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Edmund RUBBRA (1901-1986)
Piano Concerto in G, Op.85 (1955-56) [29:54]
Arthur BLISS (1891-1975)
Piano Concerto in B flat major (1938-39) [39:54]
Arnold BAX (1883-1953)
Morning Song ‘Maytime in Sussex’ (1946) [7:38]
Piers Lane (piano)
The Orchestra Now/Leon Botstein
rec. 2019, Richard B Fisher Center, Bard College
HYPERION CDA68297 [77:27]

Coupling two of the most problematic British concertos in one disc, marking volume 81 in Hyperion’s ‘The Romantic Piano Concerto’ marque, is something of a triumph of programmatic will. The Rubbra is in some ways an anti-concerto whilst the Bliss is an ultra-concerto, the two works sitting either side of a vast stylistic and technical chasm. In the middle, separating these two, quivers Bax’s solo piano Morning Song ‘Maytime in Sussex’ composed almost equidistantly between the Concertos.

Though the fine booklet writer Lucy Craddock doesn’t quote these lines, I think everyone who writes about the Bliss should be compelled to regurgitate Nicolas Slonimsky’s famous comment that it is ‘Lisztomorphic in its sonorous virtuosity, Chopinoid in its chromatic lyricism, and Rachmaninovistic in its chordal expansiveness’. It is for this reason that I have never much warmed to the concerto. It’s too much of a thing, whether good or otherwise. However, the work can bear a variety of approaches even within its ultra-virtuosic skein. Solomon’s live New York premiere performance on APR bristles with a nervous energy wisely negotiated by Adrian Boult. Their Liverpool commercial recording in 1943 (on Naxos inter alia) was fiery but somewhat less intense than the premiere. The magnificent Mewton-Wood’s 1952 mono LP with Walter Goehr (BMS) set a better-recorded standard soon followed by Trevor Barnard and Malcolm Sargent. Donohoe and Lloyd Jones on Naxos set a precedent of sorts for the recording under review with Piers Lane and Leon Botstein in terms of more expansive tempi. The live 1960 Gina Bachauer-Mitropoulos reading, again in New York, was a brilliantly fired-up inflammatory affair that hearkened back to Solomon’s premiere.

Where do Lane and Botstein fit in all this? The answer is weighted very much more towards the work’s poetry than any other performance I have heard. If you find the concerto bombastic and relentless, then this reading restores the beating heart beneath the armour plating. Time and again Lane emphasises its lyricism through a caressing refinement of touch and takes time to explore the intricate warmth of the writing. There’s no shortage of fireworks, even so, and the Lisztian bravura is not stinted, especially not in the first movement cadenza. The opening of the slow movement has surely never been captured with this much limpidity, delicacy and with such beautiful voicings and Lane’s touch is marvellously thoughtful, imaginative and lovely. Indeed nostalgic lyricism is here at its apex. These reflective elements are present to a remarkable degree in the finale too. Yet despite the fact that I have elsewhere mentioned my lack of enthusiasm for this work I am in the bewildering position of finding Lane’s sensitivity and refinement serving to heighten the paragraphal nature of the writing (incidentally and predictably this is the slowest recording of the piece on record). What Solomon and Bachauer drove across trenchantly is here a more becalmed, fragmentary musical landscape. This comes to a head in the accumulation of its detail, which leaves a very slightly underwhelming impression. Perhaps this too has something to do with the slightly backward recording and the relative lack of weight from The Orchestra Now, an orchestra based at Bard College and not to be confused with the BBC NOW. The difference between the former’s alert phrasing in the slow movement and the more sensitive and multifaceted Royal Scottish for Donohoe is palpable.

There is far less competition in the Rubbra, a kind of symbiotic concerto where soloist and orchestra work together rather than against each other. The flag-bearing precedent here is Denis Matthews and Sargent. You might also know Malcolm Binns’ recording with the LSO and Vernon Handley on Carlton. If you know either or both you will soon realise that Lane and Botstein once again prefer expansive tempi, as they had in the Bliss. Arguably this gives the opening Corymbus movement a chance to open its stalk leaves still more logically because it’s with a growing sense of inevitable length that Rubbra builds his musical arguments. The orchestral forces here are more appropriately weighted than in the heavyweight Bliss. The breadth of the slow movement allows for the development of a philosophically interrogative discourse and again there’s no doubting Lane’s luminous tonal reserves, nor the lower brass eruptions in the work’s finale. The fact remains that Barnard and Sargent and Binns/Handley are the more incisive exponents, if incision is your criteria.

Somewhat to my surprise Lane is significantly faster – for once – than the first performer of the Bax, Harriet Cohen. His spry Morning Song has taken a double espresso to Cohen’s Earl Grey.

I said that this line-up is programmatically quixotic but in point of fact these three works have recently been joined in this way; check out CD 15 in Warner’s Sir Malcolm Sargent box where you will find all three; the Rubbra played by Denis Matthews and the Bliss by Trevor Barnard with the Bax heard in the shellac recording made by Harriet Cohen. Some may well consider, discographically at least, that Sargent is the connective thread between all three works.

Tempo is not everything and often it’s nothing at all. But it remains true that for all its beauties the Bliss emerges the more powerfully at faster tempi, and that the Dialogue central movement of the Rubbra is just as effective taken over a minute faster than Lane does. I have huge admiration for his lyrical look at the former and his thoughtful take on the latter, but I do still feel vaguely disappointed.

Jonathan Woolf

Previous review: John Quinn

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