BOWEN: Rhapsody for Cello and Orchestra, op. 74 (c. 1924). BUSH: Concert
Suite for Cello and Orchestra, op. 37 (1952). BRIAN: Concerto for Cello
and Orchestra (1964).
Raphael Wallfisch (cello); BBC Concert Orchestra/Martin Yates.
Dutton Epoch CDLX 7263 TT: 82:25.0
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Chasing the British cello concerto. For some reason, with the exceptions
of Elgar and Walton, British string concertos haven't penetrated the repertory,
despite many fine examples. Bowen and Brian have roots in late British
Romanticism, while the Bush is a Modern anachronism, considering its composition
in the Fifties.
The hopes of musical Britain once rested on York Bowen. He comes from roughly
the generation of Brian, Bax, Vaughan Williams, and Holst. Unlike those
composers, however, he never moved beyond the Romanticism of his youth,
and like such figures as Brian, Bantock, Boughton, Bax, and (briefly) Elgar,
interest in his music declined by the Thirties. Yet his contemporaries
did not raise him up foolishly. With the exception of Elgar, he may have
been the best late-Romantic orchestrator in the England of his time. The
orchestra gives a weight and psychological complexity to his music. Indeed,
he concentrated on instrumental scores. However, he seems to lack a distinct
artistic profile, and the musical matter isn't as memorable as in Bax.
Nor does he change much, if at all, over the years. Instead, he becomes
more assured, keeping himself to himself.
Bowen wrote his Rhapsody for Beatrice Harrison. She also received Delius's
Double Concerto and Cello Concerto for her, and Elgar asked her to record
his Cello Concerto with him. Bowen's Rhapsody in actuality is a tightly-knit
score, despite its title. The composer may have harbored scruples calling
it a concerto because of its single-movement construction. Like most such
scores, it falls into distinct sections that function as sub-movements,
but it also has features of a giant sonata movement. It opens in a grand
passion, and I mean that without irony. It moves to a lighter, more dance-like
section, based on the opening material. This alternates with dreamy lyricism,
which despite the occasional climax, comprises most of the passage. The
next major section is a near-Impressionist reverie, my favorite part of
the work. This leads to a mini-cadenza which introduces a vigorous section,
followed by a recap of previous material. It then ratchets down in a gradual
fade and ends quietly. I doubt if Bowen will ever receive a major revival.
His music just isn't vulgar enough. However, this is a big-hearted work.
Alan Bush, politically a committed man of the left (he joined the Communist
Party in the Thirties), faced an aesthetic challenge widespread among
artists outside of Russia in his political neighborhood. He had received
training in both piano (Moiseiwitsch, Schnabel) and composition (Corder).
Influenced greatly by Schoenberg, though never dodecaphonic, his style
lacked mass appeal. How could he educate and elevate the masses? As a
result, his music bifurcates into "accessible" and "hard," much
as Aaron Copland's does. The break isn't a sharp one, but most works
written before World War II tend to the hard, while those after tend
to give the
popular audience a break. His political convictions took a toll on his
career. At least some of the British musical establishment didn't want
to do much for a lefty, but he always had the respect of composers. Vaughan
Williams once withdrew from a program because Bush was dropped. Many
of Bush's important premieres took place in Eastern Europe.
The Concert Suite comes from 1952, the same year as the magnificent song
cycle Voices of the Prophets. On the one hand modest in its ambitions,
it nevertheless shows fine craft. You could compare it to Vaughan Williams's
Concerto accademico. It consists of four movements -- after
an extended introduction, "Divisions on a Ground," "Ballet," "Poem," and "Dance." To
some extent, the work takes its inspiration from Tudor and Stuart music.
The first movement works with a bass line ("ground") as a subject
for nine variations ("divisions"). An easy mastery of materials
characterizes the movement -- an extended build to a climax, followed by
a fade in the final division. "Ballet" doesn't refer to Swan
Lake but to the Elizabethan madrigal "balletto" and to
madrigalism in general. It reminds me a little of Holst's Fugal Overture,
with a driving beat and heavy use of contrapuntal cross-rhythms. The
radiant third movement, "Poem," takes
us to the pastoralism of Vaughan Williams and Finzi, but with a strong
neoclassical cast to the themes. The finale, again reminiscent of Vaughan
Williams, is a quasi-modal perpetuum mobile for the cello and ends the
score on a high-energy note.
Havergal Brian lived a remarkable life. Born into black poverty, Brian
miraculously escaped a life of hard labor in the Staffordshire potteries
to become a composer, all in an England still keeping to a rigid class
system. He lived to the age of 96, composing up until 94. His main achievement
(so far; most of his music has gone generally unheard) lies in his cycle
of 32 symphonies, most of them written after his 72nd birthday. After the
Twenties, interest in his music waned. He had begun with a Strauss-Elgar
idiom, but he had a restless mind. As a music critic (he got free tickets
to concerts), he heard and responded to the advanced music of the continent,
without quite ever losing his stylistic base. His music generally became
increasingly contrapuntal and terse (independent of a score's actual length).
He also more and more embraced the principle of continual variation. In
the Fifties and Sixties, the British composer and critic Robert Simpson
took up his cause and succeeded in igniting, in Britain at least, renewed
interest in Brian's music. It's in many ways difficult music to know, despite
its tonal idiom, but slowly and surely it seems to have gained at least
a toehold in the classical-music consciousness.
The Cello Concerto comes late, in 1964, just after the composer's 88th
birthday. In some ways lighter than usual for Brian, it has three movements
-- fast, slow, moderato, played without pause. The lightness resides
in its tone, more than anything else. The first movement, a sort-of sonata
with a transitional coda, contains many references to Baroque figuration.
The slow movement -- gorgeous both in its themes and its orchestration
-- for me stands out. The finale is a rondo based on a theme in two parts:
a galumphing, sharply rhythmic idea in 6/8 and a more flowing idea initially
appearing in the cell in parallel sixths. Brian, however, varies both
on their reappearance and the episodes themselves seem to flower from
those cells. It's nearly continuous variation. Brian's use of the technique
lead to confusion, but an psychological deepening, a "fleshing out," a
sense of completing the world. For me, this work stands out in the program.
Raphael Wallfisch has always had an enterprising sense of repertory. He
was, for example, first to record Tchaikovsky's own version (not the Fitzhagen
arrangement) of the Variations on a Rococo Theme. Wallfisch plays his instrument
with Fournier-finesse, rather than with Rostropovich-power, but he manages
to convey big emotions. He's wonderful in all three works. Yates and the
BBC players do well in both the Bowen and the Bush and make a decent first
account of the Brian, a complex work which, pleasurable as it is, will
likely need years of familiarity before anybody comes close to cracking
S.G.S. (February 2012)