Moeran: Violin Concerto (CD Review)

Also, Lonely Waters; Whythorne's Shadow; Cello Concerto. Lydia Mordkovitch, violin; Raphael Wallfisch, cello; Vernon Handley, Ulster Orchestra; Norman Del Mar, Bournemouth Sinfonietta (Cello Concerto). Chandos Classics CHAN 10168 X.

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.

Vernon Handley
To my ears, the violin seemed to be given a bit too much prominence in the mix, and the massed strings seemed to have just a wee bit of edge (something that seems to occur on many Chandos orchestral recordings from the 1980s when these performances were originally recorded) but given the generally quiet nature of this movement, that is not a significant problem. Another minor sonic quibble is that there does not seem to be as much sense of depth to the soundstage as would be ideal, although the stereo spread is excellent. Returning to musical considerations, Mordkovitch has some lovely solos, with the emphasis of her playing being more on tender expression rather than virtuosic display. The second movement exhibits more energy, with brass and percussion playing a more prominent role. There is a dancelike feeling at times to the music, which is lively and enjoyable. The closing Lento starts off slowly and dreamily, sliding into some tuneful passages -- and even a solo -- for clarinet before Mordkovitch’s violin reclaims the spotlight. Later, as the movement begins to wind down, the clarinet reappears, then fades as the violin once again takes over the lead. This is a beautiful concerto that deserves wider performance and recognition.

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:

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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on the Big Jon and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simpleminded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Arcam CDS50 CSD/SACD CD player, Goldpoint SA4 Passive Preamp, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my cell phone. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Reviewer

Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.

The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to that classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Recently I’ve rebuilt--I prefer to say reinvigorated--my audio system, with a Sangean FM HD tuner and (for the moment) an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a transport, both feeding a NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, which in turn connects to a Legacy Powerbloc2 amplifier driving my trusty Waveform Mach Solo speakers, supplemented by a Hsu Research ULS 15 Mk II subwoofer.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa