MACONCHY: The Land (1930). Concertino for Piano and Chamber Orchestra (1928). Music for Woodwind and Brass (1966). Symphony for Double String Orchestra (1952/53).
Clelia Iruzun (piano); BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra/Odalline de la Martinez.
LORELT LNT 133 TT: 64:05.
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Another British wow. Occasionally British writers wring their hands over their artistic "insularity." Often, this is a ploy in partisan turf wars, with little basis in fact. Indeed, you could make the case that Britain has seldom been artistically isolated, at least musically, from the rest of the European continent and that perhaps some of its doldrums have their roots in the excessive imitation of Continental models. For a long time, Handel and then Mendelssohn dominated British musical output. The so-called Modern British Renaissance began in Wagner and Brahms, but quickly veered toward Debussy, Ravel, the nationalist Russians, and Stravinsky. One can trace Schoenberg's influence on Britten and Hindemith's on Tippett. In the previous generations, we see Strauss's influence on Elgar and Ravel on Vaughan Williams. Furthermore, the sway runs in two directions. Ravel adopted certain Vaughan Williams orchestral tricks. Bartók studied Vaughan Williams's piano concerto. The insularity argument looks increasingly weak.

Elizabeth Maconchy, born in England and raised in Ireland, studied at the Royal College of Music with Vaughan Williams. The two became close friends, especially during the Forties. Maconchy had great initial success, but, due in part to protracted illness, more or less fell below the radar. In the Sixties, her music made a slight comeback, although she hardly rates as a household name even today. Some of this neglect also undoubtedly stems from her gender. Even in the midst of acclaim, journalists referred to her as a "girl composer," apparently without realizing the insulting way they marginalized her. Second, the English musical scene is largely a feudal one, with one or two figures dominating the landscape (the U. S. is far less centralized and hierarchical). Many talented British composers never broke through to general recognition while Elgar, Holst, Vaughan Williams, Walton, Britten, and Tippett wrote. Maconchy, nevertheless, made a deep mark in chamber music, particularly with her cycle of string quartets. The quartets kept her name out there.

This has led to the impression of her as a chamber composer, when in fact she has a robust catalogue in many genres. Ironically, given her reputation, I first of all heard the concert overture Proud Thames, written for Queen Elizabeth II's coronation, and its strong, vigorous invention and its architectural tautness hooked me. I've bought whatever recording came my way, and still I can't call my Maconchy collection a large one. Consequently, even though I already have the double-string symphony, I welcome this disc -- every work a winner and a welcome glimpse into her early music.

Maconchy organizes her suite The Land, inspired by a poem of Vita Sackville-West's, around the seasons, from winter to fall, with a movement devoted to each. Her second major orchestral work, it comes from 1930. Only 23 at the time, she was still studying with Vaughan Williams. Yet, as a young composer, she seems more influenced by Holst. "Winter" begins with a Holst-like bass tread (like the Hammersmith prelude), here developed contrapuntally and imitatively. "Spring" is a king-hell scherzo that comes from passages in Vaughan Williams's Job. However, Maconchy's music has a cold fury to it, alien to her teacher's temperament. The most Holst-like movement, "Summer" flirts with stasis, a bit like The Planet's "Saturn." One might also note similarities to the quieter passages in Vaughan Williams's Flos campi, especially during an extended viola solo, but again, the character of the music exceeds Vaughan Williams's in its austerity. The finale, "Autumn," a scherzo in odd meters, again calls Holst to mind. However, none of these echoes really matter. Maconchy makes music at the level of her models, and, furthermore, her models at their best. The only thing that makes the score a student work, other than that she technically was a student, is apparent only in hindsight, when you know how her music transformed.

We can say the same for her even earlier Concertino for Piano and Chamber Orchestra (1928), in three movements. The work premiered in Prague two years later with composer Erwin Schulhoff as soloist. The piece is in the line of British neo-classicism, as practiced by Vaughan Williams and Holst. However, one senses a look to the continent, particularly to Bartók and his early piano concerti. The first movement uses a tritone (for example, C to F#) for its principal motif, and the ideas are at the edge of British dissonance at the time. The slow movement, the most conservative, uses modality in a somewhat Vaughan Williams-y way, but even here you encounter unusual turns of thought among the normal pentatonicism, including a blue-note tinge here and there. The mood is pastoral, a continuation of Vaughan Williams's Third Symphony, a depiction of nature's eternal hum. The finale, a gigue, again emphasizes the tritone, as well as playful, intricate counterpoint.

Music for Wind and Brass comes from the Sixties. Maconchy wrote it for the Whitsun Festival, which Holst had founded in 1917. The obvious borrowings of her early music have disappeared, although the early work is no weaker or less genuine than the later. Beautiful in its treatment of the two main groups (plus timpani) and its knowing use of contrast and blend, it is essentially a slow procession broken up by quicker sections. The form itself is beautiful, something I find true of Maconchy's music in general.

However, for me the big work on the program is the Symphony for Double String Orchestra (1953). There is, of course, a tradition of terrific British pieces for strings, going all the way back to at least Elgar's Introduction and Allegro. You can put Maconchy's symphony among them without having to blush. Its substance and artistic integrity overwhelm me. However, its "non-Englishness" also makes an impression. It has far more in common musically with composers from central Europe than from Britain. The first movement, a vigorous allegro, opens with a magisterial statement from the string orchestras, plus solo violin. Here, Maconchy sets out two main ideas: a jittery rhythmic cell of five notes and wide, jagged leaps. The exposition of the rhythmic idea reveals the layout and also varies the ensemble combination: for example, antiphonal strings, solo against both orchestras or one or the other. The music proceeds mainly contrapuntally. A more singing idea provides contrast, although usually against the prime motifs. One unusual feature of the entire score is that the two large ensembles aren't always used antiphonally, but more to separate planes of counterpoint.

The following lento begins with gently rocking thirds in the violas over a rising bass line. It rises to several very intense climaxes. Indeed, in this respect it reminds me of the slow movement to Bartók's Concerto for Orchestra. At the end, the solo violin releases the pressure as it climbs from its lowest register to the stratosphere. The scherzo dances in odd meters, at first lightly, then tromps, then skitters away in pizzicato. The opening material returns even more manic than before.

The finale, labeled "Passacaglia," is based mainly on a rising and falling idea, with a characteristic wide leap to its apex somewhere halfway. The theme moves through the sections, cellos and basses to violas to violins. Maconchy then brilliantly changes the basic pulse, and the passacaglia steps out more quickly. A transitional passage follows, leading to a fugato with a rhythm that recalls the first movement. Maconchy creates virtuosic syncopations, almost as if she's channeling the American neoclassicists, but I'd bet she's come up with these things all by herself. The movement ends quietly, with the passacaglia idea treated in contrapuntal imitation.

Brazilian pianist Clelia Iruzun plays with vitality and shows the strength of Maconchy's thinking. Peter Thomas, the soloist in the Symphony, plays beautifully, as if he's absorbed the difficulties of the part into his bones. Conductor Odaline de la Martinez sensitively shapes some very intricate music and gets it to sing. She slightly lets up in the Music for Wind and Brass, because the span is so long, but nevertheless keeps things moving. The BBC Scots at times have problems synching in the Symphony, but they avoid train wrecks. The rest of the time, they play with refinement and ensemble sensitivity. Nicola LeFanu, Maconchy's daughter and a considerable composer in her own right, provides the concise, helpful liner notes.

In a program with any Modern composers you care to mention, any one of these pieces would stand out. That the Symphony overshadows a bit the other Maconchy works just lets you know that the composer has an extra gear beyond overdrive. "Girl composer," indeed. Again, one senses a mind of deep and genuine substance. I can't praise this disc highly enough.

S.G.S. (July 2012)