Thursday 7 April 2022

British Piano Concertos: Simon Callaghan revives six undeservedly neglected mid-Century works

British Piano Concertos: John Addison, Arthur Benjamin, Elizabeth Maconchy, Humphrey Searle, Edmund Rubbra, Geoffrey Bush; Simon Callaghan, BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Martyn Brabbins; LYRITA

British Piano Concertos
: John Addison, Arthur Benjamin, Elizabeth Maconchy, Humphrey Searle, Edmund Rubbra, Geoffrey Bush; Simon Callaghan, BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Martyn Brabbins; LYRITA
Reviewed 6 April 2022, (★★★★)

An amazing disc, six works which have managed to fall under the radar, here revived in stylish and brilliant fashion

This new disc from pianist Simon Callaghan, the BBC National Orchestra of Wales and conductor Martyn Brabbins on Lyrita takes is firmly into mid-Century Britain with six concertante works by British (or UK-based) composers from 1927 to 1939. The composers are John Addison, Arthur Benjamin, Elizabeth Maconchy, Humphrey Searle, Edmund Rubbra and Geoffrey Bush. All but one of the six works are first recordings, which says something about the way 20th century British music still has a lot to reveal, beyond the composers in the standard narrative.

We begin with John Addison and his Wellington Suite, written for the centenary of Wellington College in 1959 and first played by the College Orchestra, conducted by the composer. Addison trained at the Royal College of Music with Gordon Jacob, and returned as a professor before moving to Los Angeles in the 1970s. He won an Oscar for his score for Tom Jones (1963), was nominated for his score for the film Sleuth (1972), wrote the signature tune for the TV series, Murder She Wrote!

The Wellington Suite is not strictly a concerto, but the piano part is certainly concertante. In five compact and varied movements, it is very much channelling Malcolm Arnold (who was a year younger than Addison and also studied at the RCM with Gordon Jacob) and the movements are delightfully contrasted, with not one note of music in excess. It is not just the piano to the fore, there are two significant horn parts (Tim Thorpe and Meilyr Hughes). It is a delightful work, why have we not heard it before?

Next comes Arthur Benjamin, from an older generation, a name known but still with repertoire unexplored. Benjamin also studied at the RCM, and would teach there (including Britten). His Concertino for Piano and Orchestra from 1927 was one of several works at the time partly inspired by Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue. It was premiered in 1928 in Dusseldorf, travelling to the Proms later that year when Henry Wood conducted with Benjamin at the piano.

It is written for conventional forces, with the addition of a saxophone (Gerard McChrystal) and lots of percussion. In one continuous movement but divided into sections (usefully tracked), it is a vivacious work and rather Waltonian in style. Not strictly jazz, but some naughty bits in the harmony and the saxophone solo brings a nicely night-club-esque element to the slow movement (also with hints of Milhaud perhaps). A delicate and delightful scherzo, with lots of spiky bits in the harmony setting off Simon Callaghan's dazzling finger-work, is followed by a vivid finale were we return to the Walton-esque world of the opening.

Elizabeth Maconchy is another name, yet we know little of her orchestral music. Another RCM alumnus, she studied with Charles Wood and RVW, but also in Prague. We hear her Concertino for Piano and String Orchestra from 1949, which was premiered by the Kathleen Merritt Orchestra in 1951. In three movements, it is a relatively compact piece and from the vivid opening we are firmly back in post-war Mid-Century Britain. And yet. There is something about the way that she pits the piano (often unison octaves) against another unison tune in the strings that stirs and reminds you perhaps of Hindemith or some Bloch, or perhaps there is a Czech connection that I am missing. Whatever, it is a superb work. The slow movement is almost as starkly written, but here the music is dark and rather intense. We end with a rather icy Allegro, brilliant and rather spiky. I enjoyed all the music on this disc, and would welcome coming across any of them (or all of them) in concert, but it is the Maconchy that I loved the most, it needs to be revived by some of our enterprising chamber orchestras.

We stay in the 1950s for Humphrey Searle's Concertante for Piano, Percussion and Strings. Searle also studied at the RCM, with Gordon Jacob, RO Morris and John Ireland, but hearing Wozzeck in his late teens was a formative experience and he also studied in Vienna and had private lessons from Webern. Along with Elizabeth Lutyens, Searle was one of the first composers to adopt serialism, though not all his works are written in this style. The Concertante, written in 1954, is a short but 'straightforward' piece in serialist style. It was premiered by Herman Scherchen and the French Youth Orchestra. It is a vivid and striking piece, imaginatively written and though serialist, also channelling Bartok especially his night music. 

With Edmund Rubbra's Nature's Song, a tone-poem for orchestra, organ and piano, we jump back to 1920. Rubbra studied privately with Cyril Scott and Holst before studying at the RCM (with Holst and RO Morris), but Nature's Song was written when he was just 19 and had only recently started studying with Holst. It was his first orchestral work, and had long been thought lost. Recently two scores and a set of parts reappeared, allowing Simon Callaghan to reconstruct the piece. The work was premiered at Reading University in 1921 with the composer at the piano and Holst conducting. It is quite conservative in style but wonderfully evocative and confident, rhapsodic and highly imaginative.

We end with Geoffrey Bush (who studied informally with Holst). Bush did quite a bit of re-arrangement of earlier composers' music (including a Sonata for Two Pianos after Thomas Arne, and arrangements of music from Lock's Psyche). 

A Little Concerto for pianoforte and strings on themes of Thomas Arne dates from 1939 and was premiered by the BBC Symphony Orchestra in 1941. The themes come from Arne's harpsichord sonatas and Keyboard Concerto No. 3, but the style is very much 20th century. There is a poise and balance to Bush's treatments which bring out the style of Arne's melodies, yet never descend into pastiche. So we move from a gentle, poised and rather touching Andante to vividly robust yet still classical Allegro, followed by gentle Siciliana and final robust vigour (hints of the martial Britannia perhaps) in the Vivace.

The CD cover (see above) is an Underground poster from 1924 by Horace Taylor, 'Brightest London is best reached by Underground'. And Paul Conway's booklet notes provide excellent background to each of the composers and their works.

This is an amazing disc, six works which have managed to fall under the radar, here revived in stylish and brilliant fashion by Simon Callaghan, BBC NOW and Martyn Brabbins. Whether to the fore with sprightly finger-work, or more in the background, Callaghan is always stylish and never tries to make the music anything other than what it is, and throughout he is superbly partnered by BBC NOW and Brabbins.

British Piano Concertos
John Addison (1920-98) - Wellington Suite (1959)
Arthur Benjamin (1893-1960) - Concertino for Piano and Orchestra (1927)
Elizabeth Maconchy (1907-1994) - Concertino for Piano and String Orchestra (1949)
Humphrey Searle (1915-1982) - Concertante for Piano, Percussion and Strings, Op. 24 (1954)
Edmund Rubbra (1901-1986) - Nature's Song (1920)
Geoffrey Busy (1920-1998) - A Little Concerto on themes of Thomas Arne for Pianoforte and Strings (1939)
Simon Callaghan (piano)
BBC National Orchestra of Wales
Martyn Brabbins (conductor)
Recorded at Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff, 29-30 June 2021
LYRITA SRCD 407 1CD [68:33]

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