turns to Victorian and early modern England for the latest entry in its Romantic
Piano Concerto series. Sir Frederic Hymen Cowen and Sir Arthur Somervell were
widely known and respected in their day (note the knighthoods), through fairly
obscure in our times. The works on the disc at hand may not be revelatory, but
they are quite pleasant, even engaging — and, as one expects from the Hyperion
series, brilliantly executed.
Cowen was a piano prodigy who performed in public
from the age of 12 on, and eventually became known as a conductor and the
composer of several symphonies and operas. The 20-minute Concertstück
for piano and orchestra, written when he was 45 and first performed in 1900 by
the world-renowned Ignace Paderewski, is essentially a concentrated piano
concerto in the manner of Franz Liszt, though rather less flamboyant than the
Hungarian master’s works. I hesitate to say it’s more genteel — more
English-drawing-room — because I don’t want to imply that it’s dull. The
piano writing calls for considerable virtuosity, and there are some lovely
delicate passages as well as more extravagant flights of fancy for the soloist.
The mellow sounds of clarinets and horns tend to dominate the orchestral colors,
though the piano is very much in charge of the proceedings. Martin Roscoe’s
impressively combines elegance and fleet impulsiveness.
Somervell is somewhat better known today than
Cowen, though more for his songs and choral writing than for piano music. He was
a student of Sir Charles Villiars Stanford and Sir Hubert Perry (Victorian
composers having their own modest revivals nowadays), studied in Germany like
many of his British contemporaries, and became a professor and influential civil
servant. (Principal Inspector of Music to the Board of Education was his
Somervell’s Normandy premiered in 1913 with very distinguished performers: Donald Francis Tovey (now known mainly as a musicologist) was the soloist, Arthur Nikisch the conductor. Though subtitled Symphonic Variations, it too is a 20-minute piano concerto in one movement, with “a shadowy outline of what we might consider a four-movement symphony” embedded in a set of variations, according to Hyperion’s program notes by Lewis Foreman. Opening with a simple Norman folk song played solemnly by piano and brass, then lyrically by the oboe, the variations unfold with considerable complexity and variety, the piano and the orchestra equal partners tightly intertwined. Again Roscoe and conductor Martyn Brabbins make the best possible case for the music in their robust performance.
The most recent work on the CD, Somervell’s 1921 Piano Concerto, is in some ways the most traditional piece on this program, and certainly the lightest in mood, the most playful, of the three. Nicknamed the “Highland” Concerto, it’s based on Scottish-flavored (but original) themes, and is in the classic three-movement structure, with the slow movement leading without pause into the Allegro finale. The opening Allegro moderato sounds rather like a score that Max Steiner might have written for a John Ford movie — though not as good as Steiner at his best. The slow movement has attractive lyrical moments for English horn and solo violin, and the finale brings in even more genial Scottish tunes that sound like some folk ditty, or something from an Old American Songbook, that one ought to remember but can’t. Both soloists and the Scottish orchestra know exactly how to put the piece across.
Balance between piano and orchestra is excellent
in all three pieces, though some may find the wind and string solos just a
little distant. There is warmth but also clarity. As always, Hyperion’s
booklet provides welcome historical information.