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
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
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
However, for now this superb disc will do very nicely.
Bravo to all concerned!
also review by Peter Grahame Woolf
Romantic Piano Concerto Series