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  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    


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Mewton-Wood plays Twentieth Century Piano Concertos
Arthur BLISS (1891-1975)

Piano Concerto (1938-39) [37.36]
Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)

Concerto for piano and wind instruments (1924) [20.06]
Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)

Concerto for piano, trumpet and strings Op. 35 (1933) [21.08]
Noel Mewton-Wood (piano)
Harry Sevenstern (trumpet) (Shostakovich)
Utrecht Symphony Orchestra (Bliss); Residentie Orchestra, The Hague (Stravinsky); Concert Hall Symphony Orchestra
Walter Goehr (conductor)
rec. 1952 (Bliss, Stravinsky); 1953 (Shostakovich). mono. ADD
Transferred by Bryan Crimp from LPs drawn from the collection of Robert Milnes
Financial assistance from the Bliss Trust
Originally issued as Concert Hall LPs: CHS1167 (Bliss); CHS1160 (Stravinsky); CHSH4 (Shostakovich)
BRITISH MUSIC SOCIETY HISTORIC BMS101CDH [79.00]


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" to 12’35")

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 sensitivity.

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 intended.

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.

John Quinn

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 released.

The music of Stravinsky contains many ironies—ironies 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.

Paul Shoemaker

 

British Music Society

 



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