> Tovey and Mackenzie Piano Concertos [JQ]: Classical CD Reviews- Aug 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Alexander Campbell MACKENZIE (1847-1935): Scottish Concerto, Op. 55 [28.09]
Donald Francis TOVEY (1873-1940): Piano Concerto in A major, Op. 15 [33.20]
Steven Osborne (piano)
BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra conducted by Martyn Brabbins
Recorded in City Hall, Candleriggs, Glasgow 8-9 January 1998
The Romantic Piano Concerto: Volume 19
HYPERION CDA67023 [61.40]


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This, the 19th volume in Hyperion’s Romantic Piano Concerto series, could be said to wear the Tartan proudly. One of the two featured composers was a Scot while the other (Tovey) effectively became Scots by adoption, occupying the chair of music at Edinburgh University from 1914 until his death. Moreover, the disc features a Scottish soloist and orchestra.

Both the concertos recorded here have been long neglected despite the prominent positions in British musical life which both composers occupied during their respective lifetimes. However, perhaps this neglect should not surprise us for enterprise has always been in short supply in certain quarters of British musical life: as John Purser points out in his excellent and detailed notes. Neither of these pieces interested any British publisher and eventually both were published in Germany.

Mackenzie’s is the earlier of the two works. It was composed in 1897, during his time as Principal of the Royal Academy of Music (1888-1924). Each of its three movements is based on a traditional Scottish melody and the work features much virtuoso piano writing (not surprisingly, since Mackenzie was a first class pianist – and, apparently, an even better violinist!)

The opening movement is noble and heroic in tone, though never bombastic. Like much British music of the period it is heavily influenced by German models. In his teens Mackenzie played the violin in a German court orchestra. Without a break the first movement dissolves into a central slow movement of melting loveliness. The traditional tune on which this section is founded is called ‘The Waulking of the Fauld’ (‘watching over the sheepfold’) Appropriately, there is a pastoral feel to some passages, in other places it sounds like a nocturne. Whatever label one chooses to apply the music is disarmingly beautiful. John Purser aptly describes it as " ardent, and yet deeply nostalgic." It is performed here with great sensitivity. The rapt ending (Track 5, from 7’ 79") is particularly affecting. The cellos have a gorgeous tune, commented on by the soloist, this is followed by a brief, haunting oboe solo before the pianist brings the movement to a tranquil close. I was quite bowled over by this movement and the first time I played the disc I immediately "encored" it before proceeding to the finale.

The last movement is a joy. It is a witty romp based on Green Grow the Rushes O, which Purser describes as "a dance of triumph and delight." There is much to keep the soloist on his toes but, as has been the case throughout, he is very much in partnership with the orchestra. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the remarkable passage beginning at 4’ 03" (Track 6) where the helter-skelter pace pauses and the tune on which the first movement was based, The Reel of Tulloch, is reprised. The tune is not given to the soloist but instead is played by the cellos with decoration by the piano. The celebratory mood is soon picked up again, however, and soloists and orchestra whirl the piece to an exuberant close.

Premiered by Paderewski, no less, and subsequently taken up by Busoni, this concerto has, nevertheless, slumbered for decades. Why? It is a fine, attractive and enjoyable work which I am delighted to have encountered thanks to the enterprise of Hyperion. It would be good to see it feature in concert programmes or on radio sometimes as a change from the regular concerto fare (I’d like to hear it any day in preference, say, to Liszt’s empty bombast) but I suppose that’s wishing for the moon.

Sir Donald Francis Tovey is best remembered nowadays for his insightful writings about music. However, like Mackenzie he too was a piano virtuoso and, as his 1903 Piano Concerto demonstrates, a composer of some substance.

Like the Mackenzie work, Tovey’s concerto is in three movements and it has a similarly strong, confident demeanour. The substantial first movement, which accounts for nearly half the length of the whole work, is heavily influenced by Brahms, and none the worse for that. Indeed, I was strongly reminded of Brahms’s D minor Piano Concerto which, like Tovey’s, is the work of a young man. However, I don’t want to give the impression that Tovey’s piece is simply derivative for that is certainly not the case. The main theme of this opening movement is genuinely memorable. Any preconceptions that the music might be dry or academic are soon banished. Tovey has a genuine melodic gift and there is also a lively rhythmic impulse throughout. It’s absolutely splendid stuff, quite thrilling and definitely the work of a composer supremely confident in his abilities – and rightly so.

After the teeming energy of the first movement its successor begins quietly with pensive piano solos answered by hushed strings. Eventually (Track 2, 3’ 30") the soloist briefly increases the intensity but for the most part the mood is one of twilight tranquillity, albeit with moments of unease such as the short, yearning oboe solo (4’ 30"). This is a most atmospheric movement which, as John Purser rightly observes, is "mature beyond its composer’s years."

The finale is marked Alla Marcia but the march is a nimble, quick one. Like the first movement this is "big stuff" but there is much more evidence of ebullient good humour and a delight in pure virtuosity. It is a triumphant conclusion to a marvellous concerto and it is here delivered with tremendous panache.

I’m conscious that I’ve focused mainly on the music itself since both works are likely to be unfamiliar to most readers, as they were to me. In the nicest possible way, I can deal with the performances themselves relatively briefly. Quite simply, both concertos receive performances with which their respective composers would surely have been delighted and thrilled. Steven Osborne has been attracting widespread attention as a highly gifted young virtuoso and on the evidence of these recordings this is entirely justified. He performs both works with consummate skill. In the bravura passages his technique seems effortless. Both concertos contain many poetic passages and these he delivers with great sensitivity.

Throughout, Martyn Brabbins accompanies brilliantly and he manages the not inconsiderable feat of inspiring his orchestra to play what must have been unfamiliar and difficult scores as if they were as familiar to them as, say, the concertos of Brahms. I strongly suspect the players thoroughly enjoyed getting their teeth into some more unusual music which they found rewarding and challenging. It certainly sounds that way.

The recorded sound is first class and John Purser’s notes are exemplary. I said at the outset that this release wears the Tartan with pride. More than that, may I call it a Tartan Triumph? Anyone interested in British music of this period should investigate this issue without delay.

Hyperion are to be congratulated warmly on yet another rewarding and enterprising release. I hope they may be emboldened to give us more music by these composers. What about making a start with Tovey’s Cello Concerto, written for and played by Casals? The prospect of Brabbins and, say, Steven Isserlis in that work is a tantalising one.

However, for now this superb disc will do very nicely. Bravo to all concerned!

John Quinn

see also review by Peter Grahame Woolf

Hyperion Romantic Piano Concerto Series


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