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Edmund RUBBRA (1901-1986)
Piano Concerto in G Op.85 (1955/6) [29:54]
Sir Arnold BAX (1883-1953)
Morning Song 'Maytime in Sussex' (1946) [7:38]
Sir Arthur BLISS (1891-1975)
Piano Concerto in B flat major (1938/9) [39:54]
Piers Lane (piano)
The Orchestra NOW/Leon Botstein
rec. 2019, The Richard B Fisher Center, Bard College, USA
The Romantic Piano Concerto - Volume 81
HYPERION CDA68297 [77:27]

Hyperion's Romantic Piano Concerto series strides purposefully on to its eighty-first volume. The range and consistent quality of this series is quite remarkable - and this new disc continues the tradition. None of the repertoire here is as rare or unknown as many of the other works in the series, but the three works featured are quite different from each other and offer the listener a diverse and enjoyable experience.

The least familiar work is the Piano Concerto in G by Edmund Rubbra that opens the disc. I have not heard this work in years, ever since I disposed of an EMI LP box set of British Piano Concerti. That performance by Dennis Matthews accompanied by Malcolm Sargent and the BBC Symphony dates from 1956 and has been released on CD - although I have not heard that incarnation. A live performance by Malcolm Binns was available on the short-lived BBC Radio Classics label but again I have not heard that. So in effect, this new release has the 'floor' to itself. Pianist Piers Lane has a proven track record with British music and he certainly has all the requisite technical resources for both this relatively understated work as well as the barn-storming Bliss concerto that completes the programme.

I enjoyed the Rubbra concerto very much. There is a contemplative, thoughtful quality to this music that characterises so much of the composer's finest work. The opening movement is titled Corymbus - Lucy Cradduck in her insightful liner explains that a "corymb is a cluster of flat-headed flowers or fruits whose stalks, springing from different levels on the main stem, lengthen towards the edge of the cluster". Musically this principle of increasing stalk lengths is represented by themes or motifs that extend on each re-appearance. Also of significance to the aesthetic of the work is the dedication to Akbar Khan, a virtuoso Hindustani sarod player. Again to quote the liner; "Rubbra was deeply impressed by the 'evanescent variations' of Khan's improvisation, the complete affinity between Khan and his fellow musicians, and his devotional attitude to music-making". The opening of the work has a tentative seeking quality that is beautifully executed here. Slowly the music unfurls and the orchestral palette deepens. For those who brand Rubbra as being prone to opaque and thick orchestral textures this is the perfect response. Yes, he does like to double instrumental lines across the various orchestral groups but at the same time he will point a motif or gesture in a subtly telling way. This most certainly is not "Romantic" music in the accepted emotionally laden or large-scale sense. Instead this is music that appeals to the inner self; intelligent without being intellectual, heart-felt without resorting to sentimentality. For this recording Hyperion have used The Orchestra NOW under their founder and Music Director Leon Botstein. The liner contains no information about the orchestra, but from their website I have gleaned that in essence this is a teaching orchestra for advanced students from around the world who can take a 2 or 3 year course at Bard College. The liner lists the string strength as which is a decent chamber orchestra size and certainly fine for the Rubbra and Bax. I am not so sure they can provide the weight of tone the more muscular Bliss demands - but more about that later. Certainly the interaction between soloist and orchestra is attentive and sympathetic - echoing the affinity mentioned in the quote above. This is well displayed in the central movement Dialogue. Again, Rubbra keeps his orchestral textures thin almost to the point of austerity - I like very much the way the Hyperion technical team have allowed Piers Lane's Steinway piano to stay integrated into this sparse musical landscape which serves to underline the sense of shared music making. There is a Bachian flavour to the writing although the use of tonality is far more ambiguous, giving the music a sense of questing forward in search of some kind of resolution.

Rubbra does not often - if ever - resort to overtly emotional gestures. Instead, he constructs climaxes that accumulate their power as they build. The central climax of this Dialogue does just that, almost catching the listener unawares by its impact. Having had two movements of essentially slow and reflective music, the finale is marked Danza alla rondo; Allegretto giocoso. But even here, the mood is elusive and contained with the orchestral textures remaining clean and light, although Rubbra adds dashes of percussion and timp writing that give the movement an overt brilliance previously not sought; but the allegretto marking ensures that this is not a stereotypical 'festive' finale. Instead Rubbra returns to material seeded earlier in the concerto, ultimately leading back to a restatement of the work's opening arpeggio figure. As Lucy Cradduck succinctly puts it; "a gossamer-light coda brings this most understated of concertos to a close”.

Before the grand gestures of the Bliss concerto, the disc generously includes Bax's charming miniature; Morning Song 'Maytime in Sussex'. By the time this work was written, Bax had all but given up large-scale composition and was living in a room at the White Horse Inn in Storrington in West Sussex. This is yet another work born of Bax's personal and professional relationship with Harriet Cohen. But it is far removed from the stormy magnificence of Winter Legends or Symphonic Variations. Instead, it is a chip from the master's block, albeit a beautifully crafted and touchingly poignant fragment. By the 1940s, Bax's inspirational fires might have been burning low, but his craft remains and this work is a happy fusion of this craft and a simpler, more direct melodic approach than he often allowed himself. The performance here is again very good with Piers Lane a lucid and sensitive guide. Likewise the playing of The Orchestra NOW is pleasingly poised, aided by Hyperion's clear and unfussy recording. The Orchestra's leader Yuri Mitsuhashi contributes a suitably sweet-toned solo. I must admit that I also enjoy both the other recordings of relatively recent years; Ashley Wass on Naxos with James Judd and the Bournemouth SO and Margaret Fingerhut with Bryden Thomson and the LPO on Chandos. Wass chooses a more sprightly tempo and gives the music a more capricious feel. Fingerhut is a full minute slower than Wass and possibly makes the music too weighty. So, perhaps Piers Lane steers a judicious middle path, finding a balance between the other two [relative] extremes.

There is a link with Bax and the Bliss Piano Concerto. Both composers were commissioned to write works for the 1939 World Fair. Bax wrote his leave-taking, achingly beautiful Symphony No.7 while the younger Bliss took the morale-boosting, forward looking event to heart with this concerto. As an aside, Vaughan Williams provided the third commission in the form of his Five Variants of Dives and Lazarus. Unlike Bax, who seemed to shrivel up at the sight of a commission, Bliss often wrote his finest music for special occasions or performers. Turning to this performance, after an excellent Rubbra - which pretty much has the field to itself - and a fine Bax the equal of any, the Bliss here is less clear-cut. This most certainly is a big Romantic Concerto and it requires big romantic playing from all concerned. In this performance Piers Lane is again superb. The clarity of his playing alongside power or reflection as required is exemplary. The opening cascades of double octaves - which gave the original soloist Solomon a minor panic attack before the first performance - are played with sovereign skill. Likewise, the opening of the central Adagietto is played with unmatched luminous poetry. But alongside him, the Orchestra NOW, while in no way bad, simply sound rather light and thin in the strings, lacking bite and attack in the brass and generally not able to generate the weight of orchestral tone the work requires. Occasionally entries can feel a fraction tentative too.

These are all matters of degree. In isolation - as with the Rubbra - there would be few complaints. But this concerto has several competitors. From the same LP box mentioned before is Trevor Barnard [no relation!] with Malcolm Sargent and the Philharmonia. There are two older recordings from Solomon with Boult in 1943 and Noel Mewton-Wood with Walter Goehr. You then have to jump forward to Philip Fowke with David Atherton on Unicorn for the first modern recording in 1977. Fowke is a very fine pianist - as indeed you have to be to tackle this work at all - but his performance is compromised by a surprisingly ungratifying recording by Unicorn. Add a short march as the only rather mean filler, and this version rules itself out. However, the most recent recording before this new one provides the most serious competition. In 2002 Peter Donohoe recorded the work for Naxos with David Lloyd-Jones and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. Lloyd-Jones was at the helm for the bulk of Naxos' survey of Bliss' orchestral music so he has knowledge and experience in this particular composer and his idiom. Also, the RSNO are a finer orchestra than The Orchestra NOW, and the recording venue of the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall provides a warmer, more opulent sound to an orchestra that is evidently larger in its string strength before any other consideration.

Make no mistake - Piers Lane is quite superb, but taking the totality of the performance; soloist, conductor, orchestra, venue and engineering, the older Naxos disc is preferable by far. Take just three quick examples; at the very opening, the orchestra has a very brief swirling scale and dotted fanfare rhythm. Botstein's players sound laboured in that dotted rhythm and the first theme proper that follows the aforementioned double octave passage lacks the swagger and brilliance it requires. Likewise the opening of the middle movement; as mentioned Lane's playing is without equal but as the movement develops [2:50 or so] the string line - typically for Bliss a widely spaced angular but rather beautiful theme - has the NOW strings struggling for tonal weight and richness and also a sense of a through line. The trumpet theme that immediately precedes the strings is rather prosaic too. The RSNO are far more nuanced and secure. Finally, at the very close of the work [9:54], Bliss introduces a Rachmaninovian theme; again not only are the Scottish players weightier, the brass registers with the typically Bliss flashing dissonance and Lloyd-Jones is just better at pacing this rather powerful final climax right through to the skittering coda. The Hyperion recording does allow Lane's brilliant playing to register very clearly while Donohoe for Naxos is sometimes briefly obscured but overall there is no competition.

This release highlights some of the many virtues of this extensive series; excellent and interesting repertoire in fine recordings alongside well presented liner notes. As usual, the programming of this disc is intelligent and well considered. Rubbra and Bliss were close friends [the liner has a lovely photograph of the two composers together] expressing mutual admiration but these two works are about as aesthetically diverse as they could be. The Bax makes a generous bonus and of course Bax preceded Bliss as Master of the King/Queen's Music. The revelation here is the Rubbra which finds an ideal interpreter in Piers Lane and it emerges as a powerful indeed profound work. Likewise Lane shines in the Bliss but the orchestral accompaniment here is good without being absolute top drawer. Perhaps a disc to sample before purchasing as far as the Bliss is concerned.

Nick Barnard

Previous review: John Quinn ~ Jonathan Woolf

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