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Ernest John MOERAN (1894 – 1950)
Symphony in G minor (1937)
Overture for a Masque (1943/4)
Rhapsody for Piano and Orchestra (1942/3)
Margaret Fingerhut (piano)
Ulster Orchestra/Vernon Handley
Recorded: Ulster Hall, Belfast, September 1987 (Symphony, Overture) and March 1988 (Rhapsody)

Moeran’s large-scale Symphony in G minor, completed in 1937 after a long gestation, is one of his major achievements. It is a substantial work in four sizeable movements. It is a piece that does not pale when compared to some of the finest British symphonies composed at about the same time (Walton’s First, Vaughan Williams’ Fourth and Bax’s Sixth, to name but a few). As is well known, too, the first recording conducted by Leslie Heward was one of the recordings issued under the British Council’s auspices during World War II (this recorded performance is available in CD format - Dutton - and still sounds remarkably well). As such this is ample proof of its high status and of the esteem in which Moeran was then held. It is full of unmistakable Moeran fingerprints; for, if influences (RVW, Sibelius, Delius, Bax and even Ravel) may be easy to spot, Moeran’s music remains immediately recognisable. Indeed, he managed to absorb and assimilate all these influences and to make of them something highly personal; the mark of a great composer. The movements roughly adhere to the traditional symphonic mould, including a brilliant, folk-like Scherzo and an impressive, if brooding and at times menacing slow movement. The final movement ends in an ambiguous manner, with massive but – on the whole – inconclusive chords, as if leaving many questions unanswered. In his indispensable book The Music of E.J. Moeran (Toccata Press 1986), Geoffrey Self rightly suggests that the answer is to be found in the beautifully lyrical Violin Concerto of 1942 (Chandos CHAN 10168X).

By comparison, the Rhapsody No.3 for Piano and Orchestra (1942/3) and the Overture to a Masque (1943/4), both wartime works, are somewhat lighter in mood, but – I think – deliberately so. The Rhapsody, first performed during the Proms, is Moeran at his most extrovert, a beautiful piece that clearly pays some admiring tribute to Ravel; and Geoffrey Self again suggests that it is a symphonic Waltz in all but the name, with some direct allusions to Ravel’s Valses nobles et sentimentales. This attractive and enjoyable piece was well received by the Proms audience for whom it was composed. It enjoyed several later performances, which makes its present neglect all the more surprising. Margaret Fingerhut plays beautifully throughout in the Third Rhapsody.

Overture for a Masque is one of several short works written at the request of ENSA. Others included Rawsthorne’s overture Street Corner and Bax’s Work in Progress. Again, it is deliberately extrovert, uncomplicated, but superbly crafted and hugely enjoyable - a work of great charm and appeal. So, why is it not heard more often?

Vernon Handley conducts vital and committed performances of these works, and his sympathy for the music is refreshingly convincing. Remember that Moeran featured in one of Handley’s early recordings (the Serenade in G on Revolution RCF 003 - now reissued on the Concert Artist label ). I had never heard these performances of the symphony and the overture before; I enjoyed them enormously. I know too that many believe Boult’s recording made for Lyrita to be the one to have; but I must admit that to date I have never been able to hear. I have happily lived with Neville Dilkes’ recording on EMI for many years. Lloyd-Jones’s recording for Naxos I found slightly disappointing, but I think that my reservations about this performance have more to do with the recording than the actual performance which is very fine indeed. Now, re-issued at budget price, Handley’s reading may be safely recommended.

Good news, then, since Chandos are now refurbishing their Moeran recordings. These are now available in superb performances and at budget price. You need not hesitate if you do not have recordings of these works on your shelves.

Hubert Culot

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