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Ernest John MOERAN (1894-1950)
Overture for a Masque (1944) [9:27]
In the Mountain Country (1921) [6:24]
Rhapsody No. 1 in F major (1922) [11:26]
Rhapsody No. 2 in E major (1924/41) [12:17]
Rhapsody in F sharp major (1943)* [17:32]
Benjamin Frith (piano)
Ulster Orchestra/Jo Ann Falletta
rec. 17-18 September 2012, Ulster Hall, Belfast DDD
NAXOS 8.573106 [57:06]

The works on this disc date from two distinct periods of Moeran's life. The overture In the Mountain Country and the first two Rhapsodies are among the composer's earliest published works while the other two were written under wartime conditions almost twenty years later. All however are pure Moeran.
In the Mountain Country was premiered while Moeran was still a student at the Royal College of Music but demonstrates a great deal of the composer's unique style and sense of orchestration. The opening clarinet theme, combined with other material, is skilfully developed into a winning if still somewhat derivative work. The Rhapsody No. 1 followed the overture by only a year, but brings Moeran's personality into sharper focus as well as demonstrating a wider emotional range and greater control of the work's basic material.
The Rhapsody No. 2 is, on first hearing, less direct than its two predecessors, but closer acquaintance shows it to have a greater and more personal depth of feeling as well as more of an experimental element. Its central section makes it among the most affecting of Moeran's shorter orchestral works.
The Overture to a Masque has little that is Jacobean about it but definitely fulfils Moeran's brief for a short work to be performed for the troops in 1944.The piece has a distinct out-of-doors feeling, and while full of fanfares and striding passages, has a lovely middle section that is all the more touching for providing contrast.
Moeran's Third Rhapsody was also written for wartime audiences, as a concertante work for the 1943 Proms. In spite of its title it is one of the composer's most closely organized works, being based on three closely-related themes. These are developed and combined with such flair as to make it one of Moeran's most imaginative pieces.
This is the second disc of Moeran's orchestral music by Jo Ann Falletta and the Ulster Orchestra (earlier disc reviewed here, here and here) and it is to be hope that they will record the rest of the composer's orchestral works. Falletta emphasizes the dramatic and rhythmic aspects of the music as opposed to the meditative but her treatment of the quieter moments is still quite convincing. The Ulster Orchestra has a long-standing connection with Moeran's music, having recorded all of these pieces in the 1980s with Vernon Handley [see here, here and here]. While the sound on this disc is a little rough and strident the playing of the orchestra, especially the strings and horns, is excellent. Benjamin Frith is well able to negotiate the virtuosic aspects of the Third Rhapsody but could differentiate the quieter passages more distinctly. Given that the Handley discs are the main alternative in the catalog at the moment we can commend this disc to those who do not have the Handleys or who are seeking more up-to-date recordings.

William Kreindler

Previous reviews: John France, Brian Reinhart and Rob Barnett