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.
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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 rigorous 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 ideas on their reappearance and the episodes themselves seem to flower from those cells. It's nearly continuous variation. Brian's use of the technique doesn't 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 it.


S.G.S. (February 2012)