Classical Editor: Rob Barnett                               Founder Len Mullenger:

Piano Concerto No. 1 in A Minor, Op. 15
Piano Concerto No. 2 in D Minor, Op. 22
Hexentanz (Witches Dance), Op. 17, No. 2
Romance for Cello and Orchestra, Op. 35

Stephen Prutsman (piano), Aisling Drury Byrne (cello), National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland/Arthur Fagen
recorded 13-14/9/99, in the National Concert Hall, Dublin. DDD
NAXOS 8.559049 [56.12]
Crotchet   AmazonUK   AmazonUS

This is another of those Naxos recordings proudly displaying the Stars and Stripes, plus the logo "American Classics" emblazoned down the left hand edge of the case. One would never know the country of origin of the works from their sound. MacDowell was a turn of the century American composer who spent his formative years in Europe (being educated in both France and Germany). His works sound like it.

This disc couples together the two Piano Concerti of MacDowell. These are perhaps his best known works (apart from one or two piano miniatures) and it is wonderful to get such good performances of them recorded in such good sound for under a fiver. The main competition is from Hyperion, (Seta Tanyel) and Olympia (Donna Amato), if you can still get it. Both of these competitive versions are at full price, and given the standard of recording and performance, I would say that there is very little competition for the new Naxos recording.

If you have either of these other performances, then there is no need to buy the Naxos disc, but if not don't hesitate. The couplings may also influence you in your purchase. The Hyperion disc has the Second Modern Suite while the Olympia has nothing. What we get on the Naxos disc is two World Premiere recordings of two short pieces. So, you pays your money and you takes your choice so to speak. Indeed, in addition to his works having a typical Germanic feel to them, they have both an individuality and a tunefulness which I find most attractive. They are not world shattering masterpieces, but neither are many of the works issued nowadays. This disc is well worth purchasing.

The enthusiast is well served with these concerti, one at bargain price, two at full price, and all three being of high quality, if not identical. So where are the differences? The timings of the three performances are about the same except for the Naxos issue which is usually faster in all but one movement. The differences are not that much, but there is a somewhat different character to the nature of the pieces.

To give an example, take the second movement of the second concerto. It is marked "presto giocoso" and this is perhaps where the greatest difference occurs. In the Olympia and Hyperion issues, the emphasis is on the giocoso with both performances bouncing along in a very good natured way. In the Naxos issue however, Steven Prutsman really takes the bit between his teeth and stresses the presto element. Although the timings are not that different Olympia 5'15", Hyperion 5'10" and Naxos 4'44", the half a minute in such a short movement makes quite a difference to the pace. In all three, the respective orchestras are more than capable of supporting their soloists, and all three recordings are more than adequate.

The fillups are very interesting, with two World Premieres on display. MacDowell was primarily a miniaturist rather than a full blown symphonic composer, and here we have two short pieces, the first of which is called Hexentanz (Witches Dance). It is written for solo piano and orchestra, and it is very interesting hearing what MacDowell thinks of the witch persona. This one seems to be not so much wicked as cheerful, as there is little menace in the writing.

The second extra piece is the Romance for Cello and Orchestra and this is very beautiful writing, superbly played by the first cello of the Orchestra, Aisling Drury Byrne.

These short works remind me somewhat of Grieg and so if you are attracted by the programme, go ahead, you are certain to enjoy this.

I can thoroughly recommend this issue to the collector, but do not be misled - this is not American music as we know of it today. Well done Naxos - another first class issue well played, performed and recorded by all concerned, with exemplary notes included at a rock bottom price.

John Phillips

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