A glance at the names of those composers who feature in the earliest issues in Hyperion’s Romantic Piano Concerto series shows that there was never any intention to plough a familiar furrow. When Volume 64 features two composers of whom one has never heard – I’m speaking personally, of course – it would be a surprise, though a pleasant one, to discover a neglected masterpiece. In repertoire such as this an informative booklet note is invaluable, and Nancy Lee Harper’s provides much fascinating information. Henrique Oswald and Alfredo Napoleão were both born in 1852, Oswald in Brazil of European parents, and Napoleão in Portugal. Prodigiously talented, each one became a celebrated virtuoso pianist and composer.
The three movements of Oswald’s G minor Concerto, composed around 1886, follow a standard Romantic pattern, with a big, almost symphonic first movement, followed by a calm second movement and vivacious finale. It’s surprising, given that the composer was himself a virtuoso, that the piano is frequently allotted an accompanying role. In the first movement, for example, five minutes have passed before the piano alone introduces a more reflective second theme. This theme brings some harmonic spice to a work hitherto conventional in its musical language. The piano writing is highly accomplished, but so is that for the orchestra, rich and lush, with much use of brass. It possesses neither the granite-like security of Brahms nor the brilliance of Tchaikovsky, sounding, if anything, like Rachmaninov’s orchestral style. This first movement is not without its grandiose gestures, and there are passages where Oswald overdoes his liking for sequences, but if you don’t ask too many questions the music carries you along with it.
This is true of the remaining movements too. Few listeners will be convinced that the sentiments expressed in the slow movement are totally genuine – Harper refers to its ‘Hollywood-esque sentimentality’ – though the beginning and the end of the movement express real feeling. The tarantella finale is quite an achievement, with no respite from the ostinato rhythm throughout its six minutes. Quite a few hearings are necessary before you begin to discern Oswald’s themes, but there is more than enough room on the shelves for a work as appealing and easy to enjoy as this one.
Napoleão’s Concerto, undated but probably composed at roughly the same time, is also in three movements, though less conventional in layout. The work opens with a three-minute orchestral passage that seems too brooding and portentous to be introducing a piano concerto. The spectre of Chopin dominates much of the rest of the first movement, with the piano the dominant partner and the orchestra very much in an accompanying role. A subsidiary theme, first introduced by the horn, establishes itself in the mind very quickly, and rhapsodic development follows thereafter. The end of the movement is charming, rapid piano figuration over gradually disappearing chords from the orchestra. This movement, at 20 minutes, lasts longer than the remaining two put together, and there could hardly be greater contrast. The second movement, only four minutes long, is a dazzling scherzo. A central section introduces the most immediately appealing and memorable music of the whole work, a gentle, rocking passage featuring an attractive duet between the soloist and the horn. Harper is spot-on when she evokes Offenbach to describe the opening of the finale, just as she is when she refers to the ‘can-can exuberance’ of the ending. But the Concerto almost seems like three works, not one. Tchaikovsky’s B flat minor Concerto might be too obvious a work to choose as an example, and an unfair comparison to boot, but its three movements, though very different one from another, do inhabit the same musical and emotional world. That can’t really be said of this fascinating and enjoyable work from Napoleão.
Portuguese-born Artur Pizarro is a natural choice for this repertoire. (A charming booklet photograph shows him as a boy with his teacher, Evaristo de Campos Coelho, who gave the first complete performance of Napoleão’s Concerto.) His playing has all the dash and flair the pieces demand, and the gentler, more lyrical passages are played with an evident understanding of the idiom. He is a brilliant champion for these neglected works. Martyn Brabbins and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales provide the solid support we now expect of them. I hope they thoroughly enjoyed themselves; it certainly seems so. The recording is well up to the exalted standards of the house.