I have hesitated to review this disc as I have been
involved in the project. I introduced Francis to Lora Dimitrova and
he has been delighted with that introduction and worked with her on
his piano music and, as this disc proves, with great success.
My introduction to Lora was hearing her play the lovely
Bartók Piano Concerto no. 3 in a memorable performance although
marred by the usual inexplicable eccentricities of Georg Solti. Then
I heard her play Beethoven's magnificent Opus 111.
Francis Routh is one of the very few living composers
who can write for the piano.
I have often wondered why he calls his major works
‘Scenes’ for piano. The title is apt but the term invokes something
theatrical and perhaps unreal. Theatre and acting is, after all, not
real. Perhaps he is a latter day impressionist!
Scenes for Piano III was written for Jeffrey
Jacob although Lora Dimitrova plays it on this disc. It was composed
between April and August 1998. There are five movements, the first three
headed with quotes from the mystical and weird William Blake as implied
by the title and his reference to Albion, Blake's word for England.
The last three movements are designated with slow tempi and this makes
the work somewhat unsatisfactory.
The opening prelude is marked Allegro energico.
I would have liked more energico but the pianist captures the
dotted rhythm to perfection. Splendid finger-work is heard from bar
12 onwards, it is absolutely scintillating stuff. I would have preferred
a more notable alla marcia at bar 15 but the control of the difficult
piece, difficult to play, that is, is excellent.
It may be the recording that is at fault but the contrast
between pianissimos (bar 150) and fortissimo (bar 31) is not wide enough.
There needs to be more marcato in the bass at bar 36 and following.
The next movement is an Aubade and introduces
a worrying feature. Given that the music is tough to play it does not
justify the gaps between bars (end of bar 17 is one of many examples).
I can see the logic but the music does not authorise this and it breaks
up the flow of it. There is a bad gap at the end of bar 47, for example.
It is the same with the big romantic concertos. For
example, there are notorious parts in Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto no.
1 where most pianists engineer gaps to position their hands elsewhere
over the keys to play the next part. Some even slow down. The double
octaves at the end is a case in point. There are few pianists who would
not have these irritating gaps.
The Aubade ends with a poco a poco rit. but
this performance is too rit!
To the evening star is very slow and again the
contrast in dynamics is too restricted. The fortissimo con forza
at bar 25 needed to be stronger and the ppp at bar 34 is
not!. The fingerwork at the top of the piano, while brilliant, clatters
a little and reminds us that playing the piano is a mechanical task!
Movement four is entitled Night Music and one
would have wished for a contrast between adjoining movements. It is
very well written and played. The same weaknesses are there such as
gaps between bars (end of bar 38, for example) but there is so much
to admire. The Bachian clarity, the quasi-Bartókian style and
the sheer splendour of the writing.
The final movement is a berceuse but you will never
hear a cradle song like this. The central movement is marked marziale,
like a march, and is simply splendid. Are we waking the baby up?
Bretagne is another sets of impressions for
piano. It is a better and more immediate work in that it alternates
quick and slow movements. There are eight movements of which the fifth
is an extended slow movement. These impressions of Breton life recall
the French composer Guy-Ropartz and Francis has captured the out of
doors atmosphere to perfection. There is far more colour and life in
this work than Albion. We can picture jugglers, dancers and the
crude sort that frequent fairgrounds. There is a procession in movement
six as in Debussy's Fetes and the joyful Festival Day brings
the work to a happy conclusion.
This disc is a fascinating contrast between two fine
pianists who are completely different but equally gifted. On the one
hand you have the controlled exuberance and clarity of the Bulgarian
and, on the other hand, the more experienced Jeffrey Jacob for whom
contemporary composers have written works ... Gunther Schuller with
his Piano Concerto no. 3, Vincent Persichetti and his Piano Sonata no.
12 and, of course, Francis Routh with his Poème Fantastique
which, I suppose, could be called his Piano Concerto no.2.
Jeffrey Jacob plays first the Elegy which is
a transcription of the slow movement of the Serenade for String
Trio. It is a very personal work written in memory of the composer's
son, Benjamin, who died of rheumatoid arthritis at the age of ten months
in 1960. It is a stark piece with little or no development speaking
poignantly of the son who would not develop into childhood, let alone
manhood. Jacob's use of the pedal shows a musician of tremendous insight.
there is a depth of changing feelings here. That it is scored for the
piano (Francis is a stunning pianist himself) gives it a more personal
feel. It is a father lamenting his son. I was a little troubled at the
sound quality on the last long chord which I discussed with the composer.
Celebration is a magnificent piece. It is an unashamed
extrovert showpiece with a lyrical central section. It is very exciting
and a rarity in that so many 20th century composers could not write
virtuosic piano music.
It is a breathtaking piece.
This disc is recommended.
Will someone now take up Francis's Piano Concerto,
his excellent Symphony and that sublime work for mezzo and orchestra,
Spring Night, a work of profound beauty?
about this recording