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Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
Piano Concerto in C (1926-33 with revised 1946 ending) [27’45].
John FOULDS (1880-1939)

Dynamic Triptych, Op. 88 (1929) [29’16].
Howard Shelley (piano); Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Vernon Handley.
No rec. info. DDD


Lyrita’s imagination seems matched only by their dedication to British music. This coupling is positively inspired. Vaughan Williams’ Piano Concerto is pretty much a stranger to the concert hall (and indeed, to the catalogues – although Shelley did a remake for Chandos in 1990, with the LPO under Bryden Thomson on CHAN8941, there coupled with the Ninth Symphony). Alas I have not heard the Chandos reading, although it is interesting to note that Gramophone considers it inferior to this one. (There is also version of the score for two pianos and orchestra made by Joseph Cooper and the composer and recorded by Vronsky and Babin with Boult on EMI.)

The Piano Concerto is certainly not typical Vaughan Williams (if such a thing exists at all, that is). It opens with a surprisingly motoric and dynamic ‘Toccata’, characterised by fierce momentum. There is also a distinctly heroic aspect, as if Vaughan Williams was aware of the historical imperative to provide a statement of depth in this genre.

Yet there is a gentler aspect to the work, also. So when there is a ‘cadenza’ (linking the first and second movements and marked ‘senza misura’), it is no virtuoso, sweat-inducing marathon, rather a single line imbued with the utmost feeling. It certainly provides an effective bridge to the still and peaceful Romanza (Lento). Special mention should be made of the flute solo, which the RPO’s principal presents as a serene, carefree improvisation. This is more Vaughan Williams the pastoral. The plaintive oboe solo (around 7’20) is very effective, as is the oboe and cello duet at 9’15, the latter exposed and disquieting. It is precisely this ruffling of the waters that makes the interruption of the final movement not only structurally logical, but imperative.

Shelley’s way with the first statement of the Fugue theme (the finale is marked, ‘ Fuga Chromatica con Finale alla Tedesca’) is objective and respectful. Interesting how throughout the sections of fugal meat there is a sense of compositional struggle and an almost Hindemithian seriousness.

The recording copes supremely well with the denser passages in this concerto.

Recently I wrote enthusiastically about an all-Foulds Lyrita disc (SRCD212). If further proof of the genius of this composer be needed, the Dynamic Triptych provides it. Roughly the same length as the VW concerto, it was praised by Havergal Brian as ‘a major work by a composer of daring originality’ (quoted in Bernard Benoliel’s superb notes accompanying this release). Certainly the first movement (‘Dynamic Mode’) is fully inside the virtuoso tradition. Foulds’ writing for both piano and orchestra is exuberant, almost overwhelmingly so, and moments of respite are few (a lovely one is near the end of the movement). It is left to ‘Dynamic Timbre’ to provide full contrast, but this is no easy repose. Here Foulds inhabits a very shadowy world – the movement’s slow build-up has a real monumentalism about it. To call much of this music beautiful is almost to under-sell it (‘beautiful’ is surely an over-used word in critical circles) – it is almost achingly so. The feeling of a processional is at hand (the movement is nearly 13 minutes long, so it has time to ‘stretch’ itself), while the use of slithery quarter-tones is really quite disturbing in effect. The silvery tones of the closing pages hang hauntingly in the air. Finally, ‘Dynamic Rhythm’ calls to mind Ravel. Its dancing rhythms make for the perfect finale. The excellent Lyrita recording captures all the detail of this sparkling dance.

If you are buying this for the Vaughan Williams, you will not be disappointed. And you may just find your mouth agape at the marvels of the Foulds.

Colin Clarke

see Lyrita Catalogue

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