Just a few weeks ago I made a speculative purchase
of the newly released Somm CD of Noel Mewton-Wood and Sir Thomas
Beecham collaborating in Busoni’s huge Piano Concerto (Somm-Beecham
15). I was amazed at the intensity of the performance – a live
BBC broadcast from 1948 – and at the tremendous playing of the
then twenty-six year-old pianist. Now along comes another example
of his extraordinary talent.
Was this Australian pianist another William Kapell?
In both cases these young musicians blazed all too briefly across
the musical firmament before dying far too soon (in Mewton-Wood’s
case, tragically, by his own hand). Both left us tantalisingly
few recordings which show what they had achieved in what should
have been the early years of their careers – and which hint at
what might have been. This CD is issued to mark the fiftieth anniversary
of Mewton-Wood’s death, in December 1953.
Unlike Kapell, Noel Mewton-Wood was never really
taken up by a major record company (something which he found very
frustrating) and the three performances which appear here were
all made for the small Concert Hall label. All credit to that
label for recording him in less familiar repertoire.
Mewton-Wood was a noted exponent of Bliss’s
Piano Concerto – so much so that Bliss wrote a piano sonata
for him. By coincidence, APR has just issued a CD of the very
first performance of the work, by Solomon and the New York Philharmonic
under Boult in 1939. Reviewing that
release my colleague Christopher Fifield quoted Nicholas Slonimsky’s
verdict that the piece bore many influences of Liszt, Chopin and
Rachmaninov. I agree, but to that list I’d add the name of Prokofiev
for his piano music comes irresistably to mind when one listens
some of the driving, percussive passages in Bliss’s piece.
I’m bound to say that though I’m an admirer of
Bliss’s music I’ve never been quite sure about the Piano Concerto.
It contains plenty of display and rhetoric but, I’ve wondered,
does the musical content match up? Well, hearing Mewton-Wood’s
magnificent, hugely confident account (and, indeed, Solomon’s
1939 world première reading) goes a long way to persuading
me of the piece’s worth. Mewton-Wood’s very opening is terrific.
He plunges straight in, unleashing a veritable torrent of notes
(but then the titanic Solomon is even more urgent, I find). This
sets the tone for much of what is to follow in the outer movements.
The solo part bristles with difficulties but these appear to hold
no terrors for this young virtuoso. Indeed, supremely confident
in his own abilities, he seems to revel in the technical problems.
He plays much of the first movement with tumultuous power but
he is just as good at fining back his playing to do justice to
the more reflective passages (sample track 1, from 11’28"
Mewton-Wood matches Solomon for nuanced sensitivity
in the slow movement – where the orchestra also rise to the occasion
– and his account of the dashing finale is also entirely successful.
It’s interesting to note that under studio conditions Mewton-Wood
is more expansive than Solomon in the outer movements, taking
a minute longer for the finale and a full two minutes more in
the epic first movement. The Utrecht Symphony Orchestra is sometimes
stretched (for example, the violins sound a bit undernourished
above the stave) and one is conscious that this isn’t a world
class orchestra, whereas, even through the more murky recording
of the Solomon recording, one can tell that the New York Philharmonic
– Barbirolli’s band in those days! - is high class. However, the
Dutch players most certainly are not disgraced. Capably directed
by Walter Goehr and, no doubt, inspired by their soloist, they
play valiantly and, in the slow movement especially, with some
I’ll own up to the fact that Stravinsky’s
Concerto is not one of my desert island pieces. I don’t really
warm to his neo-classical style (still less to the acerbities
of his later compositions). However, Noel Mewton-Wood’s account
is as good as any I’ve heard. The wind and brass players of the
Residentie Orchestra are not, perhaps, the most sonorous ensemble
(though in part that may be due to the age of the recording) but
actually in this sort of piece a certain degree of "cultured
stridency" is not inappropriate. Mewton-Wood is dextrous
and nimble in the first movement (where Goehr points the accompaniment
with acuity). He displays strength and gravity in the slow movement
and plays with drive and pungent vitality in the finale.
I was mightily impressed with the vivacious and
technically assured performance of the Shostakovich. This
work is primarily a jeu d’esprit and Mewton-Wood is just
the man for this, throwing off a great deal of dazzling pianism.
However, he is equally successful in conveying the repose of the
Lento (track 8). I was also much taken with the superb,
silvery contribution of the trumpeter, Harry Sevenstern. His line
cuts through the textures beautifully, just as the composer surely
There is good support from the string orchestra
(a pick-up band of London session players?), especially in the
Lento. That movement is beautifully poised all round and
the performance touches real depths here. In particular I’d single
out the wonderfully nostalgic trumpet solo (track 8 from 4’17").
The performance ends with a breathlessly exciting, whirlwind finale.
This is a very important disc and the BMS have
treated it as such. The transfers, by Bryan Crimp, are excellent.
The recordings are as old as I am but they have come up very well
though inevitably the piano sound can be a little clangy and not
all orchestral detail comes over with complete clarity. That said,
the recordings give a very faithful representation of the performances.
The documentation, though in English only, is absolutely outstanding.
John Amis contributes a very well argued and informative (and
affectionate) note about the pianist. In addition Edward Sackville-West’s
recollection, written for the programme of the Memorial Concert
in December 1954, is reproduced. Then John Talbot contributes
very good programme notes though they are rather dominated by
the details on the Bliss concerto this is perhaps understandable
since it is the least familiar of the three works. As if all this
were not enough William Mann’s excellent thematic analysis of
the Bliss, with copious musical examples, is also reproduced.
I’d say this is the best documentation for a CD that I’ve seen
for quite some time.
So, a very well produced disc enshrining some
first rate performances by a shooting star pianist whose brilliance
was extinguished far too soon. Whether he was a "great"
pianist is open to debate. His career was probably far too short
to allow for such a judgement. However, on the evidence of this
CD I’d say that Noel Mewton-Wood had the talent to become great
had he lived and the performances included here are, I firmly
believe, touched by greatness.
I congratulate the BMS on the enterprise of this
release. I strongly recommend it and I hope that through it many
more people will get an opportunity to sample the phenomenon that
was Noel Mewton-Wood.
Paul Shoemaker comments
I feel John Quinn is a little too enthusiastic
over the Shostakovich, which is rushed and hence the hammy satire
is blunted. But he is too reserved in his praise of the Stravinsky,
surely the finest performance the work ever received. This particular
recording has been on my longer desert island list since it was
The music of Stravinsky contains many ironiesironies of
harmony, of rhythm, and, to credit Bernstein, even ironies of
style and mood. Stravinsky had had many bad experiences with performers
"interpreting" his music, the result of which being
that one or more of the ironies would be resolved and the complexity
of the work consequently reduced. Just after this recording, he
began issuing firm embargos against any "interpretation"
loudly criticizing any performance that went beyond playing the
notes exactly at the correct tempo and volume. Any performer who
attempted to add anything to a Stravinky performance was attached
for making errors, and hence Stravinsky performances fell into
a frozen routine, and have all sounded alike.
But not this one. Mewton-Wood plays parts of this music as if
he's really having fun, but not so much that the ironic solemnity
of other parts of the music is in any way compromised. This extremely
difficult balance is hereby brilliantly achieved; whether Stravinsky
appreciated it or not, I have no word. But for my money this is
one of the half dozen truly great Stravinsky recordings of the
century and a must for any Stravinsky collector.
The transfers are excellent, and anyone who knows what a snob
I am on that subject will appreciate it when I say that I couldn't
have done much better myself, IF I had had access to these excellent
pressings. But alas, my pressing of this recordings is far inferior,
and hence I am celebrating the release of this disk with champagne
and dancing, and so should you. After you buy it, that is.