MOERAN: Cello Concerto; Serenade in G; Lonely Waters; Whythorne’s Shadow Guy Johnston, cello/ Rebekah Coffey, sop./ Ulster Orch./ JoAnn Falletta – Naxos 8.573034, 65:18 [4/2/13] ****:
The music of Ernest John Moeran (1894-1950), for most auditors has been limited to a select few works, of which his 1938 G Minor Symphony remains most noteworthy, especially in the historic recording by Leslie Heward, although Adrian Boult and Vernon Handley took up its cause. Moeran had attended the Royal College of Music until 1918, when the war interrupted his studies and inflicted upon him head injuries that affected him physically and mentally for the duration of his life. Of Anglo-Irish descent, Moeran found the folksong worthy of study, and he resumed lessons after WW I with Philip Heseltine (aka Peter Warlock). Both composers fell under the spell of Bax, Delius, and Sibelius, and they adopted some of those composers’ colors.
The Cello Concerto (1945) premiered in Dublin and reflects the composer’s late style, an eclectic romanticism influenced by Moeran’s own marriage to Irish cellist Piers Coetmore. The first movement Moderato has Guy Johnston’s weaving a continuous melody that proves through-composed, influencing all subsequent developments. The baleful second theme smacks of Elgar, more of the Violin Concerto than that composer’s own Cello Concerto. Still, the lyrical outpouring proves quite attractive and bucolic, until the music assumes a decidedly aggressive cast rife with quick variations on the original tune. Johnston plays a lovely 1714 David Tacchier instrument with a generous singing tone. The melancholy tone resumes, with the cello, horns and tympani (and a touch of harp) all fading into a cloudy distance.
Quite in the spirit of Sibelius, the anguished Adagio movement offers an affecting main melody in muted strings and mezzo-voce cello, an intimate orison likely befitting the troubled times which had proved the inevitable result of the prior World War. The lyrical combination of winds and harp adds to the intimate dolor of the movement, which ends with a subdued cadenza that anticipates the subject matter of the concluding Rondo movement, marked Allegretto deciso alla Marcia. Militantly Irish in character, the music struts with more authority and confidence, the horns and battery in full tilt. The folk elements remain and grow, often in spirit reminiscent of Vaughan Williams. The lyric impulse does not desert Moeran, especially when a deeply expressive passionate song erupts and – another minor cadenza – perhaps forecasting a more optimistic future, since a rousing jig takes us to the animated, captivating conclusion. The happy scoring of this major work permits optimum clarity to the solo part, and the recording venue (Ulster Hall, Belfast, February 2012) supports the infectious vigor of the performance.
Moeran’s Serenade in G (1948) debuted a Royal Albert Hall Promenade Concert under Basil Cameron. Originally set as eight movements, the piece bore some editing, being considered overlong: the Intermezzo and Forlana were removed, only to be restored in the 1996 edition here employed by JoAnn Falletta. A suite clearly “in olden style,” its pomp and quasi-Elizabethan pathos suggest that Moeran had taken his cues from Peter Warlock. Muted strings and warm cellos provide the tender affect for the second movement Air. The restored movements, Intermezzo and Forlana, inject a serious, even dark tone to the otherwise jovial proceedings. The song “Maltworms” may well underlie the fleetly rambunctious Galop movement, whose tune Warlock and Moeran had collaborated. Strings, woodwinds, and horn comprise the nostalgic Minuet, in which the oboe introduces the folkish plaint. Rigadoon presents a lively rustic dance, a country hay, not far from the spirit of Dvorak. The Forlana proves the longest piece of the suite: rather angular and modal, it weaves its own spell, bucolic and passionately mysterious, at once. The concluding, snappily militant Epilogue returns to the tune of the opening Prologue, and the happy circle is complete.
Both Lonely Waters (1932) and Whythorne’s Shadow (1931) appeared under a common title, Two Pieces for Orchestra (1935). Lonely Waters (featuring soprano Rebekhah Coffey) is dedicated to Vaughan Williams. A rhapsody in miniature, it owes its distinctive color to Debussy and to Bax, weaving variants around a folk tune from East Norfolk. Only on the last page – after a dramatic ringing of the cymbals – does the singer intone a quatrain on finding oblivion in Nature, a rustic thought well preserved in the likes of Thomas Gray’s Elegy. A Renaissance madrigal provides the source for Wythorne’s Shadow, the original having been revived by Philip Heseltine. Scored for a small ensemble in Renaissance meter, the piece proceeds “through time” in its rustic haunts until it has embraced the modern harmony of its Janus-faced composer.