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RECORDING OF THE MONTH
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Graham WHETTAM (1927-2007)
Concerto Drammatico for cello and orchestra W∑W 73 (1999) [32:40]
Romanza No.1 for cello solo WW 63/3 (1993) [6:42]
Romanza No.2 for cello solo WW 75/1 (2000) [5:36]
Solo Cello Sonata WW 60 (1990/96) [22:01]
Ballade Hebraique for cello and orchestra WW 47/3 (1981/1999) [12:20]
Martin Rummel (cello) Sinfonia de Camera/Ian Hobson (Concerto) Woolaston Festival Orchestra/Graham Whettam (Ballade)
rec. Krannert Center, Urbana, USA (2000) (Concerto); Schloss Weinberg, Kefermarkt, Austria, 2011 (Romanza 1 & 2, Sonata); Woolaston, Gloucestershire UK c.2005 (Ballade) PALADINO MUSICPMR0041 [79:23]
This CD is well-placed to become one of my discs of the year. The primary reason for this assessment is the often-heartbreakingly beautiful and disturbingly energetic Concerto Drammatico for cello and orchestra which is one of the finest British cello concertos that I have heard since first discovering those by Finzi, Leighton and Walton. The other cello music presented on this disc is hardly less impressive.
Whettam in a nutshell. Graham Whettam was born in Swindon on 7 September 1927. He was largely self-taught as a composer. His first public performance was in 1950. In 1953 Whettam’s Oboe Concerto was premiered at the Proms. He was Chairman of the Composer’s Guild in 1971 and from 1983-6. Whettam’s catalogue is extensive, with examples of all the major genres, the five (completed) symphonies forming the core of his achievement. Many of his works were premiered on the continent. His ‘post-romantic’ music is a perfect balance between grittiness and lyricism and is always crafted meticulously. Graham Whettam died on 17 August 2007 at the village of Woolaston, Gloucestershire.
The CD insert includes a long discussion of the Concerto Drammatico for cello and orchestra by the composer himself. The work has a complex history, deriving from an earlier (1960s) Cello Concerto which remained unfinished. Inspired by Martin Rummel’s recording of his Solo Cello Sonata, Whettam reworked the score in 1999. In September 2000, it was duly premiered in Urbana, Illinois with Rummel and the Sinfonia de Camera conducted by Ian Hobson. It is this performance which is presented on this CD.
The Concerto is well-written for soloist and orchestra. One reviewer of the premiere suggested that Whettam was ‘an imaginative user of exotic sonorities.’ The overall style is difficult to define. Markers would include Shostakovich, Bartok and Stravinsky: English influences embrace Walton and even Vaughan Williams. The Concerto is written in three movements: ‘Scena’, ‘Danza vigorosa’ and ‘Scena ultima’. The composer’s technique includes atonal harmonies and the probable use of a series. The first movement is deliberately convoluted in its progress, opening with a long melancholic exposition of the movement’s main theme played by solo cello, before being joined by the orchestra with mounting tension. The middle section of this first movement, ‘con fuoco’, as the work’s title suggests, dramatic, if not overtly histrionic. There are some gorgeous romantic moments. After a long cadenza, the close of this Scena is elegiac in mood, presenting a huge contrast with the following dynamic ‘Danza vigorosa.’ This second movement is lively, aggressive in mood, with the composer almost allowing it to get out of hand. This is contrasted with a thoughtful middle section. The dance music is reprised and is followed by an over-blown, film-music-like, restatement of the central section. This leads into the final movement. Once again this ‘Scena ultima’ provides great contrast, based on a chorale-like ‘adagio.’ After a heart-breakingly slow exposition of the theme, the music rises to a massive climax which subsides after impetuous ‘side drum rhythms…and harrowing brass chords of growing intensity.’ The music gradually dies away, with further reminiscences of the chorale melody. The sheer craftsmanship of Whettam’s musical language is audible in every bar of this concerto.
I am not usually a fan of solo cello music, unless it is Bach or Britten. Recently I have added the English composer Liz Johnson’s Cello Suite (MÉTIER MSV 77206) to those two exceptions. In this review, I find that I now must include Whettam’s Romanzas No.1 and 2 and the Solo Cello Sonata.
Turning to the two Romanzas. The first (1993) was originally written for violin. It was then reworked for viola and finally for cello. The second (2000) was composed with Martin Rummel in mind. Once again, maximum exposure was created by simultaneous versions for violin and viola. I understand that the composer wished both Romanzas to be played successively at a recital. I was struck in both cases by music that is ideally formed for the cello. They present ‘absolute’ music that demands concentration to reveal their charm and beauty. The first Romanza was dedicated to Jillian White and the second to Lady Hilary Groves.
The Solo Cello Sonata is a masterpiece. It was premiered at a recital at the Austrian Cultural Institute in London during April 1994. According to the liner notes, it was recorded on a minor German CD label in 2011. I enjoyed the sincerity and musical integrity of this Sonata, which is written in three short movements. The biggest technical challenge arrives in the middle movement, which is a three-part fugue. The two outer movements are discursive by design and major on a ‘lamenting’ theme commemorating the composer’s parents.
The Ballade Hebraique for cello and orchestra began life as a Ballade for violin and piano which received several performances in the North of England during November 1981. Listeners to this work picked up on the ‘Jewish sound of the string writing.’ A commentator in Canada wrote that the work had ‘the modal ambience of a heart rending Hebraic lament.’ Interestingly, it had been composed for a Jewish friend, Yossi Zivoni. In the late 1980s Whettam made a new version of this work for violin and orchestra, now the Ballade Hebraique. It was dedicated to Yehudi Menuhin and Yossi Zivoni. There was a project to record the work with Menuhin as soloist, but this did not come to fruition. In 1999, Whettam revised the piece for cello and orchestra and dedicated it to the present soloist Martin Rummel. The Ballade is written in ‘sandwich’ form – ABCBA. The first and last parts are meditative in mood, the central section is a vibrant moto-perpetuo and the ‘B’ sections are romantic and flowing in temper. This a beautiful, thoughtful and moving work, that certainly displays many of the qualities of a Hebrew lament.
The present soloist, Martin Rummel, was a close friend of the composer. He was born in Linz, Austria in 1974. He is currently located in Auckland, New Zealand. Rummel combines playing with teaching and working in the music industry as an artistic director.
The liner notes (in English and German) are excellent and provide a detailed study of each work. They include programme notes by the composer. There is also a good biography of Graham Whettam. There are several attractive photographs of Whettam and Rummel taken shortly before the composer’s death in 2007. Alas, white print on grey background does not make for easy reading of the cover details.
I cannot rate this CD too highly. Martin Rummel’s playing is superb. He is a splendid advocate of Graham Whettam’s music. The Sinfonia de Camera conducted by Ian Hobson (concerto) and the Woolaston Festival Orchestra directed by the composer (Ballade Hebraique) give satisfying accounts of both concerted works.
I do not know if this record company is planning more releases of music by Whettam. Certainly, looking at the record catalogue there is a dearth of CDs dedicated to his music. The Cello Concerto was previously released on Redcliffe Recordings (RR017) in 2002 along with the Sinfonia contra timore, and a retrospective of the composer’s piano music played by Anthony Goldstone and Caroline Clemmow is available on Divine Art 25038. I look forward to a cycle of Graham Whettam’s five symphonic works, some of his many concertante pieces and at least a selection of his chamber music.