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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]

Hyperion’s magnificent romantic piano concerto series continues with the 80th disc in the series, comprising two works for piano and orchestra by two Belgian composers who are all but forgotten these days. I must confess, I had heard of Peter Benoit as he gets a very brief mention in the 3rd volume of Alan Walker’s biography of Liszt (“The Final Years, 1861 – 1886” – he conducted one of Liszt’s works) but I’d not heard any music by either him or Auguste Dupont. This disc has happily remedied that state of affairs.

Firstly, we have Dupont’s 3rd piano concerto – sadly the two earlier piano concertos by him don’t seem to be extant. However, forgotten pieces do turn up from time to time in archives so we can always hope. The opening movement starts quite mysteriously but doesn’t stay like that for long. Once you get past the opening minute or so, the overall atmosphere is one of fun and jollity. There are some wonderful tunes here, nicely developed and, as is usual with Howard Shelley, excellently played. The section around 9 minutes in with muted horns and repeated chords on the piano is especially impressive and unlike anything else I’ve heard in a romantic piano concerto. The main weight of this piece is found in the first movement, which contains much virtuosity for the performer, ably assisted by the Sinfonieorchester St. Gallen who are on top form here. The movement gradually grows in intensity as it progresses before an impressively difficult sounding cadenza for the soloist, which leads into a lovely short reflective passage which surprisingly ushers in a quite unexpected noisy virtuosic conclusion. The second movement is wonderful – a superb ‘Adagio’ with many nice touches and some beautiful playing by both soloist and orchestra. This is a memorable piece which contains some nice effects and very powerful Lisztian, sections interspersed with more reflective and meditative music. Around 4’30’’, one of these powerful sections sounds exactly like something Liszt would have written but then there is a gorgeous little passage for piano and horns (I think Dupont must have liked writing for horn!) which makes for an interesting contrast. As the movement draws to a hushed close, there is some very evocative piano writing which is more like Saint-SaŽns in character (sounding quite like a section in the ‘Adagio’ in his 3rd piano concerto). The pace picks up briefly towards the end of this movement with a short, cheerful little section lasting for a couple of minutes before the movement ends with the horns and the piano and some light accompaniment from the remainder of the orchestra. The opening theme from this movement is reiterated and varied here as the movement fades away into the distance. The Finale is a spirited ‘Vivace’ which puts me in mind of Litolff in one of his “Concertos Symphoniques”. There is an energy to the music here, a sort of pushing forward as the piece continues. The piano has plenty to do and Shelley plays excellently throughout. As with the ‘Adagio’, there are hints of Saint-SaŽns here but perhaps not as clearly as in that movement. There is also some Lisztian virtuosity but this is more tempered than in the first movement. There are also plenty of memorable themes to stick in your head and some quite swashbuckling playing around 5 minutes in and elsewhere in the piece. Again, the horns get a prominent part, often underpinning the piano writing, giving a rather splendid sound, and there is much clever alternation of themes from one part of the orchestra to the other. As the piece progresses, the speed and volume are turned up and the piece ends with a very virtuosic section for all concerned. I really like this concerto, there is much of interest and it contains some fine writing for orchestra and soloist alike.

The second work on the disc is a Symphonic Poem by the composer Peter Benoit but, rather like Franck’s symphonic poem “Les Djinns”, this includes a piano, so it could almost be termed a piano concerto – hence its inclusion on this disc. This work has a really quite complex history (detailed in full in the covering notes), undergoing several changes of name and structure. The composer’s original version is played here. The work itself is split into 3 sections, ending oddly with a scherzo. The first movement is subtitled “Ballad” and, rather like the Dupont, begins slightly mysteriously before gaining in volume and confidence. The story behind this movement is about a ruined castle and this is represented by the sadder and more sombre music, whereas the recollections of the pageantry and glory days of the place are recalled in the major key parts, along with some sparkling piano and orchestral writing. The main theme in the major comes to the fore some three-and-a-half minutes in and this is then taken up by the piano and developed. Again, the horns are extensively used but are less integrated with the orchestral structure than in the Dupont. There are some parts which remind me of Scharwenka’s 4th concerto in the first movement – I don’t know if Scharwenka was familiar with this work? There is some lovely lush orchestration in the last third of the movement and an insistent theme which certainly sticks in your head. It’s repeated many times and serves as a useful lead into the happier music and memories of knights and the like. This mood dissipates as the piano is given a long cadenza that alternates between moody and tragic and is clearly in the minor key. There is some very interesting writing for the piano here. The last minute of the movement is heroic, powerful and defiant. The middle movement is much more serene and is subtitled “Bardic Song”. Again, there is some lush orchestral writing here as the song beautifully pursues its way. The piano is obviously the centre of attention here, playing a wonderful melody that stays long in the mind. The tension is gradually racked up before being rapidly dispersed with more calming music. As the work proceeds, the composer skilfully introduces more and more of the orchestra so the whole thing slowly integrates nicely together. There are moments of stress here, but these never last very long and serve as interesting contrasts to the overall serenity of the movement. Around 5 minutes in, there is a secondary theme in D flat which is really very touching indeed and after this the music becomes more agitated and powerful as the main theme is played by the whole ensemble. This again subsides and peace returns. The closing moments of the work are mostly meditative and wistful. Throughout, Shelley plays magnificently and is excellently supported by the orchestral forces. The finale of the Symphonic poem is a riotous galloping Scherzo, based in part on an old Flemish song about hunting entitled “Daar kwam een muis gelopen”. The inspiration seems to be similar in nature to that which Cťsar Franck used in his marvellous symphonic poem “Le Chasseur Maudit”, but with the piano included for good measure. Having said that, the song alludes to mice which did not come into BŁrger’s poem “Der Wilde Jšger”, which Franck used as inspiration for his work. Anyway, the music is not as demonic or driven as that symphonic poem but nonetheless, there is plenty of difficulty and some very novel writing for the piano. The piano sets off at a rate of knots after a foreboding introduction, reiterating the main tune throughout the movement but in different keys. This main theme includes some rather fun pyrotechnics for the pianist and some interesting orchestral accompaniment. The tune isn’t particularly scary, it’s more of a jolly romp than terrified fleeing. Around three minutes in, there is a loud theme in the brass with some descending figurations on the piano and some very complicated sounding trills. None of the difficulties are glossed over here and Shelley makes a wonderful job of this crazy finale which predictably ends with a huge outburst for the whole orchestra and the pianist, but this final time, in a major key, thus ending positively. This finale is all rather fun. I like this Symphonic Poem very much, there is plenty of good music in it’s just under 30 minutes length. The more you listen, the more details become apparent.

This is a superb addition to the series, showcasing two composers who really should be better known. The soloist and orchestra are on top form and, as usual, Hyperion’s recording is clear and bright. I can’t see how these works could be better served on CD. The cover notes are interesting, detailed and full of insights about these two very neglected Belgian composers. I shall be keeping an ear open for more works by Benoit and I also hope that the Dupont concertos 1 and 2 eventually turn up in an archive. I also look forward to Hyperion’s next instalment in this wonderful ongoing series!

Jonathan Welsh

Previous review: Philip R Buttall

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