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Alan RAWSTHORNE (1905-1971)
Piano Concerto No.1 for Piano and Orchestra (1939;1942)
Piano Concerto No 2 for Piano and Orchestra (1951)
Improvisations on a Theme by Constant Lambert. (1960)
Peter Donohoe, piano
Ulster Orchestra/Takuo Yuasa.
Recorded in the Ulster Hall, Belfast 20th -24th November 2001.
NAXOS 8.555959 [56.19]


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Recently I stayed at the Sykeside hotel in Haslingden in Lancashire. Apart from being an excellent place to spend a weekend in April it had an additional attraction to me. It was the boyhood home of Alan Rawsthorne. It is not his birthplace I hasten to add; that was, I understand demolished. Whether or not I slept in his bedroom is beside the point; it was quite a moving experience to listen to these two piano concertos on my personal stereo whilst looking out over the Lancashire countryside to the hills high above Rawtenstall. Of course these works are not new to me. I first came across one of them - the Second with John Ogdon - in an old boxed set of British Piano Concertos that made me spend a vast amount of my pocket money back in 1977. Since then there has been the fine Chandos recording with Geoffrey Tozer (CHAN 9125). To be fair, I had already listened to this new Naxos disk in my London flat and had formed my opinion of its superb playing by the time I arrived 'oop North.' However, I shall never forget the opportunity to listen to these works in Rawsthorne's boyhood home.

Lancashire has of course provided the world with William Walton (from Oldham) and the light music composer and conductor Ernest Tomlinson (from Rawtenstall). And let us not forget John McCabe. Although born in Huyton he has been associated with Manchester. He is not only a fine composer and performer but also a scholar to boot. His biography of Rawsthorne is second to none - a type of what such works should be.

Of course, Alan Rawsthorne is not the best known of British composers. To most music lovers he is probably a closed book; and this is unfortunate. True, many people will know some of his film scores by default: The Cruel Sea and The Captive Heart to name two examples. However his great symphonic and chamber pieces are still waiting to be discovered by the 'classical' public. I rarely hear him played on Classic FM or even Radio Three.

There is no doubt that the two concertos presented on this Naxos disc were important additions to this genre - and that not only in a British context.

The First Concerto was composed in 1939 and has nods in the direction of the politics of the Spanish Civil War. It was originally scored for moderate forces of strings and percussion, but was later rescored for full orchestra in 1942.

I am reminded of Prokofiev and Ravel in this music … perhaps even a few hints of George Gershwin! One thing to emphasise is the clarity of the writing - not a note too many. Strangely, it concludes quietly, rather than with a great peroration. It is a fine work in the neo-classical tradition, well-played and, for the most part, sounding great as well. However, the balance in some of the passages does seem a little strange.

The Second Concerto was one of many fine works commissioned for the 1951 'Festival of Britain.' There is no doubt that this is a more 'popular' concerto than the first. It is full of 'big' tunes' and 'typical' piano figuration. That is not a criticism. For me this is one of the best British Piano concertos (not!) in the repertoire. I suppose even for 1951 it was somewhat dated in its sound world, yet its overall effect is one of enjoyment and prompts admiration for the skills of performer and composer. Listen out for the 'calypso' in the last movement.

Naxos supplies us with the 1960 work, Improvisations on a Theme by Constant Lambert. This work is much more in sympathy with the prevailing musical vocabulary of the time than the Second Concerto. Rawsthorne explores the seven notes of the Lambert phrase using various musical devices, including his own brand of serialism. Yet he brings his usual mix of romanticism and neo-classicism to this work. I have long felt that this deserves to be better known, even among Rawsthorne enthusiasts. It reminds me, to that extent, of the later Walton work, Improvisations on an Impromptu of Benjamin Britten (1969). Both are masterpieces yet both are little played.

I suppose most Rawsthorne cognoscenti will compare this recording with the Chandos one mentioned above. For me the main reason for running with Tozer is the simple fact that we get the rare Concerto for Two Pianos. This gives us all the composer's concerted piano music. However, Donohoe's version has many delights and competencies that make it essential.

Now I am biased - I am a long-time Rawsthorne enthusiast. I have both versions of this work and would buy any more that were to be issued. However, the present recording wins on budget. And I imagine most British Music lovers will want the Second Piano Concerto as a part of their collection.

A further detail or two about Haslingden. I invite everyone to make the trip to this fascinating part of Lancashire. It is a smashing little town that has done so much to improve its appearance in these post-industrial days. The war memorial is one of the most moving I know. And do not forget to visit the Griffen pub to sample some of the Porter Brewing Company's fine ales!

Haslingden Community Website

John France

see also reviews by Colin Clarke and Tony Haywood



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