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Francis SHAW (b.1942)
Piano Concerto No. 1 (1988, rev. 2013) [22:04]
Piano Concerto No. 2 (2013) [31:37]
Martin Jones (piano)
Slovak National Symphony Orchestra/Francis Shaw
rec. Slovak Radio concert studio, Bratislava, 29-30 November 2014

I had never wittingly heard any of the music of Francis Shaw until this disc appeared.

In fact Shaw's music has probably been heard by many, even if his name will not have registered with the music. We have the benefit of an extended English-only scene-setting essay from another composer, Robert Matthew-Walker (a generous collection of whose music has been issued recently by Guild). He describes the music but keeps a light grip on the musicological tiller. The complicated evolution of each work is treated in detail. We could, however, have done with much more about Shaw and his other music. He studied with Petrassi, Berkeley and Goehr. Menuhin commissioned his Divertimento For Strings, first performed at the Windsor Festival in 1971. There are two operas and two more concertos, one each for harpsichord and viola. His big and small screen scores, of which there are more than eighty, include Shackleton and Jamaica Inn.

The music on this disc seems to have a lineage back to the G major concerto of Ravel, the Constant Lambert Piano Concerto and the rhapsodic piano concertos of Cyril Scott but with a door wedged open to admit dissonance.

The First Piano Concerto, like its successor, is in three movements, the first of which rocks and sways with dissonance. By contrast the second ('Slow Blues') is candidly bluesy - a questing dream in aquamarine. It tends towards the woozily disorientating. The finale sends sparks and shudders in all directions but at its centre there is some very inward-speaking music. It's all recorded with attractive directness in a superb hall.

The Second Piano Concerto lasts 31+ minutes as against the 22 minutes of its predecessor. The first movement is a Molto moderato which dreams its way through what appears to be a journey guided by instinct. It's all rather crystalline and free-form. I tried it twice but found myself struggling to pin down a sense of direction. The central Theme and Variations is also caught up in wandering exploratory ways, adrift in wonder amid a seabed of waving wrack. This music has its own charm but I kept wanting Shaw to take a more obvious grip and deliver a sense of propulsion and development over the surreal pilgrimages he finds irresistible. There is angularity and confident rhetoric in the finale which does not lack a barbed spark: try the rhythmic aggression at 3:40. Overall, though, I fail to sense the logic in the movement's progress. This is, no doubt, a shortcoming of my own rather than in Mr Shaw's stars. With some jazzy infusions along the way, the finale ends well but overall the music left me cool or cold.

Francis Shaw has every reason to thank Martin Jones, the orchestra and the conductor. I cannot imagine this music being presented with greater skill or more persuasively. Even so this, for me, is not the most commanding entry in Lyrita's illustrious and compellingly attractive catalogue.

This is a new recording in the Lyrita SRCD series rather than the REAM line taken from the Itter off-air tape-collection.

It's all most attentively played and superbly recorded. Lyrita admirers, understandably legion, will want this. Francis Shaw will have his enthusiasts - and I would like to hear more. They will need to add this to their shelving but it is not the most compelling entry in an excitingly increasing catalogue. If I had to choose one track presenting the most engaging face of this composer it would be tr. 2 - the slow blues of the First Piano Concerto.

Although there is a clear case for having the two Shaw piano concertos together 54 minutes is quite a short running time. It's a shame there wasn't more orchestral Shaw to be added - say a suite from the Shackleton music.

I must declare an interest. I act as one of the informal advisers to Lyrita. I had no part in this particular disc except that I heard extracts from it early on.

Rob Barnett



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