Secretary: Andrew P. Knowles – 30, Florida Avenue, Hartford, Huntingdon, Cambs. PE29 1PY

Telephone 01480 456931 : e-mail

Rawsthorne on Record

A Centenary Review of Sixty Eight Years of Recording History

John Belcher

To begin an article by stating what it is not, runs the risk of the reader parting company with the author at the outset; however, it is necessary to remove any expectation that this is a discography. The climate in the recorded music industry renders discographies ephemeral, since deletions and amalgamations are all too prevalent. What follows is, then, in the nature of a conspectus, an uncritical Centenary review, chronicling the fortunes of the composer at the hands of the record industry.

The synopsis

So rare are concert performances of Rawsthorne’s music that, but for mechanical media, and the very occasional broadcast, his concert works would remain unheard. During the 78 rpm and L.P. eras Rawsthorne’s representation in the catalogues was sparse and intermittent. The advent of the compact disc in 1983, and the attention of independent record companies, brought about a resurgence of interest and recordings, not just for Rawsthorne but also for some of his contemporaries. A numerical comparison of releases (including reissues), decade by decade, goes some way to demonstrating how Rawsthorne fared on disc:

1930s 1

1940s 4

1950s 9

1960s 14

1970s 11

1980s 8

1990s 26

2000s 10

The promotion of Rawsthorne on CD was fuelled by the Rawsthorne Trust, which was formed in 1992. The Trust is the recipient of royalties generated by performances of the composer’s music, most notably from his film scores. At inception the Trust put in place the objective to assist, wherever possible, the making of recordings to establish a comprehensive and accessible compilation of Rawsthorne’s works. In this Centenary Year it is pleasing to be able to report that the objective has been achieved almost entirely. That the goal has been reached can be measured by comparing the current availability of recordings with the position when the Trust was formed in 1992; then only two works were available on L.P., the ‘Cello Sonata (1949) and the Clarinet Concerto (1937), and now, when there are between seventy five and eighty individual works have been committed to CD.

Shellac - the 78s

The critical acclaim which followed the performance, on 18th June 1938, of the Theme and Variations for Two Violins (1937) at London I.S.C.M. Festival was followed in the same month by the release of its recording, Rawsthorne’s first exposure in the medium. Decca took the bold step of recording the work whilst the ink was still wet. The performers were the composer’s wife Jessie Hinchliffe and Kathleen Washbourne. This was to be followed in April 1939 by an extensive analysis in The Gramophone by ‘Terpander; a propitious launch. The two discs – sold at 8/- the pair – are in the RNCM Archive. To date that set has not been reissued in a newer format, in spite of its historic interest. In 1942 Decca added a recording of Three French Nursery Songs (1938) to their catalogue.

The next releases had to await the end of the war and Rawsthorne’s demobilization in 1945. Two works went into the studio in March 1946. First to be released in August 1946 was Street Corner Overture (1944). For this there was a ready-made audience, since it had been performed frequently in a series of E.N.S.A. concerts throughout the country, for which it was commissioned. In January 1947 the benchmark recording of the Symphonic Studies (1939) was released; this, like the Street Corner disc was conducted by Constant Lambert, friend and champion of the composer. This recording had its own very distinctive sound, most notably the Philharmonia woodwind, and in particular the sound of Leon Goossens’ oboe. This version of Symphonic Studies was resuscitated in L.P. format (Classics for Pleasure) and later, with Street Corner, in a CD transfer by Pearl in 1999. The L.P. version was particularly valuable in the years when few other recordings of the composer’s music were available. The Bagatelles (1938) brought the total number of works released on shellac to five.

Vinyl – the Long Playing Era.

(i) The Concertos and Orchestral Music

The new medium brought from HMV the premier recording of the First Piano Concerto (1942) with Moura Lympany as soloist. This, of all its recorded performances, is rated very highly; it is perhaps unsurpassed. Five years previously, in 1951, the popular success enjoyed by the Second Piano Concerto (1951) was reflected by the speed with which it was recorded. The first performance was in June 1951; the Decca studio sessions followed in October that same year with Clifford Curzon as soloist. Again this first recording set the benchmark, though the others (Denis Matthews on HMV and Malcolm Binns for Lyrita ‘have much to offer.’) In all, the First was to receive two recordings and the Second three. Although the HMV and Decca recordings were reissued, neither was available for a significant period. None of Rawsthorne’s other six concertos received a commercial recording on L.P.

The Symphonies were available in this format, though in a rather disparate fashion, and yet again thanks independent labels. Taking the Symphonic Studies (1938) as the composer’s first symphonic essay, this, coupled with the First Symphony (1950) made up one of the most valued releases of the vinyl years, thanks to the pioneering endeavours of Lyrita. After the premier recording on shellac, the modern sound and clarity of detail, which emerged from the recording of Symphonic Studies, made this was a revelatory release.

We owe the recording of the Second Symphony (1958) to a live performance conducted by Rawsthorne on his visit to Russia in 1963. Its worth resides in its uniqueness, since no British company seems to have been prepared to make a commercial recording, whereas Melodyia were. Its main interest is the composer’s handling of the score, especially in establishing the tempi. The translation into Russian of Henry Howard’s pastoral poem, sung by a Russian soprano, with Slavic vocal characteristics, brings the Symphony to a slightly incongruous end. The audience participation is often intrusive; one wonders if there was a bronchitis epidemic in Moscow at the time.

The substantial Third Symphony (1964) received a definitive reading, as one came to expect from that gifted score reader, Norman Del Mar. The BBC Symphony Orchestra played with precision and commitment and provided us with the welcome means of unravelling and appreciating this many-layered work. The comparative speed with which it reached the studio, just four months short of two years from its first performance at the Cheltenham International Festival, speaks eloquently of the commitment of Argo and the support of the British Council, which made possible the recording of most of the Rawsthorne recordings. The first beneficiary, in 1942, was the Moeran Symphony, which had the fill up of the Bagatelles, hastily recorded by Denis Matthews.

Other orchestral works which attained commercial recordings were few. Only the recordings of Concerto for String Orchestra (1949) and the Divertimento for chamber orchestra (1962) reached commercial status, leaving large gaps unfilled. Those seeking to become acquainted with the Violin, Oboe and ‘Cello Concertos, Concertante Pastorale (1951), Elegiac Rhapsody (1964) and Corteges (1945) had to tape off air the all too infrequent broadcasts of these pieces.

(ii) Chamber and Instrumental Music

This group of works was well served by the record companies, thanks, again, to Argo and the British Council. A major issue was of the String Quartets by the Albernis, who gave the first performance of the Third. From the same company came the Concertante No.2 for Violin and Piano (1934 rev. 1968), Clarinet Quartet (1948), Piano Trio (1962), Quintet for Piano and Winds (1962/63) and the Violin Sonata (1958). These eight works form a substantial proportion of the total output in this genre. It was left to Pye to make good most of the deficiency with the ‘Cello Sonata (1948) and Quintet for Piano and Strings (1968). The most glaring absence was a recording of the seminal Theme and Variations for Two Violins (1937). On the cusp of the digital age ASV issued ‘Cello Sonata.

A recording of the complete piano music had to await the advent of the compact disc, although this corpus was fully represented when taking into account a variety of sources. Again it was Argo that made the major contribution with the Sonatina (1949), Four Romantic Pieces (1953), and Theme and Four Studies (c.1940). HMV was to provide the important and authoritative performance of the Ballade (1967) by John Ogdon. The Bagatelles (1938) and The Creel (1940) also received commercial recordings. Unfortunately all these recordings were not available to the same time.

The Silver Disc - the Digital Medium

The ASV transfer to the new medium of their recording of the ‘Cello Sonata provided bridge between the L.P. and compact disc.

In 1990 the enterprising Swinsty label recorded the complete, published, piano music, the entire repertoire for violin and piano and a group of songs. These were initially released on two audio cassettes, later to be transferred to two CDs. In 1992 Chandos released the first digitally recorded disc of Rawsthorne, as distinct from reissues of previous analogue recordings, this was of the Piano Concertos and Two Piano Concerto with Geoffrey Tozer as soloist.

The next major release came in 1995 with Lyrita’s coupling of the three Symphonies. This was a hybrid issue, with the First and Third being transfers from analogue and the Second a new, digital recording (the first recording project to receive financial support from the Trust).

The initiative to record Rawsthorne has been highly dependent upon those who value and were prepared to champion his music. One such is the composer, Francis Routh, founder of the Redcliffe label. 1991 saw the first of four releases which featured Rawsthorne’s music; the Oboe Quartet (1970) and a long-awaited recording of the Theme and Variations for Two Violins (1937). In 1996 there came the Clarinet Quartet (1948) and a second disc containing three unaccompanied choral pieces. Finally, in 1999, Redcliffe released a CD of the Third String Quartet (1964).

As in the L.P. period, chamber music fared well. ASV issued two outstanding discs. The first was of the String Quartets, including the Unpublished Quartet of 1935. Later they released a most valuable compilation of chamber works with wind, performed by the versatile Fibonacci Sequence. This contained the sonorous Concerto for 10 Instruments (1961), Sonatina for flute, oboe and piano (1936), Quintet (1970), Suite for flute, viola and harp (1968) and Quintet for piano and winds (1962/63), three of which were premier recordings. A later release on the same label was of the complete score of the ballet Madame Chrysantheme (1955).

The Violin Sonata (1958) has become a much favoured recital piece. Its veritable worth has been appreciated, as can be gauged from the number of performances scheduled for this Centenary Year. There are recordings by Benedict Holland/Alan Cuckston (Swinsty),

Susanne Stanzeleit/Julian Jacobson (Cala), Peter Sheppard Skaerved/Tamami Honma (Metier) and the Jardon sisters (AR Re-Se). Together with John Clegg’s Complete Piano Music on Paradisum, the whole of the chamber and instrumental music is, or has been, available.


A number of resurrections have historic value. At the head of this list stands the Donat version of ‘Practical Cats’, to be valued for Rawsthorne’s direction of the orchestra and the fact that he coached the ailing Donat in the narration. This CD also contained the First Piano Concerto (Lympany), the Second Piano Concerto (Mathhews) and Bagatelles (Matthews). Alas it was available for only a short period before being deleted. Transcriptions of broadcast performances brought us the Concerto for String Orchestra (Boult), an idiosyncratic performance of the Second Piano Concerto from John Ogdon, the Two Piano Concerto (1968) - its first, unrevised performance - Improvisations on a Theme of Constant Lambert (1962), Divertimento and the Two Violin Concertos (Olof and Parikian respectively). In the archive there is correspondence with Theo Olof , who gave the premiere performance of First, which reveals that he suggested it should be included in the 1973 Cheltenham Festival as a tribute to the late composer. It was that performance which was preserved on the now deleted Carlton CD.

Esotoric Repertoire

Searching for gaps in the recorded repertoire has led to some exotic works being unearthed, items of limited and specialized interest, yet revealing the growth of the composer’s technique and voice. Campion’s ‘British Composer Series’ features Rawsthorne in a compilation entitled ‘Prison Cycle’. This derives from the song cycle of this name, jointly composed in 1939 by Rawsthorne and Alan Bush. Other unique items on this disc are Scena Rustica (1967) for soprano with harp accompaniment; songs by Rawsthorne fill the CD. Rawsthorne was highly fastidious and self-effacing when it came to permitting his music to be published; he seems to have worked on the principle that ‘if in doubt don’t.’ Performances of the Quartet for oboe and strings (1935) and Studies on a Theme by Bach for string trio (1936), both from manuscripts held in the Rawsthorne Archive, are each of interest, revealing early, distinctive stylistic fingerprints, craftsmanship and handling of counterpoint. These two works are joined by A Canticle of Man (1952), Lament for a Sparrow (1962) and a lyrical reading or the Oboe Concerto (1947) by Jill Crowther, a principal in the Philharmonia Orchestra. All appear on the ASC label.

Taking ‘esoteric’ to mean ‘of special interest’, this categorization can reasonably be applied film music. The reconstructive skills of Gerard Schurmann and Philip Lane enabled sufficient material to be marshalled for a compilation disc of seventy three minutes duration to be recorded by Chandos in 1999. The artistic worth lies in the demonstration of the integrity with the concert works in style and craftsmanship: the fiscal value is measured in the royalties which the disc earns.

Alan Rawsthorne auf Naxos

In 1995 the Rawsthorne Trust was approached by Naxos and asked whether there was the possibility of sponsoring Rawsthorne recordings in their new British Music Series. The Trust replied in the affirmative and there began a highly productive partnership, which to date has given issue to six CDs containing twenty three works, ten of which are first recordings. The Trust not only provided grants but also advice about repertoire and couplings. The major works to receive a first original commercial recording were the Violin, ‘Cello and Oboe Concertos, Corteges, Concertante Pastorale, Elegiac Rhapsody and the Viola Sonata (1937). Restored to the catalogue were the Symphonies, Symphonic Studies, Concerto for String Orchestra, Divertimento for chamber orchestra and Lambert Improvisations. These recordings are at super bargain price, making the composer’s work accessible in performances which have been critically well received. There must be many older readers who, like me, will be envious at the accessibility of such riches at schoolboy pocket money prices. They have also been an investment, which has brought appreciable returns for the Trust for the modest outlay of an average grant of just under £5,000 per disc. The series is to have added to it the String Quartets, to be recorded in December 2005 by the Maggini String Quartet

Where Next?

At the time of writing the major choral work Carmen Vitale (1963), Theme Variations and Finale for Orchestra (1966), Tryptich for Orchestra (1969), Halle Overture (1958), Coronation Overture (1953), the short choral piece He does not die’ (1964), the cantata ‘The God in the Cave’ (1966), Tankas of the Four Seasons, Medieval Diptych (1962) and Four Seasonal Songs (1956) remain unrecorded. Carmen Vitale unquestionably deserves a recording, but the large forces and preparation would be so costly as to deter those who have to make a commercial decision. The Trust is unlikely to be able to provide sufficient funds to oil the wheels. A highly desirable coupling with Carmen Vitale would be the newly-reconstructed score of Kubla Khan (1940). Rawsthorne is so readily pigeon-holed as an ‘instrumental’ composer as to dismiss his choral compositions without a hearing or reassessment of their position within his total output. Performances of ‘Lament for a Sparrow’, for instance, should dispel that preconception. All the choral pieces listed above are worthy of being set down. Perhaps the best prospect is to find a choral group willing to prepare and perform one or more of these works for public performance and to arrange a recording with financial assistance from the Trust. This would only seem to be feasible were an enthusiastic conductor to be found. Alternatively the Trust could set aside part of its income each year to build up a reserve sufficient to make a recording venture attractive. What is certain is that the Trust will remain alert to every possibility to record the best of these ‘residual’ works. The ability to assist will continue to depend upon royalty income, which means that we must hope that the films will continue to be shown and broadcast in Scandinavia, Canada, Australia and mainland Europe, which are the main sources of such income: long may the showing of the films at matinees in Reykjavik continue as hitherto, to produce royalties for the Trust’s coffers!

Gone are the wilderness years when one despaired of Rawsthorne being given any kind of hearing, let alone a recording. In those days the ear had to be fed through the eye as scores of the works were pored over in an attempt to create cerebral performances, or were inadequately realised at the piano keyboard. Now the situation has been reversed with scores and sheet music being sold off by libraries or banished to their dusty stacks. This deficiency has been amplified by most of the published scores no longer being available for purchase. Whilst, from our current perspective, the old days may appear to have been less instantly rewarding, one wonders if the disciplines which dearth imposed may have led to a more profound appreciation of the works. There lurks the suspicion that easy and instant availability, characteristics of the present, lead to a more superficial appreciation. There is, however, one rewarding experience denied today’s younger devotees of the composer, that is of hearing a live first performance or broadcast, scouring the press for reviews – consigning to the waste paper the copy of the Manchester Guardian containing Colin Mason’s ritual diatribe - and then having the thrill of the first sight of its newly-published score. Ah! the compensations of old age.


Front Page
The music of Rawsthorne
Published works