Ernest John MOERAN (1894-1950)
Cello Concerto (1945) [28:44]
Serenade in G - original version (1948) [23:18]
Lonely Waters* (1924/31) [8:01]
Whythorne's Shadow (1931) [5:01]
Guy Johnston (cello)
Rebekah Coffey* (soprano)
Ulster Orchestra/JoAnn Falletta
rec. The Ulster Hall, Belfast, Northern Ireland, 5 February 2012 (Serenade, 2 Small Pieces), 6 February 2012 (Concerto)
NAXOS 8.573034 [65:18]
In recordings terms it could be said that The Ulster Orchestra is the most experienced Moeran ensemble in the UK. The bulk of that material was recorded with Vernon Handley on the stick for Chandos. It comes as something of a surprise to realise that the last of those recordings was made as long ago as 1990 - and featured the only other full version of the Serenade offered here too. For the major work here - the Cello Concerto - one has to go back to 1986 for the most recent competitor: Raphael Wallfisch with Norman del Mar and the Bournemouth Sinfonietta. Before that you must find your way to 1969 for the seminal performance by inspiration, wife of Moeran and dedicatee Peers Coetmore. Aside from a Naxos disc of the Symphony and Sinfonietta which came about only because another session was cancelled this is the first new disc of all Moeran orchestral works in just about a quarter of a century. Personally I do not consider the reconstruction of the notional Second Symphony to be 'real' Moeran and its companion work on that Dutton disc - the Festival Overture - is minor at best.
That being the case, Moeran aficionados will not need to read this review - they will have bought the disc already. For those new to the considerable cause I'm pleased to say that this is a very impressive disc. Moeran's is an elusive idiom; played too sentimentally the dark undertow is missed and played too neo-classically the sense of pained pastoral rapture is lost. One cannot imagine that conductor JoAnn Falletta has had many opportunities to programme Moeran during her various tenures in the USA so all the more credit to her for finding just the right 'touch' so impressively in the bulk of the music offered.
To my ear cellist Guy Johnston is the most impressive of the three players to have recorded the principal work. Coetmore's recording is an obligatory purchase on Lyrita for the reasons mentioned above. That wonderful Lyrita disc also includes the two other Coetmore-inspired works; the Cello Sonata and the small Prelude. Unfortunately by the time she came to record the concerto with Boult she was in her mid-sixties and for all her musical insight what we hear is technically fallible. In contrast Wallfisch was at the very beginning of his recording career - this was one of his earliest concerto discs and while it is good neither the interpretation nor the recording are from Chandos' top-most drawer. Johnston came to the world's attention when he won the BBC Young Musician of the Year in 2000 despite breaking a string during his final - stunning - performance of Shostakovich's 1st Cello Concerto.
Moeran's Cello Concerto is a far more dark and troubled work than one might expect or indeed initially sense. Moeran's last years were shadowed by increasing worries about his inability to focus or concentrate and the concern that this might foreshadow a descent into total mental collapse. In part this explains the repeated attempts to complete the Second Symphony which at various times he reported to friends as being all-but complete. If you look at the small tally of Moeran's output the last orchestral work is the Serenade dating from 1948. However, dig a little deeper and it becomes clear that this work is in fact linked to the suite Farrago from 1932 and its 'lightness' belies the struggle with which it came in being. Returning to the Concerto; its genesis is wholly a result of Moeran's infatuation with Coetmore. Theirs was a curious relationship - more idealised than practical, indeed much of the time they were married was spent apart with Coetmore on tour and Moeran trying to escape his devils by drink and travelling to Ireland. It is this sense of a lyrical - often Irish - idyll juxtaposed against an often manic gaiety that characterises the work. Johnston plays with just the right musing rhapsodic freedom and with a beautifully unforced tone in the works many slower (brooding?) passages. The three movements are marked Moderato, Adagio and Allegretto which does reflect the somewhat muted spiritual world it inhabits.
The sudden juxtaposition of jaggedly flamboyant brass writing does - and should - come as something of a shock - track 1 4:56. Here Falletta, having been such a sensitive accompanist to the earlier introverted mood drives the music forward impressively. Her Ulster players respond as to the manner born. Timings overall for Wallfisch and Johnston are very similar [28:36 to 28:44] but Johnston favours a more extreme range of tempi. Some might argue that this makes the music feel more sectionalised, less organic but I feel this is an insightful choice ultimately revealing the work as less cosy and comfortable than I had previously thought. The reason the extremes of mood work - literally manic one might say - is explained insightfully by Geoffrey Self in his 1986 book The Music of E.J. Moeran (Toccata Press). He offers a very lucid analysis of the work which at its heart shows that all the musical material is tied together by what Self describes as a "parent cell technique". Essentially this is a well-tried method by which even the most diverse music in the work can be traced back to a four-note musical cell - the 'parent' of all that follows. This deeply-laid foundation allows Johnston and Falletta to explore the extremes of the emotional range/dynamics/tempi of the work without it collapsing into a sequence of fragmentary episodes. Wallfisch's more considered approach is beautiful and accomplished for sure but less challenging.
The central Adagio contains the most heart-felt and lyrically impassioned writing in the entire concerto and the performance here reinforces my impression that this is now the single finest version available. The finale has always felt just a little forced in it faux-Irish bonhomie. Self notes here and elsewhere some fascinating parallels in terms of melodic outlines with the famous Dvořák B minor concerto. Once again it fits more logically in the dramatic arc as defined by the performers here. Johnston captures the capriciousness of the writing to perfection and while it is by no means an overtly virtuosic concerto for virtuosity's sake he sounds completely at ease with any of the technical hurdles Moeran presents.
Dating Moeran's works is rarely straightforward. Often the music would evolve over an extended period absorbing influences along the way; any given piece may seem to have a variety of styles at work. This is especially the case with the Serenade. As mentioned, parts of the work originated in a 1932 Suite. By the time of its 1948 premiere under Basil Cameron this had expanded into the eight movement Serenade given here although when the score was published two movements; No.3 Intermezzo and No.7 Forlana were removed. According to Lionel Hill in his book "Lonely Waters - the diary of a friendship with E J Moeran" (Thames, 1985) this was simply a decision to make the work more concise and therefore appealing to programmers. Again there have been two other commercial recordings. Handley on Chandos in Ulster offers this fuller eight movement version. He also recorded it in the 1960s with the Guildford Philharmonic Orchestra. Hickox on EMI with the Northern Sinfonia plays the published score (CDC 7 49912 2 then 7 64721 2). Given that that version also has a rather blurringly resonant recording it rules itself out fine though the actual playing and interpretation are. The Ulster Orchestra of 1990 vintage give their contemporary colleagues a very stiff challenge and if pushed I would opt for the earlier version with Handley finding a fraction more wit and Chandos a tad more sophistication in their engineering. Again though Falletta has to be applauded for her direct, bright-eyed and unfussy approach. The spirit of Peter Warlock hangs benevolently over the work and in the spirit of his Capriol Suite this Serenade entertainingly recreates. To quote Self; "[the] element of pastiche ... is here sedulously cultivated ... stylistic inconsistency is very much part of the work, but it in no way spoils music of charm, boisterousness, and quasi-Gallic wit".
None of the movements are longer than five minutes and all are ear-ticklingly appealing in the best traditions of 'light' music. It is hard to agree with the Naxos cover-note writer that this work is "much-admired" - but treated as a minor but wholly enjoyable romp it deserves a toe-hold in the repertoire. I particularly enjoyed the Galop (No.4) with the Ulster brass in rollicking form and the flowingly elegant Rigadoon which captures the bittersweet lilting nostalgia that Moeran made so much his own.
The disc is completed by the Two Pieces for Small Orchestra - Lonely Waters and Whythorne's Shadow. On disc especially these two works are nearly always linked but that is no more than a publisher's expedience - they have little in common excepting their considerable beauty and undoubted craft. Dating is again an issue with both works. They were published as a pair in 1935. The writer Hubert Foss dates the former to 1930/31. Self refers to a Peter Warlock article which mentions a work with this name in 1924. This was around the time Moeran collected his Six Folksongs from Norfolk but the published works exhibit a maturity and sureness of touch which Moeran did not possess in the early 1920s. The likelihood is another work of extended genesis and possible multiple versions. What is certain is that the work we now have is a miniature masterpiece. Nay-sayers would probably cite it as a prime example of cow-pat music at its most pastoral. The dedication to Vaughan Williams shows a spiritual kinship with the older composer but this is most certainly not a rose-tinted view on a Rural England that never existed outside of a Hardy novel. There are other editorial considerations too. Moeran offers two endings, one - his preference - with a singer; "So I'll go down to the Lonely Waters, Go down where no one they shall find me." In his preface to the work in the published score Moeran wrote: "... it is preferable to perform the piece in the version with the voice part, but it should be understood that the singer need not be a professional one, in fact anybody with a clear and natural manner of singing may sing the verse. And in any case, the singer must be in an unobtrusive position, sitting at the back of the orchestra or out of sight altogether."
Given this clearly stated preference it is rather disappointing that some of the other fine recordings of this work - Handley on Chandos and Dilkes on EMI - opted for the instrumental version. The only other performance I have heard with a singer is the lugubrious Jeffrey Tate on EMI (7642002) with a far too heavily voiced Anne Murray. The field was wide open then for a definitive version with voice. Unfortunately Falletta and her producer, Tim Handley, make a miscalculation here. Their soprano Rebekah Coffey has a perfectly attractive voice but she sings in such a 'trained' and correct way with ev-e-ry syll-a-ble carefully enunciated. How easy it would have been in the wonderfully generous acoustic of the Belfast Hall to place her - or preferably someone more idiomatic - in the distant balcony - a voice heard through the mists of morning. These two pieces are also the time when Falletta's instinct to keep the music moving lets her down. Handley takes a rhapsodic 9:20 for Lonely Waters and a pensive 6:30 for Whythorne's Shadow. Falletta takes a flowing 8:01 for the former but a too brisk 5:01 for the latter. To give another comparison - Neville Dilkes by whose performances I'm guessing many people, myself included, 'learnt' these pieces snips another minute off Falletta's time for Lonely Waters [7:06] without it feeling rushed but expands Whythorne's Shadow to 6:45. Certainly, the miniature tone-poem that is Lonely Waters can take either extreme. Dilkes' push through to the impassioned climax gives the work a moment of pained ecstasy. Sadly though, his EMI recording does show its age now.
Whythorne's Shadow is considered to be Moeran's Memento Mori for Peter Warlock who died in 1930. Warlock had rediscovered the Elizabethan composer Thomas Whythorne in a 1925 pamphlet and published an edition of his partsong As Thy Shadow Itself Apply'th in 1927. So in one brief work Moeran acknowledges his debt to Warlock - and through him to the liberating influence of Elizabethan music - as well as the poignancy of loss combined with release. Release because Warlock has exercised a not wholly beneficial influence on Moeran through the 1920s. The work is written in mainly compound 6/4 time. This is a notoriously hard tempo to hit just so: too slow and it lumbers, too fast and it becomes mindlessly rum-ti-tum. Unfortunately Falletta falls into the latter category and to be honest the piece goes for little. The score gives a clear tempo indication - dotted minim (half-note) circa 48. Falletta plays it at around dotted minim 68. This is a huge difference - Falletta seems to be labouring under a misapprehension that in some way this piece should be performed with some awareness of historical performance practice. The entire playing style as well as being too fast is light and lifted. I find this a very strange mis-reading; this is a 1930s work which is an echo - a shadow if you will of an earlier style as it was understood to be in 1930. It makes for a disappointing end to an otherwise impressive disc.
A word about the disc's presentation and engineering. Paul Conway's liner-notes are concise but informative. Producer Tim Handley and engineer John Benson produce a lively and immediate sound in the excellent Ulster Hall. I have always considered the early Chandos discs recorded there to be amongst that label's very finest. Their Bax Symphony No.4 - can it really be 30 years old this year? - won a Gramophone engineering award, I recall. By that yard-stick the sound is a fraction more brittle. The strings in particular sound a little thin and light with a degree too much front-desk prominence. To be fair, these are not works that require an orchestra to sound as though they have a Straussian sumptuousness. The woodwind are beautifully caught as indeed are the brass. The hall gives an heroic ring to the jagged fanfares that Moeran favours. Curiously the trombones feel a fraction further forward in the mix than their trumpet colleagues. Cello soloist Johnston is well balanced - always clear and with a warm tone - but not overly prominent. As I mentioned before, the placing of soprano Rebekah Coffey is an error of judgement in production rather than technical terms. In her own right her sound is well caught; I just happen to think it is not the right sound.
For all the relative disappointments with the two closing miniatures the positives on this disc far outweigh the negatives. indeed I hope that Falletta is encouraged to investigate the rest of Moeran's fairly modest orchestral output. Certainly a new version of the Violin Concerto would be most welcome. Alongside the classic Boult/Lyrita disc of the Symphony and Sinfonietta this is a good place for a Moeran newcomer to start a collection and a compulsory purchase for all other acolytes.
A good place for a Moeran newcomer to start a collection and a compulsory purchase for all other acolytes.
See also review by Rob Barnett
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