> Noel Mewton-Wood recordings [JW]: Classical CD Reviews- June2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Noel Mewton-Wood (1922-1953)
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)

Piano Concerto No. 4
Sonata No. 8 for Piano and Violin
Isaac ALBENIZ (1860-1909)

Malagueña arr Fritz Kreisler
Frederic CHOPIN (1810-1849)

Tarantelle in A Flat Op. 43
Carl Maria von WEBER (1786-1826)

Sonata No. 1 Op. 24 – Rondo
Franz LISZT (1811-1886)

Petrarch Sonnet 47
Petrarch Sonnet 104

Peter I TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)

Piano Concerto No. 2 Op. 44
Dimitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)

Concerto No. 1 for Piano and Trumpet and Strings Op. 35
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)

Kinderszenen Op 15
Ferruccio BUSONI (1866-1924)

Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 2 Op. 36a
Michael TIPPETT (1905-1998)

Boyhood’s End
The Heart’s Assurance

Noel Mewton-Wood, piano with
Utrecht Symphony Orchestra (Beethoven)
Winterthur Symphony Orchestra (Tchaikovsky)
Concert Hall Symphony Orchestra (Shostakovich)
Walter Goehr, conductor
Ida Haendel, violin (Beethoven, Albeniz)
Max Rostal, violin (Busoni)
Peter Pears, tenor (Tippett)
Harry Sevenstern, trumpet (Shostakovich)
Recorded 1941-1953
ABC 461 900-2 [3 CDs 210’32]

Exact contemporaries, Noel Mewton-Wood and William Kapell shared a grim connection. They both died at thirty-one, in 1953, Kapell in a plane crash, Newton-Wood by his own hand. Melbourne-born Mewton-Wood’s talent was spotted early. He made his concert debut at twelve, was heard by Wilhelm Backhaus, then on an Australian tour, and was soon studying piano at the Royal Academy of Music with fellow Australian Max Pirani and composition with Frank Bridge. He also attended Schnabel’s master classes near Lake Como. His London debut came at Queen’s Hall, conducted by Beecham. He was still only seventeen.

He premiered the revised version of Britten’s Piano Concerto in 1946 and regularly performed with Bliss, Britten and Pears, as well as Tippett. His embrace of the gargantuan Busoni Concerto was no less remarkable and a recording exists of his performance, again with Beecham, with the BBC Symphony Orchestra in January 1948. Hindemith was yet another fervent admirer of a pianist who consumed the contemporary literature with as much enthusiasm as the Romantic. This three CD set comes from ABC in its Australian Heritage series and spans the range of his tragically short career. In addition Dante have released a number of his recordings – the Chopin Concertos, none on ABC, are to be found on Dante HPC105, the Fourth Beethoven coupled with an excellent Schumann Concerto is on HPC106, and a Dante Double contains all three Tchaikovsky Concertos. The Weber sonatas are on Pearl and doubtless other things have been reissued. But much of his slender discography is now once more available and we have a renewed opportunity to survey it and consider his abiding legacy.

The Beethoven Concerto might, given his studies in Switzerland, be assumed to be firmly in the Schnabelian mould. He is certainly trenchant in his attacks, with an air of internal drama heightened by considerable reserves of technique and engagement. As elsewhere in these often-revelatory discs he can sometimes seem almost too involved, sometimes forcing his tone, especially in climactic passages. But these are passing details – sensitivity allied to intensity was his imperishable virtue. Goehr is an entirely sympathetic conductor, as he is elsewhere, though the orchestra is rather subfusc – winds very forward in the balance and not always attractive and strings that can sound more than a little scrawny. But the conception as a whole is entirely winning. Maybe there is a little retarded rhythm at 10’01 but it is of a piece with the performance of the movement as a whole. The slow movement is inward at a slow tempo; weight of piano tone judged perfectly whereas the finale is vivacious, life-affirming with some turbulent playing toward the end of the movement. The performance as a whole sounds much as it should – as an involved argument revealed through struggle.

Mewton-Wood’s earliest discs were made for Decca on 18 February 1941. The chosen piece, Beethoven’s Sonata No. 8, was made when he was 18 and violin partner Ida Haendel 13. They never performed together on the concert stage but only in the studio. Firstly it must be said that excessive filtering has been applied to these wartime Deccas. Notoriously noisy though these discs can be, far too much treble has been cut and the result is something of a trial to listen to – Dutton has shown how it is often possible to deal sympathetically with Deccas of this vintage without the severe frequency losses entailed here. As for the performance, even given the youth of the performers and the rather mercurial nature of the partnership (they’d never met before) it’s still a disappointing performance. There is a thoughtless, relentless quality to the first movement and whilst there are nice touches – some rather smeary ones too from Haendel in the slow movement – it’s a spirited teenage performance but really not much more. In the slightly later recorded Albeniz, which made up the final side of the Beethoven, there are some decidedly "noises off" bowing moments from Haendel. Of exceptional interest are the two Liszt Petrarch Sonnets as they come from what is believed to be Mewton-Wood’s last BBC recital. Pianist Geoffrey Tozer makes the point, quoted in the booklet notes, that these are vehement to the point of combustibility. They are, it’s true, radically complex and spontaneous and a remarkable survival.

CD2 contains the Tchaikovsky Concerto No. 2, Shostakovich No. 1 and Schumann’s Kinderszenen. He recorded all three Tchaikovsky Piano Concertos but this is possibly the pick of them. In Siloti’s well-known edition this is a tour de force, a veritable arsenal of pianistic brilliance. There’s great delicacy amid the bravura, deep reserves, yet again, of technical prowess and some coruscating passagework in the first movement. The sound is now considerably improved than on its original appearance, though the orchestra, led by Peter Rybar - whose violin solos are musicianly but thin of tone – is conscientious but hardly of comparable luxuriance to the soloist. It’s a disappointing feature of his concerto recordings, disappointing but hardly fatal, that he worked with rather provincial orchestras, albeit with the estimable Walter Goehr in charge. Nevertheless there is some truly magnificent playing from Mewton-Wood and this is one of the highlights of the entire set. He, together with the athletic and formidable trumpeter Harry Sevenstern, makes an adroit match in the Shostakovich, a performance that really takes off. They are spikier, stronger and more dramatic than the otherwise attractive pairing of Eileen Joyce, the Hallé and Leslie Heward. With Goehr once again in charge the performance has real élan. Mewton-Wood had recorded Schumann’s Etudes Symphoniques for Decca in 1948/49 (released on Decca AK 2361/3). In about 1950 he was privately recorded playing Kinderszenen. The sleeve notes show the four record labels – Joint Broadcasting Committee discs numbered NPH 260-263. He never recorded the piece commercially and so, as with the Petrarch Sonnets, this is something of a coup. It’s a fast performance, sometimes disconcertingly so, but not unfeeling. He rushes Traümerei somewhat and here, as elsewhere on these fascinating discs, whilst he tries to create a structural unity of the work there are moments where his phrasing can be a little plain and also a little cursory.

The final CD features Busoni’s magnificent Second Violin Sonata. The violinist is the eminent Max Rostal and the performance dates from 1952, the year before the pianist’s death, and was issued on the Westminster and Argo labels. Rostal was a fellow Decca recorder – he and Franz Osborn had recorded some Beethoven Sonatas for the company and would, in truth, have been a far more obvious candidate for the Eighth Sonata than Haendel, as would incidentally either Sammons or Grinke, also contracted to Decca at the time, had maturity and experience been the criteria. He and Mewton-Wood make an impressive but not unassailable case for the work. The pianist is in tremendous form, his intellectual capacities for assimilating new scores probably as advanced as his violinist colleague’s but with a technique palpably superior. There are distinct intonational worries with Rostal and his occasionally thin and parched tone can grate, especially in the first two movements. He comes into rather better form, thankfully, in the last, a profound 26-minute meditation, in which Mewton-Wood displays convincing control of architecture, magnificent depth of tonal variety and excellent co-ordination with his partner. The variations in the final movement with their fugal entries and the succeeding restatement of the Bach Chorale Wie wohl ist mir, O Freund der Seele are all judged with unerring rightness by the pianist who supports Rostal’s increasingly successful playing with forceful sensitivity. The final two pieces are undisputed classics of the gramophone, Tippett’s Boyhood’s End and The Heart’s Assurance in which the pianist accompanies Peter Pears, recordings also dating from 1952. Britten had played at the premiere of the former and Pears commissioned the latter. By this time Mewton-Wood often replaced an increasingly busy Britten as Pears’ accompanist. These world premiere recordings were made for Argo and are as profoundly shot through with insight and understanding as the day they were made. The co-ordination between Pears and Mewton-Wood, physically uneasy because of the cramped and unusual recording location, is unrivalled and the pianism is almost intuitively alert to the melismatic writing in Boyhood’s End as it is to the perhaps greater challenge, interpretively and mechanically, of The Heart’s Assurance.

These are very special discs. They enshrine a great talent cut down in early manhood whose achievements were obvious but whose greater future was lost to us. ABC’s booklet is packed with biographical information, to much of which I’m indebted, and also some evocative photographs. The transfers have generally been effected with skill – points of contention otherwise noted – and the set stands as a worthy celebration of Mewton-Wood’s lasting place in recorded history.

Jonathan Woolf




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