RAWSTHORNE: Concerto No. 1 for Piano and Orchestra. Concerto No. 2 for Piano and Orchestra. Improvisations on a theme by Constant Lambert.
Peter Donohoe, pianist; Ulster Orch/Takuo Yuasa, cond.
NAXOS 8.555959 (B) (DDD) TT: 56:19

Alan Rawsthorne (1905-71) was one among numerous British composers, contemporaries of William Walton and Benjamin Britten, who fleshed out the ranks without quite the creative individuality to challenge their stellar compatriots. Michael Tippett was Odd-Man-In because of his genius for self-promotion—a kind of Brit Roy Harris with staying power. That said, both of Rawsthorne’s piano concerti display abundant compositional craft and a range of well-bred, well- schooled emotion from sadness to wit with tongue-in-cheek. Neither, however, sticks in the memory even after three attentive playings, apart from their structural coherence. His vocabulary was sauced (rather than spiced) with dissonances but for the most part tonally diatonic at heart. One hears the music of a gentleman, ideally served I daresay by Peter Donohoe, accompanied hand-in-glove by Takao Yuasa and the Ulster Orchestra of Belfast (of which he has been principal guest conductor).

The 12-minute work that separates them, Improvisations on a theme by Constant Lambert, is a tribute to that severally faceted musician who drank himself to death in 1951. Rawsthorne was one of “a group of composers who assisted with the orchestration of Lambert’s last ballet, Tiresias.” A seven-note subject was taken from the opening bars of that ballet, yet the work seems longer by much than its timing, despite Yuasa’s advocacy and the orchestra’s thoroughly distinguished playing. It was composed on commission in 1960, nine years after the Second Concerto (like Brahms’s in four movements rather than the traditional three, with the Scherzo second), commissioned by the Arts Council of Great Britain for their 1951 nationwide Festival. The first concerto immediately predated WW2 in a version accompanied only by strings and percussion at the premiere. The fully orchestrated version—heard on this excellently recorded disc in Usher Hall—was introduced three years later, during 1942, by Louis Kentner at the London Proms.

R.D. (July 2003)