About this Recording
8.554352 - RAWSTHORNE: Piano Quintet / Piano Trio / Viola Sonata

Alan Rawsthorne (1905-71)
Quintet for Piano and Strings; Concertante for Violin and Piano
Trio for Violin, Cello and Piano; Sonata for Viola and Piano
Sonata for Cello and Piano

‘Alan [Rawsthorne] is still a musician's composer, if you see what I mean.' This remark, made to me in the early 1980s by Christopher Morris, of Oxford University Press (Rawsthorne's publisher), had some force for many years. 'Composer's composer' was another way of putting the same point. The implication was that, despite a number of occasions of evident public success, Rawsthorne's music remained less accessible to the wider public and only revealed its inner secrets to those who were able to enter his private sound-world of thought. Such musicians were likely to comprise composers, and in particular those who valued goal-directed musical discourse, concisely expressed.

By the 1990s, however, some 25 years after his death, the situation had changed, encouraged by the Rawsthorne Trust and enhanced by the CD revolution which itself was as significant as the development of the LP in the 1950s or the expansion of broadcasting in the 1960s. No longer a contemporary composer in any sense, Rawsthorne has become a mid-century classic, albeit of a somewhat esoteric kind, and the particular attention that his music demands lends itself to the CD just as readily as to the concert hall or radio. The present availability of virtually all his music on CD has provided an opportune invitation to enjoy a close rapport with a most personal voice in British music.

Rawsthorne indeed intimately addresses the individual. This is obvious in his brooding slow movements, but it is also the case in his fast music, be it purposefully thematic or enigmatically scherzando. Even the more open-hearted moments preserve their inwardness and avoid the grandiose, not least through their brevity and fast rate of harmonic change. Nothing is over-stated.

The five works on this recording are drawn from three important phases of his career. In the Concertante and the Viola Sonata we witness the early rhetoric which found its climax in the masterly Symphonic Studies of 1938. The Cello Sonata, along with many other works of that time, represents middle-period assurance, which led to the Second Piano Concerto of 1951. The Trio and Quintet come from his prolific final decade whose greatest achievement was the Third Symphony of 1963-4.

The Quintet for piano and strings is amongst Rawsthorne's final works. It was commissioned by the Music Department of Cardiff University in Wales and first performed there by John McCabe and the University Ensemble of Cardiff. For a composer who found his personal idiom more than three decades earlier and was intent on continuing within the same aesthetic, this work may appear somewhat reactionary. True, Rawsthorne was not wholly in sympathy with many a new trend of the 1960s. Yet those qualities of integrity and concision, so admired by his disciples, are joined by some new developments in harmonic thought, at this stage not so obviously tied to tonal centers. Its four sections are not really movements as such, as the final Allegro is more of a short reprise and coda. Changes of mood are frequent, the climaxes being what the composer described as 'a rather brash tune', which appears (briefly, as always) in sections two and four.

The Concertante, first published under the title Concertante No. 2, is one of many chamber works from the mid 1930s and one of the earliest in which his personal style is unmistakable. Sections of it are in fact distilled from two earlier unpublished works for violin and piano. It was largely ignored until 1968, when it was re-published with its present title and became better known. From the bitter-sweet harmonies of the opening, in which the two instruments introduce themselves in relaxed manner, lyricism and energy arise with an attractive inevitability. As in the Quintet, the final fast section combines elements of recapitulation and coda.

The Trio for piano, violin and cello, commissioned for the 1962 City of London Festival and premièred by Louis Kentner, Yehudi Menuhin and Gaspar Cassadó, is most fluently written for these instruments and proceeds from point to point with great ease. Tonal contrast lies not in the opposition of different key-­centres but in the presence versus obscurity of A major/minor. As with many works of Rawsthorne, successive movements or episodes follow in the same key, somewhat reminiscent of baroque sonata practice. The form of Theme and Variations, used for the second of its two movements, could so easily degenerate into sectionalisation, but Rawsthorne often showed himself to be a master of this form, transforming it into a vehicle for growth and continuity.

The Viola Sonata, the most substantial of all his pre-war chamber works, had been assumed lost after its 1937 première until my father, the viola player Watson Forbes, discovered the manuscript in 1953 and brought the work into the repertoire. The grand Maestoso is more than a mere introduction, almost a movement in itself, and its theme reappears as echoes later in the lively Molto allegro. The Scherzo is an early example of the composer's tarantella manner, its continuous energy finally evaporating in a self-effacing cadence that prepares us, harmonically and emotionally, for the short but deeply felt slow movement. These three powerful movements, which all share a C sharp tonality, find release in an F major rondo finale, a tonal procedure that exactly parallels the pattern of his Clarinet Concerto of the previous year.

The Cello Sonata is most idiomatically scored (the composer was a practitioner of both instruments). It is ostensibly in three distinct movements but is better understood as seven sections slow-fast (first movement), slow-fast-slow (second movement), fast-slow (third movement). Thematic integration is pervasive, so that the opening of the third movement (the sixth of the seven sections) can momentarily afford to break free from thematic concerns. The tonality of C, though emphatic at certain points in the first movement's Allegro is only confirmed as the overall tonal basis by the C major cadence of the very end of the work, where it is characteristically approached via C sharp minor. In all, the close integration of this sonata is most satisfying.

Sebastian Forbes

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