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Dora BRIGHT (1862-1951)
Piano Concerto No.1 in A minor (1891) [24:26]
Variations for Piano & Orchestra (1910) [16:45]
Ruth GIPPS (1921-1999)
Piano Concerto in G minor Op.34 (1947) [26:19]
Ambarvalia Op.70 (1988) [7:54]
Samantha Ward, Murray McLachlan (piano)
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/Charles Peebles
rec. 2019, The Friary, Liverpool
SOMM CELESTE SOMMCD273 [75:22]

Another disc of real artistic merit and technical and musical quality from Somm. For the curious, the "jump out" name here is that of Dora Bright. Two substantial concertante scores are presented of music by a composer whom even the most assiduous collector of British music is unlikely to know.

Certainly, I had never even heard the name. Robert Matthew-Walker's liner note is as detailed as it is enthusiastic and all the detail given here is drawn from his essay. As a pianist Bright was clearly a very talented player – performing at the Covent Garden Promenade concerts by the time she was 20 and even playing for Liszt four years later. The CD liner details various impressive "firsts" that Bright achieved through to the end of the 19th century. She married an army officer 33 years her senior, which gave her financial security but seems to have caused a falling off in her creativity as both performer and composer. She lived until 1951 but apparently many/most of her scores are lost with the two works presented here among the few surviving examples of her music.

Hyperion's "The Romantic Piano Concerto" series has reached its 79th volume with often-forgotten, often excellent works written mainly by men so while we can lament the injustice of Bright's music languishing in obscurity it cannot be said that that is simply a case of gender discrimination. Make no mistake, this Bright Piano Concerto in A minor is a well-composed, easily appealing, very well crafted work that deserves to be heard. But the same can be said of many of the works in the Hyperion series too. Matthew-Walker cautions the listener against a "sounds-like" approach to the work. While he is right to point out the moments of individuality the score contains it also has to be said that the musical world it inhabits is not strikingly unique. Certainly one would be hard-pressed to hear anything innately British – or more pointedly non-European – in the score. The Concerto shares the same key as the Schumann and much of the same spirit too – especially in the opening movement. That said, the central Intermezzo - running to just 4:30 - is the jewel of the work as well as being the most original part of the score. Each time I listened to the finale Saint-SaŽns sprang into my mind quite unbidden. his is a work of a gentle Romantic spirit, lyrical and attractive and it receives a performance that seems to ideally reinforce that impression. Pianist Samantha Ward – who plays the Variations that follow as well – is a neat and nimble player and she is given predictably attentive and sensitive support by Charles Peebles conducting the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra.

It is interesting to note that the Variations for Piano and Orchestra of 1910 date from after her husband's death, so it is hard not to feel that marriage, for whatever reason, was a shackling influence on Bright's creative drive. Do not listen to this work looking for even the slightest whiff of Modernism. On its own terms this is another beautifully crafted, instantly appealing work that perhaps was written more for private pleasure than any greater need or expectation. The theme is original and simple and the following seven variations are a model of understated contrast and taste. Nowhere is this better demonstrated than in the closing Variation 7 - Scherzo/Finale, which is quite brilliant in its understated elegance and wit. The liner mentions other scores including a D minor Concerto and a G minor Fantasia. Presumably these represent part of the 'lost' music. The hope must be that interest generated by this new disc will prompt the rediscovery of some or indeed any of those works, since Bright has a voice that deserves to be heard.

If only through the loss of performing materials, or perhaps the sense that Bright herself chose to marginalise the importance of her creative life, the neglect of her music is at some level understandable. In contrast the ignoring of the music of Ruth Gipps – until very recently – is far less understandable or even excusable. Gipps' music has a thrust and ambition that Bright's does not. The recent Chandos disc of her Symphonies Nos. 2 & 4 and indeed the earlier recording on Classico of the Symphony No.2 proved this. The only sorrow is that with so much music to choose from and with so little available it seems a shame that there is duplication in the recorded repertoire already. And that is the case with the Piano Concerto in G minor Op.34 recorded here. However, and it is a substantial however, this new recording is preferable in just about every respect to the previous performance. That premiere came courtesy of Cameo Classics and featured Angela Brownridge as the soloist accompanied by the Malta PO conducted by Michael Laus as Volume 5 of that label's British Composers Premiere Collection. When Lyrita took on the Cameo catalogue they remastered and rereleased some of the discs from that series in a 4 disc set. Sadly, they did not include the Gipps concerto which to my ear was one of the highlight works of the entire series. That being the case, collectors would have to find fairly pricey 2nd hand copies of that Cameo disc if they want to compare performances. Brownridge plays very well and, in the 1st movement particularly, prefers a more dynamic, muscular neo-classical approach than this new disc and for that alone Gipps collectors will want the older disc. But on every other front the new disc is preferable. The Malta PO are hardworking but distinctly fallible alongside the RLPO and the engineering is basic to boot. Those two factors are nearly fatal given the originality and brilliance of Gipps' orchestral writing. This new Somm disc reveals wonderfully the skill of her writing. The pianist here is Murray McLachlan and he is excellent. More muscular and with a greater sense of Romantic sweep than Ward, deployed in the Bright – but this is what the respective pieces require. There is one passage in the 1st movement - around 7:14 which is simply gorgeous – a pair of capering flutes with a twinkling glockenspiel over lyrical strings and some deft piano passagework. But time and again this work reveals writing of remarkable skill and appeal. The lyrical central Andante is balanced by an energetic neo-classical closing vivace that for some reason had me thinking of Roussel.

That this is a criminally neglected work is clear. This review is being written just after the 2019 BBC Proms have drawn to a close. Unbelievably, Gipps' music has featured just once in the entire history of the Proms and that was the 1942 Last Night. Before we worry about staging more musical theatre and late night jazz, the "world's greatest classical music festival" should look to rectifying that absurd neglect and this might be just the piece to do it.

The disc is generously completed with an attractive bonne-bouche in the form of Gipps' Ambarvalia Op.70. This was a late work written in 1988 as an in memoriam for the composer Adrian Cruft and it completes this very attractive disc in a pleasingly reflective and gently meditative mood. Somm's production team of producer Siva Oke and engineer Ben Connellan serve the music in exemplary manner with a recording that is detailed but natural sounding. Perhaps the RLPO have sounded more glamorous on other recordings but the collective skill of the playing shines through. As ever, the hope must be that the critical response to and sales of this disc will encourage the same team to produce more discs along similar lines – especially of Gipps' orchestral and concertante works.

A wholly impressive and enjoyable disc.

Nick Barnard

Previous review: John Quinn



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