By Karl W. Nehring
As I write this review, I am, like many music lovers worldwide, hunkered down at home in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. With plenty of time on my hands, I have listened to a great deal of music. Actually, that is something I did before the lockdown, but now I find myself listening with more focus and attention – and gratitude – than before. In this stressful time, music has been a source not just of entertainment, but also of comfort and consolation. This recording of four pastoral works by Moeran, which has been on heavy rotation in my home listening systems lately, has been an especially significant source of both musical satisfaction and emotional sustainment.
Ernest John Moeran (1894-1950) was an English composer with Irish roots who had great affection for nature and folk melodies. If you like me are a fan of the music of Ralph Vaughan Williams, especially his more pastoral-sounding works, then you really ought to look into the music of Moeran. His catalog is not extensive, but includes some wonderful music that deserves to be more widely performed and recorded (there is a review of his Symphony in G minor and Sinfonietta in the Classical Candor archive). This Chandos recording presents four works that display his gift for crafting melodies that stimulate the ear while soothing the soul.
The program opens with his Violin Concerto, featuring violinist Lydia Mordkovitch (1944-2014) and the Ulster Orchestra conducted by Vernon Handley (1930-2008). According to the liner notes, Moeran started the piece in 1937, but did not complete it until 1942, when it was given its first performance at the Proms by its dedicatee, Arthur Catterall (1883-1943), one of the best-known English violinists of his time.
The concerto is in the usual three movements, marked respectively Allegro moderato, Rondo Vivace – Alla valse burlesca, and Lento. The first movement opens quietly and tenderly, immediately establishing a pastoral, ruminative mood. The orchestral accompaniment is generally spare throughout, with the main focus being on the soloist.
Lonely Waters is dedicated to Vaughan Williams, and lovers of RVW’s pastoral works (e.g., Symphony No. 3, In the Fen County, The Lark Ascending) will swoon over this delightful tone poem. Listeners can close their eyes and summon images of gently rippling water, birds enjoying a summer morning, and wispy trees lining the banks. There are some striking passages for horns, made all the more impressive by the sound quality, which just feels warmer and more natural than in the Violin Concerto, with excellent depth this time around.
Whythorne’s Shadow starts off a with dancelike lilt at a lively pace. As the music continues, a more pastoral sound emerges, followed a return to the dance rhythms and some enjoyable melodies from the concertmaster’s violin. The sound quality is at the same level as the previous track, which is very good overall.
The final composition on this release, Moeran’s Cello Concerto, is performed by English cellist Raphael Wallfisch (b.1953) and the Bournemouth Sinfonietta under the direction of Norman del Mar (1919-1994). As in the Violin Concerto, Moeran lays out the work in the traditional three movements. The opening movement, marked Moderato, is for the most part quiet and reflective, with Wallfisch playing more in the lower registers. The way the cello is recorded sounds more naturally integrated with the orchestra than was the case for the violin in the Violin Concerto. The middle movement, marked Adagio, is sweetly expressive, with smaller forces backing the cello. Wallfisch spins out a thoughtful solo toward the end of this movement, and then without pause the final movement begins, marked Allegretto deciso, all marcia. It enters with a theme that sounds like a folk tune, the cello interacting with various sections of the orchestra but never in an overtly virtuosic display. The piece ends with a flourish, bringing the program to an end.
Presenting four satisfying compositions that combine for more than 78 minutes of music and including usefully informative liner notes, this Chandos release makes a persuasive case for more widespread appreciation of the music of a composer who has been largely overlooked on this side of the Atlantic. Oh, and by the way, to make this CD even more attractive, it is available at a budget price. What’s not to like?
To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click below: