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ClassicsOnline Home » RAWSTHORNE: Piano Concertos Nos. 1 and 2
By Ivan March
By Raymond Tuttle
Alan Rawsthorne (1905-1971)
Alan Rawsthome was born in Haslingden, Lancashire, in May 1905. After abortive sorties into dentistry and architecture he entered the Royal Manchester College of Music in 1925 and graduated in 1929. He gained his first notable success at the London Festival of the International Society for Contemporary Music in 1938 with a performance of his Theme and Variations for Two Violins. A further success was registered at the Warsaw Festival of the same organization in 1939 with his Symphonic Studies, a first and highly accomplished orchestral score, which was to win an established place in the orchestral repertoire.
Following the war, in which he served in the Army, Rawsthorne devoted himself to composition and between then and his death in 1971, though not prolific, he produced a number of substantial works in most of the established forms, many to commissions, including a very distinguished contribution to the genre of music for films. Between 1937 and 1964 he wrote scores for 26 films, including The Cruel Sea, The Captive Heart, Where No Vultures Fly, Saraband for Dead Lovers, West of Zanzibar and Pandora and the Flying Dutchman.
Taking together the concertos and solo piano works, Rawsthorne made a major contribution to the sparse twentieth century literature of English keyboard music. His is music written from an intimate acquaintance with the instrument - he studied with Frank Merrick at the Royal Manchester College and subsequently with Egon Petri in Poland and Germany. Writing for piano, in all its forms, prevailed throughout his composing life.
Rawsthornes highly distinctive voice is to be heard in the earliest of his published compositions. His attributes are clarity of expression and form, craftsmanship and concision. His personality shows through in a degree of understatement, refusal to compromise or follow fashion and, where fitting, dry wit. He published some seventy works, including a distinguished body of chamber music, three symphonies, eight concertos, fifteen orchestral works, a ballet score and a handful of choral works and songs.
Rawsthornes Piano Concerto No.1 was first performed in an Adolph Hallis Concert in 1939 in a version scored with strings and percussion. In its fuller orchestral form it was first performed in the 1942 Promenade Concerts in London with Louis Kentner as soloist and with Rawsthorne on the rostrum. This early, though highly assured, work exhibits many of the characteristics of the composer, among them tonal fluidity, economy and clarity of means, and wit. The toccata-like writing of the Capriccio and the ensuing Chaconne follow the neo-classical and neo-baroque lines such titles suggest. The élan of the opening bars is rarely absent throughout the remainder of the movement, in which contrasting interludes seem impatient for a return to the chase. The rapid Coda prefigures the Tarantella of the final movement. The Chaconne is built on an eight-chord sequence which at each restatement appears a semitone higher. This progression serves well the composers fluid tonal language, here producing a singing melancholic lyricism, which develops as variation flows into variation, until briefly interrupted by the orchestral tutti at its centre. It then returns to the previous pattern and winds down to the cri de cur of the final chord. The Tarantella finale is cast in a favourite tarantella-cum-jig mould, which was to appear elsewhere in Rawsthornes writing. This is full of wit and lightness of touch, though at its climax making a contemporaneous political gesture by having the trombones declaim the Bandiera rossa, associated with the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War, thereby letting us know where the composers sympathies lay. The understated conclusion to the movement is as unexpected as it is telling.
"My Second Piano Concerto", the composer wrote, " was commissioned by the Arts Council of Great Britain, for performance during our Festival of [Britain in] 1951. It is, perhaps in consequence, designed to exploit the resources of both the piano and the pianist to a considerable extent.
"The concerto opens with a melody played on the flute, with a piano accompaniment. Other instruments join in, clarinets and oboes, and the piano then gives another, decorated, statement of this melody. The cellos and basses develop phrases of the tune, still with piano decorations. This development continues through rhetorical passages for the solo instrument, until a new, rather more delicate theme is reached which serves as the basis for a middle section. The recapitulation is short; now the opening melody is played by the clarinet.
"It is difficult to pass immediately from a rather amiable first movement to a lyrical slow one. There are very few tragic slow movements by Beethoven, for example; where they occur, it is because his native lyric gifts have been amply displayed at the outset. So, in this concerto, a rather violent scherzo is interpolated. This is in rondo form. A is an energetic theme announced by the piano, and developed by the orchestra, which accompanies the soloist with utterances of the opening figure. B is a quiet, rather menacing subject, with dark orchestral colours; this section still retains mutters of the semiquavers of A. After the ritornello, C is introduced by the soloist; this section is of a more genial character. The next reprise, which is very short, leads into D, a section based initially on dynamic contrasts. All the subjects are next heard in relation to each other. After this, the reprise of A finishes the movement, which dissolves, at the very end, into a chord consisting of the notes of the phrase which introduces the slow movement.
"The third movement has about it that nostalgic character so much disliked by the immobile intelligentsia of today, who confuse this quality with the emotional mess of the last century. The piece starts with a cantilena for the clarinet, after which the piano enters, playing arabesques or meditations consequent upon this passage. There is a middle section, leggiero, in which the piano is predominant, and a short reprise, where the pianist plays reminiscences of his first entry.
"The last movement opens with a short, cacophonous outburst by the orchestra, setting forth the first phrase of the main tune. This tune, saved, one hopes, from complete banality by its metrical construction (two-four/three-eight), provides the basis for an episodic type of composition, and for the fugato coda with which the work concludes." (Alan Rawsthorne 1958)
Rawsthorne was one of a group of composers who assisted with the orchestration of Lamberts last ballet Tiresias, first performed in the year of his death, 1951. His Improvisations on a Theme by Constant Lambert was written in 1960 to a commission by the Northern Sinfonia. The theme of seven notes, all different from each other, and consonant with original thematic material devised by Rawsthorne for variation treatment elsewhere, is taken from the opening bars of the ballet. The composer uses well-tried and favoured devices (some employing his version of serialism) as he transforms the theme throughout its seven sections, producing varieties of mood and impetus. The dedication is "to Isabel", his wife, who was Lamberts widow, and who had provided the décor for Tiresias.
John M. Belcher
The notes by Alan Rawsthome are © (assigned 1992) the Rawsthorne Trust. This recording was made with financial assistance from and in association with The Rawsthome Trust and The Manchester Musical Heritage Trust.
British Piano Concerto Foundation
Britain shares with the United States an extraordinary willingness to welcome and embrace the traditions of foreign cultures. Our countries comprise the worlds two greatest melting pots, and, as a result, the artistic appreciation of our people has been possibly the most catholic and least nepotistic in the world. This tradition is one that we may be extremely proud of. In the case of music, it is certainly one of the reasons for my own initial inspiration to become a musician and to embrace as many different styles and periods as reasonably possible in one lifetime.
However, perhaps as a result of this very enviable virtue, we do have a tendency to underrate the artistic traditions of our own wonderful culture. As far as music is concerned there are of course many exceptions; one thinks immediately of the operas of Benjamin Britten, the symphonic and choral works of Elgar and Vaughan Williams, as well as the leading rôle Britain has played in new music since the 1960s. Of these achievements we are rightly proud. However, the British piano concerto and solo piano music, of which there is a vast array, has been largely ignored, particularly over the last 30 years.
The role and aim of the British Piano Concerto Foundation is to try to expand and explore this hugely rich and varied repertoire. It is not to exploit a musical curiosity corner. It is not to merely fill a gap in the market place by promoting public performances and recordings of less important music. It is to make the international musical community more aware of the true greatness of much of this repertoire.
The commitment of Naxos to this artistic cause is a source of huge inspiration to those of us involved in the BPCF, and a reason to be optimistic about the future of recorded music at a time when there is so much pessimism.
I am sure that those administrators, listeners and performers who shape the world of music will agree that some of this music is amongst the most original and fascinating, not only of the 20th Century, but also of previous ones.
It is with great pride and enthusiasm that I am associated with this project, and I look forward to continuing for whatever time I have left to explore the wonderful music of my own country.
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RAWSTHORNE: Piano Concertos Nos. 1 and 2