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Alan RAWSTHORNE (1905-1971)
Symphonic Studies (1938) [20:11]
Overture: Street Corner (1944) [5:32]
Piano Concerto No. 1 (1939 rev.1942) [20:10]
Piano Concerto No. 2 (1951) [31:24]
Malcolm Binns (piano)
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir John Pritchard (Studies; Street Corner)
London Symphony Orchestra/Nicholas Braithwaite
rec. 1977, 1979. venue not given. ADD
LYRITA SRCD.255 [77:26]


It was in the Spring of 1971 when I heard on Radio 4 an introduction to a new work by Alan Rawsthorne; sadly it was also to be his last. This was the ‘Elegy’ which Julian Bream premiered. The continuity announcer commented that he did not see why modern composers could not write music that was more approachable. Rawsthorne died a few months later and in the November of that year, I went to the Wigmore Hall memorial concert. The audience included the great and the good of that time. I remember Richard Rodney Bennett, Priaulx Rainier and Elisabeth Lutyens. I also remember the music: chamber works like the masterful ‘Theme and Variations’ for two violins’ and I thought that it was quite challenging at the time. Listening to this CD and some other pieces in preparing this review I cannot now understand what I, or that BBC announcer found so difficult. Rawsthorne, it seems to me lies directly in the path of the English Romantics except with a distinct style of his own, a style which owes something to the leading European composers of the mid-century like Hindemith and Stravinsky. He is not dissimilar in some ways to Arnold Cooke.

This well-filled disc gives us an opportunity to re-assess Rawsthorne’s finest works. It is a happy if belated follow-up to the disc of the three symphonies (SRCD 291 - review) which came out in the mid-nineties. Like that earlier CD this one, with excellent if arguably now somewhat historic performances, benefits from audio quality which was then in the demonstration class and still sounds superb today.

Thinking of the above Theme and Variations it’s worth remembering that it was immediately followed by the ‘Symphonic Studies’ - also in a sense a set of variations. Then, just as war broke out, the 1st Piano Concerto appeared, thus establishing the composer’s reputation.

There is an element of the neo-classical in Rawsthorne, and that applies to the three movement 1st Concerto with its three titled movements: Capriccio, Chaconne and Tarantella. The booklet notes on this work are by John McCabe from the original LP. The other writers are Alan Frank and Hugo Cole. McCabe emphasises that in his view the second movement of the 1st concerto is "one of the loveliest movements in Rawsthorne’s output". He goes on: "his achievement in producing a finale so satisfying and entertaining is remarkable". Why this work is not a repertoire piece I really do not know. At 20 minutes it’s an ideal length for a young pianist to cut his teeth on. And I haven’t yet mentioned the joyous first movement which opens with an arresting rhythm on the timpani to set everything in motion.

If the 1st Concerto is good fun the longer four movement 2nd is equally memorable, especially the finale. Malcolm Binns is really fleet of foot here and in addition he is expressive. There’s a little touch of rubato in the Andante semplice although the orchestral balance does not always help him. The opening of the work is the complete antithesis of the 1st concerto. There’s that rippling piano feature accompanying a melody, so very typical Rawsthorne in its contour, on solo flute, which is then taken up ‘piacevole’ by the piano. He works this to a passionate climax before embarking on a much more - forgive me - masculine second subject. He then weaves these ideas together beautifully.

In the April 2007 Gramophone a review of this recording claimed that he had been superseded by the Chandos recording with Geoffrey Tozer and the LPO. Well, I have not heard it so cannot comment, I also find it difficult to imagine a more memorable recording of this concerto, in which everything seems to have been so beautifully thought out.

It seems to me that the work of Sir John Pritchard is mostly lying unrecognized on long forgotten LPs. Perhaps the time has come to re-assess his work, particularly with the music of his contemporaries. I was drawn to this view when hearing, after some time away from it, his performance of the wonderful ‘Symphonic Studies’ in which Pritchard seems to be in his element. He has, in this work anyway, a real feeling for architecture. Now of course I have heard no other conductor do this piece; even so Pritchard knew the piece well, having performed it several times under the guidance of the composer so it’s easy to believe that this is the way it’s meant to go. Its opening theme is a grandiloquent statement which soon breaks into a lively Hindemithian type melody, the strings of the LPO being in particularly good form. All sections of the work are tracked. There is some deft orchestration too. The woodwind are nicely scored and the ideas are tossed around rhythmically and expressively. Its twenty minutes are over without a wasted note.

The disc is made up with a smart performance of ‘Street Corner’: a happy concoction of English pastoral meets Hollywood, good fun.

Lyrita march on, and the best of luck to them. They will, I’m sure, continue in this mission to bring great music and superb musicianship coupled with lovely warm recordings back into circulation. This is a worthwhile release, fine performances and fine music which should be better known.

Gary Higginson


See also review by Rob Barnett

Rawsthorne Website


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