Midsummer Ale – Overture, Op.73
Piano Concerto No.1 in B flat, Op.34
Symphony No.1 in D minor, Op.2
Peter Donohoe (piano)
Royal Scottish National Orchestra
Recorded 28-30 November 2006 in Henry Wood Hall, Glasgow
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: September 2007
CD No: NAXOS 8.570406
Duration: 72 minutes
Manchester-born John Gardner turned 90 on 2 March 2007. He is a prolific composer – his catalogue runs to 249 opus numbers (his most recent piece is a Bassoon Concerto written in 2004). Chris Gardner (the composer’s son) has written an informative booklet note and there is a link below to the official John Gardner website.
Naxos’s enterprising release affords an excellent ‘concert’ of Gardner’s music. The overture is Midsummer Ale (1965) – an enticing title and not as second-hand as Academic Festival Overture would have been! – a lively and witty creation that shares a certain stylistic kinship with Gardner’s near-contemporary, the late Malcolm Arnold. It is an agreeable piece of ‘light’ music, colourfully scored (including piano and saxophone, the latter invoking Walton’s “Façade” and not just in timbre) and a piece good to know. The problem is, though, that Gardner’s music is rather neglected; it seems that his best-known piece is a Christmas Carol, “Tomorrow shall be my dancing day”.
If the overture is in a certain ‘mould’, if enjoyably bright and breezy, and tuneful, the Piano Concerto is quite distinctive and a real find. Surprisingly, given that John Barbirolli conducted, the 1957 premiere (at the Cheltenham Festival) is described as “lack-lustre” by Chris Gardner, although maybe the ‘blame’ is aimed at soloist Cyril Preedy. Save for a Malcolm Binns/Adrian Boult revival in 1965, the concerto has been unperformed until these Naxos sessions.
The work opens with a burst of energy, the invention is sinewy and intense and is well-sustained through plenty of activity and incident, which can be heard as integral to the musical argument. The wind-down to some tense lyricism is quite absorbing. The opening solos of the second movement, including from the piano, soliloquise in the manner of Leonard Bernstein’s Second Symphony (The Age of Anxiety, after W. H. Auden’s poem, which was first heard in 1949 in Boston with Koussevitzky conducting and the composer as pianist). Indeed the lonely atmosphere is strikingly similar and Gardner’s movement even follows a Variation pattern as in the first movement of Bernstein’s symphony. Whether coincidence or not, Gardner’s writing is strikingly dramatic and enjoys the bravura of Peter Donohoe who may be rather too powerful and dominant at times, but he plays with conviction. The finale, initiated by a side drum, is stern in its melodic outlines but with a dance seemingly trying to break free.
The 40-minute Symphony (1947) was also first-led by Barbirolli (in 1951, Cheltenham again) but is dedicated to another conductor, Reginald Goodall. (Gardner withdrawing all his pre-war music explains the ‘low’ opus number of 2.) It’s in the ‘usual’ four movements. The opening is potent (sometimes enchanted) and outlays immediately that this is an ambitious and expansive symphony, a big and serious piece, communicating to and taking with it any listener willing to work hard on its abstract nature and elusive (if tightly controlled) form. A sense of ‘space’ (literally so in terms of Holstian mysticism) and some sort of struggle informs the first movement (which is neither ‘slow’ or ‘allegro’). After the inconclusive first movement, the scherzo is spectral and light-hearted, or seems so, with suggestions of folksong breaking through, while the wonderful Lento returns us to lyricism imbued with deep feeling that seems to lament a tragedy. But there is comfort too, the sort of humanism that is associated with Vaughan Williams’s most searching examples. Dare one suggest that VW’s final symphony, the visionary Ninth, is (at times) anticipated here? The finale is the punchy allegro that the opening movement never became, but Gardner doesn’t indulge such outbursts and the listener is gratified by a variety of moods, scorings and cross-rhythms – that had me in mind of Bax – en route to a triumphal conclusion: a real sense of arrival.
The performances are first-rate, and vividly recorded, which pay tribute to David Lloyd-Jones’s abilities to rehearse and record unfamiliar music to a very high standard and, of course, the quickness and expertise of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra to respond with what is needed. (I assume that, as is often the way, there were no concert performances beforehand.) John Gardner’s music demands to be heard … and this Naxos release makes this ridiculously easy. May there be more issues of his music.