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Alfred HILL (1869-1960)
Piano Sonata in A major [24:47]*
Piano Concerto in A major [26:04]
George BOYLE (1886-1948)
Piano Concerto in D minor [28:57]*
Piers Lane (piano)
Adelaide Symphony Orchestra/Johannes Fritzsch
rec. Adelaide Town Hall, South Australia, March/April, 2015
* First recordings
HYPERION CDA68135 [80:12]

This is Volume 69 of Hyperion’s ongoing traversal of the Romantic Piano Concerto repertoire. We are given here two Australian concertos from the first half of the last century, together with a sonata.

Alfred Hill was born in Melbourne but his musical talent led to him travelling to Europe to study composition and performance in Leipzig between 1887 and 1891. He fetched up playing the violin in the Gewandhaus Orchestra at a time that all manner of eminent composers and soloists were visiting. It seems that he must either have accompanied or been conducted by (amongst others) Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Grieg, Joachim, Sarasate, Bruch, Clara Schumann and Richard Strauss. One might expect that he would, therefore, have been heavily influenced by such figures but the depth of such influence is questionable. Hill subsequently returned to Sydney in 1911 and became the founding professor of composition at the conservatorium, continuing to compose until his death in 1960. His output was prolific and a 2007 thematic catalogue lists over two thousand titles, including five concertos, seventeen string quartets and nine orchestral (as opposed to string) symphonies. Neville Cardus regarded him as “the grand old man of Australian music”. I first came across Hill’s music in a Marco Polo recording of his Fourth and Sixth Symphonies on LP (still available on CD). It sounded like a rather na´ve and conservative throwback to the middle of the nineteenth century European romantic mainstream, rather than having anything new or original to say—which, given the state of Australian cultural development at the time, is pretty well what one might reasonably expect.

In the first half of the last century, given that few major works by Antipodean composers received a performance, any work that cried out for an orchestral setting had to be content with a more modest form, at least initially. According to the booklet note, all but one of Hill’s symphonies “originated as orchestrations of chamber works and two of his five concertos are based on earlier sonatas—a fact that only recently came to light”. The producers of the present CD have chosen to give us both the Piano Concerto in A major and the earlier sonata upon which it is based, so the sonata is the obvious place to start. The booklet indicates that this piece was first performed in the 1920s but was probably composed rather earlier.

In terms of style the piece was in line with my expectations. Ideas are simple and not really developed very much. The music of the first movement (entitled “The Question” to reflect the opening slow motif) is pleasant and winsome if rather earthbound. There follows a very brief “Intermezzo” marked Presto that seems to get cut off. The first three movements are all gentle—the slow movement “Nocturne” (an homage to Chopin) particularly so. The last movement, “Contrasts” (marked Allegro), only provides a slight change in mood although this is welcome. As the booklet suggests, a comparison of the manuscripts of the sonata and the derived concerto indicates that the composer took the opportunity of orchestrating the sonata to extensively re-work the material. That, however, was not particularly obvious to me, even after a second hearing.

The Piano Concerto in A major was given its first performance as late as 1941 (without the Intermezzo, which was orchestrated later). The work’s sonata origins are obvious in that the piano part is not much integrated with the orchestra. Instead, the piano tends to alternate with passages where the piano has simply been orchestrated—except where there is a slight orchestral back-cloth to add colour to the piano part (i.e. the degree of integration is about the same as in a Chopin concerto). The soloist is hardly stretched. Like the Delius, this is not a virtuoso concerto. Stylistically I suppose you could describe it as being rather like Xaver Scharwenka’s but without the guts. I found it bland the first time through but it did improve with acquaintance. I am sure there is an audience for whom this lightweight and occasionally breezy music will have considerable appeal.

The concerto has appeared on record before. I have an LP copy of Volume 9 of the Australian Festival of Music from 1972 where it is performed by David Bollard with the West Australian Symphony Orchestra conducted by no less a celebrity than Georg Tintner. That performance may still be heard on YouTube. In many respects the Hyperion CD sounds like a slightly updated recording of the same performance, although overall Bollard is more sprightly. Piers Lane, as an Australian, is an appropriate choice for this music. He does his considerable best with it, emphasising the reflective aspects of the music and seemingly attempting to make what some may regard as weaknesses into strengths. I find it difficult to imagine the piece played better or with greater subtlety. Lane achieves much the same with the earlier sonata but, stripped of its orchestral colour, the piece is less interesting. Whilst one can appreciate the merits of the idea of illustrating the genesis of the concerto, having two such similar pieces almost side by side also emphasises how little they differ. This juxtaposition, then, could be regarded as the bland leading the bland. Fortunately, we also get the Boyle concerto, which is a considerably more red-blooded affair.

Boyle was born into a musical family in Sydney in the generation after Hill. He was a pianistic prodigy who also composed, and he toured extensively in Australia and New Zealand. In 1905, like Hill, Boyle left Australia to study in Europe (in Berlin with Busoni) but he was never to return. Instead, he developed a prestigious career as a teacher at several leading US conservatories, numbering amongst his students composers such as Copland and Barber. The informative booklet notes: “His style is essentially late Romantic and his music contains frequent changes of tempo, key and mood, extensive chromaticism and virtuosic cadenzas”.

This description is very much borne out in Boyle’s three-movement D Minor Piano Concerto of 1911. The first movement “Moderato” starts with a brooding, syncopated introduction before the piano states the first subject. What follows is hardly original but it is not far removed from the concertos of Paderewski (1888) and Scharwenka (whose Fourth Concerto appeared in 1908). Apparently Boyle produced a version for two pianos in 1912, although it is not clear whether this means two pianos with orchestra or merely a reduction for two pianos. I assume the former, although the reasons for making such an arrangement are not spelt out. In the 1911 version, the first movement ends with a dramatic forte but the production here follows the 1912 version, in which the first movement leads seamlessly into the “Tranquillo” second movement. The material of this gentle movement is by no means as memorable as the corresponding movement of Paderewski’s concerto but its two themes build to a satisfying climax and then merge briefly in the coda. The third movement starts with a restless introduction that gives way to somewhat bombastic piano passages. We get a return of the first movement’s introductory motif and there is also a quote from the middle movement to “tie the whole work together in a cohesive whole”.

The work enjoyed extremely good reviews after both its American and Australian premieres and it was performed several times in New York, although it never made it into the wider repertoire. It makes a good contrast to the Hill concerto and seems to me to be rather more musically advanced. It is also interesting to note in passing that Hill actually conducted its Australian premiere in 1913, presumably well before he started work on his sonata. As one might expect, Lane gives it a splendid performance and he is very well supported. Hyperion’s normal high production values are maintained and the very satisfactory recording has a nice bloom, with the piano sound particularly well caught in all three works. Given the playing time one cannot complain about short measure.

The Boyle concerto is the stand-out here—compensating for its rather bland companion—and this is a very welcome addition to the Romantic Piano Concerto series.

Bob Stevenson



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