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Howard FERGUSON (1908-1999)
Concerto for piano and string orchestra, Op.12 (1951) [25:46]
Gerald FINZI (1901-1956)
‘Eclogue’ for piano and string orchestra, Op. 10 (1957) [11:47]
Frederick AUSTIN (1872-1952)
Piano Concertino (ed. David Ellis)* [12:33]
Alan RAWSTHORNE (1905-1971)
Piano Concerto No. 1 (original version for strings and percussion, 1939)* [19:32]
Mark Bebbington (piano)
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra/Howard Williams,
rec. CBSO centre, Birmingham, UK, 28-29 September 2008. DDD.
*Premiere Recordings
SOMM SOMMCD241 [69:49]

 

 


Howard FERGUSON (1908-1999)
Concerto for piano and string orchestra, Op. 12 (1951) [24:10]
Roberto GERHARD
(1896-1970)

Concerto for piano and strings (1961) [22:17]
Alec ROWLEY
(1892-1958)

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 November 2003. DDD.
British Piano Concertos series
NAXOS 8.557290 [78:12]

Experience Classicsonline


This review began life as an article on Discovering Howard Ferguson. It was suggested by my colleague John Quinn who was pleased to have discovered a new convert to the cause in my review of two Chandos recordings by a composer who had previously been known to me only as a pianist. See my recommendations of The Dream of the Rood, on CHAN9082 (download only) and Selected Chamber Works on CHAN9316 (CD and download) in my August, 2009, Download Roundup. The Dream of the Rood is a powerful poem, to which I return more often than to Beowulf. Although it loses something in the translation which Ferguson employs, his setting does the poem justice. If you never download another recording, thinking it too much trouble, do go for this one, preferably in one of the lossless formats, though the Chandos mp3s are about as good as that format gets. 

I hope that those recommendations will go some small way to making the tenth anniversary of Ferguson’s death a little more significant. I say this when the great names whose anniversaries fall this year seem likely to eclipse not just the memory of Ferguson, but even that of Martinů fifty years ago. I’ve been trying to do something about that, too. 

I’m also indebted to JQ for loaning me a copy of a deleted EMI Classics ‘British Composers’ recording of Ferguson’s Piano Concerto, coupled with another enthralling setting of medieval poetry, his Amore langueo, and the marvellous Finzi Eclogue. Formerly on EMI Classics 7 64738-2, with Howard Shelley, the City of London Sinfonia and Richard Hickox, this 1987 recording really does deserve to be reissued. 

The deletion of that EMI Classics recording meant that the only available recording of the Concerto was the Naxos, a very satisfactory recording but oddly coupled. Rob Barnett recommended it with enthusiasm – see review – and I entirely share his enthusiasm for the performances. However, where he saw the diversity of the four works as an advantage, I found the contrast between the Ferguson and Gerhard, which together put the other pieces very much in the shade, a little hard to digest. Though the Gerhard is a more approachable work than much of his music, it still sounds somewhat angular alongside the Ferguson. If the coupling appeals, however, it remains a fine bargain recommendation, also available in very good mp3 sound from classicsonline.com and passionato.com and also in lossless .flac from the latter. 

The Finzi Eclogue makes an ideal partner for the Ferguson Concerto, and it’s here that the deleted EMI and the new Somm versions score. This is music to die for. If the performance on the new Somm recording struck me as an iota less enticing at the beginning than the EMI, or that by Howard Jones and William Boughton on Nimbus (NI5665, with the Clarinet Concerto and Love’s Labour’s Lost – see review), I was soon almost won over. Rob Barnett thought the pace of the Nimbus placid and well-judged, noting that some performers push the music too hard. If I have a criticism of the new version, it is that it’s just a little too placid – almost sleepy at times. 

This is clearly preferable to the alternative; Edmund Rubbra was right to call this a work of ‘untroubled serenity’, but I would have preferred a tempo a shade faster than that which Bebbington and Williams adopt; perhaps something closer to the Shelley/Hickox 9:56 or the near-identical 10:01 on Nimbus. After all, Virgil’s Eclogues may be set in an idyllic rural setting, with Tityrus lying back in the shade singing the praise of beautiful Amaryllis at the opening of the first Eclogue, but his friend Melibœus lives in the real world, where he is about to be driven off his land:

Tityre, tu patulæ recubans sub tegmine fagi
silvestrem tenui musam meditaris avena;
nos patriæ finis et dulcia linquimus arva.
nos patriam fugimus: tu, Tityre, lentus in umbra  
formosam resonare doces Amaryllida silvas

The performance of the Finzi on the new recording is just a little too lentus in umbra – laid back in that shade. 

In the Ferguson Concerto, however, Bebbington and Williams are much closer to the tempi of the Shelley and Donohoe recordings; mere seconds apart in every movement from Shelley. Donohoe is in close agreement in the Finale but slightly faster in the other two movements. All three performances make perfect sense in their own contexts; if I prefer the Shelley by a hair’s breadth, there’s so much to enjoy and admire in the other two versions that choice between the two may confidently be settled by the coupling. The work itself was composed in Festival of Britain year, 1951; its reasonably warm reception in the UK may have been coloured by the optimism of that time. It was not well received in the States – most unfairly, as all three recordings make clear. This is a factor which the note-writer is doubtless correct in seeing as part of the reason why Ferguson began to withdraw from composition, feeling himself out of tune with the times. If you have followed me to the Chandos recordings of Ferguson – and even if you haven’t – this concerto should be your next discovery. 

Fortunately, Ferguson did not finally give up composition until after he had composed The Dream of the Rood in 1958. This is the work which, in its Chandos performance, first led me to stumble across his music. It was only his Op.18. At least that recording is still available to download, but we urgently need a commercially available recording of Amore langueo. Perhaps Somm, Hyperion, Chandos or Naxos would oblige? 

Frederic Austin’s Piano Concertino is here receiving its first recording. Austin was an important musical figure in the first half of the 20th century but is now almost totally unknown. As far as I am aware, there is only one other example of his music in the catalogue, a recording of Spring (another world-premiere) on ClassicO (CLASSCD404, with first recordings of music by Bowen and Bainton – see review). The Piano Concertino was commissioned in 1943 by Ernest Irving; it was probably intended for a film. Somm’s notes describe it as ‘well crafted’, which sounds a little like damning with faint praise. In fact, I thought it rather better than that. I almost found myself enjoying it as much as the Ferguson. It’s much less out of place in this august company than the Rowley and Darnton on Naxos – and it certainly receives strong advocacy here. 

Alan Rawsthorne’s First Piano Concerto is normally performed in the fuller orchestral scoring of the revised 1942 version, in which form it is available in good performances on Lyrita (SRCD.255 – see review), Chandos at lower mid-price (CHAN10339X – see review) and Naxos (8.555959 – see review and review). Perhaps it’s because I’m a fellow Lancastrian in origin, but I find the music of Rawthorne very appealing. Only the lack of space in an over-crowded collection made me ditch the Naxos when I obtained the Chandos recording. I certainly don’t expect this new Somm recording to be following the Naxos to the charity shop. The performance makes a strong case for the earlier version. The scoring for strings and percussion only didn’t leave me feeling that anything was missing. Indeed, the differences between the two versions are of nowhere near the magnitude of the revisions which Sibelius made to his Violin Concerto or Vaughan Williams to his ‘London’ Symphony. I hardly ever listen to the Haitink recording of the latter, good though it is, but much prefer the Chandos/Hickox version of the original version. In any event I’m pleased that the earlier version of the Rawsthorne has been recorded. As the Somm notes aptly put it, ‘Rawsthorne’s first thoughts on this work allow it to emerge as a much grittier piece and the percussive nature of much of the piano writing comes into its own set against the pithier orchestration’. 

The recording is truthful throughout and the notes, by Bruce Phillips and Martin Lee-Browne are very helpful. The latter is Frederic Austin’s grandson and a strong advocate of his grandfather’s music. He doesn’t over-egg the pudding; underselling the Concerto, if anything. Prospective purchasers need not hesitate. This is a worthy successor to Somm’s recordings of Mark Bebbington in the music of Frank Bridge (SOMMCD056 – see review), John Ireland (SOMMCD088 – see review), Gurney and Ferguson (the Sonata in f and 5 Bagatelles, SOMMCD038 – see review and review) and Arnold and Lambert (SOMMCD062 – see review). I may have come to appreciate this new CD via a route different from that taken by Rob Barnett – he enjoyed the slow tempo in the Finzi more than I did (see review) – but I can readily echo his overall recommendation. 

There remain just a handful of recordings of Howard Ferguson which I haven’t touched on: his Violin Sonata No.2 on Guild (GMCD7120, with music by Eugene Goossens and John Ireland), a performance which I pass over merely for lack of access and because it is duplicated on the Selected Chamber Music recording on Chandos to which I have already referred. Nor do I at the moment have access to the 2-for-1 Hyperion Dyad recording of English Clarinet Music on which Ferguson’s Four Short Pieces, Op.6 feature (CDD22027) or Howard Shelley’s performance of the Sonata and Partita (Hyperion CDA66130 – Archive Service only). The clarinet pieces are, in any case, also available from Chandos (see below). 

His Octet is performed by the aptly named Ensemble Acht with Jean Francaix’s Octuor on Thorofon CTH2249 – available to download from classicsonline.com and emusic.com – and his Four Short Pieces for Clarinet and Piano, Op.6, are on Chandos (CHAN9079, CD, mp3 or lossless download). 

The Chandos recording features good performances by Einar Jóhannesson and Philip Jenkins of music by William Hurlstone, Arthur Bliss (Pastoral), Richard Stoker, Thomas Dunhill, Charles Villiers Stanford (Clarinet Sonata) and Malcolm Arnold (Sonatina) in addition to Ferguson’s Four Short Pieces, wistful and cheerful by turns. There’s nothing here to set the world alight, apart from the Arnold Sonatina, but all the music is attractive and either the CD or the download is well worth considering. It would, for example, make an excellent adjunct to the Finzi and Stanford Clarinet Concertos and Chamber Music on ASV (CDDCA787, Emma Johnson/RPO/Groves – see August, 2009, Download Roundup). 

With the deletion of the Nash Ensemble recording on Hyperion and the Dutton Collectors Edition reissue, the Thorofon appears to be the only available version of the Octet, Op.4, regarded by many, with some justification, as his finest composition. Originally planned as a quintet, then as a septet before taking its final form, it’s a tuneful but far from superficial work, employing the same instrumental combination as the Schubert Octet – clarinet, horn, bassoon, two violins, viola, cello and double bass – and it receives strong advocacy here: Ferguson himself is on record as having thought this ‘a beautiful performance’. It’s rather short value at 40:21 but, with an attractive coupling in Jean Françaix’s Octuor, it’s well worth downloading from classicsonline.com or emusic.com, which appears to be the only way to obtain it in the UK. This recording makes a perfect complement to the chamber works on CHAN9316. 

These, then, are possibilities for the future, perhaps best considered after obtaining one of the recordings of the Piano Concerto. You wouldn’t go wrong with either of them; my own preference for the new Somm is largely dictated by the couplings.

Brian Wilson

see also Reviews by Rob Barnett and Christopher Howell

 



 

 
 


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