Kenneth LEIGHTON (1929-1988)
Symphony No. 1, Op. 42 (1964) [35:41]
Piano Concerto No. 3, Op. 57 Concerto estivo (1968) [37:07]
Howard Shelley (piano)
BBC National Orchestra of Wales/Martyn Brabbins
CHANDOS CHAN 10608 [73:03]
Here are two very substantial works from Kenneth Leighton. Separated by some five years they are essays in accustomed formats: symphony and concerto. The two stand either side of 36 minutes duration. They feel as if they were intended to be major statements. Traditional names and structural expectations do not dictate content nor even subjugation to the patterns established by tradition. Still in this case the evidence of the listener’s ears shows the composer’s fealty to and even adoration of the past.
This grim three movement symphony launches with a movement at first suggestive in its icy distance of Sibelius's Fourth Symphony. It then becomes agitated and riven with a torment: part Nielsen and part Hilding Rosenberg. The central Allegro Molto feels more hunted and under threat than joyful. This eerie and desolate music is either overcast or searingly cold especially in the massed strings of the finale. This is a world or a life under threat put across with a desperate seriousness of purpose unrelieved by any softer emotions. The sound-world parallels that of Shostakovich. The premiere was given in Trieste under the young Aldo Ceccato in 1965 and in the UK in Liverpool in 1967 by Charles Groves. This is a work unremittingly gaunt and potently tragic often painted in great surging and suffocating waves of string sound typical of the first movement of Shostakovich 6.
Concerto Estivo or ‘summer concerto’ expresses the sensations of the glorious summer of 1969, the first summer Leighton had spent in the south for some fifteen years. Apart from moments in the outer movements when the shattered stained-glass harmonies of Messiaen and of Malcolm Williamson's Third Piano Concerto this work has an illustrative feel. There’s a reduced sense of the adversarial struggle one might usually find in a concerto although there is some rhetorical emphasis especially in the finale. The shimmering middle movement contrasts with its two flankers. Then again the pizzicato dash which seems to pay fleeting homage to Shostakovich’s Second Piano Concerto (then making its way in the west) is entertaining and life enhancing. It also picks up on the syncopation of 1930s Tippett and of Bernstein. A warm radiant pulse lofts the music over the last five minutes. It was premiered by the composer with the CBSO who had commissioned the pieced with Feeney Trust funds. The conductor was Louis Frémaux whose Regis-reissued Ravel Collins Classics disc I recently had good cause to welcome back..
The excellent notes are by Leighton biographer Adam Binks.
An intriguing pairing with the symphony made of tough and sinewy material and the concerto a vehicle for joy - not unmixed - but joy all the same.