Elizabeth MACONCHY (1907 - 1994)
The Land (1930) [16:37]
Concertino for Piano and Chamber Orchestra (1928) [14:35]
Music for Woodwind and Brass (1966) [9:00]
Symphony for Double String Orchestra (1952/3) [23:48]
Clelia Iruzun (piano)
BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra/Odaline de la Martinez
rec. City Halls, Glasgow, 23-24 March 2009
LORELT LNT 133 [64:05] 
Maconchy's early but remarkably assured Concertino for Piano and Chamber Orchestra was first performed in Prague in 1930 played by fellow-composer and pianist Erwin Schulhoff. The young composer's career could not have had a more auspicious start. The music of this concise but eloquent work already displays a number of characteristic fingerprints: clear-cut ideas, a lively sense of rhythm, a liking for stringent dissonance and - more generally - an inclination towards central Europe rather than pastoral England. Maconchy's models in this youthful work are Prokofiev and Bartók, which does not imply blunt imitation. The composer has her own idea about how the music should go. The outer panels are rhythmically lively and frame a lovely central movement. 

The orchestral suite The Land was first performed by Sir Henry Wood at the Proms and highly regarded by the likes of Holst, Tovey and Vaughan Williams which says a lot about the music's quality. Inspired by Vita Sackville-West's eponymous poem the work may be regarded as Maconchy's take on the Four Seasons although the composer clearly avoided anything picturesque, the music reflecting the words prefacing each of the movements. Winter unfolds from the bass. The music slowly opens up, reaches a climax and then subsides to its close. This introductory movement somewhat brings to mind the first movement of Bartók's Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta. Spring is in total contrast. The music rushes along with unabated energy and reaches a bright climax. Summer “captures the languor of a sultry summer day” (Nicola LeFanu), but the music is again miles away from what Delius might have written - and actually did. The concluding movement Autumn is again a joyous affair full of lively rhythms and colour catching the spirit of the words from the poem : “The young men strained upon the crank/To wring the last reluctant inch./They laughed together, fair and frank/And threw their loins across the winch...” 

Music for Woodwind and Brass
was commissioned by Morley College, London, where Holst and Tippett were once very much active. The music of this concise, tightly knit piece is rather austere and may indeed bring that of Holst to mind - I think of Hammersmith. This is the first professional recording of the work since it was recorded by the Irish Youth Wind Ensemble several years ago and available as a non-commercial disc including works by Irish composers of various generations. 

The imposing Symphony for Double String Orchestra is one of the unquestionable masterpieces in Maconchy's output. It also clearly belongs to the glorious series of British works for string orchestra. Some time ago I reviewed the Lyrita re-issue (SRCD.288) of it and I will best refer anyone to my earlier review. Suffice to say that the Symphony is fully mature and the composer displays her craftsmanship to the full while always keeping expression in mind. This is one of Maconchy's finest works and one that is all-too-rarely heard so that this - its second recording - is most welcome. De la Martinez has to compete with that arch-champion of British music, the late Vernon Handley who then conducted a splendid recorded performance of this masterly work. However, there is not much to choose between the performances. Both are fine, that by Handley a tad weightier although the strings of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra are far from being under-nourished, so that one may be happy to have two recordings of that wonderful piece. I would add that both discs are a must for any admirer of Maconchy's music because this one has several hitherto unrecorded and rarely heard works whereas the Lyrita offers the first recording of another substantial work: the Music for Strings

I find it particularly heart-warming to witness renewed interest in Maconchy's music and one has to be grateful to 'smaller' record companies for investing in such underestimated repertoire that nevertheless deserves to be better known. I just want to remind you that Lorelt also released a disc of Maconchy's choral music (LNT 127 that I reviewed here some time ago) and that Chandos released a recording of this composer's two one-acters (CHAN 10508 that I also reviewed here). So one may keep one's fingers crossed hoping that more will be coming soon. In the meantime one has to be happy with what is readily available, which is not too bad actually. 

This is a disc that I have been long awaiting and I am happy to report that all my expectations have been amply fulfilled. It will appeal strongly to any admirer of this fine composer's music although I am sure that others may also find much to relish here. 

Hubert Culot 

see also review by Rob Barnett

A most welcome addition to Maconchy's growing discography.