ELIZABETH MACONCHY: The Land; Concertino for Piano; Music for Woodwind and Brass; Symphony for Double String Orch. – Clelia Iruzun, piano/ BBC Scottish Sym. Orch./ Odaline de la Martinez – Lorelt/Lontano Records LNT 133, 64:05 ****:
Maconchy, who died in 1994, was an English composer of Irish descent. She graduated from the Royal College of Music, was Vaughan Williams’s favorite student (they were lifelong friends) and was a path breaker for women composers, having been named a Dame Commander in 1987. Her early career was gangbusters, though it slowed after the onset of tuberculosis in 1932. She effectively lost the initial popularity and only began to overcome it after WWII. But during the last 20 years of her life she regained the former reputation, and now, almost twenty years after her death, her music enjoys a considerable revival.
The pieces on this disc show us why she was so admired early on. The Land, a Suite for Orchestra, was premiered at the Proms in 1930 to great acclaim. The inspiration comes from Vita Sackville-West’s poem of the same name, and the four movements—“Winter”, “Spring”, “Summer”, and “Fall”—are beautifully crafted little tone poems, maybe the closest we can get to a British Copland. The Concertino, also given in 1930, is a partnership between piano and the chamber orchestra of strings, two horns, and trumpet. The piece is vivacious and replete with modal harmonies as its base, with a slow movement of exquisite beauty. Clelia Iruzun, a Brazilian London resident, plays it with sparkle and extreme proficiency.
Music for Wind and Brass was commissioned and written for the particular acoustics of the medieval church at Thaxted, a village not far from Maconchy’s home. It is a multi-sectional piece scored for eight woodwinds, four horns, and seven other brass and timpani. It is a jubilant and processional work fitting for the summer festival it was written for. The Symphony for Double String Orchestra is a weighty and far more serious work given in 1954. The strings are arranged in two separate semi-circles with the basses in the middle. This substantial piece is different in tone from her earlier works yet still recognizably her style, rigorous in construction and stringently logical, yet never sacrificing formalities to engaging and attractive tonal language.
The performances on this disc are uniformly excellent, the sound possessing a sweetness and fine aural bloom. This is a composer you should hear if you don’t know her.