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Alan RAWSTHORNE (1905-1971)
Prison Cycle (1939) (with Alan BUSH); Tzu-Yeh (1928-29); Precursors; Three French Nursery Songs for soprano and piano
Scena Rustica for soprano and harp
Two Songs (1940); Carol (1948); Two Fish; for tenor and piano
Valse; Ballade in G sharp minor for piano
John McCABE (b.1939) Three Folk Songs for soprano, clarinet and piano
Alison Wells (sop)
Martyn Hill (ten)
Keith Swallow (piano)
Judith Buckle (sop)
Lucy Wakeford (harp)
Martin Hindmarsh (ten)
Nicholas Turner (clarinet)
Alan Cuckston (piano)
rec. St Thomas Church, Stockport, 27-28 Sept 1999. DDD
British Composer Series
CAMPION CAMEO 2021 [51.26]


For a variety of reasons these composers make good discmates. McCabe wrote the first full-length biography of Rawsthorne (who takes the lion’s share of works here), who was in turn a contemporary of Bush and they shared work on The Prison Cycle in 1939, taking the poem from Ernst Toller, then an émigré in London. Tough and spare though it frequently is – two settings by Rawsthorne, three by Bush with one of them acting as a ritornello – both composers manage to vest the lines with supra-ordinary shafts of significance. After the earlier tension and anguished despair listen to the almost delusional lyricism that Bush gives to the last lines of Die Dinge which precisely mirror the lines’ own meaning. Rawsthorne’s setting plays on a slightly off-centre lyricism, and Bush’s reprise of the ritornello poem Sechs, Schritte her (Six steps forward/Six steps back) whilst bleakly comfortless vocally nevertheless seems to have some chordal strength in the piano.

The Chinese Songs don’t aspire to this level of complexity and ambiguity. Instead there’s a deal of romantic delicacy and straight-forwardness about them – especially the bold "I will carry my coat and not put on my belt" with its "flapping" piano writing to match the squally inclement wind evoked in the poem. In the 1942 Two Songs Rawsthorne sets the kind of poem that W Dennis Browne had set a generation earlier; Rawsthorne is far more austere of course but he uses counterpoint extremely effectively and the second of the songs is quite a frisky vamp. Had he been listening to Britten’s Serenade? It sounds like it.

Rawsthorne shows in these little known settings that he has the technique to hint and probe with some depth. Hence the quietly unsettled Carol and the half hints of fugal development in Precursors (a tough sing that causes some problems here). But as we’ve seen his humour is not the wintry sort – listen to the witty French Nursery Songs – and the balladry and lightness of the Scena Rustica. On the debit side Two Fish is too late in the day and elliptical for comfort; it wasn’t published and a sense I’d rather it hadn’t been recorded, though I see why it was. Of the piano works here the Valse is cigarette-on-the-corner-of-the-mouth insouciant. The Ballade was written over Christmas 1929, hence the Good King Wenceslas quotation, though this lacy confection doesn’t quite live up to its august name. We end with the three attractive McCabe settings, full of vigour, rollicking drunken sailors and some whimsy. His setting of John Peel is excellent fun – even if his parenthetical disavowal of fox hunting in the notes is unbearably pompous.

Notes are full, if not typographically so easy to follow. Performances vary from committed to excellent and all stops in between: timing on the short side. Despite the fact that some might be tempted to think of this as a bottom drawer exercise I’d suggest rather that these pieces demonstrate a side of Rawsthorne that is present in much of his music but, in these works, is made more explicit – the lighter, more lyric, more obviously affectionate side. A side worth getting to know.

Jonathan Woolf

see also review by Rob Barnett



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