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Mewton-Wood plays Twentieth Century Piano Concertos
Arthur BLISS (1891-1975) Piano Concerto (1938-39) [37.36]
Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971) Concerto for piano and wind instruments (1924) [20.06]
Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975) Concerto for piano, trumpet and strings Op. 35 (1933) [21.08]
Noel Mewton-Wood (piano)
Harry Sevenstern (trumpet) (Shostakovich); Utrecht Symphony Orchestra (Bliss); Residentie Orchestra, The Hague (Stravinsky); Concert Hall Symphony Orchestra
Walter Goehr (conductor)
rec. 1952 (Bliss, Stravinsky); 1953 (Shostakovich). mono. ADD
Originally issued as Concert Hall LPs: CHS1167 (Bliss); CHS1160 (Stravinsky); CHSH4 (Shostakovich)
Transferred by Bryan Crimp from LPs drawn from the collection of Robert Milnes
Financial assistance from the Bliss Trust

Experience Classicsonline

The story of Noel Mewton-Wood is a tragic one; that of a great talent cut short by destiny. In this respect his story, to some extent, mirrors that of the great William Kapell. Both had phenomenal talent, great interpretive insight and a fabulous technique. Both have seen a growing following since their respective deaths - Kapell on 29 October 1953 - when the British Commonwealth Pacific Airlines (BCPA) Flight 304 - a Douglas DC-6B - in which he was returning from a tour of Australia, struck Kings Mountain, south of San Francisco killing everyone on board - and Mewton-Wood on 5 December 1953 after drinking cyanide. We are fortunate in having a wealth of radio recordings of Kapell, which seem to keep appearing. Mewton-Wood, on the other hand, is represented by some 78s, made for Decca, and, towards the end of his short life, some recordings made for smaller companies which didn’t have worldwide distribution. Those are the source for this disk. I must mention that Somm has issued Busoni’s Piano Concerto in a live performance from BBC Studio 1, Maida Vale, given in January 1948, with the BBC Men’s Chorus and the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Sir Thomas Beecham (SOMM-BEECHAM 15).

The disk under discussion includes three magnificent performances of, fairly, modern works, in performances of great clarity and understanding.

Bliss’s Concerto is a huge, sprawling work in the big, Lisztian, tradition, but without either the personality or any real get-up-and-go. Mewton-Wood championed this work, which was written for, and premièred by, Solomon with the New York Philharmonic conducted by Sir Adrian Boult at the 1939 World’s Fair. Solomon subsequently recorded the work in 1943 and the present recording was the first on LP. Bliss’s career started, at the end of the First World War, with a series of works which put him firmly in the avant-garde. By the time he wrote the Colour Symphony, his first major orchestral work, for the Three Choirs Festival in 1922 he was already well situated in the more pastoral fields of English music of the time - although at the première, in Gloucester Cathedral, conducted by the composer, Elgar found it "disconcertingly modern!”. The 1930s started with the choral symphony Morning Heroes, honouring the dead of the war, continued with the film score Things to Come (1935) and the ballet Checkmate (1936/1937) and ended with this Concerto. Whilst Bliss’s output is large and impressive, I have to say, hand on heart, that much of it is dull, failing ever to raise itself from its own rather heavy handedness, and many pieces being simply far too long for their material. This Concerto is a case in point - it does go on! Although its only 37 minutes long there isn’t the invention to sustain such a duration. One can see why Mewton-Wood would be drawn to it, for it offers great opportunities for virtuoso display and, in the many reflective passages, time for poetic stock-taking. I haven’t heard this work for some 25 or 30 years and whilst listening I found all my own misgivings - dislike is too strong a word - for the piece surfacing unbidden. Mewton-Wood plays the work as if it were a towering masterpiece which it never will be, nor can it be, and throws himself into it heart and soul - you can hear his authority in every note he plays; it’s worth hearing just for the pianism. The Utrecht Symphony Orchestra does its best, but it wasn’t a great band and there are moments of insecure ensemble and intonation. But it is a knock-out of a performance. Totally committed and with the right romantic spirit. The transfer is excellent, very crisp and clear.

I have long cherished my old Concert Hall discs of the Stravinsky and Shostakovich Concertos, bought, second hand, in charity shops and still wearing well. But the sound on these transfers is exemplary compared to the original vinyl. The Stravinsky is given a superb performance, wild and fantastic, caution thrown to the wind, the composer’s bluff sense of humour alive in every bar. This is highly enjoyable and even though the sound is somewhat tubby the ear adjusts quickly and away you go. The Residentie Orchestra is more on top of the music than the Utrecht band was in the Bliss and, apart from an occasional sour oboe tone, the accompaniment is well captured.

Shostakovich’s First Piano Concerto has a recording which veers between that of the Bliss and the Stravinsky, clear but not too bright and without the tubbiness. The solo trumpet, well played by Harry Sevenstern, seems to be in a slightly different acoustic to the piano and the string orchestra! Very odd. Matters improve greatly in the finale. Again we have a stunning performance, and nobody is trying to make a case for this to be a major work - it is played for pleasure and the enjoyment of the musicians is clearly audible.

Although this issue is a tribute to Noel Mewton-Wood we mustn’t forget the conductor of all three works - Walter Goehr. He didn’t make a vast amount of recordings so we must be grateful that this issue allows us an example of his fine art.

This is a must-have, and not just for pianophiles but for music-lovers everywhere. I often think when I listen to re-issues of older performances - do these performances qualify as historical being a mere 50 or so years old? - how lucky we are to be able to hear performers who worked, in my case here, before I was born. It’s like reading the first edition of a book which has been constantly updated, because that first is full of, what was then, contemporary thought. So it is here. None of these works were as well known as they are now - I wonder exactly how many recordings of the Russian works there are today compared to the early 1950s? - so the interpretations are free of any received ideas.

Buy this, and cherish the performances. And before I finish, let me remind you, or tell you if you don’t know, of a wonderful EMI disk, containing Mewton-Wood accompanying Peter Pears in Tippett’s Boyhood's End and The Heart's Assurance (585150 2 - coupled with Tippett’s Second Quartet and Mátyás Seiber’s Quartetto lirico played by the Amadeus Quartet).

Bob Briggs  

see also reviews by John Quinn and Rob Barnett
MusicWeb recording of the Year 2003


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