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Herbert HOWELLS (1892-1983)
Piano Concerto No. 1 in C minor Op. 4 (1914) [38:55]
Piano Concerto No. 2 in C major Op. 39 (1925) [27:29]
Penguinski (1933) [4:19]
Howard Shelley (piano)
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Richard Hickox
rec. 22-23 May 2000, Watford Colosseum. DDD
CHANDOS CHAN9874 [70:52] 
Experience Classicsonline

Here is the first CD to couple the two Howells piano concertos. It is the second recording of the Second Concerto (which was first recorded on Hyperion) and the world premiere recording of the First Concerto. The latter was completed and corrected by Howells enthusiast, John Rutter. 

The First Concerto was written for Howells’ contemporary at the RCM, the composer and brilliant pianist Arthur Benjamin. It was premiered at the Queen’s Hall by Benjamin with Stanford conducting on 10 July 1914. Forgive me, but I think that if what we hear now is what Stanford heard the elder composer must have been happy to hear it. The music is stylistically not a stone’s throw from his own. This is Brahmsian with some pugnacious episodes recalling Stanford's own defiant and poetic style. The composer was only 22 at the time so it is no surprise that his own voice had yet to emerge. The second movement is more Tchaikovskian - grieving in much the same way as the Pathétique. In the finale there is a jaunty businesslike air amid some intricate rhythmic writing as well as an affecting way with pointed emotionalism. There is even a touch of Rachmaninov. Perhaps this is not dissimilar from the echoes to be heard in Stanford's second piano concerto of 1911. Would Howells have heard the Stanford? Then again the brighter optimism of the closing pages recall Bliss - another friend at the RCM. Moving forward a decade and the Second Concerto is a much more personal statement. Its frame of reference links in many directions: with Howells' own ecstatically masterful Piano Quartet, with the diamond-cut brilliance of Bliss, with the pastoral ecstasy of works such as the Pastoral Rhapsody, notably with Petrushka, and even with Walton's and Lambert's jazz experiments.

Penguinski was written for a Royal visit to the RCM in 1933. It is another a ballet score in Stravinskian gaiety, brilliance and grotesquerie. It has a prominent part for solo piano and is in a style which seems a hybrid of his own Merry Eye, Lambert's Rio Grande, Ravel's G minor, Walton's Sinfonia Concertante and Jean Francaix. In short it does not take itself all that seriously - the aim and achievement is a sort of insouciant brilliance.

Rob Barnett


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