Wednesday 24 April 2013

A special performance from Guy Johnston and idiomatic playing from the Ulster Orchestra conducted by JoAnn Falletta in a new release of works by Moeran on Naxos

I am lucky enough to live near Kington in Herefordshire, one of the areas of countryside that is associated with the British composer Ernest John Moeran (1894-1950).

E. J. Moeran, known to his friends as Jack, was born in Heston, Middlesex, the son of a vicar of Irish descent and a mother from Norfolk. In 1905 Moeran’s father was appointed priest in charge to the joint parishes of Salhouse with Wroxham  in Norfolk, later moving to Bacton on the Norfolk coast Moeran was educated at Uppingham School where his teacher was Robert Sterndale Bennett (1880–1963), the grandson of the composer Sir William Sterndale Bennett (1816-1875).

Norfolk proved to be a strong influence on the young Moeran who later collected folk songs in the area. Moeran’s time as a student at the Royal College of Music studying piano and composition with Charles Villiers Stanford (1852 -1924)  was cut short at the outbreak of the First World War when he enlisted as a motor-cycle despatch rider in the Sixth Battalion of the Norfolk Regiment. In 1915 he was commissioned as Second Lieutenant attached to the West Yorkshire Regiment and sent to the Western Front where he received severe head injuries leaving shell particles that could never be removed.

After the war Moeran returned for a few months to Uppingham School as a music teacher but soon returned to the Royal College of Music to resume his composition studies, this time with John Ireland (1879-1962).

By the mid-1920s, Moeran had become close friends with Philip Heseltine (Peter Warlock) (1894-1930), living for some years in Eynsford, Kent  where, with others, they became notorious for their frequent drunken escapades. This proved disastrous for Moeran who, for the rest of his life, had alcohol problems. After Heseltine’s death in 1930, he began spending much of his time in Kenmare, County Kerry, another area that was to have a profound effect on his music.

Moeran’s father retired from Bacton and took a house called Gravel Hill in the Herefordshire border town of Kington . It was to be another area that would have a strong influence on him. Moeran’s brother, Graham, also became a vicar, like his father and grandfather before him and was appointed to Leominster and later Ledbury, both in Herefordshire. In 1945, Moeran made an ill-advised and unsuccessful marriage to the cellist Peers Coetmore.

A late developer as a composer, his output is not large but he wrote some choral works, songs, chamber music and orchestral works including a fine Violin Concerto (1942), a wonderful Symphony in G minor ((1934-37) and a Cello Concerto (1945)

It was the countryside of County Kerry that influenced Moeran’s Cello Concerto. He wrote to his wife, from Kenmare, on 20th October 1943 ‘…if you will trust me to try and work out for you this Concerto, you can cut your engagements for a time and come down to Kington. We could walk together on Hergest Ridge and Bradnor and work out tunes. But I am bound to say that they will be Kerry inspired ones.’

Peers Coetmore recorded the Concerto with Adrian Boult and the London Symphony Orchestra for Lyrita Recorded Edition long after she had ceased to give public performances. Whilst she is obviously past her prime, the recording does have a real character to it and is of obvious historical interest. In 1986 Raphael Wallfisch recorded the work for Chandos Records with Norman del Mar and the Bournemouth Sinfonietta in a fine performance that has stood the test of time.

It is Moeran’s Cello Concerto that is the main work on a new release from Naxos featuring Guy Johnston (cello)  with the Ulster Orchestra  conducted by JoAnn Falletta . Also featured is Moeran’s Serenade in G in its original eight movement version and two shorter works, Lonely Waters and Whythorne’s Shadow.



The Cello Concerto (1945) opens with a beautifully rich tone from Guy Johnston in Moeran’s winning theme that runs right through this movement (Moderato). He provides some wonderful phrasing, full of that distinctive Irish nostalgia. The fast section has a lovely breezy outdoor feeling so much demanded by the composer. There is further development of the main theme before the orchestra is really allowed to have its head. The opening motif re-appears leading to a darkened coda.  After the orchestral introduction to the Adagio there is a very special moment as the cello enters, with its lyrical theme, in a different key. What a glorious adagio this is, played so beautifully and sensitively by Guy Johnston. The slowly unwinding melody is expertly done, allowing the rhapsodic sounds to unfold so naturally. Johnston extracts so many lovely timbres and colours from his instrument. A finely played cadenza leads to the Allegretto with a melody that sounds like an Irish folk tune but appears to be Moeran’s own creation. In the beautiful episode half way through, there is some intensely lovely playing and, as the movement progresses, Johnston and JoAnn Falletta bring a stillness that is most affecting. There is a short solo passage that leads to a faster section with that Irish sounding tune appearing again before the end.

There is something special in the way Johnston plays this concerto. It’s difficult to nail down precisely. It is more than just his sensitivity and tone. It is something more indefinable.

Moeran’s Serenade in G (1948), his last completed orchestral work, is a much lighter piece with two of the movements, Minuet and Rigadoon, taken from an earlier Suite: Farrago (1932). It was first performed at a 1948 Promenade concert conducted by Basil Cameron in its eight movement form. For some reason it was published without the Intermezzo and Forlana. It is performed on this new recording in its original eight movement form.

The opening Prologue has the feel of an ancient English melody, somewhat reminiscent of Warlock in his Capriol Suite. The lovely Air for strings is a simple tune full of Englishness and the changeable intermezzo moves from a lighter opening mood to a darker side. There is a lively Gallop, full of brass,  a gentle Minuet again full of English nostalgia,  with an oboe taking the main melody, Rigadoon, that sounds much as though taken from an old English song (Moeran had the knack of doing this with original material) and  the longer Forlana with a wistful tune and a gently forward momentum, beautifully scored. The Epilogue opens with a rather martial sound with side drum before taking us taking us full circle to the Prologue melody. JoAnn Falleta has full command of Moeran’s idiom.

A London business man, Lionel Hill, was laid up in hospital in 1943 when he heard, on the radio, a particularly beautiful piece of music, which was, in his words, .’…shot through with the rare magic of Delius, but with a language of its own…and dying away with a voice appearing to call across some lonely expanse of water…’

This was Lonely Waters (c.1931) and it led to a close friendship with the composer recorded in Hill’s book Lonely Waters – the diary of a friendship with E J Moeran (published by Thames in 1985 – no longer in print). It is one of those little gems of British music, this time based on a Norfolk folk song that Moeran said was ‘…still frequently to be heard on Saturday nights at certain inns in the Broads district of East Norfolk…’

Most recordings of this work use the alternative ending where the soprano voice is replaced by a cor anglais – effective enough in its own way. This new recording has soprano Rebekah Coffey joining towards the end, as the orchestra dies away, with the words

So I’ll do down to some lonely waters,
Go down where no one they shall me find,
Where the pretty little small birds do change their voices,
And every moment blow blustering wild.

There is an added poignancy to these words. On 1st December 1950, during a violent storm, Moeran fell from the pier at Kenmare. He had died from a massive heart attack aged only 55 years.

Whythorne’s Shadow (c.1931) is usually coupled with Lonely Waters, even though they are quite different in nature. They were published as Two Pieces for Small Orchestra. Based on Elizabethan composer Thomas Whythorne’s madrigal As thy shadow itself apply’th it is a lovely dance tune that rolls into a looser pastoral melody.

This is a lovely disc with very idiomatic playing from the Ulster Orchestra conducted by JoAnn Falletta. The recording is good and if you are not familiar with Moeran’s Cello Concerto then I urge followers to get to know it. Lonely Waters, with the rare opportunity to hear it with the soprano ending, is not to be missed.

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