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Robin ORR (1909-2006)
Centenary Tribute - Archive recordings of performances by friends and colleagues
Sonatina for Violin and Piano (1941) [8:46]
Max Rostal (violin); Franz Osborn (piano)
Sonata for Viola and Piano (1947) [17:56]
James Durrant (viola); Lawrence Glover (piano)
Serenade for String Trio (1948, rev. 1989) [15:05]
Leonard Friedman (violin); Duncan Johnson (viola); Joanna Borrett (cello)
Duo for Violin and Cello in one movement (1953, rev. 1965) [12:11] 
Edwin Paling (violin); Elisabeth McDonald (cello)  
Sonata for Violin and Harpsichord (1956) [16:24]
Granville Jones (violin); Thurston Dart (harpsichord)
rec. 1948 Decca 78 (Sonatina); Glasgow, 1977 b/c 22 June 1978 (Viola Sonata); Cambridge University West Road Concert Hall, 9 November 1989, live 80th birthday concert (Serenade); Bute Hall, Glasgow, December 1983 b/c 1984 by BBC Radio Scotland in 1983 (Duo); BBC, 23 July 1959. ADD
GUILD GHCD2350 [72:28]
Experience Classicsonline

It is one of the great sadnesses of the UK’s musical culture that whilst it regularly remembers and celebrates the work of ‘foreign’ composers its own native born talent is often overlooked. How many of you have heard of Robin Orr and of those who have, did you realize that this (2009) is his centenary year. The exact date was in June and he was born in Brechin, Scotland. Well done again to Guild for pointing this out to us in this fascinating collection of historic recordings. Indeed it was Guild who issued the recording (GMCD 7196) of Orr’s orchestral works in 2000 when the composer was still with us.

The disc opens with the earliest recording and the earliest composition the ‘Sonatina for Violin and Piano’. The first movement is spiky and rhythmical with a prominent piano part. In the more lyrical and enigmatic movement two the violin dominates. In the much longer finale the players are partners both in contribution and in mood. It is difficult to fathom why this attractive and short work has not made it into the repertoire at least occasionally. The recording from 1948 has stood the course of time well and the re-mastering is excellent. The piano sound is however just a little recessed. Rostal and Osborn make a fine team. They worked together for many years and it was tragic that Osborn died so early - at the age of forty-nine - at the height of his fame.

The next work - the immediate post-war Viola Sonata - is less light-hearted. Speaking of recordings I was rather disappointed by the recessed and dull quality of this BBC Recording which, after all, only dates from a 1977 live concert. Nevertheless it takes nothing away from the quality of the music. It’s a four movement work with a most beautiful and memorable second movement marked ‘Elegy-Dolente’. That is followed by a restless and violent but brief Scherzetto and a fascinating Finale which has two passages of ghostly ‘sul ponticello’. Scottish violist James Durrant plays expressively but he has a few intonational difficulties at times in the finale and in the Elegy when passages are in the ‘ozone layer’. Pianist Lawrence Glover is immaculate throughout.

Robin Orr did not eschew tough and at times almost atonal music despite the fact that one might well have taken the view of him as being somewhat conservative. The immediate post-war period also produced the three movement ‘Serenade for String Trio’ with its desolate middle movement and quite acerbic Presto ending. The performance is extremely fine and committed. The recording will appear thin, a little shrill and strained at times and not able to cope when the music is at its busiest and most passionate. I found it best to put the treble right down and the bass well up. It’s worth it, because this is piece well worth exploring further.

To continue with the contrasts - a duet comes next. This, like the Viola Sonata and later the Violin Sonata are introduced by the old sort of plummy radio announcer. As he says, the last section of the work “is more relaxed” but the rest is energetic and quite tough. For the first few seconds I thought that I was listening to a Bach Two-part Invention, but at approximately 8:55 I thought that two more instruments had secretly become involved so powerful was the double-stopping of both instruments. At some moments there is a little distortion on the recording but the whole work was most painstakingly rehearsed and realized by cellist Elisabeth McDonald and Edwin Paling who until 2007 was the leader of the RSNO.

Finally we come to the Sonata for Violin and clavier. That’s the way it’s announced but it is playable on the piano, or harpsichord as here. I have commented above about the quality of these recordings. I don’t want to say any more except that yes, sometimes the harpsichord does sound like an over-excitable doorbell and yes the balance between the two players is not as good as we have come to expect nowadays. Nevertheless this is a surprisingly good recording considering that it is half a century old. Orr does not fall into the trap of others of his generation who decided to use a harpsichord, that is the rather debilitating neo-baroquerie of a mock suite. Orr stays true to his nature. The outer movements are rhythmical, contrapuntal and energetic; the slow one passionate and deep. It’s good to hear Thurston Dart playing a modern work the idiom of which he obviously has quickly grasped. Granville Jones was a regular recording artist for several years.

This is an enterprising release and is apt indeed in this centenary year. It would however be good if a recording company somewhere decided to tackle some or all of Orr’s three symphonies (see review of the Symphony in one movement) which deserve at least an airing.

Gary Higginson 

see also review by Rob Barnett



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