Sunday, April 06, 2008

New Rawsthorne for old

March 30 in the Bridgewater Hall, Manchester, had the first performance of Edward Harper’s re-orchestration of Alan Rawsthorne’s cantata Kubla Khan and first concert performance of the work. The poem is, of course, one of the best known in the language, frequently anthologised and full of familiar lines. It has an exotic flavour that one might think unlikely material for Rawsthorne, a composer more urban than one for the countryside or the orient, but it brings him to Coleridge’s dreamland with a hint of spice. Harper helps to invoke the atmosphere with some subtle but simple flavouring, mostly flute and xylophone.

If the man from Porlock interrupted Coleridge, it was a bomb from Germany that interrupted Rawsthorne. On the night that the work was given a studio performance at BBC Bristol, Rawsthorne’s flat together with the score and parts from Kubla Khan were destroyed. Despite friends who thought the work one of Alan’s best, he never got around to rewriting the score, All that remained was a vocal score which formed the basis for Harper’s reorchestration. The work lasts sixteen minutes and all but the spicy bits are typical Rawsthorne, from the very opening chords (C major triad anchored by an A flat in the bass). The words ‘a stately pleasure dome’ brings on another fingerprint, a seven-note phrase lifted from the Mathis der Maler symphony by Hindemith that Rawsthorne used again and again as the chief tune of the Street Corner overture.

I once asked Alan why he had set so few poems and he said ‘because I love poetry so much. Music so often drowns it’. Well it doesn’t here in this short cantata: ‘the tumult…prophesying war’ brings the middle section to a climax which dies down into the ‘caves of ice’. ‘Fast thick pants’ avoids bathos and the work ends shortly after ‘the Abyssinian maid’ singing her ‘symphony and song’

The work is a delight, well written for the chorus, with a few pages for solo alto and tenor (sung in Manchester by members of the chamber choir). Harper’s orchestration has style and imagination. But a short choral piece is not easy to programme. Perhaps it might be paired with his friend Constant Lambert’s Rio Grande to make a first half?

Incidentally Lambert was staying with Rawsthorne and his first wife Jessie Hinchcliffe at the time of the Bristol bombings and was seen helping to quell the flames… with small watering can. It was also in a review of Rawsthorne’s enchanting Theme and Variations for two unaccompanied violins that he write “If one wondered at the many passages of double-stopping in this work one had to remember that, as well as studying music the composer had taken a course in dentistry.
After the cantata and the interval came the huge Resurrection Second Symphony of Mahler. Who but Mahler would have dared take on such a subject? And make it work? Positively cosmic. Doom and gloom, then breathtaking beauty, renewal and love.

The Amadeus Orchestra is, I understand, a training organisation But it was equal to Mahler’s demands and spirit. Philip Mackenzie was thoroughly in control conducting a convincing performance with several local choirs and two excellent soloists in Elizabeth Atherton and Jeanette Ager. The performance did not do justice to the pianissimo choral section but after some sagging about ¾ way through, the tension returned for the final climax.

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