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8.554240 - RAWSTHORNE: Violin Concertos Nos. 1 and 2 / Corteges
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Alan Rawsthorne (1905-1971)
Fantasy Overture: Cortèges
Concertos for Violin and Orchestra Nos. 1 and 2

Alan Rawsthorne is one of Britain's most individual composers. His polished style, highly developed yet succinctly stated, found expression in an impressive body of instrumental music including three symphonies and several concertos. If we take a broader view of British music, we can see Rawsthorne as one of a number of composers of his generation who showed relatively little interest in the English choral tradition and even less in folk-song, largely avoiding any suggestion of Elgarian grandeur.

Yet, within this picture, Rawsthorne's voice is recognisably his own from the outset –not one note could have been written by anyone else. Attention has often been drawn to the music's fastidious craftsmanship, its integrity, its clarity of intention. We should add that, in harmony, he was unequalled in consistency: tonality may appear fluid, but logical progression from point to point is unquestioned. We should further note the prevailing moods of this music: although it can rise to moment, of powerful declamation when the occasion demands, there is an essential inwardness and privacy, even of reflective melancholy. This is never entirely lost even when the music is humorous or nervously energetic.

The prevalence of instrumental music, in a culture in which neo-classicism remained a potent force, may suggest that structures are traditional and predictable, but this is not the case, even in such a revered form as Theme and Variations. Inspired intuition is far stronger than rigid planning. This accords with his advice to a pupil who recalls being encouraged to 'continue to be as instinctive a composer as possible, resorting to method only if and when in doubt'. Forms grow naturally, just as indeed they do in the music of two of his favourite composers, Haydn and Chopin.

From the mid 1930s, Rawsthorne's reputation grew rapidly, with significant broadcasts, recordings, and foreign performances, but then came the War, with the sad loss of several manuscripts in an air-raid in 1940, including the first draft of the First Violin Concerto. Yet, as undaunted by this as by service in the Army, he continued to compose – 'a tune a day keeps the sergeant away' was his laconic dictum. In 1942 he revised his First Piano Concerto and conducted its première at the London Promenade Concerts, now moved to the Royal Albert Hall. There followed the Street Corner Overture in 1944 and the Fantasy Overture: Cortèges in 1945, together with intermittent reconstructions and revisions of the First Violin Concerto.

Cortèges was commissioned by the BBC and first performed by the London Symphony Orchestra under Basil Cameron at the 1945 Promenade Concerts. The title means "processions", and there are basically two: slow and fast. The slow, Adagio, suggests the funereal in its solemn tread but is nevertheless wistfully expressive rather than tragic in tone, whilst the fast, Allegro molto vivace, is the most developed of Rawsthorne's many essays in tarantella (or fast gigue) style, here presenting its material in three fugal expositions interspersed with colourful episodes, emotionally lightweight but technically cunning. At the very opening of the work, sudden alternations of fast and slow announce the musical material, demonstrating that all themes are in fact closely related to each other. At the climax of the tarantella Rawsthorne states a tune which 'might be said to exhibit, like its author, certain temporary and ephemeral military characteristics', suggesting that any connection with the Army is not to be taken seriously, especially as this theme first appeared in an early string quartet ten years earlier. Later, it is a transformed version of this military tune which slowly and delicately brings the work to a peaceful close.

The years following the war confirmed Rawsthorne's status, the best known work being the Second Piano Concerto composed for the Festival of Britain in 1951. In 1947 he conducted the première of his new Oboe Concerto at the Cheltenham Festival, and this same festival a year later introduced his First Violin Concerto, in a performance by Theo Olof and the Hallé Orchestra under Barbirolli. In its definitive form this eloquent concerto shows no signs of its turbulent gestation through the war years. Though dedicated to his friend and contemporary William Walton, the only tangible connection with Walton is at the very end, where a fragment lifted from Belshazzar's Feast is slightly misquoted and used for the purpose of triumphant resolution in G major. The journey to that point is a long one, and in the course of two extended movements the music unfolds at a pace which, for Rawsthorne, is often leisurely. Both movements – the first mainly slow and the second mainly fast – divide into subsections, providing contrasts of metre and tempo, but, as with Cortèges, thematic unity is never in doubt, and the composer throughout keeps us alert to where the music is proceeding. A solo violin "cadenza" occurs earlier than one might expect, at mid-point in the first movement, allowing repeated material plenty of scope for growth after that. The second movement follows without any break.

Between the Second Piano Concerto and the final period of the 1960s, Rawsthorne was a little less prolific, aware of his limitations but ready to respond to new challenges. His finest achievement of the 1950s has remained the least regarded – the Second Violin Concerto, which was commissioned by the BBC and first performed in London in 1956. Its three-movement, fast-slow-fast, format is handled with considerable resource. The first movement in particular is clearly guided more by symphonic aspiration than virtuoso display, its self-effacing theme giving rise to a remarkable series of developments. The slow movement's stabbing brass rhythm finds contrast in the mysterious, hushed phrases from the rest of the orchestra, with the soloist eventually providing some reconciliation between the two extremes. The finale is a Theme and Variations: as with every example of this form in Rawsthorne, the variations freely develop selected aspects of the theme, and the whole movement achieves a most persuasive feeling of continuity.

Sebastian Forbes


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