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Symphonic Studies
Oboe Concerto
Cello Concerto.

Stéphane Rancourt (oboe), Alexander Baillie (cello), Royal National Scottish Orchestra, David Lloyd-Jones
Naxos 8.554763
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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 disc self-recommending.

Paul Conway

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