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Francis SHAW (b.1942)
Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No.1 (1986, rev. 2013) [22:04]
Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No.2 (2013) [31:37]
Martin Jones (piano)
Slovak National Symphony Orchestra/Francis Shaw
rec. Slovak Radio Studio, Bratislava, 29-30 November 2014. DDD.
LYRITA SRCD.356 [53:41]

I’m very pleased to see that, having reissued on CD just about everything that they once had on LP, and alongside their very welcome series of releases of off-air vintage recordings, Lyrita are again in the business of recording new material.

They could easily rest on their accumulated laurels, as in the case of three splendid recent 4-CD bargains: British String Concertos (SRCD.2346 – reviewreviewreview), British Piano Concertos (SCRD.2345 – review) and British Symphonies (SRCD.2355 – reviewreview). I welcomed SRCD.2345 and 2346 alongside a number of other Lyrita releases in Download News 2014/15.

Having missed out on the bidding for the 4-CD set of British Symphonies, I purchased it as a lossless download from Qobuz for Ł7.99. That’s an attractive price, even if, like me, you have several of the parent recordings on disc, but the CDs can be obtained for only a little more and they come with the booklet, which is missing from the Qobuz download. The booklet comes with the download from classicsonline.com but, since that cost twice the price of the CDs from MusicWeb-International when I checked, I can’t recommend it. Any subscribers who stream it from there are likely to want to obtain it in more permanent form.  (See also A Retrospective – Autumn 2016).

It’s especially good news that this release is, to the best of my knowledge, the first ever recording of Francis Shaw’s music other than the various film and television scores which he composed.

Being something of a stick-in-the-mud musically, I’m always wary of any composer still alive, especially one born later than myself – in Shaw’s case one year later. The opening of the First Piano Concerto seemed to confirm my fears, but I very quickly found myself warming to the music. It’s as if he felt that he had to establish his credentials with the fans of the avant-garde here and from time to time elsewhere. His teachers included Lennox Berkeley and Alexander Goehr but it’s the former rather than the latter that I hear as the major influence.

Robert Matthew-Walker’s very helpful notes typify the music as ‘a late twentieth-century expansion of serial thematicism’ but the broad base of tonality and the sense of forward movement, also mentioned, were more than enough to win me over. Overall there’s little here that lovers of Copland and Bartók would not respond to well.

If the outer movements of both concertos are hectic almost to the point of hectoring the listener at times, both second movements are very appealing. That of the First Concerto is headed ‘Slow Blues’, which is self-explanatory, that of the Second is a theme and variations.

Though technically based on an atonal motif, there’s repose here, too, and more than a hint of jazz and of other classical composers who have been influenced by jazz. There’s quite a hint of jazz influence in the finale of the Second Concerto, too, to end the programme in a way which dispelled all my anxieties.

I need hardly add that Martin Jones, though even older than me, proves himself supremely equal to anything that the composer demands of him. As Dominy Clements wrote of the Nimbus 4-CD 75th Birthday Tributereview – anything to which he turns his hand is a true delight. My only reservation about his single-CD collection of Percy Grainger was that it would lead the listener to want his complete 5-CD set – review.

Long ago Naxos realised that, given sufficient rehearsal time, Central and Eastern European orchestras could compete on record with their more star-studded rivals in Western Europe and the USA and Lyrita have taken a leaf out of their book. Indeed, the very orchestra employed here and the other Slovak orchestra from which its members are drawn have made many distinguished recordings for Naxos and other labels. Some of the demands which the music makes seem quite formidable, but the orchestra and soloist cope with them fully.

With the composer himself on the podium, of course, the performances can be regarded as authoritative, which is just as well since I have no benchmark with which to compare them. This is, indeed, the only Francis Shaw recording in the UK catalogue.

The recording is in Lyrita’s best manner. Perhaps now they will bring us more of Francis Shaw’s prolific output, or maybe another advocate of British music will oblige: Chandos, Hyperion, Dutton or Naxos? Meanwhile I hope that Lyrita’s enterprise in recording this greatly undervalued composer receives strong support.

Brian Wilson

Previous review: Rob Barnett 



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