'Martin Roscoe gives splendidly virtuosic and intensely musical accounts of these scores, and he is more than ably partnered by the BBC Scottish Symphony under Martyn Brabbins … Here is yet another success in a remarkable series; an excellent CD which is warmly recommended' (International Record Review)
'This is an important release for enthusiasts of British music and for those listeners who specialise in romantic piano concertos. Everything about this CD is exceptional. There is the excellent playing by Martin Roscoe and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra conducted by Martyn Brabbins. This is a committed performance of three works that are not really in the public domain. Listeners have nothing to compare these premiere recordings with, but I am convinced that they are definitive realisations of works that have been forgotten for far too long' (MusicWeb International)
'Beyond his customary grace and lucid phrasing, Martin Roscoe dispatches the often taxing writing with stylish elan, while the indefatigable Martyn Brabbins once again leads the wonderful (and underrated) BBC Scottish players in three world premiere recordings that sound as if they've been part of the repertoire for years' (Gramophone)
Allegro moderato [11'58]
The three world premiere recordings featured here comprise the complete works for piano and orchestra by both composers (an early student concerto by Cowen appears lost).
In his day Cowen was a hugely successful contemporary of Stanford and Parry and it is surprising that his music has not yet been revived on disc. The Concertstück was written in 1897 for Padereswki, who gave the premiere to much acclaim. The work is notable for its orchestral colour and a great understanding of virtuoso piano writing and reveals what a master of his art the composer was.
Sir Arthur Somervell is best known for his songs and he wrote comparatively little orchestral music. The ‘Normandy’ symphonic variations were premiered in 1913 by the great scholar and pianist Donald Francis Tovey who did much to champion them.
The ‘Highland’ concerto is a late work (dating from 1921) which was never published and has consequently been almost forgotten. It was written for, and premiered by, the Scottish pianist Jessie Munro and is an uncomplicated and enjoyable romp based on Scottish-sounding themes which are nevertheless original Somervell. It may not be profound music but once heard, will certainly never be forgotten.
Martin Roscoe and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra are on scintillating form throughout. An entertaining addition to the renowned Romantic Piano Concerto catalogue.
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Born in the Lake District, Sir Arthur Somervell (1863–1937) enjoyed a public school and Oxbridge education at Uppingham and King’s College, Cambridge. While at Cambridge he became an early student of Stanford, later studying in Berlin for two years and subsequently with Parry at the Royal College of Music, where he later taught. He had a long career as a Civil Servant concerned with the administration of the teaching of music, and he was thus responsible for establishing music as a serious and widely studied school subject. He succeeded Stainer as Inspector of Music to the Board of Education in 1900, was promoted to Principal Inspector in 1920, and retired in 1928. His service earned him a knighthood.
Somervell was best known in his lifetime for his songs and song cycles, the latter including the first setting of Housman’s A Shropshire Lad, Tennyson’s Maud and Browning’s James Lee’s Wife and A Broken Arc. Celebrity also came in his thirties for choral works written for the festivals of the day, including The Forsaken Merman (Leeds, 1895), The Power of Sound (Kendal, 1895), Ode to the Sea (Birmingham, 1897) and Intimations of Immortality (Leeds, 1907). In 1917 he produced To the Vanguard in tribute to the events of the war, prefaced with words from ‘The Retreat from Mons’, and in 1926 the delightful Yuletide cantata Christmas. Just occasionally one of these might be revived by a local choral society, but completely superseded are his half-dozen once-popular children’s operettas on fairy-tale subjects.
Somervell’s range of orchestral music is not huge, but includes the orchestral ballad Helen of Kirconnell, an overture Young April, a five-movement suite for small orchestra In Arcady, and the Symphony in D minor, Thalassa, with its notable slow movement entitled ‘Lost in Action’. Though the latter is in fact a memorial to the ill-fated Captain Scott, then recently lost in the Antarctic, this title ensured its regular stand-alone performance during the First World War. In addition to the two concertante works recorded here there is also a Concertstück for violin and orchestra from 1913, and a late Violin Concerto, very much in thrall to Vaughan Williams (recorded on).
Somervell’s Normandy, a set of symphonic variations for piano and orchestra, was first performed at Queen’s Hall on 17 February 1913 by the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by the celebrated Arthur Nikisch, with the solo part played by Donald Francis Tovey. Possibly the highpoint of Somervell’s career as a composer, this prestigious concert also included his Thalassa Symphony, and the press reported ‘the audience was very generous in its appreciation of the composer’. Normandy subsequently appeared at the Queen’s Hall Proms in October 1915, and in December 1919 Jessie Munro played it at Bournemouth with the Bournemouth Municipal Orchestra under Dan Godfrey. Later Tovey took the work up and programmed it three times at the Reed concerts in Edinburgh, twice with himself as soloist and once with the pianist Nicholas Orloff. Although it did not achieve a wide circulation, in its day it was clearly thought a repertoire work, a status evident when we find it programmed by the Harrow Philharmonic Society in a wartime concert in 1942.
Somervell calls this work symphonic variations, and although the music plays continuously, consisting of successive free variations, listeners will soon be aware of a shadowy outline of what we might consider a four-movement symphony: introduction and Allegro—slow movement—scherzo—finale. The ‘Normandy’ of the title refers to the French village of Varengeville-sur-Mer, near Dieppe, where the tune was collected well before the First World War. Just eight bars long, the theme consists of four groups of two bars, each ending with two falling minims, a structure which provides Somervell with a succession of varied opportunities for free fantasias based on five short motifs taken from the tune.
The music opens dramatically with grave chords from the brass (actually elements of the theme which is to follow) before the piano plays the first four bars of the theme echoed by the horns. It is repeated and followed by the last four bars, given the same treatment. The whole is then sung by the oboe. This introduction develops with virtuoso writing for the soloist and eventually fades with the motif from the last bar of the tune which leads to the Molto allegro, which has a first movement feel to it. This is worked over many bars and eventually reaches what feels like a lyrical second subject, in fact developed from the falling minims which punctuate the theme. We reach a slower section leading to a solemn Adagio intoned by the brass, and eventually the opening bar of the theme is drummed out to announce the scherzo section, complete with trio derived from the theme. The finale, Allegro ma non troppo, is heralded with rising arpeggios in the piano punctuated by explosive chords at the end of each bar. A ground bass of chromatically slowly rising notes underpins this finale, generating a sequence of short variations within a variation. The music grows to a grand climax and the tune, now glowing on full orchestra, brings the music to an exultant close.
Somervell wrote his ‘Highland’ Concerto for the Scottish pianist Jessie Munro. It was first performed at Guildford by her with Claude Powell’s orchestra under the composer’s baton in 1921. Jessie Munro played it again at Bournemouth on 23 February 1922 (returning after her 1919 appearance there in Somervell’s Normandy) but after that it faded and appears to have been little played. Some lists of the composer’s music fail even to mention it. Jessie Munro was a student of Leopold Godowsky, first appearing on the concert platform at the age of twelve. She toured extensively in Britain and abroad appearing with many leading conductors, but ultimately she failed to have a high-profile career. After her marriage in 1911 the soloist had become Mrs Hay-Drummond-Hay though still Jessie Munro on the concert platform. She was divorced in 1924 and lived until 1961.
We are told all the themes of this concerto are original, though based on such strong traditional Scottish elements as to make one constantly find the title of a familiar tune is on the tip of the tongue. The first movement is on the largest scale, lasting almost twelve minutes. The music is remarkably uncomplicated. The opening theme, with its distinctive ‘Scotch snap’, reappears throughout in a variety of dressings and rhythms, almost in the manner of a set of variations. The second element comes as a contrasted romantic slow theme, particularly effective when heard solo on the piano, and further variety is provided by various Scottish dance rhythms which generate episodes that punctuate the proceedings at energetic moments of transition.
The composer remarked in a programme note that the second movement is more ‘Scottish’ than ‘Highland’, a distinction underlined by its pentatonic second theme. This is a very lightly scored and charmingly lyrical movement. The orchestral opening features a low solo horn and an extended cor anglais solo, while later there is an affecting solo violin statement of the theme. Then the music is entirely given to the piano and strings, who answer each other, and in the middle section the strings are muted as they sing their misty song.
The finale follows without a break and is a vigorous rondo, but with several delightful and extended reflective passages. The piano states the opening theme without the orchestra, which soon takes it up and, dance-like, gives the impression of pushing the tempo. The contrasted B section soon follows, giving rise to a tuneful episode before the vigorous first theme returns. Somervell gives opportunities for various instrumental solos and as the centrepiece of his movement we find a gloriously romantic and extended episode for solo piano with the orchestra providing a mere background shimmer. The romantic treatment continues, but the music regains its ebullient vigour by the end, which comes without an extended coda.
British music in the last quarter of the nineteenth century was dominated, until the emergence of Elgar at the end of Queen Victoria’s reign, by five composers: Stanford, Parry, Mackenzie, Sullivan and Cowen. Sullivan has always been recognized as the composer of the Savoy operas, and over the last couple of decades his other music is being revived. Parry and Stanford had been long-remembered for their church music and have enjoyed a growing revival over the last twenty years or so. Mackenzie, too, has been heard again (his ‘Scottish’ Concerto—a notable precursor to Somervell—can be heard on), but the once-popular and widely played music by Sir Frederic Hymen Cowen has largely remained unheard, silenced by that sudden dramatic change of aesthetic and idiom after the First World War. This is surprising for, as the Concertstück played on this recording demonstrates, this is delightful, urbane music, inventive and commandingly written for the instrument.
Frederic Cowen had the good fortune to be the son of the private secretary to the Earl of Dudley, who was also the Treasurer of the Italian Opera at Her Majesty’s Theatre. Thus the boy moved in very musical circles and even as a child his musical gifts were encouraged with the best teachers and with every opportunity to play with leading musicians of the day. Cowen was actually born in Jamaica but came to England when he was four. As a wunderkind child pianist he first appeared in public at the age of ten and played the Mendelssohn D minor Piano Concerto when twelve. He subsequently studied in Germany, first in Leipzig and later in Berlin. He met Liszt and Brahms and was launched on a career as a piano virtuoso in his teens. A life touring with various artists took him round the UK and to Europe and the USA. He emerged as one of the leading British conductors of his day and became the regular conductor of the Philharmonic Society in 1888. He achieved some celebrity when he was appointed conductor of the Melbourne Centennial Exhibition, also in 1888, for the unheard of fee of £5000.
Cowen’s Third Symphony, the Scandinavian of 1880 (the first two are lost), did much to establish British Victorian music on the European stage. He went on to write six symphonies. His choral works were widely heard at festivals. His ambition to write operas saw five presented on the London stage, but his D’Oyly Carte commission to produce a successor to Sullivan’s Ivanhoe, the verismo Signa, failed because it was not ready when the run of Ivanhoe ended earlier than expected.
Cowen’s youthful Piano Concerto was performed by the seventeen-year-old composer at St James’s Hall in 1869; but, nearly thirty years on, when he came to write his Concertstück for piano and orchestra, that early concerto had long been forgotten, and indeed, along with many of his early works, the music is lost. The Concertstück was written in 1897 for the celebrated Polish pianist Paderewski and was first performed by him at the Philharmonic Society’s concert at Queen’s Hall on 28 June 1900. In his autobiography Cowen wrote how before the performance he ‘went over to Paris for a few days to work up the music with him [Paderewski] and to make sundry revisions and elaborate certain of the passages to suit his immense technique … Not taking into consideration a very early concerto, the Concertstück was the first work [for piano and orchestra] I had written, and its performance at the Philharmonic, through his fine interpretation, proved very brilliant and effective.’ Perhaps remembering Liszt’s Piano Concerto in E flat major, the scoring includes a triangle among the percussion.
The music of this twenty-minute movement plays continuously, but falls into several sections. A clarinet opens proceedings with a lamenting theme punctuated by solemn chords. The scoring of this introduction is delightful, and soon coloured with horn tone. The piano takes up the theme and quickly introduces a falling dotted motif that reappears throughout and returns in triumph at the end. Cowen, no mean pianist himself, constantly leaves his soloist with little accompaniment. The music works up to a climax. Eventually, with a cadenza, the soloist takes us into a twelve-bar linking section, A tempo moderato, which Cowen scores with the light touch for which he was celebrated, the harp prominent and the violins reduced to just four players. The following Molto allegro leads to a contrasted piano idyll—Tempo tranquillo—all rounded by a cadenza and coda in which both themes appear.
Cowen now uses the triangle to colour a L’istesso tempo section (the time signature changes, to 2/4, but the apparent tempo does not). This is in G minor and again is introduced by the solo piano. The music proceeds in high spirits and with much piano display, the strings eventually finding a lyrical version of the falling motif.
The recapitulation starts with the piano repeating the 2/4 theme and there follows a succession of short sections, effectively contrasted variations, notably three delightful episodes in which both piano and orchestra are treated with the greatest delicacy. A gossamer piano cadenza muses on previous material, before the orchestra gradually increases the tempo and takes us to a closing headlong Presto—becoming Prestissimo—and the grand final statement of the theme, with piano chords sailing commandingly above. The final dash to the end contains brilliant passagework which goes on and on as if neither side is willing to give up.
Lewis Foreman © 2011
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The Romantic Piano Concerto, Vol. 24 – Vianna da Motta
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The Romantic Piano Concerto, Vol. 37 – Nápravník & Blumenfeld
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The Romantic Piano Concerto, Vol. 38 – Rubinstein & Scharwenka
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The Romantic Piano Concerto, Vol. 59 – Zarzycki & Zelenski
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