Rawsthorne and other Rarities
Clare Wilkinson (mezzo-soprano)
Harvey Davies (harpsichord)
John Turner (recorder and bamboo pipe)
Mark Rowlinson (reciter)
Peter Lawson (piano)
Stephanie Tress (cello)
rec. UK, 2017
DIVINE ART DDA25169 [78:30]
This remarkable CD opens with Alan Rawsthorne’s Chamber Cantata dating from 1937 (not 1939 as listed in the liner notes). It is a premiere recording. John Turner explains that he discovered the manuscript of this work in the Library of Congress, Washington DC amongst the papers of American composer and musicologist Halsey Stevens. It was believed to have been destroyed. The Cantata was premiered at the Wigmore Hall, London on 15 February 1937. I guess that the composer quietly withdrew the work, after receiving a bunch of less than positive reviews. Rawsthorne chose to set four medieval poems: ‘Of a Rose is al myn Song’, ‘Lenten ys come’; ‘Wynter Wakeneth al my Care’ and ‘The Nicht is neir gone’. They are a subtle balance of slightly ribald humour, nature painting and religious piety. The liner notes remind the listener that this cantata was a rare example of Rawsthorne’s setting of Christian texts (the first two of these songs). However, the composer was clearly inspired by medieval poetry, religious or otherwise: subsequent settings of medieval texts included Carmen Vitale (1963) and the Medieval Diptych (1962).
What is interesting is the contemporary critics’ view of this work, which as mentioned, was none too encouraging. The reviews do give the present-day listener a clue to enjoying this music. For example, the Daily Telegraph (16 February 1937) thought that the piece was “sincere, and even humorous” but the “obstinate counterpoint and the nervous shrinking from a natural vocal line made an effect of strain and forced expression”. The Times critic (19 February 1937) felt that the dichotomy between the “four very old English poems” and the “very new dissonances” denied the vocal line “feeling”. And finally, the most acerbic review of all was in the Musical Times (March 1937): “Here the composer has set four poems in spiky old English to modern linear counterpoint so very spiky that its strands evoke an image of barbed wire…” Viewed from a period of more than 80 years later, this work is a remarkable balance of ‘experimental’ music and a deep sensitivity for the varied impact of the poems. Since 1937, listeners have become accustomed to hearing texts from all periods of English and Scottish literature set to music of wildly differing styles: from pastiche to avant-garde. It is not an issue to have ‘dissonances’ and ‘obstinate counterpoint’ in music any more (hopefully). And there is a satisfying tension raised between the timelessness of the medieval texts and hints of forthcoming barbarity that was in the air at the time of composition. Maybe “barbed wire” was not a bad metaphor to use. Alan Rawsthorne’s Chamber Cantata is sung to perfection on this recording. The string quartet and harpsichord accompaniment is ideally balanced.
American composer Halsey Stevens (1908-1989) provides a neo-classical Sonatina Piacevole for recorder and harpsichord. This work was composed around 1955/6. The opening ‘allegro moderato’ is pure pastiche. Then follows something more modern sounding – the ‘poco lento.’ This is truly lovely music. The proceedings close with a lively ‘allegro.’ Here the label ‘neo-classical’ may obscure the vibrant and contemporary harmonies and rhythmic vitality of this music. A great work that deserves to be in the repertoire of all recorderists.
I first heard Alan Rawsthorne’s wonderful Practical Cats in the 1957 recording made by Robert Donat and the Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Alan Rawsthorne for EMI. It was reissued on CD in 1998. In 2007, Dutton Epoch released a new version with Simon Callow as the speaker, accompanied by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra.
Practical Cats was commissioned by the Edinburgh Festival Society for a children’s concert during 1954. It was scored for reciter and orchestra. The present version, which substitutes a piano for the ‘band’ was realised by Peter Dickinson from sketches in the Rawsthorne archive at the Royal Northern College of Manchester. I think that this is a splendid ‘reduction’ which ought to allow many more ‘economical’ performances of this sparkling and witty confection.
Rawsthorne’s take on T.S. Eliot’s poems includes a rumbustious overture followed by ‘The Naming of Cats’; ‘The Old Gumbie Cat’; ‘Gus, the Theatre Cat’; ‘Bustopher Jones’; ‘Old Deuteronomy’ and ‘The Song of the Jellicles’. It is full of felicitous musical impressisons and allusions. Mark Rowlinson and Peter Lawson give an inspiring and enjoyable performance of this wonderful fun work.
I have occasionally run into trouble with friends who enjoy Andrew Lloyd Weber’s popular musical Cats: I would pit Rawsthorne’s take on Eliot’s poems against this every time! The problem I do have, is which of the three outstanding recordings of this work do I listen to?
Basil Deane’s The Rose Tree is presented on this disc in an arrangement by Raymond Warren for soprano, recorder and cello. It is a setting of two poems by the Irish poet W.B. Yeats: the eponymous ‘The Rose Tree’ and ‘I am of Ireland.’ These remained unfinished at the time of Deane’s death in 2006. Deane had written the vocal line only of both songs. The original holograph was lost, but later turned up amongst the composer’s papers. What struck me about these two songs is the inherent timelessness of the music. I have noted before that it is extremely difficult to argue for a particular ‘stylistic or analogous descriptive label’ for them. The nearest I can come to giving a flavour of the sound world of these two songs is to suggest a fusion between the lilt of Irish folksong and an atonal accompaniment which tends to be fragmented rather than lyrical. That said, these are minor masterpieces that work extremely well in Warren’s excellent ‘realisation.’
It is always a delight to come across a piece of music by Ralph Vaughan Williams that I have not heard before. ‘The Willow Whistle’ is a case in point. This is a setting for treble voice and bamboo pipe. The text was by M.E. Fuller. Michael Kennedy, in his catalogue, notes that the manuscript of this piece is undated, but he considers that is may be contemporaneous with the Suite for pipes composed just prior to the Second World War. Little is known about the poet, nor is any indication given as to where the text was garnered. The opening line gives sufficient clue to the nature of the song and its beautiful pastoral setting: “Only a boy can set free/The music in a willow tree…”
I have never come across any music by the London-resident, Czech composer Karel Janovicky. The present miniature The Little Linden Pipe is an engaging set of variations for solo recorder based on a Moravian folk-song. The liner notes explain that the text translates as “I have a little pipe made of linden-tree wood/It does always tell me when my love is angry”. It was composed for John Turner in 2016. There is no real anger in this music: it is a delightful exploration of the potential of the original tune.
Like most Rawsthorne enthusiasts, I have known of the existence of the String Quartet in B minor for several years. Yet, I have never heard it until reviewing this CD. I believe that this is the premiere recording. The work was first given at Dartington Hall on 11 June 1933 at a private performance. This was followed by its first public performance at the Ballet Club Theatre, Notting Hill Gate on 22 January 1934 at one of the ‘famous’ Macnaghten-Lemare concerts. There are three movements: ‘Fugue’, ‘Andante – allegretto’ and a ‘Molto allegro quasi presto.’
The only problem with this quartet is the slight imbalance between the more ‘modernist’ first and last movements and the ‘Dvorakian’ tune heard in the middle movement. This did not bother me in the least, but it was picked up by contemporary critics. Yet, there is no doubt that the 28-year-old composer was a master of form and presented a work that often looked forward to his own unique musical language. The most magical part of this quartet is the final episode in the ‘finale’, just before the coda. This music is touchingly (sentimentally?) romantic for Rawsthorne.
Donald Waxman’s superb ‘Serenade and Caprice’ (2016) was dedicated to John Turner. It is a delightful parody of all sorts of music, with nods to Baroque, more modernist music and even ‘pop.’ I note that the composer is 93 in October and still going strong.
‘The Buckle’ is a charming setting of Walter de la Mare’s lovely poem about the soul of a child at play. It is the third of Bliss’ Three Romantic Songs composed in 1921. The song was “dedicated to the composer’s infant half-sister” Enid Bliss , who was latterly a bridesmaid at his wedding (1925). The cycle was originally for voice and piano. The liner notes suggest that the composer is likely to have made the present sparkling and somewhat elaborate arrangement for string quartet as a companion piece to ‘The Fallow Deer at the Lonely House’ (1925) to words by Thomas Hardy.
The Journey (2016) for solo recorder was the last work composed by Malcolm Lipkin before his death in 2017. It was composed for a colleague who had recently died. This short study is supposed to be a mediation on life as a journey, with its inevitable end. It is formless, lacking interest and short on lyricism. It is not a piece that I warm to.
David Ellis’s haunting Mount Street Blues for recorder and string quartet is dedicated to the memory of John McCabe. The connection to Mount Street is interesting. John McCabe studied at the Liverpool Institute in that street. The music is sad and lugubrious, making this short work into an elegy. It is movingly played by John Turner and the Solem Quartet. I am not sure when it was written, but I guess it was probably around 2016.
The playing and the singing by all the performers on this adventurous CD is ideal in every way. I loved Clare Wilkinson’s voice, especially in Rawsthorne’s Chamber Cantata. The Solem String Quartet play with clarity and commitment in the String Quartet. The recording is excellent. John Turner not only gives first-rate performances on the recorder and the bamboo pipe, but also wrote the liner notes which are informative and entertaining. I was disappointed in the CD cover: reading black text on blue background is not good for ageing eyes. Texts are given for the Rawsthorne Chamber Cantata, but not for the other songs. I understand the copyright issues with T.S. Elliot. And finally, I was surprised to read that Matthew Arnold is included in the Galaxy music publisher’s listings of British Music.
All in all, this is an extraordinary disc. Not only does it do what it says on the tin and introduce the listener to some rarities by a variety of better-and-lesser-known composers, it gives Rawsthorne enthusiasts two previously unrecorded works, the Chamber Cantata and the String Quartet in B minor and includes an incarnation of the whimsical Practical Cats which deserves all success. Finally, the entire CD is dedicated to the memory of John McCabe (1939-2015). It is a most worthy tribute.
Previous review: Rob Barnett
Alan RAWSTHORNE (1905-1971)
Chamber Cantata [11:58]
Halsey STEVENS (1908-1989)
Sonatina Piacevole [5:29]
Practical Cats [21:10]
Basil DEANE (1928-2006)/Raymond WARREN (b.1928)
The Rose Tree [2:23] I am of Ireland [3:04]
Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1972-1958)
The Willow Whistle [1:04]
Karel JANOVICKÝ (b.1930)
The Little Linden Pipe [3:19]
String Quartet in B minor [15:11]
Donald WAXMAN (b.1925)
Serenade and Caprice [7:33]
Sir Arthur BLISS (1891-1975)
The Buckle [1:12]
Malcolm LIPKIN (1932-2017)
The Journey [2:58]
David ELLIS (b.1933)
Mount Street Blues [1:59]