British Piano Concertos

0 of 5 stars

Concertino in C for piano and string orchestra
Concerto for piano and string orchestra
Concerto for piano and strings
Concerto in D for piano, strings and percussion

Northern Sinfonia
Peter Donohoe (piano)

Recorded between 25-27 November 2003 in Jubilee Hall, Gosforth

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: July 2005
CD No: NAXOS 8.557290
Duration: 78 minutes

An intriguing release in Naxos’s “British Piano Concertos” series (Alan Rawsthorne’s two are on 8.555959); four works not often played, and hardly at all in the case of the examples by Rowley and Darnton.

Each work deserves to be heard more often – certainly that’s what these dedicated recorded accounts suggest. The ordering of the CD matches the chronology of the concertos (save Gerhard’s concerto was either written in 1951 – the same year as Ferguson’s – or ten years later; the sleeve information and the booklet notes disagree).

Alec Rowley (1892-1958) is the only composer here to add extra colour to that of the piano and strings, and even then the percussion is marked ad lib. This concise, 15-minute, three-movement neo-classical piece has an agreeable sense of burgeoning melody in the otherwise crisp first movement, and the lullaby-like Andante naif makes a lovely interlude piece. The finale begins in thornier fashion but soon reveries to pastoral, folk-like ideas. This last movement is double the length of the first two put together; it’s rather loose in construction and, expressively, suggests Delian rhapsody.

Christian Darnton (1905-81) is an interesting character – a composer, bassoonist, conductor and author – his wartime conversion to Communism brought about a simplification and more-populist composing style. Towards the end of his life, he rejected Communism and returned to composition, a Concerto for Orchestra and Symphony No.4 being the results. The Concertino, therefore, is deliberately ‘popular’, yet for all its attempts to ingratiate there’s also a heaviness and greyness that holds it back, certainly in the first movement, which is idiomatically written but rather foursquare. The rather skittish Andante is delightfully simple, though, and engaging (like ‘light’ Shostakovich), maybe parodistic in the march-like middle section. The finale (Presto con disinvoltura) is display-orientated if not without shadow and whimsy.

Probably the strongest music here is by Roberto Gerhard (1896-1970). He left Spain and spent his last 25 years in England and became a British citizen. His concerto, with its links to renaissance Spain, begins arrestingly and is intense and sinewy – thanks to Peter Donohoe’s combustible virtuosity – and he sustains hypnotically the dark and volatile machinations of the extended slow movement in which some crepuscular timbres recall Bartók. The agitated and very rhythmic finale is full of diversion and punch and quotes a Spanish dance that most listeners will recognise as Chabrier’s España.

Altogether more traditional is the crafted lyricism of Howard Ferguson (1908-99), his concerto commissioned for the Festival of Britain and premiered with the composer as soloist. Its yearning melodies and developmental processes of recognisably ‘English’ phrases (albeit Ferguson was born in Belfast) and its ‘outdoors’ feel bring contrasts between romantic gestures and rapid passages that adds a diversity that is unpredictable but underpinned by a classical economy to sustain the spacious opening movement and the lengthy idea-related cadenza. The variations that form the central movement rise to restrained anguish, poignancy not far from the surface. The finale is lighter and, by the end, uncomplicated.

Recorded with a notably integrated balance between piano and strings, which really enhances Donohoe’s involvement with the orchestra as its director, this excellent release could not be better advocacy for a cause so wholly believed in.

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