Hyperion’s seemingly endless series continues with this attractive issue, which apart from providing us with two concertos certainly worthy of rehabilitation, fills in something of a gap surrounding our understanding of the development of English composition between the death of Purcell (1695) and the birth of Parry (1848). I realise these parameters are somewhat arbitrary as quite apart from ignoring Handel (!) this period also encompassed the lives of figures such as Arne, Boyce and Samuel Wesley inter alia. While one certainly wouldn’t want to diminish their achievements, given the musical developments and fashions that came and went elsewhere in Europe during this century and a half, one might be excused for inferring at least a grain of truth from Oscar Schmitz’s oft quoted 1904 remark that England was indeed ‘Das Land ohne Musik’.
Enter Philip Cipriani Hambley Potter, or ‘Little Chip’ as he was endearingly known to his kin. He is one of those figures who, thanks to the patronage of pioneering companies such as Unicorn-Kanchana, Classico and now Hyperion, has shown tentative signs of emerging from the yellowing leaves of the early editions of Grove. Hyperion’s series has already admitted little-known British figures from this period (Benedict, Bache, and Walter Macfarren to name but three) but to my ears Potter is surely a more original presence than each of them and can stand alongside William Sterndale Bennett (born a generation later in 1816 and another ‘Hyperion Romantic’) as a truly credible figure.
The two concertos recorded here certainly repay repeated listening. I have occasionally found in this esteemed series that magnificent recording and performing standards are insufficient in themselves to guarantee the lasting quality of the music of some of the less familiar names, but I don’t think that applies here. We are told in the note (another fact-filled masterpiece of concision from Jeremy Dibble) that the Piano Concerto No 2 of 1832 inhabits the same emotional world as Mozart’s celebrated K466 concerto. It shares the same D minor key as that work, which was apparently one of Potter’s favourites. The orchestration is interesting—the novelty of prominent brass in the first movement providing one example. The slow movement is meltingly and unexpectedly beautiful—here Potter’s consistently high level of inspiration is sustained throughout a memorable nine minute span of true grace and restraint. It’s certainly not a criticism, but the faster piano writing in the outer movements is rather Mendelssohnian, especially in the rondo finale, which also features some quirky orchestral effects, notably a jolly fiddle solo which launches its second subject.
I found the Concerto No 4 a slightly tougher nut to crack. Its charms are a little more elusive at first hearing, but this impression quickly dissipates with greater familiarity. Given that this work is in E major it is perhaps surprising that it seems to be a little less sunny than its D minor predecessor, but despite this the brilliant piano writing and imaginative orchestration are again both present.
One thing the notes tell us is that between 1837 and his death in 1871, Potter effectively endured a thirty-four year compositional silence. Unlike Sibelius, this hiatus was evidently less to do with creative block than to pressures created by other professional demands on his time, most notably his commitments as Principal of the Royal Academy of Music. The many original touches in both of these concertos lead one inevitably to speculate where his obvious talents in composition may ultimately have taken him.
Potter did continue his role as a pianist, however, and all of these pieces make it abundantly clear that he was a pretty good one. While there are many virtuoso elements to the Variazioni di bravura on a theme by Rossini which concludes the disc, it’s certainly not a vehicle for wanton showing off along the lines of certain ‘fillers’ included on other issues in Hyperion’s estimable series. The theme, from Act Two of Mathilde di Shabran (today a rather neglected corner of Rossini’s operatic output), is disassembled and reconfigured in a longish and rather unpredictable introduction, before its re-statement by the piano. This is followed by six variations of surprising complexity—the whole is uncommonly interesting and I found it unusually enjoyable for a work of this type.
Of course in the wrong hands this kind of enterprise could be doomed. Fortunately Howard Shelley, who conducts his regular partners-in-crime the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra from the keyboard, is a marvellous guide in this repertoire and the Hyperion recording is resplendent, with tangible depth and presence. Shelley truly gets inside each of these pieces (in both roles) and convinces this listener at least of an uncommon originality at work, particularly for an English composer of this period. The only other Potter I have heard is his Symphony No 7 on an old Classico disc coupled with Sterndale Bennett’s Symphony Op 43—this is also a delight (and still available on some streaming platforms). It’s a glib thing for a reviewer to say, these things rarely come to pass after all, but could this issue possibly augur a revival for Potter? After all there have been multiple discs of Herz, Moscheles, and Litolff—arguably composers of lesser talent and originality—in this series. Hyperion, it’s over to you …