Aureole etc.

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  Founder: Len Mullenger
Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

Alan RAWSTHORNE (1905-1971)
Sonata for violin and piano (1959)
Theme and Variations for two violins (1938)
John McCABE (b.1939)
Maze Dances for violin (1973)
Star Preludes for violin and piano (1978)

Peter Sheppard Skærved and Christine Sohn (violins)
Tamami Honma (piano)
Recorded in the church of St. Mary’s, Dinton, Wiltshire 2nd June 1999 (tracks 6-15) and 28th June 1999 (track I) and in Challow Park, Wantage, Oxon on 12th September 1999 (tracks 2-5 and 16) DDD
METIER MSV CD92029 [61:56]

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This coupling of music by John McCabe and Alan Rawsthorne is an intelligent one on more than one level. Aurally, as Peter Sheppard Skærved correctly points out in his booklet essay, their work may not sound immediately similar. It does however, share a highly impressive clarity of expression allied with a rigorous and sophisticated approach to the organisation of their material, every note and gesture having its place. On another level, as a prominent member of the Alan Rawsthorne Society, McCabe has been a tireless advocate of Rawsthorne’s music, even through the shameful years of neglect his work suffered as a result of so called "fashion". The result of this advocacy was the publication of his authoritative study, "Alan Rawsthorne: Portrait of a Composer" in 1999 (Oxford University Press).

I well remember, just a couple of years ago when McCabe was the featured "composer of the week" on Radio Three in celebration of his sixtieth birthday, he spoke out on Rawsthorne’s neglect, commenting that the reputation for "greyness" which his music seemed to have acquired could not be further from the truth. Fortunately, at long last, the reality of this seems to have been recognised with a fine series of recordings from both Naxos and ASV (the 1999 release of Rawsthorne chamber music on Naxos 8.554352 featuring McCabe as pianist).

In compositional terms Rawsthorne was a late starter, pursuing a career in dentistry before turning towards full time musical study. As a result his international reputation did not take off until he had reached his mid-thirties, yet this is perhaps the reason for the degree of accomplishment evident in his early works. Both the Theme and Variations for two violins, which secured his reputation in 1938, and the Symphonic Studies, his first acknowledged orchestral work, are fully formed and unmistakably Rawsthorne in both their harmonic and melodic language and the refinement of their conception. The Theme and Variations is remarkable in its cogency and formal clarity, the melodic transparency of Rawsthorne’s treatment of the variations highly accomplished. The four movement Violin Sonata of twenty-one years later is similarly taut in its construction, melodically imbued with an air of bittersweet melancholy that was peculiar to Rawsthorne. It is another fine work and a pity therefore that this performance does not match up to that of the Theme and Variations, lacking warmth in the violin sound and failing to fully capture the work’s particular atmosphere, notably in the mysteriously questioning final movement. This is not helped by the recording, the piano sounding particularly dull and lifeless to the point that I began to wonder whether the pianist was in the same room as the violinist.

Fortunately the McCabe works fare better in this respect, played with fine commitment by Skærved, although again in Star Preludes (recorded in the same venue as the Rawsthorne Sonata) the sound of the piano can seem muffled, particular in its lower register. Premiered by Erich Gruenberg and the composer himself in 1978, this "space-scape" as Peter Sheppard Skærved describes the opening and closing sections, propels the listener into an intellectually formidable yet remarkably involving musical experience. Maze Dances of five years earlier, impresses even more in this respect. Writing a sixteen-minute work for solo violin is daunting in itself, but this piece succeeds in grabbing the attention from the opening bars and refuses to let go such is McCabe’s command of his material. He guides the listener through an ever changing but strangely familiar musical landscape in which shapes, melodies and images are skilfully woven into a satisfying single movement span.

An excellent performance of Maze Dances and Rawsthorne’s Theme and Variations, in which Christine Sohn joins Skærved, make these two works the highlight of this disc. It is a great shame that the Violin Sonata does not quite achieve the same standard but nevertheless, this is a worthwhile disc which it is to be hoped encourages the same advocacy of McCabe’s little recorded chamber output as Rawsthorne’s has received in recent times.

Christopher Thomas

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