Though they are a generation apart, it makes sense to couple these works by Alan Rawsthorne (b. 1905) and John McCabe (b. 1939).Not only did McCabe know Rawsthorne, he has played (and continues to play) music of his senior’s piano music. He is also the author of a pioneering book on the composer, a study enriched by insights derived from his own creative work – on which he acknowledges Rawsthorne as an influence.
McCabe’s Maze Dances for solo violin launch this disc in a blaze of virtuosity. We are in medias res, or (given the title) struggling to escape a labyrinth, right from the opening gesture. The passionate energy and relentless drive are heightened by much multiple-stopping that that continues in the chordal slower section. Rawsthorne’s Theme and Variations for two (absolutely equal) solo violins was one of the works that established his name… The title might suggest a certain dryness, but the opposite is in fact the case. The work is an exhilarating sequence of ten character-sketches, from the skittish to the grandly dramatic. Violists and cellists wanting a break should recommend it vigorously to their quartet colleagues. The version by Nicholas Ward and Pauline Lowbury of the Redcliffe Ensemble, equally characterful and well recorded, comes buried in a collection of oboe quartets by Routh and Lutyens as well as Rawsthorne himself.
Commissioned by Szigeti and premiered by Parikian, Rawsthorne’s Violin Sonata of 20 years later is (in a very different way) another real find. Perfectly proportioned, rooted entirely in a clash of D major/minor against E flat, it rises above the level of character-study (waltz, toccata) to exemplify McCabe’s comment tha teconomy of means (of which Rawsthorne was the past master) is not the enemy of emotional depth, but on the contrary a liberation. If this seems paradoxical, then McCabe’s own Star Preludes, which conclude this stimulating release, prove the point. The space-scapes he draws from violin and piano (in just 12 minutes)at once proclaim a debt to, and freedom from, Rawsthorne’s beneficent shadow.
In sum, with fine performances and a good recording, this release deserves to be heard by more than just devotees of the violin. It shows the toughness and sheer musicality of two fine British composers writing at full stretch.