Album Review: Alan Rawsthorne – A Portrait

Prima Facie’s release of selected woodwind concertos and chamber music is a challenging survey of the works of the lesser-known English composer Alan Rawsthorne.

The album showcases the composer’s distinctive writing style in works spanning thirty years with recordings made in a variety of different settings. It’s also incredibly good value – packing in seven works into nearly an hour and a half.

This is the first time I’ve heard any works by Rawsthorne – something to bear in mind when I say that I found his music phenomenally challenging to listen to. The music seems fractured at times. Ideas sometimes felt rambling. There were moments when it felt like I was losing focus or couldn’t quite discern where we were heading. That doesn’t mean the music lacks value, it means for me at least that it demands closer inspection.

Where Rawsthorne’s music makes sense is in the more intimate or dryer recordings on this album. The opening clarinet concerto is a case in point where a generous reverb in the production makes some of the string textures seem overly lush veering on the indulgent.

One of my first experiences of Copland’s clarinet concerto was a recording on Chandos by clarinettist Thea Musgrave. The reverb on that recording gave the recording a sense that the work had been preserved in aspic in some way. It’s a similar feel with the 2016 recording of Rawsthorne’s Clarinet Concerto.

I listen to the second movement of Rawsthorne’s Clarinet Concerto (soloist Linda Merrick with the Manchester Sinfonia) for example and want the opportunity to hear a deader ambience, so I can appreciate more of the complex harmonies. I wonder too whether it might be easier to follow the musical development with a more intimate sound?

The concluding work on the album – Rawsthorne’s Concerto for Oboe and Strings – was recorded around the same time, also by producer Richard Scott in Leeds University Great Hall. Here there’s a similar reverb although it doesn’t linger quite so much. That means the textures aren’t quite so lost in the mush. Pianissimos are more distinct. The solo oboe penetrates more (it’s closer in the mix too). These combined with a more discernible musical development from Rawsthorne (the concerto came later in Rawsthorne’s composing career), makes the Oboe Concerto a more engaging work to listen to.

In terms of ambience, it’s the works in the middle of the album which really shine. The Oboe Quartet (soloist Sylvia Harper) is a remarkable thing, introducing a style of English chamber music which is completely at odds with anything else I know. I like it for that. This, like the Cello Sonata from 1948 later on the album, is what makes me want to discover more about the man.

This is without doubt the most challenging album I’ve listened to this year. Rawsthorne does bleak like no other composer I know of. Listening to these works it is as though his musical material has been hewn from the rocks and worked on relentlessly until he is satisfied. Even then, his definition of satisfied could be a world away from ours.

But because it is so hard fought, that’s what makes the occasional major chord such a breath of fresh air.  In this way, the high-point in the album is undoubtedly the conclusion of third movement of the Cello Sonata.

This album is for the open-minded not the faint-hearted. But it is rewarding. And it deserves to be heard. Rawsthorne’s writing is defiant and individualistic. The fact that we don’t hear much of him says more about our present-day appreciation of art than it does about him.

Alan Rawsthorne: A Portrait on Prima Facie is available via Spotify

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