Alan Rawsthorne: Violin Concertos Nos. 1 (Theo Olof, New Philharmonia Orchestra, Adrian Boult) & 2 (Manoug Parikian, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Rudolf Schwarz), Improvisations on a Theme by Constant Lambert (BBC Concert Orchestra, Frank Shipway), Divertimento (BBC Northern Symphony Orchestra, Bryden Thomson). BBC Radio Classics / Carlton Classics 15656 91952 (1997), barcode 5015656919526
Violin Concerto No. 1 recorded 7 July 1972 at the Cheltenham Festival
Violin Concerto No. 2 recorded 29 September 1968 at the BBC Maida Vale Studios
Improvisations recorded 7 June 1979 at the Hippodrome, Golders Green, London
Divertimento recorded 29 November 1979 at Milton Hall, Manchester
Not an entirely distinctive compositional personality, but nonetheless music that is effective and often sweeping
Originally published on Amazon.com, 9 September 2010
I’ve just finished hearing, and have reviewed, the fine 2-CD set reissuing off-the-beaten track 20th-Century American Concertos on Vox CDX 5158. Among those, some stood out in a way or another (which doesn’t necessarily mean that they were important works), but some others, heard as I did in close succession – the Violin Concertos of Benjamin Lees and Michael Colgrass, the Viola Concerto of Robert Starer -, while enjoyable works in their own right, didn’t seem to show much distinctive personality, the kind of twist that, after a bar or two, lets you unmistakably recognize their composer. All three shared common stylistic and expressive features, they were expressionist, anguished and questing in mood, dramatic, some more lyrical (Colgrass) and some grimmer (Lees), some greyer in orchestration (Lees) and some more colorful (Starer), but all three seemed written in everybody’s moderately modern language from those years (the late 1950s to mid 1970s), not avant-garde like Penderecki or Ligeti, not serial like Boulez, but not backward-looking romantic like, say, the music of David Diamond (in general; I don’t know that he’s written a Violin Concerto), Menotti’s or even Barber’s Violin Concerto. I commented that there perhaps lies the difference between a “good” and a “great” composer/composition: this distinctive personality which lets you recognize at once who the language belongs to, as opposed to the relative anonymity of this “everyman’s” style – however effective and enjoyable it may be.
While I was listening, I constantly had the impression that I had already heard that kind of rather anonymous, 20th Century modern style and expression, but somehow I couldn’t quite come up with specific composers and works. You know the feeling: it’s there, not far, on the tip of your aural memory, but you can’t put your finger on the right neuron. I checked back on the Violin Concertos of Barber, Schuman, Sessions, Piston, Harris, Bernstein’s Serenade, but no, they are all (with the exception perhaps of Sessions, which has other distinctive characteristics, see my review of CRI American Masters Series CD 676) lighter and merrier, less expressionist, more relaxed (at least in part). I even started collating a chronological list of 20th Century Violin Concertos (I chanced on a wonderful German website which attempts to list EVERY SINGLE concertante 20th-Century work with – but not limited to – Violin and any kind of accompanying ensemble – which encompasses much more than orchestra). So I thought I must have heard it with lesser composers that just didn’t come back to mind: everyman’s language.
Anyway, that’s how I picked out this BBC disc of Rawsthorne’s Violin Concertos out of my “listen to” boxes. And sure enough, there it is, that style. The first VC dates from as far back as 1947, and for the vintage and the locus – post-war Britain, with tastes shaped by the brahmsian and pastoral traditions of Elgar and Vaughan-Williams – it is remarkable, with little precedent that I can trace, and probably had much more impact back then than it will today, now that so much similar has been composed and heard. I do hear some obvious traces of Hindemith though – one of Rawsthorne’s major influences – in the little woodwind fugue and robust and boisterous march passages of the second movement (the composition has only two) – and there was a little bit of that too in Lees’ VC and Starer’s Viola Concerto, but all the rest elicits the same kind of brooding and questing atmosphere as noted in the American Concertos, lyrical in an anguished and tormented way, effective, impressive even and with moments of irresistible sweep, but not really distinctive.
Don’t take this as a purely negative comment; the sentence can be turned around: on the basis of these Violin Concertos, Rawsthorne may not have an entirely distinctive compositional personality, but he writes music that is effective and at times even irresistibly sweeping. The second Violin Concerto was composed in 1956 and I enjoyed its grim outlook, its vehemence, its imposingly powerful outbursts and its rhapsodic freedom. It must be very effective in concert.
The recordings derive from BBC concerts – the first VC on 7 July 1972 and the second on 29 Sept. 1968 – and they sound fine: except for a few un-disturbing coughs and audience noises, they could have been made in the studio. I don’t have scores and while, since originally writing this review, I’ve acquired Naxos’ competing version 8.554240, barcode 636943424025, I haven’t come around it yet. But both violinists seem to play remarkably well. Theo Olof premiered the first VC and played it a number of times: no-one would have been better suited than him to record it, and Manoug Parikian sounds as fine-toned and involved.
The same impressions arise from the two orchestral pieces that serve as substantial fillers: there may not be much that is very innovative, revelatory or entirely distinctive in the Variations on a theme by Constant Lambert (1960) but they are cleverly composed and offer some very powerful moments. Incidentally, Lambert and Rawsthorne were born the same year and were very close friends until Lambert’s death in 1951, and thereafter Rawsthorne married Lambert’s wife Isabel, to whom the variations are dedicated. You’d think that a piece called “Divertimento” (1962) wouldn’t amount to much, but there is more drama here than the title seems to imply, a subtlety of textures in the slow movement and, in parts of the opening Rondo and in the final “jig”, a sweep that recalled some Britten and the best Tippett.
For those who already know and enjoy the music of Rawsthorne, this is an essential disc which comes in good sound. For those who would like to explore, this is a good place to start. TT 77:41.