British Piano Concertos
John ADDISON (1920-1998)
Wellington Suite (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 Strings Op.24 (1954) [4:10]
Edmund RUBBRA (1901-1986)
Nature’s Song (1920) [9:39]
Geoffrey BUSH (1920-1998)
A Little Concerto on Themes of Thomas Arne (1939) [10:19]
Simon Callaghan (piano)
BBC National Orchestra of Wales/Martyn Brabbins
rec. 29-30 June 2021, Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff, UK
LYRITA SRCD.407 [68:33]
This new disc should not be confused with the four-CD set from a few years ago, with reissues of a number of works for piano and orchestra released over the years (review). The recordings here are recent, and all but one are new to the catalogue. Arthur Benjamin’s Concertino, recorded in the LP era, was released by Everest in a perfomance by Lamar Crowson with the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by the composer; the other piece was Benjamin’s large-scale Piano Concerto "Quasi una fantasia". The programme was reissued as a CD.
John Addison may be primarily known for his film scores, such as Tom Jones (1963) and A Bridge Too Far (1977) to name but a few that come to mind. One rather tends to forget that he also composed some fine concert works, including the Divertimento for brass quartet (1951), a Trumpet Concerto on a long-deleted RCA LP, and the ballet Carte Blanche. He wrote Wellington Suite for the centenary of Wellington College, so it is more in the nature of a light-hearted celebration. It is scored for a small orchestra of two horns, timpani, percussion and strings, and it is laid-out in five short, characterful movements. The music is at times redolent of that of Malcolm Arnold (and none the worse for that). It must be noted that the two horns, present throughout the piece, play an almost concertante role. The music is superbly crafted and ultimately highly entertaining.
Arthur Benjamin’s Piano Concertino is one of the works from the 1920s influenced in one way or another by jazz. One just has to think that composers such as Gershwin, Constant Lambert and Ravel have all been under the jazz’s spell, albeit quite often superficially. Benjamin’s Concertino, however, is rather tightly knit. Much of the material derives from the main theme played by the trumpet at the outset. It is a fairly concise work often of a light-hearted nature, though the second movement is a beautiful blues with an important part for a saxophone player (Gerard McChrystal in this recording). I had not heard the piece for many long years but I was quite surprised how familiar it still sounds and how fresh the music remains.
Elizabeth Maconchy’s Concertino for Piano and String Orchestra composed in 1949 should not be confused with her earlier Concertino for Piano and Chamber Orchestra of 1928. The earlier piece was first performed in Prague by Ervin Schulhoff and Karel Jirák conducting the Prague Philharmonic, and it put her firmly onto the musical map. As its predecessor, this is a concise work in three movements, showing Maconchy’s formal mastery and ability to say much and make her point without any fuss. This does not exclude expressive intensity in the beautiful second movement Lento, serioso. Maconchy’s 1949 Concertino is the finest work in this collection due to its seriousness of purpose, its closely-knit formal unity and its sureness of touch.
I need not repeat what is often said about Humphrey Searle: he was one of the first British exponents of twelve-tone and serial music. His short Concertante for Piano, Percussion and Strings was written at the request of the conductor Herman Scherchen for “a serial, but straightforward piece to be played by students”. Searle rose superbly to the occasion, for he was able to squeeze all the ingredients of a concerto in a piece of a little under five minutes (including a pocket cadenza). What’s more, he made it interesting and rewarding.
The most intriguing find in this release is an early work by Edmund Rubbra, composed when he was studying with Gustav Holst at Reading University. The piece was first performed by the composer with the Choral Society and Orchestra conducted by Holst. The work was then thought lost until two scores came to light, one with Holst’s markings, and a set of parts. Pianist Simon Callaghan used these sources to reconstruct a score and parts. Nature’s Song is more a tone poem for piano and orchestra with organ, and is a fairly substantial piece though still showing precious little of the mature Rubbra. One may yet spot some of his later turns of phrase and orchestral textures here and there. To me, the most striking hint of what is to come in Rubbra’s music is to be heard at the beginning: a repeated timpani pounding on a regular motion functioning as a pedal over which the music then takes flight. This is repeated once or twice later. The music eventually melts away calmly, leaving flutes and oboes over muted strings and sonorous piano chords.
The disc ends in high spirits, elegant lightness and mild irony which Geoffrey Bush’s A Little Concerto on Themes of Thomas Arne possesses a-plenty. This short, delightful piece has much in common with Bush’s Matthew Locke, Suite “Psyche”. It is an early work composed when the composer was nineteen. According to the composer, the piece owes much to Bernard Naylor, then organist and musical director at Queen’s College, Oxford, who pointed out to Bush the thickness of the texture which was quite at odds with the spirit of the original version. Paul Conway remarks in his ever well informed and illuminating notes: “the resulting score is a model of taste and classical balance, in which the essential freshness of Arne’s musical ideas is preserved”.
This is a very fine release on all counts, and it has much to offer indeed. These are no great masterpieces, for sure, mostly finely crafted pieces of music devised to entertain and to amuse. Elizabeth Maconchy’s Concertino is much more than that, whereas Rubbra’s early piece briefly points out to what will come later. Simon Callaghan, BBC NOW and Martyn Brabbins all give their best in this highly enjoyable and rewarding programme. Recommended as far as I am concerned.
Previous review: Gary Higginson