In the normal way of
the world I would not have bought this
CD: I may have noticed it in the musical
press and the name of Elizabeth Maconchy
would have caught my eye. But it would
not have been high on my batting list
– I am not a Hindemith, Lutosławski
or Kopytman fan. Yet that would have
been a pity for three reasons. Firstly
the Cello Concerto by Paul Patterson
is an interesting revelation, secondly
the Maconchy is a major masterwork that
would be highly regarded if it had been
by a German man and lastly the three
other works are actually important pieces
that are good to have in the collection.
Fortunately for me I received this disc
as a review copy – life would have been
less interesting if it had passed me
Grave: Metamorphose was composed
in 1980, originally for cello and piano.
The following year the composer made
the present concerted version. He had
previously written a masterly Cello
Concerto in 1970 for Mstislav Rostropovich,
so it is no surprise that this piece
is on a smaller scale.
The programme notes
point out that formally the work is
a "brief single movement (that)
takes the form of a composed accelerando
through a single immense melodic line,
increasing in speed from the slow opening."
I love Rob Barnett’s
description of the work’s "grunting
and grating earnestness of purpose".
Yet the work is by and large saved by
the final ‘elegiac’ cadenza and the
somewhat peaceful final bars. Interesting,
but to my ears this is not particularly
revelatory or special.
I am seriously impressed
by Elizabeth Maconchy’s stunningly beautiful
Epyllion. This is perhaps one
of the best works I have heard over
the past year. Yet I guess that it is
little known and even less appreciated.
Maconchy’s music has seen a minor revival
in her centenary year (2007) yet nothing
that suggests she is achieving the level
of interest that her music is due. The
boxed set of the ‘Complete String Quartets’
re-issued by Regis on the Forum label
is crucial to an understanding of Maconchy’s
composing career [review].
I guess that many people will know the
fine overture, Proud Thames -
recently re-issued on Lyrita. Purchasers
of that disc will surely be impressed
by the essential Symphony for Double
String Orchestra. This work ought
to take its place alongside Tippett’s
Double Concerto, RVW’s Tallis
Fantasia and even Elgar’s Introduction
and Allegro. Yet it doesn’t. For
some reason, and I hope that it is not
misogyny, Maconchy’s music fails to
reach a wide audience.
It is probably well
known in these pages that Elizabeth
Maconchy studied with Ralph Vaughan
Williams and Charles Wood. She was also
well praised by Gustav Holst. The programme
notes point out that she wrote in most
genres - but that chamber music was
her penchant. I would tend to agree
with this – but the more of her orchestral
work that I discover the more convinced
I am that she is in fact a fine ‘all-rounder.’
She was particularly attached to the
viola and apparently found herself giving
it all the best parts in her quartets!
But in this recording we hear clearly
that she was equally au fait with
commissioned for the Cheltenham Festival
and was first performed there on 13
July 1975. The Novello web-site has
a superb programme note written by the
composer herself and I crib from this
The title of the piece
is a Greek word for a mini epic. The
principal idea of the work is the exposition
of musical events of a widely varied
character. There is no suggestion that
this piece is in any way programmatic.
The composer is at pains to point out
that the soloist is more of a leading
character in a cast of actors rather
than the traditional concert soloist.
Although, it is obvious that the complexity
of the ‘solo’ part would exclude this
role of ‘primus inter pares’ to all
but the best of performers.
conceived in four sections rather than
discrete movements. The first is dark
and quite oppressive. Maconchy uses
"reiterated chords, low-pitched,
with glissandi in harmonics for violins".
It creates an unsettling mood. However
later bars become much more lyrical.
In fact it is here that the listener
is most aware of her famous teacher
- in his less pastoral moods. Of course
she does not mimic, parody or copy RVW’s
style – yet it is somewhere in the background.
This is certainly deep-felt, moving
music. The second section, a scherzo,
is short and sweet – almost quicksilver
in its mood. This is entertaining music.
The composer describes the third part
as being "lyrical in feeling and
mainly contrapuntal in texture, with
long interlacing lines; it includes
on the way several solo passages for
the cello." I am not sure that
Maconchy would have regarded the work
as cyclical – yet there are definite
references to earlier arguments. In
fact the opening chords are repeated
towards the end of the work. A major
part of this last section is a ‘climbing’
passage replete with trills. This frames
the reflection on earlier parts of the
The total impression
of Epyllion is one of perfect
balance and poise - between warmth and
desolation and between strings and soloist.
Maconchy uses a variety of devices to
express her ideas. I have alluded to
RVW and it is not hard to detect the
influence of Bartók. It is this
clever synthesis of her material that
makes this a great work – in fact a
is better known in its viola incarnation.
Yet it works equally well for cello.
It is probably reasonably well-known
that the composer wrote this work at
the time of the death of King George
V. Originally his new viola concerto
was to have featured at a Queen’s Hall
concert. The day before the performance
the monarch died: it was felt that a
somewhat more funereal mood ought to
prevail at the concert. Yet Edward Clark,
head of the BBC Music Department insisted
that Hindemith should take part. The
Trauermusik was given to the
world after only six hours of composition
– Hindemith himself described it as
being written ‘after some fairly hefty
mourning.’ And the rest is history.
The work is in four
compact movements which established
the mood of bereavement. Yet there are
also moments of repose and reflection
that allow the soloist to enter into
dialogue with the string orchestra.
The last section is a meditation on
J.S Bach’s Chorale "herewith I
step before thy throne".
The longest work on
this CD is the impressive Cello Concerto
Op.90 by Paul Patterson. It was written
for the present soloist, Raphael Wallfisch
and the Primavera Chamber Orchestra.
It was premiered at the Rye Festival
This is conceived as
a diptych of two movements with a central
cadenza acting as the ‘hinge’. The opening
is almost timeless – however the musical
ideas soon begin to expand. There are
outbursts of passion and some more restrained
ruminations. Calum MacDonald finds similarities
of soundscape to the ‘chillier’ musings
of Holst and Sibelius in the first movement.
Yet to my ear there is greater warmth
in this music than these comparisons
suggest. Furthermore, this work is well
and truly in the tradition of British
music - complete with walking bass!
The music moves toward the cadenza with
considerable confidence and interesting
string writing. Soon the mood of the
opening bars returns before the cello
begins its long self-centred exploration.
MacDonald classifies these as "various
try-outs of a dance-like tune, first
pizzicato, then flautando, then with
double-stopping, and accelerating finally
into the fast second movement."
This movement has a great tune that
is likened to ‘The Keel Row.’ However
it is not a case of playing the tune
once and then again louder. Patterson
uses this material to create musical
shapes and patterns that are loosely
related to the main theme. This is fast
music that must be demanding for the
soloist – there is little in the way
of time for rest. There is a slight
respite as the cello decides to indulge
in a second cadenza before the concerto
finishes on an ‘emphatic’ D major triad.
I have no doubt that
this is a great work. It is perhaps
a pity that it has been released on
a compilation of various composers.
There is a huge danger that it never
really gets known to a wide audience.
And bearing in mind the relative dearth
of good cello concertos this is a shame.
I would rather have had this work coupled
with Patterson’s earlier Violin Concerto!
But then I would have missed the Maconchy
Mark Kopytman was born
in the Soviet Union in 1929. After pursuing
a career in Moscow he emigrated to Israel
in 1972. He is currently professor at
the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
is well worth a listen for its intensity
and the depth of cello sound. I suggest
that perhaps the work is a little stylistically
confused – the moods and musical antecedents
seem to change with great frequency.
‘Kaddish’ is an important
element in Jewish worship. It refers
specifically to prayers of mourning
at daily prayers, funerals and memorial
services. Although some of this work
is inward-looking much of it is dramatic
and quite extrovert; the very opposite
of what one would imagine reflecting
on death would entail although I understand
that the liturgical ‘order of words’
makes no mention of death! The CD programme
notes suggest that the long unsupported
solo passages imply the intoning of
the Rabbi or cantor.
The work was originally
composed for cello and piano in 1966
and was orchestrated in 1982.
This CD has five works
– none of which I had heard before -
Hindemith in his viola incarnation,
excepted. Yet this is a great release
full of interesting, impressive material.
The playing is superb – from both the
soloist and from the strings. Calum
MacDonald’s liner-notes are comprehensive.
Finally I must reiterate
that Maconchy’s Epyllion is a
great work that demands to be heard
by a wider audience. Yet, how this will
happen, I do not know. Just buy this
CD for starters.
review by Rob Barnett