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Frederick DELIUS (1862-1934)
Piano Concerto in C minor (original version, first recording) (1904) [28:41]
John IRELAND (1897-1962)

Legend for Piano and Orchestra (1933) [11:38]
Piano Concerto in E flat major (1930) [23:52]
Piers Lane (piano)
Ulster Orchestra/David Lloyd-Jones
rec. Ulster Hall, Belfast, 8-9 March 2005
HYPERION CDA67296 [64:24]

Reading through the 2-volume Lionel Carley-edited Delius Ė A Life in Letters one finds numerous references to Deliusís Piano Concerto. It might be assumed that Delius, cannily, must have had his eye on concert performances of his music to establish his name before a public accustomed to, and preferring such a work. This concerto was written in the grand Late-Romantic tradition and its lyricism is greatly influenced by Grieg (1843-1907) who had befriended the young Delius. Its more bravura passages owe something to Liszt.

Usually we hear this concerto in the revised edition, i.e. after Delius, two years on from its 1904 premiere, removed its third movement later to incorporate some of its material, more effectively, in his Violin Concerto of 1916. Therefore the original three-movement work now became a single-movement concerto. More minor revisions, approved and applauded by Delius, came later, at the hand of its dedicatee, Theodor Szántó (a pupil of Busoni). The version we hear most often today is that edited by Sir Thomas Beecham.

It is therefore of great interest to dedicated Delians to hear this new, and only recording of the composerís original three-movement conception. Robert Threlfall, in his learned notes, recalls that Delius had completed the score of a Fantasy for piano and orchestra as early as 1897. Some of this work was written in Florida and therefore one might be tempted to think that it could have been coloured by the ill-fated romance with his coloured girl there at that time. This material was subsequently developed into the Piano Concerto that was premiered in Elberfeld on 24 October 1904, by Julius Buths, conducted by Hans Haym.

One is immediately aware of the strong lyrical influence of Grieg. The first movement has a grand sweep, too, with passion and defiance as well as tender romanticism. The customary Delian fingerprints are evident too, notably around 3:00 and 8:39 (pastoral dreaming). The Largo slow movement is deeply felt, its limpid beauty nicely realised by David Lloyd-Jones and Piers Lane. Again the composerís familiar figures are recognisable: his individualistic dance rhythms at 3:36 and, at 4:20, those distant horn calls and figures associated with those distant high vistas Delius loved so much. Grouchy lower strings launch the third movement that mixes bombast, reverie and tenderness. It has its moments but it comes as something of an anticlimax forcing a belief that Delius was right to abandon it in favour of quarrying its material later.

Two recordings of the revised version of Deliusís Piano Concerto are worth considering: the 1969 Decca recording (470 190-2) [timing 22:10]with Jean-Rodolphe Kars and the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir Alexander Gibson, and the 1990 Unicorn-Kanchana (DKP(CD)9108) [21:52] recording with Philip Fowke and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Norman Del Mar. Of the two, I prefer the warmer sound of the Decca. It is a more dreamily romantic and atmospheric performance. But both recordings are very good and both soloists shine.

It has to be said that the Delius Piano Concerto, is an atypical work. The John Ireland items are not. In fact John Irelandís orchestral works are few and the two recorded here are important major works. Legend for Piano and Orchestra might well have been the foundation for a Second Ireland Piano Concerto proposed by Adrian Boult. Alas that project never came to fruition. Both Legend and the Piano Concerto were written (in 1930) for his pupil and protégée, the young pianist Helen Perkin. The Concerto is remarkably similar to Ravelís G major Piano Concerto, uncompleted at the time of the Ireland Concertoís premiere. John Irelandís Piano Concerto is influenced by Ravel and Prokofiev - notably that composerís Third Piano Concerto. The Ireland Concertoís trumpets use fibre dance band mutes - there is a certain popular jazzy appeal to the music. The Concerto was immediately successful and it was often performed by many British and international soloists over the following forty years.

I remember the pianist, Eric Parkin, who studied with John Ireland, once telling me:

"There were certain things that [Ireland] was absolutely in no doubt about: he never liked his music to be hurried, he wanted it to go at such a pace that every chord could be heard - he was very sensitive to chordal movement - he hated rushing."

In addition to this new recording there are two others of note both featuring Eric Parkin. The earlier Lyrita recording with Sir Adrian Boult conducting the Concerto and Irelandís choral masterpiece These Things Shall Be is no longer available so I will be considering Parkinís later, 1986, Chandos recording (CHAN 8461) with Bryden Thomson and the London Philharmonic Orchestra. It is interesting to compare the timings of the movements of the two recordings of the Concerto and Legend:

Piers Lane: I. 8:45; II. 7:12 III. 7:51 Legend 11:38

Eric Parkin: I. 9:14; II. 7:49 III. 8:31 Legend 13:17

(Thomson was often criticised especially about his Bax recordings and their slow tempi, while Lloyd-Jones is associated with faster, brisker readings Ė especially Bax.)

Considering the first movement, the introduction on the Chandos recording is more atmospheric and relaxed and poetic. The LPO playing evolves in a more leisurely fashion into the faster and more playful Prokofiev-like material. Generally, there is more of a sense of mystery, of shadow-lands and mistiness so beguilingly enunciated by horns and that lovely yearning melody so poignantly articulated by Parkin and the LPO strings. Lloyd-Jones and Lane hurry through this first movementís introductory material sacrificing atmosphere and magic; and its romance is buried under the weight of tutti. There is some sense of mystery appearing at about 5:00 but for me this reading is too matter-of-fact. The slow movement is the heart of the concerto - a gentle and serenely confident love song that Parkin and Thomson sing so eloquently. Its beauty unwinds slowly and enchantingly with the LPO strings glowing and Parkinís phrasing quite heart-stopping The transition marked by the timpani and snare drum figures is gentler, less intrusive of the dream-like atmosphere than the new Hyperion recording. Their slow movement begins well enough, the strings nicely languid and Lane is sensitive to the mood. However again the Chandos recording is warmer and the LPOís playing is smoother and more polished. In the bridge passage leading to the final movement, Piers Lane and David Lloyd-Jones suggest something wild and a hint of dark magic on the Downs. Their phrasing and dynamics through this movement differ from those of the more restrained Chandos players although Parkin and Thomson have power in their climaxes and there is such sweet nostalgia in that fiddle solo. In the faster Hyperion recording, rhythms are more emphasised including the syncopations.

I could live with both versions of this concerto according to my mood but if I was pressed to choose, then it would have to be the Chandos.

On the Chandos recording, Legendís opening horn calls are most atmospheric, evoking a spacious and empty Downland landscape and, as the music slowly unfolds, eloquently suggesting the infinitely sad plight of the doomed lepers, outcasts from a hostile and apprehensive society and only able to participate in the isolated churchís services by peering through narrow openings in its outside walls. More mid-distance horn calls introduce the second episode. Ireland creates an altogether different mood of ghostly jollity as children in antique clothing dance in a ring close by the observer (Ireland) enjoying a picnic on the lonely Harrow Hill close by Chanctonbury Ring. Parkin and Thomson create a wonderful evocation of childish delight and ghostly mystery. Although the Hyperion recordingís opening does not succeed in suggesting the loneliness of the Downland location, the Lane/Lloyd-Jones reading is far more dramatic. It creates much more of an atmosphere of dread in the opening section but, in the second, the childrenís dance is more subdued, less merry in the orchestra; generally the ensemble playing and phrasing of the LPO is more refined than Hyperionís Ulster players. On the other hand, Lane, here, adds some attractive juvenile tripping flourishes to the dance. According to my mood, I would turn to Parkin and Thomson for refinement and atmosphere and to Lane and Lloyd-Jones for drama and intensity.

For dedicated Delians, this is an irresistible chance to hear and study Deliusís original version of his Piano Concerto but on the evidence here, the decision to revise it, I think, was wise. The John Ireland Concerto and Legend performances can be confidently recommended but I will not be parting with my Eric Parkin/Bryden Thomson Chandos CD.

Ian Lace

 

 



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