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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 Collections - Volume 5
CAMEO CLASSICS CC9046CD [56.53]

The soloist on this recording, Angela Brownridge, was originally from Goole but her family moved to Leicestershire when she was twelve. She became a soloist with the Leicestershire Schools Symphony Orchestra, playing Beethoven’s 1st concerto and the Grieg concerto in the UK and on tour in Germany and Norway in the early 1960s. Now established as one of the country’s finest pianists, she travels the world and has played in numerous venues and festivals with major orchestras.
 
Her performances on this CD are exemplary but there has to be some regret that the orchestral support she is given is no more than workmanlike. To be fair to the orchestra this was probably very unfamiliar music to them. Michael Laus is an attentive accompanist and he does his best with the forces he has at his disposal. They play with enthusiasm but there are patches of scrappy playing and the orchestral tone isn’t really luxuriant enough for the sweeping romantic passages.
 
In a century when most British composers were the product of a solid middle class background, Kenneth Leighton was a notable exception. Born into a humble family in Wakefield, Yorkshire, Leighton composed three piano concertos. The first, in D minor - included here - was written in the year he graduated from Oxford. This concerto is something of a find. It is a lively piece, full of youthful vigour. The first movement, all hustle and bustle, has a real fizz and forward drive to it. The thematic material is all derived from a cell of a few notes and Leighton skilfully develops this cell into a lively toccata. The slow movement starts with a highly exposed but haunting horn solo, played somewhat nervously here. This movement is in a more melancholic, romantic vein and it leads into a finale of high spirits and considerable virtuosity. A solo cadenza takes us into a final fugue and a barnstorming conclusion.
 
Ruth Gipps was born in Bexhill-on-Sea in 1921 and as a child prodigy she had performed her first composition by the age of eight. At the age of thirty-three however, an old injury to her right hand put paid to her career as a pianist and she decided to focus her energies on conducting and composition. She was a pioneering female conductor and became one of the most prolific British composers whose works challenged the prevailing trends in avant-garde music such as serialism and twelve-tone music. Her musical philosophy was often at odds with mainstream thinking and her early career was affected strongly by the discrimination against women in the male-dominated ranks of music and particularly in composition. Her Piano Concerto is a more romantic affair than the Leighton. It will appeal to those who enjoy the Grieg/Tchaikovsky/Rachmaninov tradition. Angela Brownridge calls the first movement a “warhorse” in her booklet notes and that will give a clue to its general style and approach. The film world of Warsaw Concerto often springs to mind. The slow movement boasts a quite ravishing oboe melody followed by a set of variations - really lovely music. The finale has a main theme — stated at the outset by a solo trumpet — that to my ears sounds somewhat banal. Gipps employs some attractive scoring that titillates the ear and there are many passages with Chinese allusions. However, it strikes me as being the weakest of the three movements.
 
Throughout these two concertos the lack of body in the string section is a handicap. This is especially true of the Gipps. This is a work with so many passages that should sound full and warm and we simply don’t get that here. The piano is realistically balanced within the orchestral texture but the actual sound is rather two dimensional, cramped and boxy. Technically the most appealing sound quality is to be found in the two solo items from Croydon’s Fairfield Hall which are well played and have far more ambience. To summarise, the Cameo label has yet again come up with some interesting repertoire which is well worth seeking out. For this they should be congratulated. There’s some wonderful playing from the soloist but the orchestral playing and the cramped acoustic detract from the pleasure. This is a near miss, I’m afraid.

John Whitmore

Previous reviews: Paul Godfrey and Rob Barnett
 



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