Moeran: In the Mountain Country... / Falletta

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MOERAN Overture for a Masque. In the Mountain Country . Rhapsodies Nos. 1 and 2. Rhapsody in F? 1 JoAnn Falletta, cond; 1 Benjamin Frith (pn); Ulster O NAXOS 8.573106 (57:06)

Vernon Handley, a conductor whose service to British music should be praised in the same breath as that of Adrian Boult (but too seldom was in his lifetime), recorded these works with the Ulster Orchestra for the Chandos label between 1987 and 1989. This was the first integral set of the three rhapsodies, and very fine it is, too—still a significant part of Anglo-Irish composer Ernest John Moeran’s discography, split onto two mid-price Chandos reissues. Now, 25 years later, the orchestra revisits this repertoire, under the direction of its American principal conductor JoAnn Falletta.

The Rhapsody No. 1 in F Major is a student work. It was completed in 1922 after Moeran had returned wounded from World War I to finish his studies at the Royal College of Music with John Ireland, to whom it is dedicated. It and In the Mountain Country , a rhapsody in all but name, are works written under the spell of folksong. Moeran had resumed his collecting of such songs while composing these two pieces, and though the themes he uses are original, they could easily pass as traditional. The other major influences on these, and in fact on all of the works presented here, are the music of Frederick Delius, Jean Sibelius, and friend Peter Warlock, and—perhaps most importantly—the picturesque landscapes of the east of both Ireland and England. The blend creates a bucolic lyricism and nostalgic tonality which makes him the target of those who sneer at the so-called “pastoral” school of English composition. This is a label Vaughan Williams’s reputation has been able to rise above, but not so much that of Moeran. Yes it is tuneful, and sometime the influences show too much, but it is hard to understand why this beautifully crafted, colorfully orchestrated, and immediately engaging music should be so neglected. It cannot be, even in the more youthful works, for want of refinement or emotional depth. And the two later works, the Rhapsody in F? for piano and orchestra and the Overture for a Masque , though written for the more populist needs of wartime audiences, are works of substance that achieve their audience appeal with real artistry.

The least obscure of the works on this program is the Rhapsody No. 2 in E Major, written just two years after the first, and notably the more mature work. It still sounds rather like Delius—that common criticism of Moeran’s earlier works—but the succession of great tunes is stitched together with impressive skill. Adrian Boult’s more expansive and Impressionistic reading for Lyrita has been my favorite, but I find that Falletta’s cooler and somewhat swifter approach—less Delian, it might be noted—with its emphasis on the characterful wind writing, brings out a delightful Celtic swagger. I think Falletta’s may be my new favorite.

Otherwise, if I was looking for differences between the two complete rhapsody editions—none of them all that significant—it would be that Falletta is consistently more direct, a quality to which these pieces respond well. Handley is inclined to emphasize dynamic and tempo contrasts, and to bring out an undercurrent of melancholy. The result, at slightly slower tempos, is more thoughtful but less engagingly jaunty. The Ulster Orchestra is, if anything, more polished and expressive than its counterpart of a quarter-century ago. Soloist Benjamin Firth is not as assertive in the Rhapsody in F? as Margaret Fingerhut was for Handley, in part the work of the engineers who integrate him more into the orchestral texture. That, and his somewhat less fulsome approach to the part, is at one with Falletta’s easygoing approach, and delivers much in the way of subtle beauty while yielding little in exuberance when the score demands it. I welcome both approaches, and am thrilled to have both conductors’ readings in my collection. This new disc joins the equally fine Falletta/Ulster release on Naxos of the cello concerto, serenade, and Two Pieces for Small Orchestra . Both discs are highly recommended.

FANFARE: Ronald E. Grames

Product Description:

  • Catalog Number: 8573106

  • UPC: 747313310678

  • Label: Naxos

  • Composer: Ernest John Moeran

  • Conductor: JoAnn Falletta

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: Ulster Orchestra