choice in this new Naxos recording.
If the rest of the disc is less exciting, that is no reflection on the quality
of the concerti, here receiving their world première recordings, but
rather on the extraordinary achievement of the Symphonic Studies. In fact,
the Oboe Concerto of 1947 receives a very fine performance from soloist and
RNSO strings alike. The delicate conclusion to the first movement after its
imposing opening is very moving and the central Allegretto con
morbidezza is taken at an attractively flowing pace without losing any
of the haunting quality of the first subject. The Finale is in the composer's
jauntiest mood and rounds the work off satisfyingly enough, but it is the
profound melancholy in the first two movements which lingers in the memory
after the emphatic conclusion.
The Cello Concerto of 1965 represents Alan Rawsthorne in his last compositional
phase, intensely chromatic and shot through with dissonance, as in his Third
Symphony, though in the Concerto the effect is more lyrical as befits the
character of the solo instrument. There is much to impress in this sombre
and eloquent work, nowhere more so than in the beginning and ending of the
central Mesto as the solo cello tries in vain to climb out of the
rich, dark textures which mire it. If the mood of the Finale is uncertain
(an initial breeziness is soon snuffed out by memories of the solemnity of
the preceding movements), there are compensations in the brief but emotionally
charged cadenza and the grand, towering conclusion.
Stéphane Rancourt and Alexander Baillie play with a genuine feeling
for the distinguished solo writing in their respective concerti and there
could be no better first recording imagined for these distinctive compositions.
The Symphonic Studies is the key work on this disc, however, and the intensely
idiomatic performance of that piece makes this well-filled and superbly recorded