For those of us who
have learnt to play the piano over the
last half century the name of Alec Rowley
will be extremely familiar. Even today
when I visit the secondhand music shops
in Kelvinside and Fishergate in Glasgow
and York, I am amazed at the number
of volumes of this composer that are
always available. I have managed to
build a small collection of his easier
pieces. I doubt that there is much in
print these days, but historically there
are reams of miniatures and teaching
pieces available to the interested explorer
and collector. I did not realise until
quite recently that Mr Rowley did have
a serious side to him - that is until
I inherited an album of organ works.
None of these are for neophytes and
all of them seem to be interesting examples
of the ’tween-the-wars genre. However
I will always remember him for two salon
pieces – Witchery and Hornpipe
– both for piano. I still play these
at least once a month!
I have long known about
the Concerto in D major and have
plonked my way through the score. However,
until this present release I had never
heard it. And what a pleasure it is.
I will state my case – I love the work
– it is a fine discovery and deserves
its place in the repertoire.
The work received its
premiere in a BBC broadcast way back
in 1938. The work is scored for soloist
and strings; however there are optional
parts for timpani and percussion. This
is the version recorded here. From the
very first note we are in the presence
of a delightful work. Forget anyone
who says that it relies heavily on Delius
or Britten or Cyril Scott. This is an
original concerto that is well scored
and has ‘a breezy, open-air freshness
about it’ that is both charming and
satisfying. The work is well constructed,
with the opening of the last movement
mirroring the introduction to the first.
My only criticism is that this concerto
is too short! But Naxos and Mr Donohoe
please note, there is another
Piano Concerto and Three Idylls
for Piano and Orchestra just begging
to be recorded!
Christian Darnton is
an unknown quantity to me and I imagine
for many other listeners as well. However
the Piano Concerto in C Major
is a fine example of the genre. It was
composed in 1948 for the South African
pianist Adolf Hallis. In fact the work
was premiered in Durban the following
It is quite a short
work and this is perhaps its one fault.
There seems to be a little bit of a
stylistic imbalance between quite ‘elegant’
and sometimes even ‘dreamy’ music and
the harder edged neo-classicism of Stravinsky.
For example the first movement vacillates
between these two contrasting styles
and the disparity is too great for good
balance. That being said there is much
that is attractive about this work.
Once again the contrasts in the middle
movement are quite extreme. There is
a whiff of Britten about the outer sections
whilst the middle section nods to the
Warsaw Concerto in its ‘heart
on sleeve’ romanticism.
The finale is a good
example of neo-classical fun. There
are moments when Malcolm Arnold seems
about to break through. However the
entire movement is well wrought and
is quite exciting.
I reiterate my comment
that this work is far too short. There
is a wealth of interesting material
that could have been developed into
a major work.
However, I do hope
that Naxos will issue some more music
by this obviously talented composer,
for example any one of the four symphonies.
The Roberto Gerhard
Concerto for Piano and Strings
is the antithesis of the Darnton. It
is slightly later, having been composed
in 1951 (the CD cover states 1961 as
the date of composition) for the Aldeburgh
Festival. It is the first of Gerhard’s
works to be written using serial techniques.
Yet continuity with the past is introduced
as the composer gives a renaissance
musical title to each movement. The
first being Tiento which is Spanish
for ‘toccata,’ the second is Diferencias
which is loosely translated as ‘variations’
and the last movement is inscribed Folias
which means ‘fantasy.’
Gerhard uses the serial
technique with subtlety. We are never
conscious that the work is being controlled
by a pre-defined sequence of notes.
However its unity is never in doubt.
This is an extremely well-balanced and
nuanced piece that is totally consistent
with itself from the very first note
to the last. Harmonically there is none
of the astringency of Webern and his
followers; in fact it is difficult to
pin the concerto down to a style or
period. This is quite definitely a work
that is infused with the moods of Spain.
However do not look for Spanish Dances
– the ethos is derived from darker aspects
of Iberian culture.
There are two things
to say about Howard Ferguson. Firstly,
he wrote too little! It is always a
great disappointment to me that Ferguson
gave up composing in the early 1950s;
he reckoned that he had said all he
wanted to say! Of course the listener’s
loss is the student and performer’s
gain as most of the rest of his life
was spent in editing early music and
teaching material. The second thing
is that every piece that Ferguson wrote
is near perfect and commands our attention.
There is nothing that does not deserve
to be permanently in the repertoire.
The Piano Concerto
is a case in point. I have no doubt
that if this work was by a Polish or
German composer it would be in the public
domain. As it stands I imagine that
it is well known to a handful of British
music enthusiasts. Yet what a great
and wonderful work it is. It is not
really necessary to try making comparisons.
I do not agree with Andrew Burn’s notes
that it nods to Mozart. What we have
is a beautifully composed piece that
throws introspection and an extrovert,
almost ‘puckish’ feel into contrast,
yet manages to give a satisfying sense
of completeness. Of course the heart
of the work is the reflective ‘Theme
and Variations’ – this movement is quite
bitter-sweet and stays in the mind long
after the last note plays. The last
movement, an Allegro giovale,
is a tour de force. However there are
some quieter, more introverted moments
and there is a reprise of the slow movement
‘tune’ towards the end. But this is
positive, uplifting music that is a
joy and pleasure and a privilege to
The sound quality is
great. The playing is second to none.
The programme notes could have been
a bit more fulsome. The programme itself
is well thought out and repays repeated
hearings. All credit must go to Peter
Donohoe and his British Piano Concerto
Now a personal plea.
Mr Donohoe, if you read this please
can you consider one or two or more
of the following for your next batch
of releases in this great series – the
piano concertos by William Baines, York
Bowen, Rosalind Ellicott and Walford
Davies. But whatever you choose please
keep them coming and concentrate on
those works that are not otherwise available!
also review by Rob Barnett