This very welcome CD, Volume 81 in Hyperion’s Romantic Piano Concerto series, brings together two important but neglected concertos by British composers. For this programme Piers Lane is joined by Leon Botstein and Orchestra Now. This ensemble was founded in 2015 as a graduate programme at Bard College, New York State, where Botstein has served as president since as long ago as 1975. These forces came together back in 2017 to record for Hyperion two piano concertos by Ferdinand Reis. I haven’t heard that disc but I see it was reviewed by Terry Barfoot. Both that disc and the present one were set down in the orchestra’s home hall.
I’m a great admirer of the music of Sir Arthur Bliss and I like his piano concerto to the extent that I already have four recordings of it in my collection. However, I think it says something about the neglect of the work that the only one of these that is anything like recent is the excellent performance set down by Peter Donohoe in 2002. All the other recordings are historic. There’s APR’s release of the world premiere performance of the work by Solomon with Sir Adrian Boult on the rostrum; Noel Mewton-Wood’s 1952 traversal; and the reading by Trevor Barnard which was set down in the early 1960s. All of these are well worth hearing. I should add that there was also a Unicorn-Kanchana recording by Philip Fowke which dates, I believe, from 1993, but I’ve never heard that. So, this new version by Piers Lane enters a field which is not exactly crowded, at least so far as versions in modern sound are concerned.
Bliss was commissioned to write the concerto as part of Britain’s contribution to the 1939 New York World’s Fair. In her useful notes, Lucy Craddock makes this interesting point about how the British approached the World’s Fair. ‘Keen to update Britain‘s image abroad whilst nurturing Americans’ love of British history and tradition, they interpreted the futuristic theme of the Fair as one of continuity, rooting tomorrow’s world firmly in the past.’ Bliss was an ideal choice, therefore. For one thing, he was a British composer who could claim American ancestry on his father’s side. Secondly, whilst many of his previous works had revealed his openness to modern trends he remained, at heart, a composer with strong roots in musical tradition. In fulfilment of this commission he produced a big, bold concerto with an unmistakably Romantic hue.
The very opening of the concerto is a big statement of intent and, rightly, Piers Lane and the orchestra plunge into the music head-on. That sets the tone for much of what is to follow. Lane is very impressive in the virtuoso Romantic pages in which this movement abounds and Botstein and the orchestra back him to the hilt. There are, however, occasional pauses for reflection (for example at 4:00) and these episodes are performed with sensitivity. Bliss’s music is full of ambition and energy and so is the present performance. The cadenza (13:38 - 16:22) is a thorough and demanding exploration of the thematic material—and the pianist gets a bit of help from the timpanist towards the end. Lane delivers this masterfully and, indeed, the whole movement represents a tour de force on his part. As you might expect, Peter Donohoe is just as equal as Lane to the technical demands of this movement. However, for all the merits of his performance, including the fine support from David Lloyd-Jones and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, the Hyperion recording is much richer and fuller, which suits this red-blooded music; furthermore, to my ears, there’s a touch of edge in the treble of the Naxos sound in some of the louder passages.
The tranquil opening to the second movement provides real contrast to its tumultuous predecessor. Much of this slow movement is very beautiful but it’s not an untroubled reverie; there are moments of tension in the writing for both the soloist and the orchestra. Lane and Botstein combine to give a fine account of this introspective movement. Bliss resists the temptation to launch straight into a virtuoso finale. Instead, he paves the way with an Andante maestoso introduction which has a good deal of tension in it. The Molto vivo main body of the movement starts at 1:29 and is truly launched by the soloist at 1:50. Lucy Craddock’s description of this as ‘a whirling tarantella’ is right on the money. For the most part, this is breathless, exciting music except for a reflective passage (4:39 - 6:16) in which the piano dominates. Thereafter the helter-skelter Molto vivo resumes. At 9:56 Bliss transforms the apprehensive material from the start of the movement into a big-hearted tune which is marked ‘con ardore’. This unashamedly Romantic melody is generously decorated by the soloist, after which the concerto comes to an emphatic and positive conclusion.
This is a splendid performance by Lane and Botstein. I shan’t be discarding my copy of the Peter Donohoe performance. That’s partly on account of the intrinsic merits of his performance and also because his all-Bliss programme is very valuable However, boosted by the attractions of a better recording, this new Hyperion version becomes a clear first choice.
If modern versions of the Bliss concerto have been thin on the ground, the situation concerning Edmund Rubbra’s Piano Concerto is even worse. I first got to know it through the 1958 recording by Denis Matthews and Sir Malcolm Sargent. That was on LP. It's been issued on a CD transfer, which I’ve not heard. I’m not aware of another recorded version. It’s good that his concerto has been paired with the one by Bliss because, as the notes tell us, the two composers had a long-standing friendship and, indeed, Rubbra dedicated his Tenth Symphony (1974) to his old friend. However, if the bonds of friendship were close, their respective piano concertos are poles apart.
Rubbra gave titles to all three movements. The first is ‘Corymbus’ and Lucy Craddock explains the botanical significance in her notes. It's relevant, too, to note the tempo indication: Adagio, calmo e quasi improvisatore. It would be hard to imagine an opening less like the Bliss than Rubbra’s quiet, ruminative beginning: the music scarcely raises its voice for the first couple of minutes. Gradually, the tempo accelerates – the movement is essentially in an arch form – but even when the speed is relatively fast there’s no conventional display. Instead, we hear the piano and orchestra working in partnership, delivering serious-minded music. Indeed, it seems to me that the soloist acts more in a concertante role. The movement is very well done here and the listener comes away from it full of respect for Rubbra’s musical integrity.
The second movement, ‘Dialogue’ is marked Lento e solenne. Once again, the movement starts off slowly and softly and this sets the tone for the movement as a whole. This is tranquil, deeply felt music in which, as in the previous movement, the soloist and orchestra collaborate closely. This movement reminds me of the mood of the opening movement of Rubbra’s Fourth Symphony (1942); even when the volume level is raised, the music retains its serenity. At last, in the finale, Rubbra opens up with what Lucy Craddock describes as a 'joyful rustic-dance rondo'. This is, by some distance, the most extrovert music in the concerto and the soloist finally gets some display opportunities. At one point, Rubbra even deploys castanets momentarily, followed by other percussion instruments. At 5:04 the cadenza arrives, almost unheralded, at the end of an orchestral climax. Typically, Rubbra eschews conventional display here but instead carefully examines and elaborates the thematic material of the whole work before arriving back at the delicate arpeggiated figures with which the first movement opened. At the end of the cadenza (8:20) the rondo resumes, but in a light-footed fashion, to end this rather unconventional concerto.
It’s not hard to understand why Rubbra’s Piano Concerto has made little headway. It lacks crowd-pleasing virtuosity and I suspect many pianists would feel it not worth the trouble of learning. That’s a pity, though, because it’s a fine work containing a good deal of beautiful music and full to the brim with musical integrity. Piers Lane makes a very persuasive case for it in a very fine performance during which he benefits from an excellent partnership with Orchestra Now.
There are points of connection also between Bliss and Bax. Like Bliss, Bax was the recipient of a commission for the 1939 World’s Fair—in his case, the Seventh Symphony was the result. Furthermore, Bax was Bliss’s predecessor as Master of the Queen’s Music, though in fact for most of his tenure of the post Bax was Master of the King’s Music. So, the choice of Bax’s Morning Song ‘Maytime in Sussex’ is a felicitous one. It’s also a good bit of programming in that it offers anyone who listens straight through the entire disc a good transition from the mainly tranquil Rubbra concerto to the Romantic fireworks of the Bliss. This little work was written with Bax’s ceremonial hat on: he composed it to mark the 21st birthday, in 1947, of Princess Elizabeth, the future Queen Elizabeth II. It’s a pleasing, attractive little piece and here it receives a performance from Lane and Orchestra Now which has an ideally light touch.
This is a very worthwhile addition to Hyperion’s Romantic Piano Concerto series. Piers Lane is a sterling and imaginative advocate for both concertos while Orchestra Now give him splendid support. Thanks to Hyperion we now have the primary recommendation for the Bliss concerto and a performance which I hope, will win new friends for Rubbra’s concerto.
As I indicated in discussing the Bliss concerto, the recorded sound is very good indeed throughout the programme. Lucy Craddock’s notes are helpful. I notice that, as is their wont, Hyperion provide the documentation also in French and German. It would be great if this disc drew attention to these two very different but immensely worthwhile British piano concertos outside their native land.