Michael Kennedy, as
an aside in his book about the works
of Ralph Vaughan Williams, says that
Ernest J. Moeran "had produced,
in the Violin Concerto of 1942, the
work of lyrical beauty to which his
whole career had been leading."
That was enough to
make me covet to hear the Violin Concerto
years before I ever did. "Lyrical"
is a word used too often and too easily
in speaking of music, but it’s always
just right for Moeran. I finally jumped
at the chance to buy the concerto when
in early 2004 Chandos released an affordable,
digitally remastered account of Moeran
recordings from 1986 and 1990. This
offers not only the Violin Concerto,
but also the Cello Concerto and two
smaller pieces. The fine notes to this
disc are by Lewis Foreman and Moeran
biographer, Lionel Hill.
Now, hearing it for
the first time, it seems to me that
the Violin Concerto is another of those
Moeran works that it is easier to think
of, not as music, but as a sort of distillation
of English and Irish landscape. It has
more in common with larks and wet heather
than it does with musical traditions.
It seems to get at the same thing that
lies behind the notes of folksongs.
Probably it’s that rootedness in folksong
that makes this, like so much of Moeran,
as irresistible as seasons and weather.
Moeran certainly saw
himself as somewhat against the times
in his unwavering allegiance to folksong.
He wrote about the unpopularity of folksong
in a letter of 1931 to The Musical Times:
"English folk-song, as that of
any nation, is apt to become exceedingly
dull when it is handled by musicians,
who, with the best of intentions, possess
more technical resources than inspiration,
and who, by virtue of their surroundings,
their sophistication and their respectability,
have never experienced the feeling which
gave birth to this kind of music."
Moeran clearly had
experienced that feeling very deeply;
and here, as in the dazzling Symphony
in G Minor, he pours it out. A passage
or two in this work brought home to
me how right Colin Scott-Sutherland
was, in his biography of Sir Arnold
Bax, in speaking about English music
in general: "The natural rhythm
of English music tends to be lyrical
and rhapsodic. Violent rhythmic gestures
seem to intrude, to be imposed from
without, representing bursts of unaccustomed
energy whose force is quickly spent
and which relapse almost immediately
into the quiet flow when the passion
That seems to describe
precisely what happens 1:45 into the
first movement of the Violin Concerto
(a work Bax particularly admired, by
the way). A storm blows through the
orchestra and is gone as suddenly as
it came, though passing squalls will
dart in again with the piercing sweetness
of summer rain. Soloist Lydia Mordkovitch
manages to bring out the intense joy
of this music in passages such as this.
The good humor of the
second movement leans toward Moeran’s
Celtic roots. There’s a letter by Moeran
to May Harrison written from County
Kerry in 1939 in which he’s wrapping
up the first movement and about to tackle
the second, under the influence of Irish
folksong. He speaks of "soaking
myself in traditional fiddling with
its queer but natural embellishments
and ornamentation. This time of year
the whole countryside is on the dance
round here. In the 2nd movement I am
planning to work some of this idiom
into concerto form. I may tell you some
of these people have a terrific technique
in their own queer way." (Foreman
and Hill quote a passage of this letter
in their notes).
The third movement,
Lento, seems more contemplative than
passionate, in some way withdrawing
to a distance. But inevitably the cool,
rational soloist is overcome by the
ecstatic playing of the whole orchestra
(try 6:05 into the movement) like a
bird caught in a wind. In the end, I’m
not sure I agree with Kennedy – I still
think the Symphony is the work of lyrical
beauty Moeran was heading toward all
his life. But why stop with one? We’re
fortunate that Moeran had several.
Composers say a lot by what particular
pieces of music they dedicate to whom.
This piece is dedicated to Ralph Vaughan
Williams. Moeran was particularly drawn
to the RVW Pastoral Symphony.
(In the same letter quoted above, after
Moeran has spoken of the poor way English
musicians handle folksong, he goes on
to say, "Even so, there exists
already at least one really important
achievement which owes its existence
directly to the influence of folk-song,
and that is the supremely beautiful
‘Pastoral’ Symphony of Vaughan Williams."
Lonely Waters, is from about
1931, or the same year in which Moeran
wrote that letter - no doubt it’s one
of Moeran’s ways of saying ‘thank you’.
What is remarkable is that Moeran in
1931, with the Symphony in G Minor and
the Violin Concerto still in front of
him, already seems very self-assured
in discussing how to use folksong –
both in writing to the press and in
writing this delightful little piece.
It’s no surprise that it’s based on
a fragment of song from East Norfolk.
For me this was the surprise on the
disc – a sort of period piece that I
just didn’t expect Moeran to write,
based on an Elizabethan tune. With that
said, I’m glad he wrote it. It offers
a glimpse of Moeran’s music dressed
in 16th century clothes.
I admired Raphael Wallfisch’s playing
on the Martinů
cello concertos, but here he has a different
task, apparent already in the very opening
of this concerto. If the breezy, spacious
opening of the Martinů Cello Concerto
No. 1 is like trying to play blue sky,
the opening of the Moeran Cello Concerto
must be like trying to play drizzle
and sulky clouds. The soloist plumbs
the depths of the cello’s low range
until, at about 1:05 into the piece,
the listener wonders whether it can
go lower. Never fear, it can. The cello,
so ideal for expressing anguish or inner
turmoil, is in fine form here. Yet Wallfisch
manages to tug the sun from behind the
clouds in places (for example, at 3:22
into the movement.)
The lovely Adagio evokes
echoes of RVW, having shaken off that
gray of the first movement. One rhapsodic
flight of lyricism even reminded me
very specifically of RVW’s "The
Lark Ascending" at 5:45 into the
movement. Granted, the cello’s not so
bright and light a bird as the violin.
Still, Wallfisch makes it soar.
The third movement,
Allegretto deciso, alla Marcia, opens
with the feeling of folksong that seems
requisite in a Moeran work. It moves
from jaunty, extroverted music at the
outset (a county fair springs to mind)
to long, thoughtful introspection (try
7 minutes in). It’s a delicious close
to a fine concerto.
Two well-matched concertos
superbly performed and recorded all
at an affordable price.