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/JoAnn Falletta
rec. Ulster Hall, Belfast, UK, 17-18 September 2012
NAXOS 8.573106 [57:06]

I was reading my colleague Brian Reinhart’s review of this CD the other day, and was interested by his ‘take’ on these pieces. Fundamentally, he recognised that three of these ‘attractive enough’ works are early and ‘are not about to spur a Moeran revival’. I disagree with him - in part. Since hearing these works more that quarter of a century ago, I have come to enjoy their impressive blend of ‘English Musical Renaissance’ and ‘Celtic Twilight’ so often associated with Arnold Bax. I concede that there is nothing on these discs to compare with the Symphony in G minor or the moving Cello Concerto, yet all of them are good, entertaining pieces that give the listener considerable pleasure as well as allowing an opportunity to explore the composer’s earlier orchestral music. In these works there are sufficient marks of interest, beauty and occasional genius to make them worthy of the composer. My musical life would be the poorer if I did not have these pieces in my collection. Certainly the three Rhapsodies and the In the Mountain Country provide an unequalled musical ‘impression’ of Ireland - in a very different manner to Stanford’s excellent Rhapsodies.
It is possible to underestimate Moeran’s Overture for a Masque, quite simply because it is populist in its effect. Yet it must be recalled that this work was written (1942-43) as a commission by Walter Legge for performance at an ENSA (Entertainment National Service Association) concert as was Alan Rawsthorne’s Street Corner Overture. It is clear that Moeran’s overture was designed to entertain rather than present any major ground-breaking personal statement or confession. Moeran presents the listener with lots of brass, rhythmical excitement and syncopations. There is a deeper element to this music: Moeran manages to create an occasional nod towards the misty far Western shores of Eire especially with the reflective middle section. It is not clear what this largely rumbustious piece has to do with a ‘Masque’. That is not the point: it is a well-written overture that has outlasted its original purpose. It could still be used as an opener at an orchestral concert today.
Since hearing Vernon Handley and the Ulster Orchestra perform ‘In the Mountain Country’ on CD back in 1989, I have enjoyed what Rob Barnett has deemed ‘Rhapsody No.0’. Reinhart rightly describes this as an ‘atmospheric postcard’. Moeran designated this piece a ‘symphonic impression’ which it may or may not be. There is little development of ideas - in a symphonic sense - here, just a series of beautiful and catchy tunes. Unlike Stanford’s ‘Irish Rhapsodies’, all the melodies that Moeran presents are of his own devising, although it is clear to the listener that he has absorbed much of the style and content of Irish folksong. I love the enigmatic close to this piece, the considerable and quite moving climax and the ‘Celtic Revival’ opening with the drum roll and clarinet solo. Moeran dedicated this student work, composed in 1921, to Sir Hamilton Harty. It may not be the greatest of Moeran’s efforts, but it is worthy of his reputation.
The First Rhapsody was composed the year after In the Mountain Country: in many ways it builds on the success of this earlier piece. However, I get the feeling that there is just a touch more subtlety. Once again, no folk-song has been identified as having been ‘lifted’ by the composer: all appear to be of his own invention. This work was dedicated to John Ireland who was Moeran’s teacher at this time. There is a good balance between passionate, almost ‘Ravelian’ passages and the typically reflective mood music that hints at the Irish landscape and its peoples. Any criticism overlooks just how competent the orchestration is. His handling of the woodwind in particular is worthy of study. This is a confident composer perfectly at home in handling large forces, building strong climaxes, but never losing a sense of intimacy. It is ultimately a beautiful work.
The Second Rhapsody was a commission for the 1924 Norfolk and Norwich Centenary Festival. The liner-notes suggest that this is not as subtly scored as its predecessor: nor is the formal structure quite as ‘intricate’. In 1941 Moeran tinkered with the orchestration, presenting it for a smaller orchestra. It is this version that is presented here. The work opens with a typical, folk-like tune for bass clarinet which is apparently based on a Norfolk melody called ‘Polly on the Shore’ … not Molly. In spite of this, the general tenor is once again that of an ‘Irish’ Rhapsody. It has been suggested that nearly all tunes want to turn themselves into jigs. There is a lovely thoughtful middle section with a broad tune which just makes the goosebumps rise. I am not convinced by the suggestion that this piece is less worthy than No. 1. If I am honest it is my favourite of the lot.
Brian Reinhart is absolutely correct in his review that the Rhapsody in F sharp ‘falls into that unfortunate blind spot of concertante works too short to program as the main concerto.’ The other side to this coin is that it is expensive to find a soloist of the calibre of Benjamin Frith to present a work that lasts for a mere 17 minutes.
The Rhapsody was composed at a time when Moeran was at his peak. It was dedicated to Harriet Cohen who gave the work’s first performance in 1943. It was later taken up by Iris Loveridge whose performances the composer apparently preferred. Although the work is in one continuous movement it is divided into three sections. I find it quite hard to decide if this is a Concertante work or a ‘mini’ concerto. There are plenty of opportunities here for the pianist to display their technical skill, including several cadenzas. Much of this music is heart-meltingly beautiful. Once again this work was designed with war-time concertgoers in mind, which perhaps explains some of the more popular stylistic conceits that Moeran has used. He never compromises his artistic integrity for the sake of public approbation. There is everything in this work: it is just way too short. What a pity that Moeran never wrote a ‘proper’ piano concerto.
I was bowled over by the sound quality of this disc. The playing by the Ulster Orchestra under JoAnn Falletta is sympathetic and committed. The liner-notes by Paul Conway give the listener all the information that is needed to appreciate these delightful works. Benjamin Frith excels himself in the Third Rhapsody.
Rob Barnett has given an overview of the alternative recordings in his review. All I will add is that all enthusiasts of Jack Moeran’s music will demand all these recordings in their collections. If someone only wishes to own one version of these works, or wants to discover what they sound like, then this is the best version to go for.
John France 

Previous reviews: Rob Barnett ~~ Brian Reinhart  

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