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Dora BRIGHT (1862-1951)
Piano Concerto No. 1 in A minor [24:26]
Variations for Piano and Orchestra [16:43]
Ruth GIPPS (1921-1999)
Piano Concerto in G minor, Op. 34 [26:19]
Ambarvalia, Op. 70 [7:54]
Samantha Ward (piano: Bright)
Murray McLachlan (piano: Gipps concerto)
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/Charles Peebles
rec. 2019, The Friary, Liverpool
First Recordings except Gipps concerto
SOMM CÉLESTE SOMMCD273 [75:22]

Hyperion’s iconic Romantic Piano Concerto series was born sometime in 1990, and has spawned almost eighty CDs to date. Even if this vade mecum for the genre is still going strong, occasionally some works don’t appear on its radar. The two concertos recorded here would have been ideal candidates for inclusion, but fortunately SOMM Recordings has now made them available on disc. Bright’s contributions are both first recordings, while there is a previous recording of the Gipps concerto with pianist Angela Brownridge on Cameo Classics, which was reviewed by Rob Barnett, and Paul Corfield Godfrey respectively. SOMM’s latest recording has already been the subject of a detailed review by John Quinn, so there is little need for too much factual duplication on my part.

Of the two British female composers represented here, Dora Bright is probably unknown to most of us, while Ruth Gipps’s music has had occasional airings in recent years. Bright, we are reliably informed, hails from Sheffield, studied piano and composition at the Royal Academy of Music, and was certainly a most talented pianist, given that she played to Liszt in 1886, winning his approval. But as was often the case with female composers, while her husband was alive she made few public appearances, although after his death she was able to pursue further studies in Paris.

While the booklet does not give a composition date for her A minor concerto, it would seem appropriate to settle on 1888 as a likely contender, the same year as Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony, or Paderewski’s Piano Concerto in the same key. From the moment I started to listen to Bright’s concerto, without having boned up on the sleeve notes beforehand, I had an overwhelming feeling of the presence of Edvard Grieg, not merely because of the shared key with his own concerto. There is a common harmonic thread which mixes modality with more conventional chord progressions, and a similar use of solo woodwind instruments, the flute especially. Grieg’s concerto predates Bright’s by some twenty years, which in turn appeared over twenty years after another popular work in the same key, that of Robert Schumann. In the booklet, Robert Matthew-Walker does mention Grieg, but this is really only as far as Bright and the Norwegian composer appear to use a similar basic design. The notes also comment on the fact that, while most of Bright’s contemporaries would have started with a bold flourish and call-to-arms, as Grieg’s and Schumann’s do, she prefers a more understated opening, and which, to some degree, reflects the overall more relaxed manner of how piano and orchestra will work through the abundant thematic material later on. This was evident in Beethoven’s last two piano concertos, No. 4 with its gentle conversation-like opening for the soloist, while No. 5, the Emperor, begins in dramatic fashion, with all guns blazing.

The opening movement (Allegro moderato) takes up more than half the length of the concerto, but otherwise it follows the conventional pattern of a sprightly first subject followed by a more lyrical second, and while Bright’s music generally avoids any uncharted territory, it is extremely well-written for the soloist, and shows a real command of orchestration, and, what is equally important, it is so very appealing, and full of fresh invention. Furthermore, Bright is clearly a pianist-composer, and nowhere is this more apparent than in the cadenza.

The slow movement (Intermezzo – Andante espressivo) is cast as a simple, yet totally captivating berceuse (lullaby), which, as the booklet suggests, hints at the style of MacDowell – whose first concerto, also in A minor, appeared in 1884. It is indeed a little gem of a movement.

For the sonata-rondo finale (Allegro), Bright adopts what might essentially be described as the Italian dance-form of a Tarantella. At the same point in his concerto, Grieg went for a Norwegian halling dance. In his review, John Quinn comments on the fact that the otherwise-impeccable booklet clearly states that the finale begins ‘with a short quiet tattoo on the side-drum’, and goes on to mention the instrument again later. Clearly, as my colleague points out, that side-drum is a timpani, which I clearly discerned, too. I’m not sure if I had been a Private Investigator in a former life, but it intrigued me as to why there had either been a change of instrument, or an unexpected error in the booklet. A quick email contact with the conductor confirmed the latter. Either way, the finale did remind me of the similar movement in Saint-Saëns’s Second Piano Concerto (1868), albeit required to be taken at a significantly slower tempo in Bright’s concerto.

If you look at the CD’s front cover, you would think that only two works are represented here. But SOMM have really added a substantial amount of icing to the cake, by including two further works from each composer. The first of these – Bright’s Variations for Piano and Orchestra follows next, and is a perfect opportunity to savour more of her music.

In fact Bright went on to write two more concertante works for piano and orchestra – a Concerto in D minor (1892) and a Fantasia in G minor for Piano and Orchestra in the same year. The present Variations for Piano and Orchestra appeared while she was studying in Paris in 1910. If, in fact, you did enjoy the concerto, then it’s a pretty safe bet to say that you will like the Variations even more, as, while cast in the same mould, clearly things have moved on during those twenty years or so that separate the two works. The theme (Semplice – Moderato) – an appealing melody in the key of F that makes use of a five-note motif – is given without any introduction, and followed by seven variations. There is significant variety throughout, and the theme itself is never that far away either. The Fourth Variation is a graceful waltz, while the Sixth, marked ‘Lento’, forms the emotional heart and epicentre of the whole work, merely leaving the Seventh (Scherzo – Finale) to provide the ideal conclusion. Here Bright shows that, in addition to being a fine melodist, and a pianist who also truly understands the finer points of orchestration, her contrapuntal skills are also well-honed. As with the concerto, the Variations end in reflective mood, again a most effective touch, when a big finish could so easily have been substituted.

Ruth Gipps’s music is definitely better-known than Dora Bright’s, and, as mentioned above, her Piano Concerto in G minor has already been recorded, and reviewed. MusicWeb International colleague, and Editor in Chief, John Quinn, commented that one reviewer seemed ‘underwhelmed’ by that earlier performance. Like our Editor, I haven’t heard the first recording, but wholeheartedly agree with his appraisal that the present recording with pianist Murray McLachlan could not leave anyone feeling remotely ‘underwhelmed’ – quite the very opposite, I’d say.

Bexhill-born Ruth Gipps ended up making her career as an orchestral player, conductor and composer, despite starting off as something of a virtuoso pianist. Sadly, a hand injury put paid to that, but her essential knowledge of keyboard technique is again so apparent in the writing here, and which is perfectly matched by her consummate orchestration skills. Once again, the first movement (Allegro moderato) takes up more than half of the concerto’s overall playing time, and opens with a bold theme of symphonic proportions, which the soloist delivers again, less than a minute into the work. Despite the sixty or so years that separate the two concertos, Gipps’s example is as much a candidate for inclusion in any Romantic Piano Concerto compilation, as Bright’s is. The difference is that now the overall canvas is larger, and the harmonic palette far more extensive. Not surprisingly, modality plays quite an important part in some of the chordal progressions, given that the concerto appeared only four years after Vaughan Williams’s Fifth Symphony, a work which also has a decided modal flavour to it.

Gipps’s first movement offers great opportunities to the soloist, not only where moments of immense power are required, but also when quiet lyricism is the order of the day. There is the customary cadenza, and, while not overly long, it gives the pianist a real chance to shine, a challenge which McLachlan accepts and carries of with such great panache, and true conviction.

The short slow movement is gentle, pastoral in nature, and pensive, with a quicker middle section, and a very brief climax, but the whole movement is essentially subdued and lyrical throughout. The finale (Vivace) opens with a brief fanfare-like figure, and the whole movement is decidedly up-beat and positive, spurred on by the virtuosic piano part, and vibrant orchestral writing. I hear shades of John Ireland’s Piano Concerto (1930) at times, as the overall flow moves effectively between lyrical, and faster sections, and where the ‘fanfare theme’ often serves as the dividing line. Here McLachlan’s proven ability to deliver the often tricky finger-passages with the utmost precision, finely complements his equal ability to provide real power when this is called for. After some four and a half minutes, the music starts its final descent, leaving another short, but brilliant piano cadenza which leads to the final climax and dénouement. The excellently-balanced and lifelike recording vividly captures the xylophone’s contribution in the closing section. A real sense of humour pervades the finale, and, perhaps nowhere more than the final G major chord, which is intentionally (I hope) preceded by the xylophone playing a single high D a split second earlier. If the composer had ever had any issues with an errant xylophonist, this would seem the perfect kind of pay-back.

This simply outstanding CD ends with a short piece by Gipps – Ambarvalia – for an orchestra of classical dimensions without timpani, and a late work dating from 1988. The title apparently refers to the annual Roman rite, held on May 29, in honour of Ceres, a slow procession blessing the fields and farmlands for the fruits of the earth to come later in the autumn harvest festival. It’s a charming pastoral miniature where the only percussion contribution comes by way of a few parallel chords on the celeste. The lilting compound rhythm is maintained throughout, and the work is further enhanced by some delightful woodwind playing, particularly from the flute. The idiomatic performance from the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra (RLPO), under the highly sensitive and perceptive baton of Charles Peebles, makes Ambarvalia so appealing every time you listen to it, and yet another gem..

This is a really impressive CD in every respective, from the life-like recordings, and scholarship of the booklet to, of course, the supreme contribution by the members of the RLPO under Peebles. But a piano concerto can only succeed in performance if it has a pianist with the necessary technique, a real empathy for the music, and someone who has that vital ability to see beyond the notes. In Samantha Ward, in the works by Bright, and Murray McLachlan in the Gipps, there could scarcely be two finer and more empathetic exponents.

This must now be the definitive performance of the Gipps concerto, and it is sincerely hoped that this really well-crafted and enjoyable work in the late-romantic style might start to find its place in the concert hall, when given such an exceedingly persuasive reading as here. For the Bright concerto the chances are less good, because there is just so much already recorded, and so many yet to get to the studio. But her Variations make a genuine case for inclusion in any list of concertante works with piano, and indeed are far more entertaining, and better put-together, than a fair bit of the more established repertoire in the genre.

Either way, I would expect the Hyperion label to feel really disappointed that they didn’t manage to find a place for these three works in their Romantic Piano Concerto Series. Their loss is definitely SOMM’s gain, who should really be applauded for having the faith to make these undeservedly neglected works available to the wider listening public.

Philip R Buttall
 
Previous reviews: John Quinn ~ Nick Barnard



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