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Alan RAWSTHORNE (1905-1971)
Piano Concerto No.1 (1939, rev.1942)
Piano Concerto No.2 (1951)
Improvisations on a theme of Constant Lambert (1960)
Peter Donohoe (piano)
Ulster Orchestra/Takuo Yuasa
Recorded in Usher Hall, Belfast, 20-24 November 2001. DDD
NAXOS 8.555959 [56’19]

Of all the excellent projects that Naxos has on the go, this could prove one of the most valuable. Peter Donohoe aims to resurrect neglected British piano concertos and make sure they are given new digital recordings. Rawsthorne’s two piano concerto are not particularly neglected in the record catalogue, but it makes a good place to start and complements Naxos’s excellent disc of the violin concertos.

In fact, there is pretty stiff competition for this disc. There are a couple of historic performances from Moura Lympany (No.1) and Denis Matthews (No.2) (on a disc recently deleted by EMI and currently available from Berkshire Record Outlet. Ed.), a good 1983 recording from John Ogdon (No.2 again), and an excellent Chandos version from Geoffrey Tozer of both concertos. This last disc has the original orchestration of No.1 and a different (possibly more valuable) coupling in the Double Piano Concerto. In any case, Naxos’s price means it’s not a problem to duplicate, and given their massive market profile, this new disc is likely to win a whole new set of friends for the pieces.

So it’s just as well the recording can be recommended. The works themselves are readily accessible, with fairly short movements that have plenty of life and colour. Rawsthorne favours toccata-style writing for the piano in quite a few places, and this, coupled with the soaring, angular lyricism, has led to comparisons with Prokofiev. This is not inappropriate, and is possibly why Donohoe revels in the textures, as he is a major Prokofiev exponent (as well as another composer who occasionally came to mind, Bartók).

The youthful vigour and sheer brio of the First Concerto should really make it a concert hall favourite. The composer was himself an accomplished pianist and knew what he was doing here, so it’s good to hear Donohoe on fine, sometimes steely-fingered form. There are some very tricky passages to negotiate in both works, but this sort of virtuosity is meat and drink to this artist. Some of the more lyrical phrases could have breathed a little more, and Tozer, sensitively accompanied by Mathias Bamert and the LPO, is allowed to indulge himself in places. It also must be said that the Naxos recording has nowhere near the transparency and detail of the Chandos, and textures are occasionally muddied, with some of the interesting wind lines blurred. The Ulster Orchestra are on enthusiastic form however and, possibly inspired by their soloist, really rise to the occasion.

The filler is most welcome, showing Rawsthorne’s harmonic probing and adventurousness. Though the disc still comes in at fairly short measure, no-one is likely to complain, given the excellence of this music making and, of course, the famously low price. Let’s hope, like the Bax symphony series, that it goes from strength to strength. Heartily recommended.

Tony Haywood

see also review by Colin Clarke

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