GHCD 2350 – Robin Orr – Centenary Tribute

Leonard Friedman violin, Duncan Johnson viola, Joanna Borrett cello, Max Rostal violin, Franz Osborn piano, Edwin Paling violin – Elisabeth McDonald cello members of the NACSOS Trio

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MusicWeb International Tuesday November 24th 2009

A fascinating collection of historic recordings

It is one of the great sadnesses of the UK’s musical culture that whilst it regularly remembers and celebrates the work of ‘foreign’ composers its own native born talent is often overlooked. How many of you have heard of Robin Orr and of those who have, did you realize that this (2009) is his centenary year. The exact date was in June and he was born in Brechin, Scotland. Well done again to Guild for pointing this out to us in this fascinating collection of historic recordings. Indeed it was Guild who issued the recording (GMCD 7196) of Orr’s orchestral works in 2000 when the composer was still with us.

The disc opens with the earliest recording and the earliest composition the ‘Sonatina for Violin and Piano’. The first movement is spiky and rhythmical with a prominent piano part. In the more lyrical and enigmatic movement two the violin dominates. In the much longer finale the players are partners both in contribution and in mood. It is difficult to fathom why this attractive and short work has not made it into the repertoire at least occasionally. The recording from 1948 has stood the course of time well and the re-mastering is excellent. The piano sound is however just a little recessed. Rostal and Osborn make a fine team. They worked together for many years and it was tragic that Osborn died so early – at the age of forty-nine – at the height of his fame.

The next work – the immediate post-war Viola Sonata – is less light-hearted. Speaking of recordings I was rather disappointed by the recessed and dull quality of this BBC Recording which, after all, only dates from a 1977 live concert. Nevertheless it takes nothing away from the quality of the music. It’s a four movement work with a most beautiful and memorable second movement marked ‘Elegy-Dolente’. That is followed by a restless and violent but brief Scherzetto and a fascinating Finale which has two passages of ghostly ‘sul ponticello’. Scottish violist James Durrant plays expressively but he has a few intonational difficulties at times in the finale and in the Elegy when passages are in the ‘ozone layer’. Pianist Lawrence Glover is immaculate throughout.

Robin Orr did not eschew tough and at times almost atonal music despite the fact that one might well have taken the view of him as being somewhat conservative. The immediate post-war period also produced the three movement ‘Serenade for String Trio’ with its desolate middle movement and quite acerbic Presto ending. The performance is extremely fine and committed. The recording will appear thin, a little shrill and strained at times and not able to cope when the music is at its busiest and most passionate. I found it best to put the treble right down and the bass well up. It’s worth it, because this is piece well worth exploring further.

To continue with the contrasts – a duet comes next. This, like the Viola Sonata and later the Violin Sonata are introduced by the old sort of plummy radio announcer. As he says, the last section of the work “is more relaxed” but the rest is energetic and quite tough. For the first few seconds I thought that I was listening to a Bach Two-part Invention, but at approximately 8:55 I thought that two more instruments had secretly become involved so powerful was the double-stopping of both instruments. At some moments there is a little distortion on the recording but the whole work was most painstakingly rehearsed and realized by cellist Elisabeth McDonald and Edwin Paling who until 2007 was the leader of the RSNO.

Finally we come to the Sonata for Violin and clavier. That’s the way it’s announced but it is playable on the piano, or harpsichord as here. I have commented above about the quality of these recordings. I don’t want to say any more except that yes, sometimes the harpsichord does sound like an over-excitable doorbell and yes the balance between the two players is not as good as we have come to expect nowadays. Nevertheless this is a surprisingly good recording considering that it is half a century old. Orr does not fall into the trap of others of his generation who decided to use a harpsichord, that is the rather debilitating neo-baroquerie of a mock suite. Orr stays true to his nature. The outer movements are rhythmical, contrapuntal and energetic; the slow one passionate and deep. It’s good to hear Thurston Dart playing a modern work the idiom of which he obviously has quickly grasped. Granville Jones was a regular recording artist for several years.

This is an enterprising release and is apt indeed in this centenary year. It would however be good if a recording company somewhere decided to tackle some or all of Orr’s three symphonies (see review of the Symphony in one movement) which deserve at least an airing.
Gary Higginson

MusicWeb International Thursday October 14th 2009

A passionate foundation linked to confidences and sorrow …
Robin Orr, Scottish-born but naturalised Swiss, would have been one hundred years old this year but for his death in 2006. He wrote three operas and three symphonies amongst much else. This collection of archive recordings marks the centenary in style.

The 1941 Sonatina is from the only ‘commercial’ recording featured here.  It has been transferred from a Decca 78 from 1948 in that company’s splendidly enlightened Promotion for New Music series. It’s a rapturously dancing piece with the lambent lyrical air of Tippett’s Concerto for Double String Orchestra. A short yet impassioned Adagio Appassionato steps forward in tortured harmonic language but soon sings freely through the violin. It may sing but this song is laden with a cargo of tears. Rostal’s violin tone is supple and slender even when emotional. His sound-world was carried forward into new generations with Yfrah Neaman whose Lyrita recording of the two Ireland Violin Sonatas is now easily accessible (see review).

Six years after the Violin Sonatina came the multi-faceted Viola Sonatam, another work where the composer delves deep into an emotional shadow-land. With Orr it seems there is always a passionate foundation and often that passion is linked to confidences and sorrow as we can unmistakably hear in the Elegy movement.  The flickering bells of the Scherzetto link to the joyous Tippett-like ecstasy of the Violin Sonatina first movement. Orr has no time for prolixity and the Serenade for String Trio serves to emphasise this point. There is an emotionally veiled and ambivalently shaded first movement, a gravely concentrated Andante and a dense and convoluted Adagio moving into terpsichorean Presto. The one movement Duo is from 1953 and revised in 1965. It is not as harmonically severe as the Trio. A perfect little work full of emotional reward it is well able to keep company with the Kodaly Duo for the same instruments. It benefits from the composer’s gift for finding the just length for the expression of his musical conceits and then developing or stopping the statement before the idea lies exhausted. It’s a gift. This work stand high in this company. The 1956 Sonata is for violin and klavier – either harpsichord, as here, or piano. The Allegro rather smacks of Rawsthorne with occasional dancing infusions from his piano teacher Arthur Benjamin. The work has a serious mien but there is the occasional smile often contributed in the harpsichord line here articulated by Thurston Dart. The concentrated arpeggiation of the keyboard in the Largo focuses the lamentation of the violin line without becoming mechanistic. There is something of the minimalism of Sibelius’s The Bard about those harpsichord figurations. The dancing Allegro vivace manages to resist the stultifying hand of its fugal packaging through a Rubbra-like earnestness.

This is the second Orr record from Guild. The first – of orchestral works – is GMCD7196: Italian Overture (1952); From the Book of Philip Sparrow (1969); Rhapsody for String Orchestra (1958); Journeys and Places (1971)* Pamela Helen Stephen* (mezzo); Northern Sinfonia/Howard Griffiths. This is not to forget the EMI Classics CD of the Symphony in one movement.
Rob Barnett

Classical Record Collector Spring 2010

Robin Orr (1909-2006) had a Jong life (he died aged 96); and if, like me, you are catching up with his music, then Robert Matthew-Walker’s booklet note serves very well for Background on this Scottish composer. The opening of the Sonatina for violin and piano (1941) is ear-catching in its neo-classical, Stravinsky-like syncopation, the work as whole engaging. The Viola Sonata (1947) is darker, with no Claims to entertain, the music personal and inward, withdrawn in the second movement, the third offering strong rhythms if no lessening of the emotional burden. The finale continues such weightiness of purpose, but one rarely feels less than engaged and is aware of a serious-minded but not forbidding compositional style. The Serenade for string trio (1949/89) is a lighter affair, transparent in its argument, concise in its ideas and development, the slow middle movement deeply expressive, the finale (after a rather gnarled slow introduction) dances but with significant ideas and instrumental interaction. The Duo for violin and cello (1953/65) bustles with Baroque figurations (as re-interpreted by Stravinsky, but without recalling Pulcinella) and becomes less playful while retaining similar motion; over its course, the 12-minute Duo is a wide-ranging piece and is particularly involving at its energetic mid-point, when one might be listening to a string quartet rather than two (excellent) players. The keyboard part of the “Sonata for Violin and Klavier” (as it is announced on the CD, one of a few Third Programme / BBC Radio 3 announcements usefully retained on this release) is here taken on the harpsichord, by Thurston Dart. Even though Orr allowed harpsichord or piano, the former’s wiry textures sound absolutely right, and the piece itself (from 1956) just might be the pearl of this very revealing and recommendable collection. The recordings are variable, and the pitch sags in the finale of the violin and harpsichord piece, but they have been very well remastered by Peter Reynolds, with results that are never less than acceptable.
Colin Anderson