On 20 June 1972, the Royal Academy of Music Orchestra under Neville Marriner gave a performance of Cipriani Potter’s Symphony in G minor at the South Bank. Other works included the Overture to Act IV of Shakespeare’s The Tempest by Arthur Sullivan, the Piano Concerto No 4 by William Sterndale Bennett and Lennox Berkeley’s Divertimento. The Times reviewer Stanley Sadie insisted (on 21 July 1972) that Potter’s work was 'much the most interesting item' and considered that it was 'a symphony well worth reviving'. Some 14 years later, an advert appeared in The Gramophone on January 1990, advertising a new CD on the Unicorn Kanchana label, featuring the above-mentioned Symphony as well as the earlier Symphony No 8 in E flat. The disc featured the Milton Keynes Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Hilary Davan Wetton. It received favourable reviews. In 2004, the now lamented Classico label issued a CD featuring Cipriani Potter’s Symphony No 7 in F major and William Sterndale Bennett’s Symphony in G minor: the Czech Chamber Philharmonic Orchestra was conducted by Douglas Bostock. That, until the present Hyperion disc is the total of recordings of Potter’s music. I may have missed the odd song or piano piece etc.
A few notes about Cipriani Potter may be of interest. Philip Cipriani Hambly Potter was a composer, pianist, conductor, teacher and administrator. He was born London on 3 October 1792. After initial musical training with his father, he studied piano with Joseph Woelfl (1773-1812), and theory with Thomas Attwood (1783-1856) and William Crotch (1775-1847). Shortly after his debut in London, Potter journeyed to Vienna, where he was introduced to Beethoven and studied composition under Aloys Förster (1748-1823). After a tour of Italy, he returned to London where he taught pianoforte at the Royal Academy of Music, before becoming Principal (1832-1859). Potter introduced Beethoven’s Piano Concertos No 1 in C major, No 3 in C minor and No 4 in G major to London audiences at the Philharmonic Concerts. Interestingly, Richard Wagner, whilst in the capital, praised Potter’s G Minor Symphony, performed at a Philharmonic Concert. Cipriani Potter died in London on 26 September 1871.
Looking at Potter’s catalogue reveals ten symphonies (nine, really, as No 2 seems to have double-counted as No 10), three extant piano concertos, four Shakespearian Overtures, as well as many chamber works and a large corpus of piano pieces. Most were composed prior to 1837, as the pressure of his teaching and administrative work took its toll in his creative muse.
Dibble situates the present concerti between the completion of Potter’s Symphony No 10 (1832) and the second Sextet for wind, strings and piano (1836), as well as three above-mentioned Shakespearean Overtures. If what little music I have heard by Potter is anything to go by, these overtures, Antony and Cleopatra (1835), Cymbeline (1836) and The Tempest (1837) are certainly desiderata for the recording studio, assuming they have survived.
The liner notes (English, German and French) are written by the Victorian music specialist Jeremy Dibble. They provide a satisfying introduction to the composer and a detailed historical and technical analysis of the music. There is a brief note (in English only) about the conductor and soloist Howard Shelley. I need add only my reaction to the music.
Stylistically, I understand Cipriani Potter to be a trajectory from Haydn, Mozart, early Beethoven and Schubert with hints of Mendelssohn. To contextualise Potter’s position in musical history: Mozart had died the year before Potter was born, Haydn was 60 years old and Beethoven only 22.
The Piano Concerto No 2 in D minor was composed in 1832. In its sound world is a homage to Mozart, especially Don Giovanni. The Piano Concerto No 4 in E major was first heard in 1835 and owes more to the London School of Piano Music as exemplified by Muzio Clementi (1752-1832), William Sterndale Bennett (1816-1875) and Ignaz Moscheles (1794-1870), amongst others.
Both works are characterised by their virtuosity, which befits a composer/pianist who was at the height of his technical powers. Yet Potter is not all fireworks: the heart-stoppingly beautiful Andante of the D Minor Concerto and the equally attractive slow movement of the E major work reveal a lyricism that is both controlled and bewitching. And humour is not lacking in these works either. Dibble remarks on the closing Allegro vivace of the Concerto No 2 as displaying 'its witty violin solo and woodwind 'badinage''. I enjoyed the finales of both concerti: they are written as quirky, often whimsical rondos.
The Variazioni di bravura for piano and orchestra on a theme by Rossini were completed on the 11 March 1829 and duly premiered on 20 May of that year. The theme that Potter exploited was from the 'heroic' tenor Corradino’s aria in Act II of Mathilde di Shabran (1821), one of the composer’s less well-known melodramas. However, this tune was itself derived from Rossini’s equally rare opera Ermione (1819). There are only three recordings of Ermione and two of Mathilde in the catalogue, compared to some 48 of The Barber of Seville and 22 of L'italiana in Algeri, so the theme is not well-known. Potter opens the Variazioni with a long melody which is followed by six attractive variations. For me the most impressive variation is No. 5. It has all the hallmarks of a nocturne by John Field.
It is almost superfluous to write that Howard Shelley and the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra give a remarkable performance of all three works on this disc. The recording is excellent, as expected from Hyperion.
Around the time of that 1972 concert at the South Bank, a reviewer referred to this music as coming from the Dark Ages of British Music. How wrong he was. These three works prove yet again that there was considerable life and invention in music at this time. It does not take Parry’s Prometheus Unbound or Edward Elgar’s Enigma Variations to convince me that the English Music Renaissance was something much older and deeper. I only hope that Hyperion will be forthcoming in several more editions of Cipriani Potter’s music. It is a treat that is to be relished.