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York BOWEN (1884-1961)
Rhapsody for Cello and Orchestra, op. 74 (c.1924) [23:51]
Alan BUSH (1900-1995)
Concert Suite for Cello and Orchestra, op. 37 (1952) [36:27]
Havergal BRIAN (1876-1972)
Concerto for Cello and Orchestra (1964) [21:43]
Raphael Wallfisch (cello)
BBC Concert Orchestra/Martin Yates
rec. St-Jude-on-the-Hill, Hampstead Garden Suburb, London, 20-22 September 2010
DUTTON EPOCH CDLX7263 [60:37 + 21:43]

With a total playing time of just over 82 minutes this collection of three large-scale works for cello and orchestra was just too lengthy to fit onto a single CD. Dutton very reasonably offers this set as two discs for the price of one.

I came to this set having just reacquainted myself with Havergal Brian’s Violin Concerto (1934-35) on another Dutton CD (review). His Cello Concerto, written three decades later, is a very different affair. It’s quite a bit shorter and it’s also more modest in terms of the orchestration. Brian here eschewed all brass instruments except horns and, even more unusually, dispensed with percussion save for a brief contribution from a side-drum towards the end of the central slow movement. The result of this self-denial is a work of almost chamber-like proportions.

The concerto is cast in the usual three movements. The first is refreshingly light-toned and light–textured. The solo part is very active but Brian resolutely refuses to allow his cellist to show off. Indeed, the soloist is effectively a primus inter pares, both here and throughout the work. One of many ways in which this concerto differs from the Violin Concerto is that there’s no sense here of the soloist as ‘heroic protagonist’. This is a most attractive movement. The slow movement is essentially calm and lyrical. The annotator is the late Malcolm MacDonald, ever-reliable when it comes to Brian; he describes the finale as ‘a lithe and good-humoured rondo’. I agree; indeed, this movement contains perhaps the most genial music I’ve yet heard from the pen of this composer. Brian wraps up the concerto with a short, Adagio espressivo coda which is warm and very satisfying. This is a most attractive concerto which I enjoyed very much.

York Bowen’s Rhapsody for Cello and Orchestra is, as Lewis Foreman implies in his notes, a Cello Concerto in all but name. It’s cast in a single movement which breaks down into three sections. The first is very Romantic in tone. Sometimes the music is impulsive and sometimes it’s more reflective. Bowen exploits the cantabile capabilities of the solo instrument very effectively – in fact, to the best of my recollection the solo part contains not so much as one pizzicato note in the entire work. The second section (from 9:10) is subdued, delicate and lovely. The solo instrument muses and sings gently yet ecstatically against a beguiling backdrop of soft strings, harp and innocent-sounding woodwind. Towards the end of the section (12:19) there’s a gorgeously romantic contribution from a solo horn. An emphatic little passage led by the solo cello (13:09) leads to the final section. Initially this consists of vigorous, strong music derived from the material of the Rhapsody’s opening and with the soloist very much to the fore. The last few minutes, however (from about 17:25), are warm and intensely lyrical as Bowen winds the work down to a tranquil close. The Rhapsody is a richly enjoyable piece and this recording, its first, is very welcome.
The Concert Suite for Cello and Orchestra by Alan Bush consists of four movements, the first of which is preceded by a slow and atmospheric Introduction. At its heart lies the Molto lento third movement, entitled ‘Poem’. The music lives up to its billing for this movement features highly poetic writing with the cantabile solo cello entirely to the fore. At 3:23 mellifluous woodwinds lead us into a central pastoral reverie after which the meditative music resumes (6:58). One has the impression throughout of seemingly effortless beauty and Raphael Wallfisch rises to the occasion with rapt playing.

Prior to this the first movement bears the title ‘Diversions on a Ground’ and is in effect a set of variations on a ground bass heard at the outset. Here Bush exploits the cello’s full compass and the solo instrument sings almost ceaselessly apart from the big climax (6:32) which is placed in the hands of the orchestra. Once that’s past the movement gradually subsides into tranquillity. The brief second movement is fleet of foot and light of texture. This movement is in the nature of a scherzo with a short central episode that evokes the form of a Pavane. Much of the finale is athletic, high-spirited and jolly, which is ideal after the calm and loveliness of the slow movement. There are, however, a couple of more relaxed, lyrical passages.

All three of the works on these discs were new to me – each one is here recorded for the first time - and I enjoyed all of them very much. There’s plenty of music here that is really worth hearing. Raphael Wallfisch is a most persuasive advocate for the music – his playing throughout is superb. Martin Yates and the BBC Concert Orchestra give him splendid support at all times. The recorded sound is excellent as are the notes by Malcolm MacDonald (Brian concerto) and Lewis Foreman. The Alan Bush Music Trust and the Havergal Brian Society gave financial support for the recording of the works by their respective composers; in each case I think their money was very well spent.

Your chances of hearing any of these three works in the concert hall must be fairly slim. Since all three are significant and rewarding scores and all are presented in top-class performances this set is a most attractive proposition.

John Quinn

Previous review: Rob Barnett (Recording of the Month)


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