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Ernest John MOERAN (1894-1950)
Violin Concerto [Allegro moderato, 13.31 +Rondo. Vivace – Alla valse burlesca, 9.41 +Lento, 10.01.] [33.18]
Lonely Waters [9.19]
Whythorne’s Shadow [6.30]
Cello Concerto [Moderato, 11.12 +Adagio, 7.22 + Allegretto deciso, alla Marcia, 10.02] [28.41]
Lydia Mordkovitch, violin.
Ulster Orchestra/Vernon Handley, (Violin Concerto, Lonely Waters, Whythorne’s Shadow).
Raphael Wallfisch, cello.
Bournemouth Sinfonietta/Norman Del Mar, Cello Concerto.
Rec. Dorset 1986, Belfast 1990. DDD
CHANDOS CHAN 10168 X [78.03]

 

Michael Kennedy, as an aside in his book about the works of Ralph Vaughan Williams, says that Ernest J. Moeran "had produced, in the Violin Concerto of 1942, the work of lyrical beauty to which his whole career had been leading."

That was enough to make me covet to hear the Violin Concerto years before I ever did. "Lyrical" is a word used too often and too easily in speaking of music, but it’s always just right for Moeran. I finally jumped at the chance to buy the concerto when in early 2004 Chandos released an affordable, digitally remastered account of Moeran recordings from 1986 and 1990. This offers not only the Violin Concerto, but also the Cello Concerto and two smaller pieces. The fine notes to this disc are by Lewis Foreman and Moeran biographer, Lionel Hill.

Now, hearing it for the first time, it seems to me that the Violin Concerto is another of those Moeran works that it is easier to think of, not as music, but as a sort of distillation of English and Irish landscape. It has more in common with larks and wet heather than it does with musical traditions. It seems to get at the same thing that lies behind the notes of folksongs. Probably it’s that rootedness in folksong that makes this, like so much of Moeran, as irresistible as seasons and weather.

Moeran certainly saw himself as somewhat against the times in his unwavering allegiance to folksong. He wrote about the unpopularity of folksong in a letter of 1931 to The Musical Times: "English folk-song, as that of any nation, is apt to become exceedingly dull when it is handled by musicians, who, with the best of intentions, possess more technical resources than inspiration, and who, by virtue of their surroundings, their sophistication and their respectability, have never experienced the feeling which gave birth to this kind of music."

Moeran clearly had experienced that feeling very deeply; and here, as in the dazzling Symphony in G Minor, he pours it out. A passage or two in this work brought home to me how right Colin Scott-Sutherland was, in his biography of Sir Arnold Bax, in speaking about English music in general: "The natural rhythm of English music tends to be lyrical and rhapsodic. Violent rhythmic gestures seem to intrude, to be imposed from without, representing bursts of unaccustomed energy whose force is quickly spent and which relapse almost immediately into the quiet flow when the passion has passed."

That seems to describe precisely what happens 1:45 into the first movement of the Violin Concerto (a work Bax particularly admired, by the way). A storm blows through the orchestra and is gone as suddenly as it came, though passing squalls will dart in again with the piercing sweetness of summer rain. Soloist Lydia Mordkovitch manages to bring out the intense joy of this music in passages such as this.

The good humor of the second movement leans toward Moeran’s Celtic roots. There’s a letter by Moeran to May Harrison written from County Kerry in 1939 in which he’s wrapping up the first movement and about to tackle the second, under the influence of Irish folksong. He speaks of "soaking myself in traditional fiddling with its queer but natural embellishments and ornamentation. This time of year the whole countryside is on the dance round here. In the 2nd movement I am planning to work some of this idiom into concerto form. I may tell you some of these people have a terrific technique in their own queer way." (Foreman and Hill quote a passage of this letter in their notes).

The third movement, Lento, seems more contemplative than passionate, in some way withdrawing to a distance. But inevitably the cool, rational soloist is overcome by the ecstatic playing of the whole orchestra (try 6:05 into the movement) like a bird caught in a wind. In the end, I’m not sure I agree with Kennedy – I still think the Symphony is the work of lyrical beauty Moeran was heading toward all his life. But why stop with one? We’re fortunate that Moeran had several.

Lonely Waters: Composers say a lot by what particular pieces of music they dedicate to whom. This piece is dedicated to Ralph Vaughan Williams. Moeran was particularly drawn to the RVW Pastoral Symphony. (In the same letter quoted above, after Moeran has spoken of the poor way English musicians handle folksong, he goes on to say, "Even so, there exists already at least one really important achievement which owes its existence directly to the influence of folk-song, and that is the supremely beautiful ‘Pastoral’ Symphony of Vaughan Williams." Lonely Waters, is from about 1931, or the same year in which Moeran wrote that letter - no doubt it’s one of Moeran’s ways of saying ‘thank you’. What is remarkable is that Moeran in 1931, with the Symphony in G Minor and the Violin Concerto still in front of him, already seems very self-assured in discussing how to use folksong – both in writing to the press and in writing this delightful little piece. It’s no surprise that it’s based on a fragment of song from East Norfolk.

Whythorne’s Shadow: For me this was the surprise on the disc – a sort of period piece that I just didn’t expect Moeran to write, based on an Elizabethan tune. With that said, I’m glad he wrote it. It offers a glimpse of Moeran’s music dressed in 16th century clothes.

Cello Concerto: I admired Raphael Wallfisch’s playing on the Martinů cello concertos, but here he has a different task, apparent already in the very opening of this concerto. If the breezy, spacious opening of the Martinů Cello Concerto No. 1 is like trying to play blue sky, the opening of the Moeran Cello Concerto must be like trying to play drizzle and sulky clouds. The soloist plumbs the depths of the cello’s low range until, at about 1:05 into the piece, the listener wonders whether it can go lower. Never fear, it can. The cello, so ideal for expressing anguish or inner turmoil, is in fine form here. Yet Wallfisch manages to tug the sun from behind the clouds in places (for example, at 3:22 into the movement.)

The lovely Adagio evokes echoes of RVW, having shaken off that gray of the first movement. One rhapsodic flight of lyricism even reminded me very specifically of RVW’s "The Lark Ascending" at 5:45 into the movement. Granted, the cello’s not so bright and light a bird as the violin. Still, Wallfisch makes it soar.

The third movement, Allegretto deciso, alla Marcia, opens with the feeling of folksong that seems requisite in a Moeran work. It moves from jaunty, extroverted music at the outset (a county fair springs to mind) to long, thoughtful introspection (try 7 minutes in). It’s a delicious close to a fine concerto.

Two well-matched concertos superbly performed and recorded all at an affordable price.

Lance Nixon

 



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