Howard Shelley (Proms 2005 – Week 8)

Written by: Colin Anderson

Pianist Howard Shelley is a great explorer of the repertoire. At the Proms on Monday 5 September Howard plays Alan Rawsthorne’s Piano Concerto No. 2, “a great piece and not typically English…”

One photograph of centenary composer Alan Rawsthorne (1905-71) suggests him as a dilettante – stylish hat, cane, bow tie – yet his intense and passionate music belies that image. At the Proms, on September 5, after a 20-year absence, is Rawsthorne’s Piano Concerto No. 2, written for Clifford Curzon and first heard in the Royal Festival Hall in 1951 during the Festival of Britain. Howard Shelley is the Proms soloist in music recorded on Chandos (Geoffery Tozer), Decca (Curzon) and Naxos (Peter Donohoe). Howard recalls Curzon, now regarded as a peerless interpreter of the classics, as having “a very big repertoire and he was a very dynamic player. His recording of the Rawsthorne is very dramatic, full of energy. It’s a great piece and not typically English; it has quite a European sound.” Rawsthorne, who chose music over dentistry, was influenced by Hindemith – “but with a warmer soul.”

The concerto begins with a lovely flute melody that is “easygoing and sweet, and the old-fashioned piano versus orchestra element is still there. It’s a strong work. He said the slow movement is nostalgic and that the immobile intelligentsia would confuse it with the romantic mess of the last century.” Rawsthorne, a Lancastrian, seems also to write music evocative of his northern background: mill towns and smoke? “Exactly, there’s certainly northern grit present.” Rawsthorne undertook piano studies with Frank Merrick and Egon Petri. Howard describes Rawsthorne’s writing for the instrument as “excellent, fantastic; it’s difficult but it lies very well for the hands. There are some odd notes; I hope to get hold of the manuscript so I can check things out.”

Howard is no stranger to donning a Sherlock Holmes-like deerstalker. Although his repertoire and discography includes the great stuff, Mozart and Rachmaninov concertos for example, he plays a wide and diverse selection of pieces. “I like learning things and exploring lesser-known paths. I check these works out in the British Library to see if they are worth doing. Then manuscripts and published scores have to be compared to edit mistakes, but to find these lovely works, which are fiendishly difficult to play, and put them on record is a great project. It’s amazing how quickly virtuoso piano writing developed; it was an intense period.”

“I enjoy the whole recording process”, says Howard. For Chandos he has essayed concertos by Rubbra, Lyapunov, Lennox Berkeley, Tippett, Scott No. 2, and is working through those by Johann Nepomuk Hummel. Howard is soon to record Cyril Scott’s Concerto No. 1. For Hyperion, CDs of concertos by Herz and Kalkbrenner await release. “What interesting lives these people led. Hummel got copyright for composers started and Herz had a seven-year tour of America in the early nineteenth century.”

Howard has a close relationship with the London Mozart Players. He conducts this fine orchestra in Kingston Parish Church on 24 September (020 8979 0074) in symphonies by Haydn and Mozart and plays and directs Beethoven’s Second Concerto. “As my career goes on, I have focussed to the things that I really enjoy doing. I principally enjoy directing things from the keyboard, being my own conductor. I love conducting; you concentrate completely on what you want to do with the music; and the orchestra is a wonderful sound-machine.” For Chandos Howard has recorded symphonies by Robert Casadesus and Alice Mary Smith, the latter the first British woman to write a symphony – in 1863.

The Shelley family is devoted to music. Howard’s wife is the pianist Hilary McNamara and their 25-year-old son Alexander recently took first prize in the Leeds Conductors Competition. This ensures Alexander, who studied the cello with the LSO’s Tim Hugh, numerous London engagements. “That was absolutely thrilling! Alexander formed his own orchestra in Germany where he studied with a marvellous teacher.” I make a mental note to interview Alexander for his first London date. I also enquire about Howard’s future plans; understandably, as they are still under discussion, he’s keeping them under wraps. But “there’s a lot of repertoire out there and I like a challenge!”

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