Movement 1: In tempo moderato
Movement 2a: Lento espressivo – Allegro – Cadenza –
Movement 2b: Allegretto giocoso
Although Ireland’s concerto is customarily described as being in three movements, only two are marked in the score, the music moving straight on from the slow movement into what is de facto the high spirited finale, Allegretto giocoso. The first movement opens with a ten-bar reflective orchestral introduction, the theme on strings perhaps an echo of the plainsong he would have known in church, and the magical distant horns at the fourth bar seeming to be heralding some far-off world coming slowly into view. This forms a sort of motto, becoming a resource for later invention and is incorporated into the first main theme in the piano solo that follows. It is entirely characteristic of Ireland that when the piano joins, instead of fiery figurations he gives us what is to all intents and purposes the opening of one of his evocative piano miniatures. However he also knows when to stop, and the music accelerates to the catchy faster theme first presented on trumpet and clarinets which is heard many times during the movement. The concerto is notable for the way Ireland links extended passages of unaccompanied piano with orchestral colour and only uses the full orchestra at the climaxes.
A slow version of the second theme of the first movement opens the second movement and is followed, as in the first, by a solo passage that could be one of Ireland’s evocative miniatures. It would not be too fanciful to describe this movement, with its yearning falling sevenths in the strings, as a love song. Eventually a side drum tattoo breaks the reverie and with a miniature cadenza leads into the energetic finale. To a British audience at the time the use of Chinese block to rap out the rhythm must have seemed cutting-edge. Here the slower second subject includes one of Ireland’s motivic references, in this case a figure of four semiquavers quoted from Spring will not wait and We’ll to the woods no more, both works dedicated to Arthur Miller, an earlier constant companion. Themes from the earlier movements return, and with the second the solo violin sings a regretful counter-melody. This tune is said to be from a student string quartet written by Helen Perkin, but the allusion to his pianist seems to have been more elusive, and wherever it appears he thoroughly disguised it.
The work was an immediate success, and for forty years it was the pre-eminent British piano concerto played by the leading players of the day, notably Clifford Curzon, Moura Lympany and Eileen Joyce as well as Gina Bachauer and Artur Rubinstein.
from notes by Lewis Foreman © 2006