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Howard FERGUSON (1908-1999)
Concerto for piano and string orchestra Op. 12 (1951) [24:10]

Concerto for piano and strings (1961) [22:17]

Concerto in D major for piano, strings and percussion Op. 49 (1938) [15:10]
Christian DARNTON (1905-1981)

Concerto in C major for piano and string orchestra (1948) [16:35]
Peter Donohoe (piano and conductor)
Northern Sinfonia
rec. Jubilee Hall, Gosforth, UK, 25-27 Nov 2003
British Piano Concertos series
NAXOS 8.557290 [78:12]
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The first volume in this series was a rather good version of the Bliss piano concerto. The Bliss is a leonine monument to the composerís love affair with the romantic concerto and with the inspiration of a great virtuoso - in that case Moiseiwitsch. Donohoe was well suited to that work and he does equally well with the present mix.

The Gerhard is the work of an émigré to the UK; a refugee from Francoís Spain. It is the most dissonant and sombre of the four works. The Diferencias middle movement winds through a dark land. The mood links with the most bleakly disconsolate music by Shostakovich. The composerís Spanish voice rings true and clear even if the waters have turned grey and the shadows have lengthened. Donohoe makes of this movement a statement struck with foreboding: distilled and potent. The finale makes murderous play with Chabrierís España. The concerto was premiered at Aldeburgh in 1951 by Mewton-Wood and Norman Del Mar. It has not proved the most popular of works and there have been very few broadcasts. The last one I can trace was by Angela Brownridge (soon to have her three CD set of the piano works of Kenneth Leighton issued on Delphian) with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra conducted by Jonathan Del Mar in April 1982.

Alec Rowley is usually thought of, if at all, as a writer of didactic pieces but in fact he wrote a small treasury of concert works. If this concerto is anything to go by his more serious pieces should be thoroughly explored. Itís a populist romantic piece which manages to shake off most of the stock gestures. Framing a pastoral Andante naif are an emphatically romantic Allegro ritmico which has that roseate nostalgic glow familiar from Constant Lambertís Rio Grande and a final movement Allegro burlesco. This recalls the lively syncopated music from Waltonís Sinfonia Concertante mixed with Irelandís eager freshness. Warwick Braithwaite conducted the premiere which was given by a BBC studio orchestra. The soloist in 1938 was Franz Weitzmann.

Christian Darntonís three movement Concertino seems to have been written with one eye on Bach and another on the sardonic Prokofiev who also haunts the finale. The second movement catches the Shostakovich chill presenting its argument with chiselled clarity. The buzzing pizzicato and pecked piano notes announce a grim Mussorgskian joy. The work was once broadcast on the BBC Third Programme played by Joseph Cooper with the Kathleen Riddick conducting her own orchestra.

Howard Ferguson gave up writing music in the 1950s. His Piano Concerto falls into that part of his music that is more relaxed and celebratory. The other work in that category is his Overture for an Occasion. The music rises in a liltingly Finzian shimmer in the strings before catching echoes of both Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov (No. 3). The Vaughan Williams-like modality of the central movement also links with Rachmaninov. This was not unusual - listen to the Harty and the Stanford Second as well as to the Moeran Rhapsody No. 3. Bright-eyed and Howellsian, the allegro giovale is just that - jovial and high-spirited - a celebration of someoneís golden summer. This is not the Fergusonís first recording. There is an equally good version on EMI Classics (Howard Shelley, CLS, Hickox). That came out in 1986. Before that there were several broadcasts including one in which Reginald Paul was the soloist and the BBC Welsh Orchestra were conducted by Rae Jenkins.

Andrew Burn contributes an ideal note giving the fullest background on each of these works and on their composers.

Donohoe was unaccountably dropped by EMI after their temporary infatuation with him in the mid to late 1970s. His set of the Tchaikovsky piano concertos and Concert Fantasy is especially strong. You can pick it up on EMI Gemini. The Donohoe-Barshai recording of the Tchaikovsky Second Concerto makes you reassess upwards any views you may have about it being second-rate. He is certainly in the company of Petukhov and Cherkassky. Donohoe can also be heard on Naxos in two Finzi works for piano and orchestra: the seraphic Eclogue and the meditative then exuberantly Waltonian Grand Fantasia and Fugue.

This series started, and has continued, very well indeed. I do hope that Donohoe will surprise and delight us with a selection of the piano concertos of Ruth Gipps, Jack Hawes, R.S. Coke, Sorabji and that fascinating Ďrecidivistí W.S. Gaze Cooper. Of course we also need good alternative versions of Baxís two major works for piano and orchestra especially Winter Legends. Plenty of territory to cover.

Four contrasting concertos for piano with string orchestra. They are all played with surging elan and no little poetry. The style is romantic for the Ferguson and Rowley while the Gerhard and Darnton are spiced with more astringent fibre. Enthusiastically recommended.

Rob Barnett

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