Symphony No.1, Op.42
Piano Concerto No.3, Op.57 (Concerto estivo)
Howard Shelley (piano)
BBC National Orchestra of Wales
Recorded 14-15 December 2009 in BBC Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff Bay, Cardiff
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: July 2010
CD No: CHANDOS CHAN 10608
Duration: 73 minutes
It’s good news that Chandos is continuing with its Kenneth Leighton series, Martyn Brabbins taking over from the late Richard Hickox. Englishman Leighton (1929-88) left us a fine body of music that has been in much need of recording and disseminating.
Chandos’s invaluable Leighton survey continues with Symphony No.1 (1963-4). It’s a shame about the studio noise that occurs just before the austerely expressive horn solo that launches the work. Like many composers, Leighton, from when a student, hesitated to begin to write a symphony or abandoned drafts. Only in his mid-thirties did he feel able to complete such a work and assigned the opus number of 42 to it (indicative of his already-considerable output outside of the ‘burden’ of composing a symphony). This first of Leighton’s three symphonies won First Prize at the City of Trieste competition in 1965; its premiere followed there under Aldo Ceccato and its first outing in Britain was in 1967 courtesy of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic and Sir Charles Groves, a stalwart champion of new music.
Leighton’s First Symphony is cast in three movements, slow ones enclosing a scherzo. The opening movement is preludial in character – dark, a burgeoning cry from the depths, climaxing with emotional overspill, spiky rhythms taking the music forward, music neither fast nor slow but animated and passionate. A muscular, determined scherzo follows, equally intense, just as remonstrating as the opening movement had been (and with echoes of Shostakovich). The longest movement is the finale, spacious, fervent, lamenting, rising to emotional heights and, finally, sinking to bare depths. There seems no resolution; listening has been a demanding and draining experience.
Piano Concerto No.3 (1969) was given its first performance the following year, the composer (a fine pianist) as soloist, Louis Frémaux conducting the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. Again the writing is powerful, this time with transatlantic elements, expression that soars and drives yet rarely glows as its Spring designation might suggest; but when it does the effect is beguiling. This is a man-size piano part, played with brilliance and trenchancy by Howard Shelley. The slow movement (with leanings to scherzo) is especially entrancing – a mix of ‘midsummer’ Tippett and ‘Cuban’ Gershwin (and one imagines that John McCabe would count himself an admirer) – yet there is a wish that Leighton could have relaxed more at times, even if there is no doubting his vivid communication. The (attached) finale of this ambitious (nearly 40-minute) concerto pulsates with life and reaches a glorious and scintillating close, a journey completed.
There is no doubting the commitment of the performers or the excellence of the recorded sound – or that Leighton’s music demands to be heard.