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Alan RAWSTHORNE (1905-1971)
A Portrait
Concerto for clarinet and string orchestra (1936/37) [16:17]
Quartet (No 1) for oboe and string trio (1935) [16:11]
Studies on a Theme by Bach for string trio (1936) [8:41]
Brother James's Air for cello and piano (1941) [1:57]
Sonata for cello and piano (1948) [14:03]
A Most Eloquent Music for two recorders and lute (1961) [2:15]
Concerto for Oboe and String Orchestra (1947) [17:37]
rec. 2000/16

Rawsthorne was one of those good second-rank composers who get performed during their lifetimes but fade from view afterwards. However, recordings can come to the rescue, and Rawsthorne has been well represented on disc, with Lyrita, ASV and Naxos making substantial contributions, even though some years ago. Most of his works have been recorded, and there are alternatives available for some. Rawsthorne’s idiom could be described as mainstream mid-twentieth century and will appeal to those who enjoy Prokofiev, Hindemith, Martinů or Frank Martin. It is sinewy and contrapuntal, with rhythmic energy and a slight tone of melancholy which I find rather appealing.

This disc restores to the catalogue some works which originally appeared on the ASC label while adding others recorded more recently. The programme is bookended by the two concertos, with the chamber works coming in between. This is a peculiar arrangement, and I still don’t really understand why this particular programme was put together. However, it does what it claims and gives a portrait of the composer.

The Clarinet Concerto is an early work and, though attractive, is not fully characteristic. There is a slow prelude followed by three short movements. The slow sections are pervaded by a rather Hindemithian kind of lyricism while the fast ones have the syncopations and cross-rhythms which we associate with Prokofiev or Walton. The particular interest of this recording is that it offers both Rawsthorne’s original ending, which is what is in the score, and the slightly longer one which Rawsthorne himself performed with Frederick Thurston, the clarinettist who was the first soloist. The revised version was used in the previous recording of the concerto by Thea King and Alun Francis (Hyperion archive service CDA66031) and this recording also offers the original, in separate tracks so the listener can choose which to hear. My decided preference is for the revised version.

The Oboe Quartet is an even earlier work and does not appear in the lists of Rawsthorne’s compositions which I have been able to find. There is a second, much later, oboe quartet, which dates from 1970. This one consists of three movements, played without a break and allocated one track on the disc. It is sinewy and at times astringent but never harsh or aggressive. The winding chromatic lines occasionally reminded me of Busoni. I found this a most attractive work, well worth reviving.

The Studies on a Theme by Bach are based on the four-note theme (C sharp, B sharp, E, D sharp) which is the subject of the C sharp minor fugue in the first book of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier. This is one of the most powerful and expressive fugues in the collection. Rawsthorne’s piece, in contrast, is hermetic and brooding, with an abrupt ending.

Brother James’s Air is based on the hymn tune known as Brother James. It stays close to the original tune and does not sound like Rawsthorne at all. It is quite an attractive work, but it is not surprising that the composer never published it.

The cello sonata is the best-known work in this collection and has been recorded several times. It is very varied in mood, despite thematic links across the three movements. It opens like a latter-day Brahms with an eloquent cello line and rich piano writing but the idiom is Rawsthorne’s own. It is a fine work.

A Most Eloquent Music for two recorders and lute was written as incidental music for the scene in Hamlet where the players come in with recorders, leading Hamlet to mock Guildenstern for his inability to play. This is a charming piece, well worth digging out. It comes from a CD issued by the Royal Shakespeare Company: Hamlet Music and Speeches available here.

The Oboe Concerto is in three short movements. The opening was modelled on the baroque French overture, but is considerably more chromatic. The soloist enters unaccompanied and this leads to a quicker movement of a questioning character before the introduction returns. There is a song-like middle movement, a kind of sad, slow waltz. The finale changes the mood to something more playful.

The performances, both the older ones here revived and the new ones, are confident and committed. The recordings, although made in various places and at different times, are well matched on the disc. There are other recordings of the concertos and the cello sonata, but these hold their own, and the whole disc is both an attractive introduction to Rawsthorne for those unfamiliar with him and also contains some interesting rarities for those who already know his work.

Stephen Barber

Previous reviews: Dominy Clements ~ John France

Recording details
Clarinet Concerto
Linda Merrick (clarinet) Manchester Sinfonia/ Richard Howarth
St Thomas Church, Stockport 25 August 2016

Oboe quartet
Sylvia Harper (oboe) Jake Rea (violin) David Aspin (viola) Joseph Spooner (cello)
ASC Recording 16 June 2000

Studies on a theme by Bach
Jake Rea (violin) David Aspin (viola) Joseph Spooner (cello)
15 May 2000

Brother James Air and Cello Sonata
Joseph Spooner (cello) David Owen Norris (piano)
Turner Simmons Concert Hall, Southampton University 29 July 2016

A Most Eloquent Music
John Turner, Laura Robinson (recorders) Roger Child (lute)
St Thomas Church, Stockport 10 January 2016

Oboe Concerto
Jill Crowther (oboe) English Northern Philharmonia/Alan Cuckston
Leeds University Great Hall 29 June 2000


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