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Alan RAWSTHORNE (1905-1971)
Piano Concerto No. 1 (1939, rev. 1942) [17’38]
Piano Concerto No. 2 (1951) [26’15]
Improvisations on a Theme by Constant Lambert (1960) [12’15] .
Peter Donohoe (piano, Concertos)
Ulster Orchestra/Takuo Yuasa
Rec. Usher Hall, Belfast, 20th, 22nd-24th November 2001. DDD
British Piano Concertos series
NAXOS 8.555959 [56’19]


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Naxos’s British Piano Concertos series is the brainchild of the pianist on its inaugural release, Peter Donohoe. The series aims to average two new discs every year for at least five years; next, we are promised the Bliss Piano Concerto and Concerto for Two Pianos with the Royal National Orchestra of Scotland under David Lloyd-Jones (the second pianist will be Martin Roscoe).

Donohoe has recorded for various companies since his success in the Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow, including Naxos. The stated aim of his laudable series is to ‘give an immense boost to the recognition of the British Piano Concerto’. To do this, he will have to produce recordings that do service to the music.

Rawsthorne’s piano concertos are not strangers to the catalogue. Geoffrey Tozer has put them down for Chandos (CHAN9125); Moura Lympany’s First is on EMI (CDM5 66935-2), and Denis Matthews’ No. 2 is on CDM5 66935-2; and that late and great champion of British contemporary music, John Ogdon’s account of No. 2 is on BBC Radio Classics 15656 9195-2 (a live performance from 1983). Donohoe is more than a match for any of them – his passage-work sparkles and his precision is little short of miraculous. There is a clarity to his playing that works entirely in Rawsthorne’s service, backed up by a rock-solid rhythmic sense. His lyrical side is much in evidence in the slow movements of both concertos, where the more ruminative passages emerge as both attractive and affecting. The playful beginning of the First Concerto bodes well for the disc and prepares for the cheeky close to the work as a whole. The trombone quotation of a tune associated with the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War in the finale (4’20-4’35) asserts the composer’s political leanings. It hardly comes as a surprise to learn that the almost Prokofiev-like toccata passages in that movement bring out the very best of Donohoe (given this pianist’s Russian links).

The Second Concerto was commissioned by the Arts Council of Great Britain for the Festival of Britain in 1951.The first movement is sunny music, and Donohoe uses an apt, light touch. My only caveat is that the very first idea (a flute melody) is too recessed in the recording balance. The Scherzo second movement (out of four) is fairly violent, an ideal contrast both to what preceded it and also to the Intermezzo which follows (listen especially to the beautifully hushed clarinet solo, and Donohoe’s magical spinning of Rawsthorne’s disjunct line around the two minute mark). The finale rises some passing doubts: there is no doubting Donohoe’s digital dexterity, but his tone can occasionally verge on the harsh (a trait he has been known to exhibit in the past).

Throughout Japanese conductor Takuo Yuasa, Principal Guest Conductor of the excellent Ulster Orchestra, accompanies in exemplary fashion (their way with the tricky end of the Second Concerto is particularly impressive).

Sandwiched in between the two concertos is the Improvisations on a theme by Constant Lambert, first performed in Newcastle in 1961. The two men were linked in that Rawsthorne was one of a group of composers involved in the orchestration of Lambert’s last ballet, Tiresias. Rawsthorne’s Variations (for orchestra) was commissioned in 1960 by the Northern Sinfonia. The theme comes from the opening of Tiresias. The variation form clearly gave Rawsthorne an opportunity to give his imagination full rein. There is so much to enjoy here, and Yuasa coaxes feather-light sonorities from his Ulster forces at times. Rawsthorne’s harmonic resource also shines through, with some very mysterious, atmospheric harmonies. Richard Strauss even makes his influence felt in some of the violin lines, and there are some lovely solo string passages (there is almost a brief violin cadenza at one point, albeit a ruminative one). Very enjoyable indeed.

Despite a couple of very minor caveats this product is a true feather in Naxos’s cap and bodes extremely well for the rest of the series. May the next instalment come sooner rather than later.

Colin Clarke

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