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Gordon JACOB (1895-1984)
Concerto No 1 for piano and string orchestra (1927) [17.08]
Malcolm WILLIAMSON (1931-2003)
Concerto No 2 for piano and string orchestra in F sharp minor (1960) [16.26]
Doreen CARWITHEN (1922-2004)
Concerto for piano and string orchestra (1948) [33.28]
Mark Bebbington (piano)
Innovation Chamber Ensemble/Richard Jenkinson
rec. CBSO Centre, Birmingham, 2-3 June 2014
SOMM SOMMCD254 [67.20]

The cover of this CD claims the recording of the Gordon Jacob First Piano Concerto to be a première recording; the booklet by Graham Parlett, slightly more circumspectly, refers to it as the “first commercial recording”. There has indeed been available for some time on the internet a broadcast transcription dating from the 1950s featuring the pianist Iris Loveridge, for whom the concerto was written. It has however to be observed that the old recording suffers from fairly abysmal sound even for its era. Although as always it is of interest to hear the view of the work taken by its creator this new reading in modern sound is much the better way to encounter the work. Malcolm Williamson’s Second Piano Concerto was recorded in the 1970s by Gwenneth Pryor with the English Chamber Orchestra under Yuval Zaliouk for EMI (EMD 5520) in the 1970s but this version seems never to have made the transition from LP to CD; at any rate it is no longer listed on Archiv. I do however note that Hyperion have a complete recording of all of the Williamson piano concertos performed by Piers Lane. Doreen Carwithen’s concerto was recorded in modern sound back in 2006 as part of a complete Carwithen CD conducted by Richard Hickox for Chandos with Howard Shelley as the pianist. Even so the combination of these three concertos for piano and strings is most welcome, since all three scores well repay investigation and all have been neglected on disc over many years.

It is particularly gratifying to hear the Jacob concerto is modern sound, since it is a most attractive work. At first the busy neo-classical style could be regarded as superficial, but by 2.01 in the first movement we encounter some beautifully lyrical writing. Jacob is most remembered nowadays for his work with Vaughan Williams — he orchestrated the latter’s Folksong Suite — and his short book on orchestral technique. This concerto predates his activities in this field and makes the listener aware that he had already established his own style and voice. The slow movement is particularly emotionally charged, with its use of solo strings almost sounding like chamber music.

The Malcolm Williamson concerto, despite its jazzy outer movements, is distinguished also by a heartfelt slow movement and it is amazing to realise that the whole work was composed in a mere eight days. This was the period when Williamson was at his most productive, and although the composer disclaimed any pretensions to profundity in the writing the melody of the slow movement has a haunting quality that will linger in the ear of the listener. It is a great pity that many of the major works from this period, in particular his spellbinding operatic setting of Oscar Wilde’s The Happy Prince, have never made the transition from LP to CD. In these days when Williamson’s music seems to be finding new audiences I hope that their reissue will not be long delayed. Be that as it may, we should be grateful to have this revival of the concerto to enjoy.

The Carwithen concerto is one of the composer’s major works. After her marriage in 1961 to her former teacher William Alwyn she more or less gave up writing music of her own during her husband’s lifetime. Like the Jacob concerto, it is largely neo-classical in style but with a Ravelian delicacy in the string writing. This is the only concerto on this disc to encounter modern competition. It has to be said that Hickox obtains a richer sonority from his LSO strings at passages such as the big tune in the first movement (track 7, 4.59) than the players here can contrive. Then again, the listener may wonder whether Carwithen really wanted the music here to sound quite as Rachmaninov-like as Hickox makes it. The smoothly emotional performance here has an equal validity, although Graham Parlett’s notes point out that Maurice Johnstone noted the parallels with Rachmaninov at the time of the first performance in 1951. The work was subsequently given at a Prom in 1952, again with the indefatigable Iris Loveridge as soloist. The chamber-music like delicacy of the slow movement is particularly beautifully realised here, and the forthright finale brings the disc to a rousing conclusion.

Mark Bebbington, a marvellously adventurous pianist, is every bit as good in these performances as we might expect. The orchestra, drawn from players of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, is admittedly small in scale – the big romantic tunes in the Williamson could also be richer – but their performance has poise and accuracy and is superbly well recorded. Those looking for a more overtly romantic and full-bodied approach may wish to consider the alternatives although only that of the Carwithen is readily available at present. Even so this disc should have a claim on their attention. Those unfamiliar with these works will find much satisfaction here. The release comes with an eight-page booklet note by Graham Parlett which is a mine of useful information.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

Footnote (from a reader)
The reviewer refers to a broadcast performance from 1958 which appears on YouTube. Your reviewer quotes that it was played by Iris Loveridge - this is stated on the YouTube video but it is incorrect and I tried a few years ago to point this out. The broadcast performance that I actually recorded at the time was played by Peter Wallfisch and this is the version on YouTube. The concerto was dedicated to Arthur Benjamin who premiered the work in 1927. Iris Loveridge would have been about 10 years old in 1927! I hope this sets the record straight.

Dr Geoff Ogram