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Ernest John Moeran (1894-1950)
Cello Concerto (1945) [30:30]
Cello Sonata (1948) [25:11]
Prelude for cello and piano (1944) [4:40]
Peers Coetmore (cello); Eric Parkin (piano)
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Adrian Boult
rec. February 1969, Walthamstow Assembly Hall (Concerto); January 1969, Decca Studios No.3 London [Sonata & Prelude]. ADD
LYRITA SRCD.299 [60:25]

Experience Classicsonline


I must confess that at the age of about 16 I fell in love with Peers Coetmore. I recall buying the original Lyrita vinyl album of the Cello Concerto from a shop called Cuthbertson’s in Cambridge Street, Glasgow. On the cover of that LP was a lovely photograph of Moeran and Peers looking out over a hilly landscape which I think was Hergest Ridge. It fulfilled all my youthful romantic notions of what a woman should be like: one who loved the British landscape, was a consummate musician and an attractive lady. Since that time the Cello Concerto has been my number one Desert Island Disc. It has never, in 38 years, been usurped from that position. In spite of the fact of a certain critical downer on Peer’s playing, it will always remain for me the definitive performance of this masterly work.
 
A few biographical notes about the composer may be helpful. Ernest John (Jack) Moeran was born at Heston, Middlesex on 31 December 1894. He was the son of an Irish clergyman working in Norfolk, so church music was a part of his upbringing. He attended what was at that time the most musical of all the public schools, Uppingham. His teacher there was Robert Sterndale Bennett, the grandson of the British composer, William.
 
On leaving school in 1913 he enrolled as a student at the Royal College of Music. The course was to be short-lived. Upon the start of hostilities in 1914, Moeran enlisted in the Army. After service on the Western Front he returned to England with a serious head wound: he never fully recovered from this injury.
 
After the war he had some musical instruction from John Ireland. However, most of his musical learning came from his two companions - Bernard van Dieren and Philip Heseltine (Peter Warlock).
 
Although regarded as an ‘English’ composer, Moeran had an Irish streak in his blood: his father was born in Dublin! He was always to love that great country and its people.
 
Finally, Moeran was to die on the banks of the River Kenmare on 1 December 1950, from what was thought to be a brain haemorrhage.
 
Stylistically Moeran’s music changed from the ‘Irelandesque’ piano music of the early ’twenties, through more folksong-inspired works and the ‘high’ romanticism of the Symphony in G minor to a new, personal, even neo-classical style forged during and after the Second World War. Yet, underlying all these so called ‘periods’ is a concern for structure and a warm, lyrical tone that is always a feature of Moeran’s music.
 
To understand the context of the works for cello it is necessary to look at Moeran’s relationship with the cellist Peers Coetmore - originally Kathleen Coetmore-Jones. The composer first met Peers in 1930 whilst visiting the painter Augustus John. She had been an exceptional pupil at the Royal Academy of Music, winning a number of prizes. Nothing came of this first encounter.
 
Many years later they were to meet once again at a concert in Leominster. This time their friendship blossomed and for Moeran at any rate it developed into love. One of the outcomes of this relationship was a number of cello works dedicated to her.
 
On 26 July 1945 the couple were married. However it was not a particularly ‘successful’ union. Moeran needed to escape into solitude and Peers had considerable concert commitments which led to long separations. Gradually they drifted apart, with Peers finally working in Australia. All one can say is that they were ‘incompatible’. Yet they shared some happy moments, and this is well reflected in the one or two surviving photographs of the couple.
 
I asked Eric Parkin about Peers Coetmore. He immediately recalled that she was a delightful lady, in spite of the fact that a rather fearsome friend had suggested that Peers was terrifying! She greeted him with a kiss.
 
Eric first met her at the London Cello School in Holland Park for rehearsals. They were slated to practise the E.J. Moeran Cello Sonata and the Prelude for Cello and Piano. It was to be taped for release by Lyrita Recorded Edition.
 
I asked him how he found Peers Coetmore. He liked her from the very first: she was a very down to earth kind of person. Peers had not heard him play before so they began to work through the Sonata. She stopped him at the end of the second page. To Eric’s relief she said, “this is marvellous!” They played the work through a couple of times and it was ready for the recording.
 
A few days later Parkin recalled making his way, by train, from his home village of Watlington in Oxfordshire to the Decca studios. The entire recording of the Sonata and the Prelude was made in a single day with no problems – apart from the balancing. Eric recalls that these issues were resolved by ‘blocking Eric off’ and just allowing him to be able to glimpse Peers.
 
I wondered what Eric had thought about her playing: he was impressed with her yet felt that she was somewhat past her peak. At this time Peers would have been sixty-four years old. This perhaps explains why critics raved about her performances of the cello works in the 1940s and were lukewarm with the present Lyrita recording which was released in the 1970s.
 
The final chapter of this story is rather poignant. Apparently Peers came to Watlington one day when Eric was not at home. Neighbours later told him that she had seemed very upset that he was away. He does not know what the call was about and he never saw her again. Peers Coetmore died in 1977.
 
Geoffrey Self mentions four works composed for solo violoncello in his book ‘The Music of E.J. Moeran’ (1986). These are the Concerto for cello and orchestra of 1945, the Prelude for cello and piano of 1943, the Irish Lament of 1944 and the Sonata, for cello and piano of 1947.
 
The Prelude for Cello and piano is a uncomplicated, yet profound piece. A broad and lyrical melody is played over an extremely simple accompaniment. Common chords and secondary sevenths are the staple harmonic feature. The Prelude was Moeran’s first piece which he dedicated to Peers. It was gifted to her as a ‘keepsake’ whilst she was on tour with ENSA during the war. Strangely, but not surprisingly, the first performance of the piece was in Alexandria in Egypt.
 
Self does not rate the piece highly: “it is a work of little distinction; the cello melody is shapely enough, but the piano part is frankly dull. It is ... doomed to a humble place in grade examination lists.” Yet perhaps the ‘dullness’ of the piano part gives the piece much of its charm. The lyrical quality of the melody is allowed to predominate without competition from the piano. The overriding characteristic is warmth. The Prelude was published by Novello in 1944.
 
I am sorry that the Irish Lament does not appear to have been recorded by Peers Coetmore and Eric Parkin. I assume that if it had been, then it would have appeared on this CD. The Lament was based on a ‘genuine’ Irish folksong. It was composed in 1944 and was published by Novello in the same year.
 
The Cello Sonata has been regarded as Moeran’s most accomplished work. Whether this is true is probably a matter of taste rather than judgement. However in this piece the composer seems to strike a good balance between his various styles and influences: neo-classicism and romanticism come together in a satisfying unity. The composer wrote in a letter to Peers, “I have just spent all yesterday on cello sonata proofs. You know I don’t usually boast, but coming back to it, going through it note by note, and looking at it impartially, I honestly think it is a masterpiece. I can’t think how I ever managed to write it.”
 
Critics have noticed allusions to Bax and even to Bartók in the working out of the Sonata. Yet it is difficult to try to explain this or that passage in terms of influence. For this is a distinctive work by Moeran: it is mature and self-assured and never verges on parody or plagiarism.
 
However, the Cello Sonata is, to be frank, a depressing piece. Some of the pages have been likened to the peat bogs of Ireland: gloomy and dark. There are moments of optimism and occasional flashes of light but surely the lasting impression is of quiet and shadowy restraint and perhaps even melancholy.
 
The Sonata consists of three movements: Tempo Moderato-Allegro, Adagio and Allegro. The first performance was given in Dublin by Peers Coetmore on 9 May 1947. Charles Lynch was the pianist. It was published by Novello in 1948.
 
The world of British cello concertos is fairly sparse – at least when compared to symphonic works. Naturally every example of the genre is understood in light of the great and ubiquitous Concerto in E minor by Sir Edward Elgar. In fact many music-lovers would be hard-pressed to name another example. There are a number of fine concertos – including those by Arthur Sullivan, Alan Rawsthorne, Gerald Finzi, Frank Bridge and Kenneth Leighton to name but five. And from Central Europe comes the great work by Antonin Dvořák. This is regarded by Geoffrey Self as seminal for Moeran’s Concerto.
 
The Cello Concerto is surely the highlight of this present CD release. This is a work that manages to balance the formal constructs of a classical concerto with the beauties of Irish folktunes. Many critics hold Raphael Wallfisch’s interpretation of the Concerto to be definitive. However, I have to hold my hand up and say that although I have enjoyed Wallfisch’s performances of this work – both at the Barbican Hall and on Chandos with Norman del Mar, I do not find it as satisfying as the Coetmore/Boult version. I have thought long and hard about this and I think that there are two good reasons why I take this stand.
 
Firstly it is well known that Peers Coetmore had a style of playing that was more appropriate to chamber music. Moeran was conscious of this limitation – if that is what it was. The work uses the orchestra as a partner for the soloist – not as an adversary. The work was created solely for her: he wrote “I would not allow anyone else to play it and I will not, while it is still under my control …” Earlier he had written to Peers with enthusiasm, “Now please write and tell me you would like me to write a concerto specially for you, and I give you my promise that I will put my whole heart into it … I will be able to walk the Kerry Mountains with a real happy object in view.” It was to be their own special work – a union of player and composer.
 
Certainly this present recording has been criticised for giving “an inadequate picture of this work” and the reason given is that her “insight is not matched by playing of sufficient strength or skill.” Now to my ear what Wallfisch lacks is the insight to Moeran’s mood, his loves and his feelings for his wife. I feel that Wallfisch gives a ‘big’ performance that sometimes overwhelms the intimacy of this work.
 
Interestingly the reviewer of the Manchester Hallé performance was impressed by Peer’s playing. He wrote that she gave a “delightfully spirited performance”. He notes that “once or twice a slightly doubtful intonation was heard.” But finally he considers that the “general firmness and fluency of Miss Coetmore’s playing were as admirable as its interpretive range.”
 
Secondly, Peers manages to balance the various elements of this work in a more satisfying manner that Wallfisch. She empathises with the Celtic nature of many of the themes of the works - yet she never allows the Irishry to subsume those more urbane passages of which there are not a few. She brings a heart-rending beauty to the slow movement and a genuine sense of optimism to the finale. I have long felt that that this recording – made nearly twenty years after Moeran’s death - is to be regarded as Peers’ mature reflection of her life and love with Jack. As such it is totally indispensable.
 
One last thought: it is not possible to read a definite programme into the Cello Concerto or any of the works written for Miss Coetmore: they are not ‘autobiographies’. However, it is clear that in many pages and passages of these works Ernest John Moeran expressed the genuine, deep love and devotion he felt for Peers.
 
John France

see also review by Rob Barnett

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