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Dora BRIGHT (1862-1951)
Piano Concerto No. 1 in A minor (1888) [24:26]
Variations for Piano and Orchestra (1910) [16:43]
Ruth GIPPS (1921-1999)
Piano Concerto in G minor, Op. 34 (1947) [26:19]
Ambarvalia, Op. 70 (1988) [7:54]
Samantha Ward (piano)
Murray McLachlan (piano: Gipps concerto)
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/Charles Peebles
rec. 2019, The Friary, Liverpool

Here’s another enterprising release from SOMM Recordings which enables us to hear music by two British female composers. One, Dora Bright, is almost completely forgotten nowadays. At least a few of Ruth Gipps’ works have been given an airing in recent years but her output is still far from established in the public’s consciousness. All the works on this disc are here receiving their first recordings with the exception of the Gipps piano concerto.

I’m indebted to Robert Matthew-Walker’s notes for information about Dora Bright. Born in Sheffield, she studied composition and piano at the Royal Academy of Music. Clearly a highly accomplished pianist, she was of a sufficient standard that she played to Liszt in 1886, winning his approval. She won prizes for composition and gave concerto performances in Britain and in Europe. In the early 1890s she married and thereafter restricted her public appearances but, after her husband died in 1900, she later pursued further studies in Paris and continued to compose. It seems, though, that most of her music is now lost.

The booklet doesn’t include the date of composition of her A minor concerto but if Wikipedia is accurate the work dates from 1888; Robert Matthew-Walker mentions a performance she gave in 1891 under August Mann’s baton. The first movement accounts for over half the length of the concerto, playing here for 13:58. Immediately we hear a jaunty first subject introduced by the woodwind. The second subject is more lyrical (2:07). Both of these attractive themes are worked through in a most appealing fashion by Bright. It might be said, fairly, that the music doesn’t break any new ground but must a composer always do so? The music sounds highly accomplished with plenty of interesting writing for the solo instrument and in addition the orchestration is effective. As I listened, I became more and more aware that this composer clearly understood the piano. In particular, the cadenza (10:34-13:25) provides a fine test for the soloist as well as exploring the movement’s themes very thoroughly.

The slow movement is begun by the piano. This short movement (4:30 in this performance) is a ruminative, gentle creation in the manner of a berceuse. Everything about this movement is tranquil and charming and the performance is very poetic. I’m slightly puzzled in that Robert Matthew-Walker refers to a side-drum tattoo at the opening of the finale, though in fact the only drums we hear are the timpani. Since Mr Matthew-Walker mentions a side-drum again a little later in his note I wonder if in fact the use of the timpani instead was an editorial decision by the conductor, Charles Peebles. Be that as it may, the finale contains a lot of light, dancing music which is rather puckish in tone, though there’s also a second subject (1:20) which has a lyrical character. The performance is dynamic and energetic. I enjoyed this concerto, which is cultivated and, in the best sense of the word, entertaining.

Dora Bright went on to write two more substantial scores for piano and orchestra: a Concerto in D minor (1892) and a Fantasia in G minor for Piano and Orchestra (also 1892). There was one more concertante work to come: The Variations for Piano and Orchestra, which she completed in 1910 whilst studying in Paris – with whom, I wonder? I used the word entertaining to describe the A minor concerto and that’s even more true of these Variations. The work consists of a Theme and seven Variations, each section being separately tracked on this CD, which is very helpful. The Theme is, apparently, marked semplice and that’s not inappropriate since the musical idea is quite simple and straightforward, flowing from a five-note motif. The variations which follow all keep the theme very much in sight. The third Variation, marked Andantino, is very pleasing and this gives way to an elegant waltz, which is Variation 4. The following two variations are slow in tempo and I agree with Robert Matthew-Walker’s observation that these are “contemplative rather than searchingly profound”. That said, the second of them, marked Lento, is the most serious and, to my ears, the most emotionally rewarding passage in the work. The Scherzo - Finale which constitutes Variation 7 is vivacious and carefree, though near the end the five-note motif is heard in broad, lyrical guise on the strings. The conclusion of the work is a delightful surprise: delicate and restrained. As in the concerto, Samantha Ward is a most accomplished and responsive soloist and she receives excellent support from Charles Peebles and the RLPO.

The music of Ruth Gipps is a little better known than that of Dora Bright. I enjoyed and admired her Second and Fourth symphonies last year (review) and I’m very much looking forward to hearing the Second performed live by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla at the beginning of October. Her Piano Concerto in G minor has been recorded before. I’ve not heard that version, though I see my colleague Paul Corfield-Godfrey was underwhelmed by the performance (review). I’m anything but underwhelmed by this new performance which has Murray McLachlan in alliance with the RLPO and Charles Peebles: their account of the concerto seems to me to be successful in every way.

Though Ruth Gipps eventually made her career as an orchestral player, conductor and composer she started off as a pianist and clearly was something of a virtuoso because Robert Matthew-Walker informs us that her repertoire included the demanding concerto by Sir Arthur Bliss. Unfortunately, a hand injury put an end to her career as a piano soloist. It’s appropriate to know her pianistic background, though, as that experience is in evidence throughout. Indeed, one can almost hear her saying “this is the concerto I wanted to play myself”.

As with the Bright concerto, Ruth Gipps’ concerto has a first movement that accounts for over half of the total length of the work; it plays for 14:34 here. It opens with a big, bluff orchestral opening which is a bold statement, cymbals and all. This is followed by an assertive piano entry which Murray McLachlan delivers in a suitably powerful and rhetorical fashion. Soon, though, this big opening yields to a more relaxed, lyrical episode and the second subject, introduced by the piano, is tender (3:49). Thereafter, the movement is nicely varied with a good deal of fluent lyricism interspersed with more potent passages. The piano writing is excellent and Gipps’ orchestration is colourful and inventive. One passage that caught my ear was a piano solo episode in which the piano solos are punctuated from time to time by timpani rolls. The cadenza (10:06 – 10:51) is short but ambitious and gestural. McLachlan plays it with great authority. I was impressed by this movement which offers ample display opportunities for the soloist and in which the musical ideas are very well worked through.

The short slow movement is gentle and thoughtful. Proceedings are briefly enlivened (2:44 – 3:31) by a quicker episode but even here the tone is subdued. Just before the end there’s a very brief climax but even here I doubt if the marking is greater than forte. At the beginning and close of the movement there are solos for clarinet and oboe. Ruth Gipps’ husband was a clarinettist and the oboe was her instrument so one wonders if there’s a personal statement here. Everything about the performance of this movement is sensitive. By contrast, the finale is extrovert and cheerful. Much of the music is lively and even the lyrical digressions maintain a happy countenance. The writing for the soloist is virtuosic and the orchestration colourful. This is a delightful conclusion to an excellent concerto. Ruth Gipps is splendidly served throughout by Murray McLachlan, who plays the display passages with power and precision; if anything, he’s even more impressive in the many lyrical passages, displaying sensitivity and poetry. Peebles and the RLPO make an excellent contribution. Though I’ve not heard the Angela Brownridge recording I find it hard to believe that this newcomer could be anything but a first choice for this fine and enjoyable concerto.

To round off the disc Charles Peebles and the RLPO present the third recorded premiere on this programme in the shape of the short orchestral work, Ambarvalia. This is a late work, dating from 1988, which was written in memory of Adrian Croft, the Chairman of the Composers Guild of Great Britain who had died the previous year. I understand that the title refers to an ancient Roman festival during which a slow procession is held to bless the fields so that the fruits of the earth will grow and be harvested in the Autumn. The piece is scored for small orchestra, innocent of percussion save for a celeste, which makes a few telling little interjections. It’s a little work of Ravelian refinement which includes some lovely pastoral woodwind solos. The RLPO plays it sensitively.

This is a valuable and rewarding disc. The standards of performance are very high throughout. I don’t think that any of the pieces are ever likely to become staples of the repertoire but their complete neglect is unjustified and they are all well worth hearing. That judgement applies especially to the Ruth Gipps concerto. Ben Connellan’s recordings present the performances in excellent sound and the essay by Robert Matthew-Walker is characteristically informative and readable.

John Quinn

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