Originally published on June 14
Blimey! New recordings of the Piano Concertos by Bliss and Rubbra; music-lovers in the Shires will be whooping it up. I thought I’d flag this one up early – Hyperion’s release date isn’t until June 26 when I shall re-publish this review.
The Piano Concerto in G by Edmund Rubbra (1901-86) dates from 1956 to a BBC commission, first-performed by Denis Matthews and the BBCSO under Sir Malcolm Sargent. They went on to record it. It’s a thoughtful and pastoral work in three equal-length movements, the dawn-like opening suggesting a peaceful Sunday morning, a worship anticipated, and so ‘Corymbus’ grows in brightness and melodic wealth, also increasing in emotional temperature and tempo, intrinsically so, for this is not a showy Concerto – the participants, not least the soloist, are required to focus on purely musical values. If this sounds a little earnest, the results are rewarding, and this first movement enjoys plenty of activity, achieved organically, enlivened by splashes of percussion colour. ‘Dialogue’ opens pensively – as if searching for light out of darkness, hope out of despair – and if a certain radiance and religioso eloquence are found (Rubbra living up to the tag given him, “The English Bruckner”), somewhat troubled though it is, it remains for ‘Danza alla rondo’, opening with piano and timpani in tandem, to lift the shroud, the listener appreciating the airy orchestration (I wasn’t expecting castanets). Although there is room for a (relatively extended) cadenza, not surprisingly it thrives on established material. The work fleets to its conclusion and ends with a flourish if not a big finish, fittingly.
The Piano Concerto in B-flat by Sir Arthur Bliss (1891-1975) was launched in 1939 at Carnegie Hall by Solomon, Sir Adrian Boult conducting the New York Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra (as today’s Philharmonic was then known). It’s an ambitious (forty-minute) opus. The opening blazes cinematically (Bliss had already scored the Korda-produced Things to Come), the pianist given fistfuls of notes. The extensive first movement is dramatic and high-octane, pulsating with passion, pianist as hero, the orchestra fully involved, and there is also some lovely lyricism. The cadenza, going for the pianist’s jugular, has Tchaikovskian echoes. The slow movement is soulful if restless, musing with bitter-sweetness, akin to Bartók PC3 (then waiting in the wings, until 1945), whereas the Finale is transcendental – in a Lisztian sense.
It is often stated that during that Carnegie Hall occasion, June 10, Sir Adrian also introduced Sir Arnold Bax’s Seventh Symphony, or maybe it was at a concert the day before says one authority (something confirmed by the Philharmonic’s Archives, Sir Adrian starting with the Overture to The Bartered Bride). Nevertheless it’s appropriate that Hyperion includes Bax’s Morning Song (Maytime in Sussex), music of Spring-like freshness from 1946, maybe expressing happy feelings that World War Two was over if in fact anticipating the following year’s twenty-first-birthday of the UK’s future Queen. It’s certainly a delightful and tunefully attractive piece.
Throughout this well-presented/recorded issue, Piers Lane is the charismatic master of these unjustly neglected works, playing with commitment, sensitivity and commanding virtuosity; and he is nobly partnered by The Orchestra Now, an ensemble of international music students based at Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, New York, founded by Leon Botstein, who conducts with sympathy and energy. Hyperion CDA68297.