British Piano Concertos
John ADDISON (1920-1998)
Wellington Suite for Two Horns, Piano, Timpani, Percussion and Strings (1959) [17:17]
Arthur BENJAMIN (1893-1960)
Concertino for Piano and Orchestra (1927) [14:45]
Elizabeth MACONCHY (1907-1994)
Concertino for Piano and String Orchestra (1949) [12:13]
Humphrey SEARLE (1915-1982)
Concertante for Piano, Percussion and String Orchestra (1954) [4:10]
Edmund RUBBRA (1901-1986)
Nature’s Song, Tone Poem for Orchestra, Organ and Pianoforte (1920) [9:39]
Geoffrey BUSH (1920-1998)
A Little Concerto on Themes of Thomas Arne for Pianoforte and Strings
Simon Callaghan (piano)
BBC National Orchestra of Wales/Martyn Brabbins
rec. 29-30 June 2021, Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff, UK
LYRITA SRCD407 [68:33]
Here is another enterprising recording from Lyrita, who have done so much for twentieth and indeed twenty-first century British music. All of these pieces, except Benjamin’s Concertino, are first recordings, and up till now they have
been completely overlooked.
The longest work opens the batting. John Addison’s Wellington Suite, scored for two French horns, piano, timpani, percussion and strings, has five movements. Its style is humorous. Paul Conway’s booklet notes, excellent as ever, say “polished and urbane”. It was composed for the centenary of Addison’s old school, Wellington College, the one in Berkshire. We start at a stroke with a brilliant Allegretto con brio; like the other movements, it features some brazen writing for the horns. The Andante is also marked un poco pomposo, which I felt was really not fully characterised by this performance. There is a quirky scherzo followed by a highly sophisticated waltz. This is the sort of music one might well come across in Addison’s film scores like Tom Jones, for which he won an Oscar, and A Taste of Honey. The Suite ends with a brisk Allegro con brio.
In the 1920s, the world discovered jazz and in particular George Gershwin.
Arthur Benjamin’s highly enjoyable Concertino for Piano and Orchestra, first
performed in 1928, has piano figurations which will certainly remind you of
the American composer. Its four movements are played without a break. The
saxophone, not surprisingly, appears often, especially in the second movement marked unusually con il sentiment ed il tempo d’un blues (I wonder why partially in French). It is not really a successful blues number, and it even has a distinctly pastoral element. The finale sounds more like Gershwin, notably in the coda with its use of timpani.
We go from friendly jazz to a friendly twelve-tone composition in the shape of Humphrey Searle’s exciting but short Concertante for Piano, Percussion and Strings. It was written at the behest of Herman Scherchen for the French Youth Orchestra. Donald Mitchell summed it up well in The Musical Times as “brisk and energetic”. I feel strongly that Searle’s best music should be given another chance, perhaps the 1st and 2nd Symphonies alongside this Concertante.
If you know Elizabeth Maconchy’s Symphony for Double String Orchestra or works like her 3rd String Quartet, you will be familiar with the style of the three-movement Concertino for Piano and String Orchestra, first heard in 1951. The outer Allegro movements are spikey and athletic. Paul Conway talks, quite rightly, about their “compelling musical narrative”. The very lyrical and expressive middle movement Lento, serioso is the real heart of the piece.
In his autobiography, Edmund Rubbra writes with amusement and perhaps a little embarrassment that his earliest piano work was entitled The Call of Nature. A little later, when he studied at the Royal College, he composed Nature’s Song based on his own poem Nature’s Call (quoted in the booklet). The scoring of this tone poem includes the organ in a very small role. The composer did not recognise the piece with an opus number, and the manuscript was considered lost. Simon Callaghan has done a wonderful job in reconstructing the work. The language has a sense of ‘Frenchiness’ which Rubbra might have picked up from his brief studies a few years earlier with Cyril Scott. There is also a sense of the exotic, perhaps learned from Rubbra’s teacher Holst, who conducted the only performance in 1921. The powerful bass drum pulses which begin the work act as a precursor to the Rubbra of the first two symphonies. This is a fascinating insight.
The last work is a neo-baroque concoction by Geoffrey Bush: his Little Concerto on Themes of Thomas Arne. The first (and longest) movement Andante and the third movement Siciliana are elegant and wistful. The all-too-brief second movement is an Allegro, and the last a Vivace. The material is taken from Arne’s 4th and 7th keyboard suites. It was typical of Bush to create these compilations. Some of you might know his Homage to Matthew Locke for brass, often played by good amateurs.
Simon Callaghan has done us proud in his promotion of this music. Martyn Brabbins and the Welsh orchestra, no strangers to British music of this period, play with style and sensitivity. For any lover of twentieth-century British music, this disc is a must-buy.