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Hamilton HARTY (1879-1941)
A Comedy Overture (1906) [13:08]
Fantasy Scenes (from an Eastern Romance) (1919) [11:56]
Piano Concerto in B minor (1922) [30:05]
Peter Donohoe (piano)
Ulster Orchestra/Takuo Yuasa
rec. 21-22 February 2005, Ulster Hall, Belfast. DDD
NAXOS 8.557731 [55:09]

The British Piano Concerto series has alighted on Hamilton Harty’s alluringly romantic opus. It’s prefaced by the Comedy Overture and by the less well-known Fantasy Scenes and the disc clocks in at five minutes under the hour. Two of these, the concerto and the overture, come into direct competition with Chandos’s pioneering recordings presided over by Bryden Thomson and still living artefacts in the marketplace.
The Comedy Overture was written in 1906. It’s light-hearted but with real feeling. The cocksure opening, ebullient and confident, is intimately related to the sentimental Irish folk melody that’s embedded in the Overture with its Dvořákian tints - Harty was a splendid Dvořák conductor and recorded the New World with the Hallé. The brass and wind efflorescence and the balletic string writing sound like the light Elgar but the whole sounds comfortingly like Harty, not least his diatonic mastery.
The Fantasy Scenes date from 1919, the year before his assumption of the chief conductorship of the Hallé. It was written in the then fashionable Arabian Nights style though it’s very much light or entr’acte music and written for a correspondingly small orchestra. The third of the four movements is actually a reworking of an earlier work. The Laughing Juggler has a vigorous, almost brass band energy about it, whilst pizzicati and some lissom balletic strings lace A Dancer’s Reverie. The third has a gentle burnish and the final scene, In the Slave Market is bustly and none-too-serious.
The meat of the programme however is the Concerto. This is a glorious late Romantic effusion, one that has supped deeply of Rachmaninoff. Cast in three movements it never lets up in motivic interest, colour, rhythmic snap and digital demand. The seamless transitions are more overtly romantic than the earlier Violin Concerto (notwithstanding Ralph Holmes’s superb advocacy on Chandos this could do with a new recording for Hyperion’s Romantic Violin Concerto series). Statements, recapitulations and embellishments are all of the highest quality and it helps that the material as such is of such melting beauty or such passionate and declamatory command. The smuggled reference to the old Irish song The Wearing of the Green shows how adept his orchestration is, and in the slow movement the rousing middle section acts as a powerhouse contrastive device to the more emollient material that surrounds it. The finale is an unstoppable creature, full of snap and sap, ruminative but never discursive, driving, leonine, humorous and all-conquering.
If you know and love the Chandos performance with Malcolm Binns, the Ulster Orchestra and Thomson you should know that this new Donohoe/Yuasa – the orchestra reprises its performances – is very different in character. It’s much, much faster, the rhythms are snappier, corners are turned with greater velocity and there’s greater tensile energy throughout. It may well be that this is more in keeping with how Harty would himself have played it – he premiered it with Beecham conducting – but I have to admit a certain fondness for some important aspects of the Binns/Thomson performance. Maybe it’s familiarity but the finale – though very steady – seems to gain in cumulative drive and scores over the newcomer in this respect. And Chandos’s recording was stunning whereas the Naxos has some sticky moments – piano embedded in orchestral tuttis and some weird sounds in the finale (I decided they were exposed trombones) as well as a huge percussion crash, which sounds outsize. Still, this is an inevitably self-recommending disc because Thomson never recorded the Fantasy Scenes and they’ve never been recorded in this form before. The Comedy Overture is well worth getting to know and love and the Concerto makes a bracing, finely played alternative to the Chandos.
Jonathan Woolf    
see also review by Rob Barnett 


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