Hyperion Records

Piano Concerto in A major, Op 15
My concerto went very well: Wood [Sir Henry] proved a really wonderful interpreter & there wasn’t a single point in which he didn’t anticipate my most detailed and least obvious intentions, besides getting all the swing and balance of the whole. Stanford has been amazingly kind & has twice made the Royal College orchestra play it with me.

Thus Tovey, writing to Edward Speyer in November 1903. But despite this auspicious start and subsequent performances, including one under Fritz Busch in Aachen in 1913 and others in Edinburgh, the concerto only re-emerges from obscurity with this CD—and it is a revelation: Tovey is not a composer ignored because of his idiosyncracies, but because of his unaffected mastery. Brahms will immediately be invoked—and rightly. After all, this work was composed only three years after Brahms’s death, and composed by a young man still in his twenties. But it is no less lovely for being thoroughly Brahmsian, and the material is Tovey’s and it is handled with the consummate skill that can only be born from an inspiration that belongs to that composer and that composer alone. Mere derivation could not produce such a seamless, coherent and yet compelling work, and the concerto is a true and worthy child of its parent.

Tovey himself refused to comment on the work—unless one can include the delightfully revealing remark to his former student Mary Grierson:

I always remember your first performance, and I remember you wore a dress of a very pretty, soft blue which seemed exactly to suit the music.

Soft blue is scarcely the colour of the opening statement from the piano, threatening portentous matters. But A major is not a portentous key, and the breadth of this simple scale-and-arpeggio opening evokes an immediate response from the woodwind of staccato quavers which prefigure the celebratory nature of the movement. This terse contrast is essentially classical: there is no big romantic theme, rather there is a balanced conception which demands and receives expansion. A part of the ascending scale appears in heroic, exuberant and rich pastoral guises in quick succession; and suddenly we have reached the second subject in D major—warm and lyrical.

The piano enters with its opening material reworked and this double exposition leads to a more dramatic treatment in the development; and at all times the piano and orchestra are working together, leading up to the joyous recapitulation, the brilliant writing for the horns redolent of peals of bells. Here the power of the opening idea is asserted and the celebratory mood given final affirmation.

The F sharp minor Adagio opens with a dialogue of simple but expressive feeling, but the latent intensity is evoked by an echo of the opening of the first movement, and solo oboe and strings explore the loneliness as well as the sense of sharing that are so often at the heart of our deepest intimacies. Nothing is over- or understated in this beautifully scored movement, mature beyond its composer’s years.

The Alla marcia final movement starts light-footed, but soon picks up a young man’s stride, and a splendid fugato (one of the few such that sounds spontaneous) is perfectly integrated into the half-marching, half-dancing and utterly irresistible progress of Tovey’s musical troops. Ever and always the piano and orchestra travel together, and this absolute unity of purpose is one of the work’s great strengths. It is without bravado, yet it asserts magnificently an integrated self-confident vitality, in which individual and society are as at home with one another as this neglected work will surely be with its audiences.

from notes by John Purser © 1998

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