Dorothy Howell is a name new to me, perhaps unsurprisingly given her small output of large-scale forms. She was born in 1898 and died in 1982. Her sole piano concerto is presented on this Hyperion CD in another addition to the label's wholly admirable Romantic Piano Concerto series. Howell studied under McEwen. Her single-span concerto was composed in 1923. In style it immediately declares itself to be a successor to the Grieg, Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov's first concerto. It opens with quite a memorable orchestral flourish progressing with pleasant, slightly episodic material to a meditative, rather poetic central section; there, a rippling piano over cushioned strings does not make quite the gorgeous impact that it should because the material is not memorable enough. This leads via a brief cadenza into the vigorous finale which reuses the opening theme. With the exception of this opening theme, it really is not distinctive or innovative enough to make one sit up, and I suppose that that explains its neglect. It is a pity really, because good romantic music by British female composers is not exactly thick on the ground. Having said that, British piano concertos of that period or earlier by any composer do not feature in the concert repertoire. Think of pieces by Parry, Stanford, Ireland, Vaughan Williams and Herbert Howells. So, Dorothy Howell is in good company.
As for Cécile Chaminade, I have a Chandos disc of her piano works performed by Eric Parkin, but I have never heard her orchestral pieces. It would seem that she composed an orchestral suite, an opera, a ballet, a symphony for soloists, chorus and orchestra, as well as several chamber works. This Concerstück dates from 1888 when she was 31, and I am very taken with it. It plays for just fifteen minutes. It has at its heart a grandiose and very memorable theme, first played on the horns over tremolo strings, which returns at intervals on the piano and orchestra. The booklet mentions its kinship with The Flying Dutchman. I will also mention that the sort of main theme that John Williams has produced for various heroic films bears a distinct family resemblance to it. In fact, at times whilst listening, I began to think of one or two popular film "concertos" leavened with Saint-Saëns-like piano figurations and exotic harmonies. Given its date, it is unfair of me to associate this piece with film music, but had it been a popular, much played work, I might have suggested that some film composers could have come under its influence.
Anyway, whatever its influences, it is a delight. I am going to take out my Chandos CD for the first time in a decade and listen to her solo works.
The main work on this CD is the thirty five minute long Piano Concerto in C Sharp Minor by the American, Amy Beach. Anyone of even mildly feminist sympathies will bristle when reading her biographical details. She was forbidden by her Calvinist mother from doing much to develop her outstanding musical talent, and when she married a man some twenty four years her senior, he did not want her to do anything musical except compose and then not under any professional tuition. Reluctantly, she agreed to limit concert performances to two per year when, in fact, her greatest musical desire was to perform as a concert pianist. It was only when her mother and husband died in 1910/1911 that she was able to develop a performing career from which she retired thirty years later.
The concerto is an impressive work in four movements, the first of which lasts nearly seventeen minutes and must take considerable stamina to play. The piano and orchestra vie with each other as the two principal themes intertwine, and there is a solo cadenza towards the end.
The second movement is a short and dizzying perpetuum mobile followed by a lovely slow movement, rather dark, which reaches a notably intense climax. It seems that it is based on the composer's song "Twilight" and it is really good. The finale, an allegro, has the soloist taking the lead throughout and brings the whole work to a most satisfying conclusion.
Who are its influences? Well, take your pick from Brahms, Liszt, Schumann and just about anyone else of the period. I can imagine this self-taught woman diligently studying the piano and orchestral scores of the Masters and slowly composing this work. That is not to denigrate the piece; on the contrary, it sounds to me to be a most satisfying concerto, created by that rarest of musical creatures, a woman born in the mid 19th century who battled against, and triumphed over the stultifying religious and social constraints of society and her home life.
The orchestral accompaniment is alert and the recording is clear rather than sumptuous. Danny Driver is the athletic and totally capable soloist in what is a most desirable, well filled CD.
An excellent, informative booklet bears the logo of the Ambache Charitable Trust, which exists to support the profiles of female composers. I should also mention that the conductor, Rebecca Miller is one of the increasing number of capable and talented women who stand in front of our orchestras these days.