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Alec ROWLEY (1892-1958)
Concerto in D major for Piano, Strings and Percussion op.49 (1938) [15:10]
Christian DARNTON (1905-1981)
Concerto in C for Piano and String Orchestra (1948) [16:35]
Roberto GERHARD (1896-1970)
Concerto for Piano and Strings (1951) [22:17]
Howard FERGUSON (1908-1999)
Concerto for Piano and String Orchestra op.12 (1951) [24:10]
 Peter Donohoe (piano, conductor)
Northern Sinfonia
rec. 25-27 November 2003, Jubilee Hall, Gosforth, UK
 NAXOS 8.557290 [78:12]
Experience Classicsonline

I don't know how many schoolchildren have Alec Rowley dished out to them for their daily piano practice these days. Always supposing there are isolated pockets of cultural backwater where schoolchildren still learn the piano at all. He was still present, but on the way out, in my young days, but he certainly wrote a vast amount of teaching pieces, from the most elementary levels to the upper grades, and a pretty vast amount of recital stuff that he often played himself. Aside from this he wrote much vocal and organ music and some for orchestra. His music belongs now to childhood memories, as far off as Jemima Puddleduck or the Roly-Poly Pudding, with its often whimsical titles. "Witchery (to a winsome little maiden)" op.29 - a very pretty little piece, by the way - reminds us that he regularly got besotted by his female pupils. One of those who actually married him got such a crushing delusion that she would not have his name mentioned in her presence even thirty years after his death.
 
Even these little miniatures, delightful and sometimes touching as they often are, raise doubts as to his ability to put a larger work together. The ideas are short-breathed and even on a small scale the only way forward he can manage is often to repeat his tune in a suddenly unrelated key. These doubts appear justified in the present Concerto which presents one idea after another - some rather nice, some banal, some just noisy - without discernable logic. The listener will not get bored since new ideas spring up like mushrooms, some bearing the promise of better things to come, but he will hardly find deep satisfaction either.
 
Christian Darnton was barely even a name to me. Andrew Burn's notes acknowledge Dr. Andrew Plant, author of a thesis on Darnton, as his source of information. I learn from them that Darnton started out as a modernist but embraced communism during the war and adopted a style intended to appeal more directly to the people. No doubt it was his political views that had him out in the cold, leading to a compositional silence of twenty years. We don't have a Politburo in the UK but "we have our ways". The present Concertino got its first performance in South Africa. In his last decade he abandoned communism and composed a number of further works.
 
After a strident opening, what Andrew Burn describes as the "languid elegance" of the opening theme promises a work of some stature in a style vaguely reminiscent of Shostakovich. Though he tends to take refuge in noise both here and in the last movement there is a good deal more sense of purpose to this work than to Rowley's. And I was genuinely taken with the middle movement. In a sense the material is just scurrying scales against a chugging accompaniment, but it takes an original mind to say something new with such basic material. This Concertino, by the way, might make a very effective ballet score.
 
Roberto Gerhard has his place here on the basis of his naturalization papers - he reached England in 1939 as a refugee from Franco's Spain. All the same, I can no more think of him as British than I can think of Rachmaninov, Stravinsky or Schoenberg as American. His music in this Concerto has a passionate, burning intensity that seems authentically Spanish. By turns visionary, brooding and exultant, this piece has a fiendishly complex sound-world that nevertheless remains luminous and speaks to the listener with clarity. It must have sounded awfully modern when Mewton-Wood premièred it in 1951 yet if you were to play Falla's "Noches", his Harpsichord Concerto and this Concerto by Gerhard one after the other - who will be the first to try this on disc? - it would form a logical progression. The Concerto may enter the repertoire yet. It certainly deserves to. Incidentally, the Naxos inlay gives the date of composition as 1961 while the notes give the first performance as stated above. In view of Mewton-Wood's tragically early death - and of the fact that it doesn't sound like 1960s Gerhard - I take it the correct composition date is 1951.
 
Howard Ferguson's Concerto is one of his later works before his withdrawal from composition, feeling he had nothing more to say. His uncertainty is understandable. This piece veers between a neo-classicism that looks to Mozart rather than to the more usual baroque, mingling it with music of a Finzi-like poignancy. It is all very attractive but the composer's voice seems unfocussed. A clue comes about two-thirds through the second movement when a lyrical theme emerges that is as Irish as they come. Ferguson, it emerges, was really a misty-eyed, nostalgic Irishman who wanted to write like Stanford but didn't dare given the musical climate of his day. The finale has its Irish touches, too.
 
If the masterpiece here is the Gerhard, the disc gives us plenty to think about. All four concertos benefit from a level of playing we can't always take for granted in fringe repertoire. In spite of the illustrious precedent of John Ogdon, winners of the Moscow Tchaikovsky Competition more often than not travel the world with a repertoire that will go into a single small suitcase. Or do they? In 1975 or thereabouts I heard a recital by cellist Moray Walsh in which he gave a trial run of the repertoire he was taking to the Tchaikovsky Competition that year. Apart from the normal core repertoire there was a "Competition Piece" specially composed by some official Soviet composer. It was actually a bit like Alec Rowley.
 
Christopher Howell

see also reviews by Rob Barnett and John France
  
 




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