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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]

This is largely a Rawsthorne recital. His music is in the congenial company of pieces by two other British figures: Bush and McCabe. John McCabe is a distinguished composer (more popular than ever now) who has written the definitive biography of Rawsthorne. Alan Bush was a contemporary of Rawsthorne's and amongst other connections joined Rawsthorne on the British Council tour of the USSR in 1962. One of the fruits of that visit was the first recording of Rawsthorne's Second Symphony coupled with an Alan Bush concert overture. The composers’ recordings with the USSR Symphony Orchestra were issued on a Melodiya LP.

Composer-collaborative works are sufficiently unusual in recent music to be noted as oddities. While there are plenty of examples of composers arranging, devising variations on or realising dead composer's music (Elgar 3, Hindemith of Weber, Ravel of Mussorgsky) two living composers allowing their creativity by design to meet in one work can be found in relatively few cases in the classical world. There is the Mont Juic suite (1935) where Britten and Lennox Berkeley collaborated in alternate dances but at first would not tell us who wrote which dance. There are also a few sets of orchestral Variations such as the Severn Bridge Variations (written in the early 1960s for the opening of the bridge and recorded on NMC) where various composers including such disparate figures as Arnold and Maw each contributed a variation to produce a composite occasional work.

The Prison Cycle is to words by Ernst Toller a political radical who had been instrumental in the Munich insurrection and had been imprisoned. The first and last of the items and the song Die Dinge are by Alan Bush (trs. 1,2,5) they provide a severe book-end typical of the pacing prisoner whose track is bound by four stone walls. The whole cycle is sombre as befits the subject of imprisonment. Rawsthorne's songs as well as Bush's Die Dinge provide some limited lyrical release and rarely a delicate Schubertian emotionalism. Rawsthorne's Chinese cycle lasts little short of six minutes encompassing five songs - brevities all. They were written in 1929 therefore can be compared with Lambert's Li Tai Po cycle and Bliss's Women of Yu'Eh (both on different Hyperion discs). They are more maturely knowing than the Chinese songs of Granville Bantock. The idiom is atypically romantic for Rawsthorne with pearly illustration and flickering humour. They are beautifully sung which compares favourably with the slightly tremulous delivery in the Prison cycle and the squally Louis MacNeice setting Precursors which is redolent of the same protest and resentment that characterises the Prison Cycle. It ends in splendour with all the dramatic confidence of a concert scena. The Three French Nursery Songs with their faintly surreal lunar dreaminess were dedicated to Gemma Blech (presumably of the same family as Leo and Harry, the latter of London Mozart Players fame). They were recorded by Sophie Wyss in 1942 for Decca.

How pleasing to move to the Scena Rustica with Lucy Wakeford's delicate harp accompaniment. The work was commissioned in 1967 by the Summer Music Society and is dedicated to Sheila Armstrong (such a strength to British singing during the 1950s to the 1970s). The sleeping lover is abandoned by his lady who finds pleasing solace in the embrace of a man ‘that halsed her heartely and kissed her swete’. The words are by John Skelton.

The 1940 vintage pair of songs for tenor and piano are closer to Rawsthorne's accustomed style which can be severe. Here that severity is leavened with a rather Pierrot moonlit lyricism perhaps not that far away from Gurney and Finzi in the first song at 2.01. The second song the celebratory God Lyaeus is Britten-like in its lunging protestation. The 1948 Carol was written originally with orchestral accompaniment for a BBC radio play to words by W.R. Rodgers. It has a Finzian lunar ‘temper’. Two Fish is undated but is thought to have been written towards the end of his life. The style is gaunt but not completely without lyrical flesh.

The Valse and Ballade played by Alan Cuckston are early pieces. The Valse goes off in strange fractured directions while the Ballade is somewhat Medtnerian (even Rachmaninov) a crashing contrast with the later mature Ballade once recorded by John Ogdon. It then surprises by picking up the Christmas theme lacing in Good King Wenceslas and some decidedly oddball eccentricities.

The McCabe folksongs are an arrangement dating from circa 1963. These show a subtle art but not so cloaked in contrivance that the artlessness of the folksong lacks oxygen. On the contrary this speaks freely especially in the reflective Hush-a-Bie. The John Peel final setting has a clarinet solo that has the humour of Malcolm Arnold. The song ends on a decidedly unEnglish tartan skirl - a winking tribute to the cycle's premiere on a Scottish tour.

The timing is not generous by CD standards but the disc is extremely well documented. Each piece is given the full treatment with useful background notes and sung texts. I noticed that the French texts are given as sung but not in translation into English whereas the German Toller texts are given with translation.

Campion and the Rawsthorne Trust have done these composers proud. While I could have wished for more music this disc is easily recommendable to those who have caught the Rawsthorne bug. His music can be severe but these pieces show a lyrical vein and should prompt curiosity about such major works as the Second Symphony, Carmen Vitale and Medieval Diptych.

Rob Barnett


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