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Auguste DUPONT (1827-1890)
Piano Concerto No. 3 in F minor Op. 49 [33:18]
Peter BENOIT (1834-1901)
Symphonic poem for piano and orchestra, Op. 43 [29:32]
The Romantic Piano Concerto – 80
Sinfonieorchester St Gallen/Howard Shelley (piano)
rec. 2018 Tonhalle St Gallen, Switzerland
HYPERION CDA68264 [62:49]

There will surely be inevitable changes once the ramifications of ‘Brexit’ start to trickle down to the ordinary man in the street. But whatever these might be, once the divorce between the UK and the European Union is final, certain British institutions like Roast Beef and Yorkshire Pudding, Fish and Chips, or the Pound itself – all considered sacrosanct by so many – should continue to hold sway for many more years to come.

For classical-music aficionados, and especially those with a specific liking for one particular genre, Hyperion’s highly-acclaimed Romantic Piano Concerto series – another institution in its own right – also shows no sign of flagging, and, whether by design or coincidence, the latest release features not only two fascinating works from two little-known composers, but would seem to have appeared at a decidedly auspicious time in the series’ history.

The series was born at a lunch-meeting between Hyperion and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra sometime back in 1990. A few months later, tentative plans had been made for three recordings, and the first volume – with concertos by Moszkowski and Paderewski – was recorded in June 1991. That same series is still going strong, and amazingly, this new release comes in at volume 80.

The ‘special significance’ of volume 80 is that it is made up solely of music from Belgium, which was founded only in 1830, and, to date, hasn’t produced a string of top-ranking composers. But what this small country lacks, in terms of a host of famous musicians – unlike two of its far larger neighbours, France and Germany – it has more than gained in political and economic importance with its capital, Brussels, the host and epicentre of the European Community and Union, as well as of NATO. Thus at this very time when the names of Brussels and Brexit (the UK’s ‘withdrawal from Europe’) have become inextricably linked, it does seem a real, yet most welcome, coincidence that the country – essentially divided linguistically between the Dutch-speaking Flemish Community, and the somewhat smaller French-speaking Community – is now afforded due prominence with the appearance of volume 80 of the series.

The CD opens with the Piano Concerto No 3 in F minor by (Pierre-) Auguste Dupont, who entered the Conservatoire royal de Liège in 1838, where he studied with Jules Jalheau, who had been a pupil of Herz and Kalkbrenner, and Dupont won first prize in the piano competition in 1843. The premature passing of his father caused him to return home to Ensival, where he gave piano lessons – often to the wealthy at the neighbouring châteaux. Around the mid-1840s, he began publishing piano music, but very soon became aware that his musical style and outlook generally, needed to develop more. He decided to travel first to Brussels, then to London and other English cities in 1850, and later, in 1852, to Germany, where he established a close relationship with Ignaz Moscheles in Leipzig. Moscheles, now 58, still impressed Dupont with his new works, before the Belgian returned to his native land, and was appointed Professor of Pianoforte at the Brussels Conservatoire. Here he formalized his teaching methods which eventually became a pedagogical system in its own right.

The Piano Concerto No 3 was written around the early 1870s, revised in 1880, and published by Schott in 1882. Its first English performance was at the Crystal Palace in 1893, and was much acclaimed at the time. In terms of comparative chronology, Tchaikovsky’s First Concerto appeared in 1874, and his Second in 1880.

Cast in three separate movements, the opening Allegro moderato is quite a brooding affair – a kind of sonata structure, but infused with a fantasy-like design. A very short orchestral opening section leads straight into a piano cadenza where some of the piano figurations suggest the hand of Liszt. Once the movement gets underway it could almost be a tragic symphony, with the soloist merely adding a running commentary, but soon a new theme emerges, and which clearly attests to the composer’s ability for writing a good melody. As might be expected, Dupont’s writing for the piano is quite superb, and in the hands of a master like Howard Shelley, there is never going to be a chance of the music or performer running out of steam. Equally, the Sinfonieorchester St Gallen is on first-class form, and projects the composer’s equally impressive orchestral skills with real panache, as well as in perfect empathy with the soloist, who also directs the performance on this occasion. Another spirit that can be felt, and one which might just reflect the French connection, is that of Camille Saint-Saëns, whose first four piano concertos had already appeared by 1873. That’s not to say that Dupont even vaguely modelled his concerto on, say, the Frenchman’s Second in G minor, but there is a similarity in their two opening movements, and also in the occasional quasi-Bach allusions present. A final short lyrical section, where the piano is joined by solo horn, momentarily interrupts the flow, before the storm gathers once more, and this fascinating movement closes.

The Adagio is a gloriously lyrical nocturne, dominated by the soloist, who is charged with delivering much of the thematic material solo, or with some tender orchestral support. As with many of Chopin’s examples, there is a somewhat more turbulent middle section, where again the horn is given extra prominence, while when the first subject is reprised, solo cello gets its own chance to shine, before the orchestral limelight is passed back to the horn. This is altogether one of those true gems of a movement that have cropped up over the years in the series, but one which is particularly moving, with its heartfelt sincerity.

The Finale, is a lively dance movement, marked Vivace, and is where Dupont reserves his most virtuosic piano writing. In his most erudite and informative sleeve notes, Jeremy Dibble goes into some detail about the key scheme of the finale, and how this can be seen to relate to the first and second movements, creating something of a cyclic work overall, but focussed on the keys used, rather than any specific thematic transformations. Again the presence of Liszt and Saint-Saëns can be felt in the background, and in the former’s case, there is almost a Hungarian gypsy-style to the writing. The second episode almost seeks to heighten the gypsy effect, before the services of solo horn are once more called upon to partner the piano in a brief moment of calm expression which, however, is soon dispelled, as the tempo builds once more towards the denouement. Here it almost seems as if the gypsy element has now transitioned into the kind of can-can polka that Offenbach would have been happy to have written here, to round things off on a real high – his ‘Orpheus in the Underworld’, in fact, had appeared just over ten years earlier, in 1858.

Petrus Leonardus Leopoldus Benoit – or Peter to his friends – was born in Flanders, and entered the Brussels Conservatoire, where he remained till 1855, studying primarily with Fétis. François-Joseph Fétis was a Belgian musicologist, composer, teacher, and one of the most influential music critics of the 19th century. Benoit passionately pursued the founding of an entirely separate Flemish school, and to that end even changed his name from the French ‘Pierre’ to the Dutch equivalent ‘Peter’. But despite prodigious effort on his part, and that of his disciples, the idea eventually failed, because it was too closely aligned to Benoit’s own music style, which, in the final analysis, was hardly more Flemish than it was French or German.

He completed a piano concerto in three movements in 1865, and, at the same time a flute concerto, assigning the title of Symfonisch gedicht (‘Symphonic poem’) to both works in 1885. Along with his five volumes of Contes et ballades for solo piano (1861), Benoit considered the works as a musical ‘triptych’ intended to be performed together wherever possible, and they remained hugely significant in his output. A subsequent edition of the piano concerto appeared where Belgian pianist Arthur De Greef had added optional virtuosic adaptations to the piano part, but, while it appeared that Benoit approved De Greef’s amendments, Shelley plays the composer’s original version on this CD.

While officially known as a ‘Symphonic poem for piano and orchestra’, the work is a piano concerto, in all but name. The opening movement, entitled ‘Ballade’ (Molto moderato, quasi andante), presents a typical Romantic nocturnal scene around the derelict castle in the town of Harelbeke, Benoit’s birth-place, with the piano almost in the role of story-teller, helping to evoke the castle’s once famous reputation with its knights and their chivalric code. As the movement builds to its close, there are echoes of Schumann in the writing, before a piano cadenza, which concentrates more on melody and thematic development, than pure virtuosity, is rounded off by a brisker martial section, perhaps summoning the knights into battle.

The second movement, ‘Bardenzang’ or ‘Bardic song’ (Larghetto poco lento e ben sostenuto), recounts the story of the old foresters and noblewomen, where, central to the song, is the once great legacy of Harelbeke, while, more menacingly, are the predictions that threaten Harelbeke’s very existence. There is real pathos in the piano’s opening utterance, but the secondary theme is one of those melodies that starts out small-scale, but which you know will ultimately appear fortissimo in full orchestral garb. This was a technique that Puccini was later to become such a past-master of in his operas, where, in fact, Benoit’s own ‘big tune’ would not sound that out of place, given its chance similarity to a theme from the Italian’s La rondine.

Even if you didn’t know the title of the scherzo-finale was ‘Fantastische jacht’ (Molto animato), the opening horn calls would strongly suggest a hunt theme – in this case a ‘fantastic’ one. Here the programme apparently provides a response to the foreboding nature of the second movement in that the wild atmosphere of the ghostly hunt, with its strong winds and dark clouds, signals the end of Harelbeke’s castle – at least that’s what it says on the tin. The main theme is a minor-key version of the Flemish folk-song ‘Daar kwam een muis gelopen’ (‘A Mouse came running by’), which was originally printed in the first published edition of the score. Benoit’s writing here suggests a turbulent and heady mix of Paul Dukas’ ‘Sorcerer’s Apprentice’, Liszt’s Mephisto Waltzes, and the finale of Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique. The movement builds to an effective climax in the major key, even dropping in a couple of quick references to snippets that have popped up earlier in the concerto. One thing is clear, though, it does sound French through and through, and with ne’er a hint of anything distinctly Flemish, even despite the origin of the folk-song Benoit based his finale on.

Of the two works on the CD, my vote would go to the Dupont, largely because it appears more finely-crafted in nearly every respect, and comes over as altogether more homogenous. But Benoit’s finale is great fun, too, and it’s also got that lovely melody in the slow movement to its credit. Hyperion’s recording and presentation are everything you’ve come to expect from a class operation, and both performances could hardly be bettered.

This is music from a relatively small country, whose national dish is considered to be Moules-frites, or moules et frites – a main dish featuring the somewhat interesting combination of mussels and French fries. This is definitely a combination worth trying, which, rather like the really entertaining music on this new release, should similarly succeed in titillating the palate – both musically-speaking, as well as gastronomically.

Philip R Buttall

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