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Twentieth Century Works for Cello and Strings
Witold LUTOSŁAWSKI (1913-1994) Grave - Metamorphoses for cello and string orchestra (1981) [6:21]
Elizabeth MACONCHY (1907-1994) Epyllion (1975) [17:21]
Paul HINDEMITH (1895-1963) Trauermusik (1936) [8:21]
Paul PATTERSON (b. 1947) Cello Concerto op. 90 (2002) [24:27]
Mark KOPYTMAN (b.1929) Kaddish (1966, orch. 1982) [15:02]
Raphael Wallfisch (cello)
Südwestdeutsches Kammerorchester Pforzheim/William Boughton
rec. Evangelische Laurentiuskirche, Amthof, Oberderdingen, Germany, 22-24 November 2006. DDD
NIMBUS NI 5815 [71:45]

In the normal way of the world I would not have bought this CD: I may have noticed it in the musical press and the name of Elizabeth Maconchy would have caught my eye. But it would not have been high on my batting list – I am not a Hindemith, Lutosławski or Kopytman fan. Yet that would have been a pity for three reasons. Firstly the Cello Concerto by Paul Patterson is an interesting revelation, secondly the Maconchy is a major masterwork that would be highly regarded if it had been by a German man and lastly the three other works are actually important pieces that are good to have in the collection. Fortunately for me I received this disc as a review copy – life would have been less interesting if it had passed me by.

Witold Lutosławski’s Grave: Metamorphose was composed in 1980, originally for cello and piano. The following year the composer made the present concerted version. He had previously written a masterly Cello Concerto in 1970 for Mstislav Rostropovich, so it is no surprise that this piece is on a smaller scale.

The programme notes point out that formally the work is a "brief single movement (that) takes the form of a composed accelerando through a single immense melodic line, increasing in speed from the slow opening."

I love Rob Barnett’s description of the work’s "grunting and grating earnestness of purpose". Yet the work is by and large saved by the final ‘elegiac’ cadenza and the somewhat peaceful final bars. Interesting, but to my ears this is not particularly revelatory or special.

I am seriously impressed by Elizabeth Maconchy’s stunningly beautiful Epyllion. This is perhaps one of the best works I have heard over the past year. Yet I guess that it is little known and even less appreciated. Maconchy’s music has seen a minor revival in her centenary year (2007) yet nothing that suggests she is achieving the level of interest that her music is due. The boxed set of the ‘Complete String Quartets’ re-issued by Regis on the Forum label is crucial to an understanding of Maconchy’s composing career [review]. I guess that many people will know the fine overture, Proud Thames - recently re-issued on Lyrita. Purchasers of that disc will surely be impressed by the essential Symphony for Double String Orchestra. This work ought to take its place alongside Tippett’s Double Concerto, RVW’s Tallis Fantasia and even Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro. Yet it doesn’t. For some reason, and I hope that it is not misogyny, Maconchy’s music fails to reach a wide audience.

It is probably well known in these pages that Elizabeth Maconchy studied with Ralph Vaughan Williams and Charles Wood. She was also well praised by Gustav Holst. The programme notes point out that she wrote in most genres - but that chamber music was her penchant. I would tend to agree with this – but the more of her orchestral work that I discover the more convinced I am that she is in fact a fine ‘all-rounder.’ She was particularly attached to the viola and apparently found herself giving it all the best parts in her quartets! But in this recording we hear clearly that she was equally au fait with the cello.

Epyllion was commissioned for the Cheltenham Festival and was first performed there on 13 July 1975. The Novello web-site has a superb programme note written by the composer herself and I crib from this extensively!

The title of the piece is a Greek word for a mini epic. The principal idea of the work is the exposition of musical events of a widely varied character. There is no suggestion that this piece is in any way programmatic. The composer is at pains to point out that the soloist is more of a leading character in a cast of actors rather than the traditional concert soloist. Although, it is obvious that the complexity of the ‘solo’ part would exclude this role of ‘primus inter pares’ to all but the best of performers.

Epyllion is conceived in four sections rather than discrete movements. The first is dark and quite oppressive. Maconchy uses "reiterated chords, low-pitched, with glissandi in harmonics for violins". It creates an unsettling mood. However later bars become much more lyrical. In fact it is here that the listener is most aware of her famous teacher - in his less pastoral moods. Of course she does not mimic, parody or copy RVW’s style – yet it is somewhere in the background. This is certainly deep-felt, moving music. The second section, a scherzo, is short and sweet – almost quicksilver in its mood. This is entertaining music. The composer describes the third part as being "lyrical in feeling and mainly contrapuntal in texture, with long interlacing lines; it includes on the way several solo passages for the cello." I am not sure that Maconchy would have regarded the work as cyclical – yet there are definite references to earlier arguments. In fact the opening chords are repeated towards the end of the work. A major part of this last section is a ‘climbing’ passage replete with trills. This frames the reflection on earlier parts of the work.

The total impression of Epyllion is one of perfect balance and poise - between warmth and desolation and between strings and soloist. Maconchy uses a variety of devices to express her ideas. I have alluded to RVW and it is not hard to detect the influence of Bartók. It is this clever synthesis of her material that makes this a great work – in fact a masterpiece.

Hindemith’s Trauermusik is better known in its viola incarnation. Yet it works equally well for cello. It is probably reasonably well-known that the composer wrote this work at the time of the death of King George V. Originally his new viola concerto was to have featured at a Queen’s Hall concert. The day before the performance the monarch died: it was felt that a somewhat more funereal mood ought to prevail at the concert. Yet Edward Clark, head of the BBC Music Department insisted that Hindemith should take part. The Trauermusik was given to the world after only six hours of composition – Hindemith himself described it as being written ‘after some fairly hefty mourning.’ And the rest is history.

The work is in four compact movements which established the mood of bereavement. Yet there are also moments of repose and reflection that allow the soloist to enter into dialogue with the string orchestra. The last section is a meditation on J.S Bach’s Chorale "herewith I step before thy throne".

The longest work on this CD is the impressive Cello Concerto Op.90 by Paul Patterson. It was written for the present soloist, Raphael Wallfisch and the Primavera Chamber Orchestra. It was premiered at the Rye Festival in 2002.

This is conceived as a diptych of two movements with a central cadenza acting as the ‘hinge’. The opening is almost timeless – however the musical ideas soon begin to expand. There are outbursts of passion and some more restrained ruminations. Calum MacDonald finds similarities of soundscape to the ‘chillier’ musings of Holst and Sibelius in the first movement. Yet to my ear there is greater warmth in this music than these comparisons suggest. Furthermore, this work is well and truly in the tradition of British music - complete with walking bass! The music moves toward the cadenza with considerable confidence and interesting string writing. Soon the mood of the opening bars returns before the cello begins its long self-centred exploration. MacDonald classifies these as "various try-outs of a dance-like tune, first pizzicato, then flautando, then with double-stopping, and accelerating finally into the fast second movement." This movement has a great tune that is likened to ‘The Keel Row.’ However it is not a case of playing the tune once and then again louder. Patterson uses this material to create musical shapes and patterns that are loosely related to the main theme. This is fast music that must be demanding for the soloist – there is little in the way of time for rest. There is a slight respite as the cello decides to indulge in a second cadenza before the concerto finishes on an ‘emphatic’ D major triad.

I have no doubt that this is a great work. It is perhaps a pity that it has been released on a compilation of various composers. There is a huge danger that it never really gets known to a wide audience. And bearing in mind the relative dearth of good cello concertos this is a shame. I would rather have had this work coupled with Patterson’s earlier Violin Concerto! But then I would have missed the Maconchy …

Mark Kopytman was born in the Soviet Union in 1929. After pursuing a career in Moscow he emigrated to Israel in 1972. He is currently professor at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

His Kaddish is well worth a listen for its intensity and the depth of cello sound. I suggest that perhaps the work is a little stylistically confused – the moods and musical antecedents seem to change with great frequency.

‘Kaddish’ is an important element in Jewish worship. It refers specifically to prayers of mourning at daily prayers, funerals and memorial services. Although some of this work is inward-looking much of it is dramatic and quite extrovert; the very opposite of what one would imagine reflecting on death would entail although I understand that the liturgical ‘order of words’ makes no mention of death! The CD programme notes suggest that the long unsupported solo passages imply the intoning of the Rabbi or cantor.

The work was originally composed for cello and piano in 1966 and was orchestrated in 1982.

This CD has five works – none of which I had heard before - Hindemith in his viola incarnation, excepted. Yet this is a great release full of interesting, impressive material. The playing is superb – from both the soloist and from the strings. Calum MacDonald’s liner-notes are comprehensive.

Finally I must reiterate that Maconchy’s Epyllion is a great work that demands to be heard by a wider audience. Yet, how this will happen, I do not know. Just buy this CD for starters.

John France

See also review by Rob Barnett


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