This is the 63rd instalment in Hyperion's Romantic Piano Concerto series, and there is yet to be any significant drop in the quality of works that have been recorded. Jeremy Nicholas's programme notes make an impassioned case for the two concertos by Benjamin Godard (1849-95)—a composer remembered (if at all) for a handful of flute pieces and the 'Berceuse' (from his 1888 opera Jocelyn)—and there is undoubtedly a huge amount to enjoy here. Godard succumbed to tuberculosis at the age of just 45, and listening to this disc it's hard not to think that his would be a much more familiar name had he been granted a full lifespan.
These may not be 'great' works, but nonetheless they are full of memorable melodic ideas and lyrical sentiment which narrowly avoids turning saccharine. The concertos are each in four movements, with light-hearted scherzos (coming second in the First Concerto, and third in the Second), but their proportions are small, each lasting just under 30 minutes and their first movements being just under 10 minutes each. All three works emerge from the depths with dark colouring to match—Nicholas aptly describes the opening of the first as 'sepulchral', the second as 'lugubrious' and that of the Introduction and Allegro as 'portentous'—and there is a real sense of narrative and operatic drama in the first movements of both concertos. Structural divisions are refreshingly unclear as each unfolds rather than develops, with song-like aria episodes alternating with virtuosic passagework which is a match for any.
Their eclectisim and the constant variety, as well as the ardent commitment of these performances from Howard Shelley and the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra, more than make amends for any lack of real development. There are many highlights in the First Concerto, such as the skittish 'Scherzo' affording obvious parallels to that of Litolff (from his Concerto symphonique No 4) and the slow movement (its theme bearing an uncanny resemblance to the opening violin solo in Bruch's First Violin Concerto) and justly described by Nicholas as being 'among the most affecting slow movements in the Romantic repertoire'. The finale may not quite be a match for what has preceded it, but it is effective nonetheless for providing momentum to the closing bars, with further soloistic display and a rousing conclusion in the tonic major.
The Second Concerto is less impetuuous and more closely argued, with a more adventurous harmonic language and a greater variety of tonal centres, more intimcay and with greater rhapsodic ardour and sweep (that recalls the fabulous post-romantic concertos of the Swedish composer Adolf Wiklund—reviewed in June 2012—which has been for me one of the highlights of this series). The slow movement is again deeply affecting, while the three-minute 'Scherzo' is justly described as a 'delightful and all-too-brief movement of Mendelssohnian gossamer'. The finale opens with an 'Andante maestoso' with a cyclical return to the work's opening theme, before launching into torrential toccata-like passagework of sextuplet scales: once again, the 'Finale problem' is effectively overcome through slightly vapid display.
The final work is a Schumannesque Introduction and Allegro, the former brooding and introspective, and the latter a real crowd-pleaser, immensely engaging with its constant demands and its unbridled optimism. Throughout all three works, Shelley dazzles with his effortless virtuosity and lightness of touch, and the recording is first-rate. In short, this release must rank alongside the finest of rediscoveries in this most pioneering of series, and one that should spur on others to explore further the works of this greatly neglected composer.