Alan RAWSTHORNE (1905-1971)
Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor (1951) [28:07]
Edmund RUBBRA (1901-1986)
Piano Concerto in G major, Op. 85 (1956) [27:18]
Denis Matthews (piano)
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Sir Malcolm Sargent
rec. 1958

Alan Rawsthorne’s Second Piano Concerto was written in answer to a commission from the Arts Council of Great Britain, and premiered in 1951 at the Festival of Britain. The first of its four movements begins with a flute melody which seems typical of English music of the period. It wanders rather, not really getting anywhere; it’s not quite a melody at all, actually, but it haunts the mind all the same. The piano assumes an accompanying role here, and indeed challenging though the solo part must be, this is not a heroic piano concerto in the romantic sense. The second movement is in contrast to the rather amiable first, a rapid scherzo with darker undertones, though the atmosphere falls far short of the malice in the corresponding movement of, say, Walton’s First Symphony. The concerto has been recorded by Peter Donohoe on Naxos, and the notes accompanying that issue contain some interesting commentary by the composer, dated 1958 and therefore perhaps written for the LP issue of the present performance. The slow movement, he writes, “… has about it that nostalgic character so much disliked by the immobile intelligentsia of today, who confuse this quality with the emotional mess of the last century.” Quite. The main theme of the finale has taken some stick over the years. It is described in one of the Penguin Guides, for example, as “cheap”, though in a later edition the word “catchy” is applied to it. The composer himself seems to have been dubious: “This tune, saved, one hopes, from complete banality by its metrical construction …”. I don’t know about “cheap”, but “catchy” it certainly is, and the composer uses it to considerable effect to bring about an entertaining close to a most satisfying work.

Rawsthorne’s concerto has been recorded a number of times in the years following the appearance of this performance, but the only other I have heard is that by Donohoe referred to above. There, the soloist’s contribution is very fine indeed, and the performance as a whole is very satisfying. But the present performance is also very fine, totally committed and convincing, with a particularly authoritative contribution from Sargent and the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Where the later performance scores, of course, is in the quality of the recorded sound, and since the dryness of some of the musical ideas makes for a work which only gives up its secrets slowly, even reluctantly, there is no doubt that for a newcomer to the work, and perhaps to the composer, the later performance will be an easier entry point. For Rawsthorne enthusiasts who have not heard the Matthews performance, however, I urge you to give it a listen right away.

The Rubbra Concerto was new to me. Like the Rawsthorne it is not a heroic concerto in the Rachmaninov or Tchaikovsky vein. The piano part is big and wide ranging, but the instrument is more the equal of the orchestra than its competitor. The first movement opens in sombre mood, and in the minor key, despite the work’s major key designation. The music gradually opens out – in line with its botanical title: “Corymbus” – to imposing effect, and rising to a remarkably passionate climax. The second movement is entitled “Dialogue”, but it is not at all an intense affair along the lines of the slow movement of Beethoven’s Fourth, but calm and very beautiful. I have not had access to a score, but I think this movement probably begins nearly a minute later than the tracking cue would have us believe. The finale opens with a dancing figure, and its rondo structure is easily discerned even on a first hearing. There are references to earlier themes, in particular to the opening of the concerto, before the brief flourish that ends the work. There is a certain ebullience here that may surprise those who know the composer only from his symphonies and choral works. Once again, it is a most enjoyable and satisfying piece and comes here in an outstandingly fine performance.

As is to be expected from this source, there is no presentation to speak of. The CD cover is a simple inlay card with no accompanying text at all. The back of the box carries a number of internet links, including one to some useful pages on this very site. This is not really a “forgotten record”, though, as the Rubbra performance has already been available in EMI’s British Composers series. I haven’t heard that transfer, but this one, apparently direct from the original HMV LP of 1958, seems to have been expertly managed.

William Hedley

Edmund Rubbra discography & review index

Two fascinating English piano concertos from the 1950s in highly accomplished performances and more than acceptable sound for the period