Hyperion Records

Piano Concerto in A minor 'Highland'
1921; composed for Jessie Munro who gave the first performance in 1921 in Guildford with Claude Powell's orchestra under the composer

'Somervell & Cowen: Piano Concertos' (CDA67837)
Somervell & Cowen: Piano Concertos
Movement 1: Allegro moderato
Movement 2: Adagio
Movement 3: Allegro

Piano Concerto in A minor 'Highland'
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.

from notes by Lewis Foreman © 2011

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