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Irish Piano Concertos
John FIELD (1782-1837)
Piano Concerto No.3 in E flat major, H.32 (1806?) [31:40]
Philip HAMMOND (b.1951)
Piano Concerto (2014) [26:16]
Michael McHale (piano)
RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra/Courtney Lewis
rec. Studio 1, RTE, 21 June 2015 (Field) and National Concert Hall Dublin 18–19 January 2016 (Hammond)
RTÉ LYRIC FM CD150 [57:56]

It is lazy musical criticism to call John Field ‘The Irish Chopin.’ Beethoven, Clementi and Moscheles were more pertinent influences on his music. On the other hand, he did invent the ‘Nocturne’ as a musical form. He is usually understood to have both anticipated and influenced Chopin rather than the other way about. Perhaps we should refer to Chopin as the ‘Polish Field’?

A few biographical notes will be of interest. John Field was born in Dublin on 26 July? 1782. He studied the piano with Napoli composer Tommaso Giordani who was living in Ireland at that time. Field’s debut recital in his home town was given when he was only ten years old. Two years later, in 1794, Field moved to London and became a pupil of Muzio Clementi. His career as a virtuoso pianist began in the capital and extended into Europe. In 1803 Field moved to Russia where he gained a considerable reputation as a teacher and performer. However, his lifestyle led to loss of finance and bad health. He made his last major tour of European musical centres between 1832 and 1834, but eventually his health declined. He died in Moscow on 23 January 1837.

John Field’s compositions include seven piano concertos, four piano sonatas, 18 Nocturnes and a variety of other piano pieces.

In recent years, Field’s music has been rediscovered. Virtually everything he wrote is available on CD in a variety of versions. For, example, there are currently six recordings of this present concerto currently available in the Arkiv catalogue.

The Piano Concerto No.3 in E flat major as originally composed, lacked balance. There were only two movements- the opening ‘allegro moderato’ and the closing ‘tempo di polacca.’ In his later years, the composer would have interpolated one of his ‘Nocturnes’ as a slow movement during performance. In this present recording Michael McHale, has reimagined the lovely Nocturne in C minor (H.25) into a ‘reflective interlude.’ Interestingly Míceál O’Rourke in the Chandos recording (CHAN 9495) used the Nocturne in B flat in a similar manner. There exists an orchestrated version of a variant of this latter piece by Field himself. Patrick Piggott has suggested that this concerto may have been composed before the ‘second’. He based this reasoning on the two-movement form and the ‘relatively unsophisticated texture’ of some of the piano writing. It is believed that this work may date from 1806 when the composer was visiting St Petersburg.

The present performance by Michael McHale is exceptional. There have been critics who have declared that the opening and closing movements of this concerto outstay their welcome. McHale’s exploration of these pages proves that Field maybe did get the balance correct. Not his greatest concerto (No.2 in A flat probably holds that honour) but one that deserves concentration from the listener.

I have not come across the music of the Belfast-born (1951) composer Philip Hammond before. As well as a career composing, he is also a writer, teacher and broadcaster. For several years Hammond was a Director at the Arts Council of Northern Ireland. I depend on the liner notes for details his music.

The Piano Concerto was commissioned by BBC Radio 3 in 2014. The concerto received its premiere at the Ulster Hall on 5 January 2015. It was played by the Ulster Orchestra, with the present soloist and dedicatee, conducted by Nicolas Collon.

The composer has stated that he began this work during a ‘residency at the Centre Culturel Irlandais in Paris.’ He spent eight months composing the music, and travelled to Croatia, Spain and Oregon, USA. He does not say if this travel was necessary to the completion of the work, or was incidental to it. He affirms that the stylistic ethos behind the concerto is one of ‘retro-romanticism’ and that he ‘draws on the Romantic tradition of showy virtuosity in which the soloist is unashamedly the centre of attention’. Hammond has declared that two sources of inspiration for this concerto were the twenty-fourth prelude from Bach’s Das Wohltemperierte Klavier Book1 and the poem ‘Renouveau’ by the French writer Stéphane Mallarmé. This symbolist poem ‘contrasts springtime and winter.’

The Concerto is presented in three contrasting movements. The first is signed to be played ‘with drive and dynamic melodrama.’ This is dark, lugubrious music that has little humour or lightness of touch. The second movement is ‘slow, sustained and meditative.’ On the other hand, its contemplative mood does not preclude some animated moments. The finale, ‘fast, rhythmic and accented’ is a ‘toccata.’ This is powerful, thrusting music that drives towards a powerful conclusion. There are quotations from the first movement which gives this concerto a formal satisfaction.

Philip Hammond openly regards this piano concerto as eclectic. He has reached into the past and has selected several pianistic devices that the has made his own. To this he has added some piquant dissonances and innovative orchestration. This is no minimalist meander or anodyne post-modern ramble. It is up to the listener to decide whether it is pastiche or a work that is on a trajectory. I feel that Hammond’s thoroughly enjoyable Concerto owes much to Stravinsky, Bartok, Ravel and the cinematic piano concertos as evinced by Addinsell, Rota and Hermann. This is no bad thing.

Michael McHale will be known to listeners for the fine collection of British Clarinet Sonatas and The Lyrical Clarinet, featuring Michael Collins, clarinetist, issued by Chandos. McHale has performed several piano pieces on a retrospective album of Philip Hammond’s music. The liner notes, which are informative, without being analytical, are written by the soloist. The CD is beautifully recorded, with superb sound and balance. Unfortunately, it is only 57 minutes long: something else could have been included as a filler.

This splendid CD presents two widely contrasting piano concertos both written by Irishmen. The playing by the soloist and orchestral are superb, the sound excellent and the presentation of the disc is ideal. It deserves to be widely played. I look forward to further releases from Michael McHale with the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra and their guest conductor Courtney Lewis.

John France



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