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Kenneth LEIGHTON (1929-1988)
Piano Concerto No 1 in D minor, Op.11* [20.44]
Ruth GIPPS (1921-1999)
Piano Concerto, Op.34* [22.38]
Theme and Variations for piano, Op.57a [8.41]
Opalescence, Op.72 [4.03]
Angela Brownridge (piano)
*Malta Philharmonic Orchestra/Michael Laus
rec. 2011, Fairfield Hall, Croydon; *Manoel Theatre, Valletta
British Composers Premiere Collection Volume 5
CAMEO CLASSICS CC9046CD [56.53]

This is a further welcome instalment in Cameo Classics’ enterprising collection of British composers’ premiere recordings. In fact, as in earlier issues in the series, one of these works has been available before – Ruth Gipps’s Piano Concerto. This can be heard on the internet in a performance conducted by the composer with Eileen Broster as the soloist – but this is the first commercial recording of the work. Even the Chandos series of orchestral music by Kenneth Leighton has not yet reached his First Piano Concerto, written at the time the composer graduated from Oxford.
 
Mind you, if and when Chandos get around to the First Piano Concerto, one has the suspicion that they may well do better than this. The first movement, a sprightly toccata, seems to challenge the orchestra well beyond their limits. The Maltese players do their level best to keep up with the marking Allegro vivacissimo but often sound scrappy and ill-co-ordinated. At the beginning of the slow movement a rather expressionless horn solo leads to a rich string cantilena over beating chords on the piano. The players here evince none of the warmth which the music so clearly demands and their tone at 4.15 (track 2) is frankly scrawny. Angela Brownridge plays excellently and with the right sense of romantic style, but she is badly let down by her accompaniment and the bridge passage that leads into the sprightly finale, which one would imagine could sound haunting in the right hands, here sounds merely tentative. The finale itself, demanding less sustained playing from the strings, is lively enough but the acoustic sounds boxy and lacks any sense of resonance.
 
The performance of the Ruth Gipps Piano Concerto, although the sound is a considerable improvement on the rather rickety old performance under the composer with the BBC Northern Orchestra, also suffers from a generally underwhelming orchestral performance. When the work was first given in Birmingham in 1948, the Birmingham Post referred to its “late romantic style” – but unfortunately the performance here is most certainly not romantic. From the very beginning the orchestral sound is undernourished, and all Brownridge’s panache is not sufficient to rescue the situation. The climax of the first movement at track 6 (8.00) is boxy in sound, with brass dominating the soaring string melody, and later at 9.30 the scrawny tone of the cellos is simply unacceptable. In the slow movement (track 7) the beautiful oboe melody at 1.30 is phrased with a total lack of feeling which completely negates its effect. Indeed throughout this performance the orchestra sounds lacking in body and warmth. Even the perky finale fails to make the impression which is really needed.
 
The two solo Gipps items, recorded in the more sympathetic acoustic of the Fairfield Hall and without the drawback of the Maltese orchestra, make most interesting makeweights and indeed constitute the most recommendable portion of this disc. Gipps suffered from neglect during her later career, when the serialists ruled the roost at the BBC. One can only regret that works of this calibre have remained unknown. Angela Brownridge, in a booklet note copiously illustrated with period photographs, refers to the “charm” in her harmonies. One cannot but agree with this assessment. Brownridge says nothing about the Theme and Variations, although they are rather beautiful with a wistful dying fall at the end. Opalescence lives up to its descriptive title, and indeed is a positive miniature gem.
 
Although one is grateful for the opportunity to hear this music in commercial recordings, this is one of the least impressive discs I have heard in this Cameo Classics series of British composers’ premières. The Maltese orchestra have sounded much better than this in earlier releases. Nonetheless one must welcome the enterprise of this label in their attempts to expand the recorded repertory. I look forward to later episodes in the series – even though none are advertised as being forthcoming in the booklet.
 
Paul Corfield Godfrey

Previous review: Rob Barnett


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