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Alwyn Lambert Rawsthorne
Park Lane Group Triple Cenenary Concert
William Alwyn 1905-1985, Constant Lambert 1905-1951, Alan Rawsthorne 1905-1971

Purcell Room SBC, 3 May 2005 6pm till c.10

Lambert: Hamlet Fanfare No1; Two Songs for soprano/flute/harp 1923 (1st professional performance since 1923)
Rawsthorne: String Quartet No 2 1954
Alwyn Naïades for flute/harp

Lambert: Hamlet Fanfare No 2
Lambert: Eight Li-Po Songs for soprano/piano (original version)
Rawsthorne: Three French Nursery Songs 1931
Alwyn: String Quartet No 3 1979
Rawsthorne: Ballade for solo piano (1968)

Sarah Leonard soprano
John McCabe piano
Tippett String Quartet
The Alwyn Duo- Kathryn Baker flute Suzanne Willison harp

Perhaps an over-ambitious (and over-long) evening to do justice to three composers of 1905? William Alwyn is better (and better known) as a composer for orchestra and films, and his 1984 quartet disappointed, but Naïades for flute/harp proved an excellent vehicle for the eponymous The Alwyn Duo (Kathryn Baker flute Suzanne Willison harp).

The pre-discussion was uncommonly lively and well chaired by David Wordsworth; after we'd heard from each of the deceased composers themselves, John Amis, Giles Easterbrook & Lewis Foreman had a lot to tell about them. The general verdict seemed to be that Alwyn was the least likely to survive; Rawsthorne and Lambert deserved to still be heard by the time of the next anniversary peg upon which to hang publishers' marketing efforts. CDs have been a great help (e.g. Bax) when concert promoters have proved resistive.

It was Rawsthorne who decided me to review this concert. For anyone who might be interested, I bought his splendid Symphonic Studies on 78s and have been a loyal Rawsthorne enthusiast since student days; Constant Lambert's Music Ho! persuaded me that serialism was a blind Continental alley. I saw Alan Rawsthorne & Constant Lambert around regularly and met my first wife at a performance of Lambert's Summer's Last Will and Testament..........

Sarah Leonard seemed to be in less than best voice for her long sequence of short songs, and a little less pedal might have improved the effect of Lambert's Li-Po settings. Nor was John McCabe quite equal to the virtuoso demands of Rawsthorne's Ballade, his most substantial composition for solo piano.

Alan Rawsthorne's compact 3rd String Quartet was the high point of what we heard, well put across by the Tippett String Quartet, and there seemed no good reason why it should not have held a firm place in the standard string quartet recital repertoire. We didn't stay for the last part of this triple-decker concert; perhaps it would have been better as an afternoon event?

Norman Lebrecht writes about these three composers in the context of Tippett's centenary:

- - Tippett is being given ten performances at this summer’s BBC Proms. Among fellow-centenarians, Constant Lambert gets two, Alan Rawsthorne one, the rest not a peep. Tippett lived longest, but there is a case to be made that Lambert and Rawsthorne, an inseparable saloon-bar pair, left a larger footprint in the cultural sands.

Constant Lambert was deemed a genius by most who knew him, notably Diaghilev, who commissioned his first ballet and the novelist Anthony Powell who imprinted his traits on the composer Hugh Moreland in A Dance to the Music of Time. The economist Maynard Keynes, probably the cleverest Englishman of his century, considered Lambert ‘potentially the most brilliant person I have ever met’.

Adroit in all the arts, he exercised a machiavellian influence over Ninette de Valois, founder of British ballet, serving as her conductor, musical conscience and aesthetic touchstone. He seemed to know instinctively what was right for her company, and took what he liked for himself; he was the first lover of the adolescent Margot Fonteyn, grooming her from gawky kid to world star.

Into the intellectual somnolence of English music Lambert hurled Music Ho!, a best-selling ‘study of music in decline’ that ridiculed Elgarian romanticism and atonal modernism, propounding a multicultural future. His ballets were charged with supernaturalism (Horoscope, 1938) and transvestism (Tiresias, 1951). Rio Grande, a fantasy for piano, contralto, chorus and orchestra will be heard on the Last Night of the Proms. Lambert, when sober, was the life force of the English renaissance.

His best friend and roistering partner was Alan Rawsthorne, a Lancastrian whose dour expression concealed an inventive wit. At the outbreak of war he followed his wife, a violinist in the BBC Symphony Orchestra, to Bristol, losing the manuscript of his violin concerto when their flat was bombed. Lambert, passing by with the Sadler’s Wells Ballet, bravely rescued the couple’s dog and hosed the blazing house with water, all the while reciting an essay by Gorky.

Rawsthorne’s piano concerto was played at the first concert in liberated Paris, German artillery pounding in the distance. He took on the role of surrogate father to Walter Leigh’s orphaned daughter and mingled among poets and composers, Dylan Thomas to William Walton, at the ‘Gluepot’ pub behind the BBC in Portland Place. His violin concerto, rewritten from scratch, was highly acclaimed, as was his first symphony, but royalties were meagre and he fell back on detested film work.

Lambert, sacked by Covent Garden for alcoholism, made arrangements of baroque composers and reorganised a rackety personal life around Isabel Nicholas, a breath-catching artists’ model who had collected Epstein, Derain, Picasso and Giacometti among her many lovers. He collapsed in a gutter in August 1951, dying of undiagnosed diabetes. Rawsthorne moved in soon after with his dazzling widow.

Isabel matched her husbands drink for drink, swore like a navvy and was a fine painter besides, collaborating with Rawsthorne on a Frederick Ashton ballet, Madame Chrysantheme. His film work, however, was taking a creative toll. After a memorable score for The Cruel Sea, his second violin concerto flopped and a second symphony stalled. He turned his hand to Practical Cats for speaker and orchestra, after T S Eliot’s poems.

Alarmed at his dissolution, with Isabel insisted, they left London, taking a cottage in an idyllic Essex village, near Thaxted. Rawsthorne promptly suffered a cerebral haemorrhage. Ordered to stay dry for three years, he recovered confidence and won a distinctive personal following, albeit in Britten’s shadow, until his death in 1971. The second piano concerto is his only piece at the Proms – and rather than cavil at the smallness of that tribute we should offer thanks to the BBC since no-one else has remembered Rawsthorne in his centenary year.

- - How can we ever understand art if it is curated monolithically? In 1905, this country produced a bumper crop of good composers, the biggest in our island history. In 2005, all but one of these enterprising creators lies mouldering in limbo.
(from LaScenaMusicale)

Hear excerpts from Rawsthorne quartets; Flesch Quartet ASV DCA 983

© Peter Grahame Woolf