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Constant Lambert (1905-1951) - The Rio Grande

A composer, but also a conductor and critic: I wonder, did Lambert review his own performances of himself? His ballet Romeo and Juliet, written in 1926 for Diaghilev, launched a career which produced half a dozen original ballet scores plus numerous arrangements (Ma'mzelle Angot, based on LeCocq's opera, is delicious), and saw him become instrumental in the establishment of British ballet. 

Although a student of Vaughan Williams, Lambert's main influence was not English folk music, but the then more fashionable Jazz. The Rio Grande (1927), setting a poem by Sacheverell Sitwell, joins such as Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue and Ravel's Piano Concerto in G as a seminal work of “symphonic jazz”. It has a strangely attractive quality which must come from the surreal (today we might say “wacky”) blend of jazz and sultry “Brazilian” idioms with an oh-so-terribly-English choral sound. I suppose, though, that this was unavoidable if Sitwell's atmospheric poem was to be set at all! However, the piece is also a curious combination of cantata and piano concerto, and requires very unusual orchestral forces (copious exotic percussion and cornets, but no woodwind!). Lambert, therefore and not unreasonably, didn't expect it to be performed much. Naturally, it has become his most enduring and popular work by a long chalk. 

It is laid out in a fairly loose ternary form, the outer sections bristling with brisk, brittle ragtime, while the central episode is a nostalgic nocturne, and very “Falla”! An extended coda, introduced by extravagantly rippling piano, is based on the central section: the party's over, and the music drifts into the perfumed night.

© Paul Serotsky
29, Carr Street, Kamo, Whangarei 0101, Northland, New Zealand


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