Moeran's Violin Concerto

THE general plan of E. J. Moeran's Violin Concerto is somewhat unusual. After the first movement there comes a scherzo, and after the scherzo a Lento, with which the composition ends. This is unusual but not revolutionary. As the most popular symphony of our time, the Pathétique, ends with a slow movement there is no reason why a concerto should not follow so attractive a precedent. Indeed, Mr. Moeran is wise in refusing to write a final rondo if he feels, as a composer does feel, that he has said all that for the time he wants to say. The Concerto is also unusual in the construction of the first movement, and this innovation will not be accepted without some reservations. One of the themes, for instance, appears in the orchestra but not in the solo instrument, which is in keeping with the modern notion of a concerto as a composition not written solely to display a player's skill, but one in which the solo instrument is a very important, though not the only important, part.

But if the plan implies a loss on the swings it provides compensations with the roundabouts. The limelight may not be constantly on the soloist, but that means not that it is dimmed; it means that it is shifted on to some other feature. In any case the solo is conspicuous enough and, as the exceedingly fine playing of Arthur Catterall showed the other night, as grateful to the player as it is satisfying to the listener. Mr. Moeran has pleasing things to say, and says them with a graciousness that is all too rare in modern music. He is modern enough in his technique but does not make a parade of modernity; he has the gift of lyrical expression, but does not make lyrical expression the sole aim of his composition ; his treatment of the orchestra is that of an expert but he doesn't make the orchestra ' dance,' as Verdi expressed it.

The outcome of this happy combination of generous gifts and strict control, of a natural instinct controlled by knowledge and experience is very gratifying. For one thing it gives the Concerto a very original turn - not less original or striking because of the Irishness of the Scherzo and concluding Lento. The programme notes told us that the work was conceived in Ireland and that it might, therefore, bear the influence, conscious or unconscious, of Irish folk-song. That influence is felt but does not intrude. The music is not based on folk-song, and one is aware of it only as one might be aware of national characteristics in any other work which does not deliberately imitate a foreign idiom.

The brilliance of the Scherzo and the graver lyrical beauties of the last movement are significant, pointing to an artistic temper that is neither easily led into wild experiment nor afraid of novelty. The violin is an instrument that lends itself better than most to the mood of the scherzo. The comparative ease with which it can perform tricks, the variety of its 'coups d'archet,' open up great possibilities in that direction. Yet no concerto has ever tried to exploit them with the single exception of a Concerto of Vieuxtemps which is still taught to students-often omitting the Scherzo. Now moderns are showing a desire to explore this field. A few months ago Sir George Dyson charmed an audience with the Scherzo he had provided for his Violin Concerto, and now Mr. Moeran repeats the experiment with equal felicity.

But above all things the violin is a lyrical instrument, and Mr. Moeran never allows himself to forget it. He has some very fine lyrical passages in the first movement, and the last abounds in phrases which have a most fascinating eloquence.

Lastly his Concerto seems exceptionally well written for the soloist. The general tendency today is to write extremely difficult passages which never make the effect they should. Composers may say that the effect intended is, in fact, achieved and, of course, if the composer is satisfied, the critic should be silent, while players possessing a great technique will probably support the composer because they will be stimulated by the challenge to their powers. Thus all in the garden would seem to be lovely-but it isn't. The system is simply uneconomical. It predicates a maximum of effort with a minimum of effect. Such a combination has always been and ever will be uneconomical. Now there is nothing of the kind in the Moeran Concerto. The writing does here and there presume an unusual degree of ability in the player, but the reward is commensurate with the effort. After all, the greatest skill of the player is not apparent in triumphant progress through awkward double stops (of which the listener is totally unaware), but in the treatment of a noble passage. The greatest difficulty in Beethoven's Concerto is not in its scales and arpeggios but in the realization of the grave beauty of some extremely simple phrases of the Larghetto.

F. B.

 

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Mr. Moeran has pleasing things to say, and says them with a graciousness that is all too rare in modern music