Friday 29 September 2023

Three more gems: British Piano Concertos from Simon Callaghan & BBC National Orchestra of Wales

British Piano Concertos: Gordon Jacob, John Addison, Edmund Rubbra; Simon Callaghan, BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Stephen Bell and George Vass; LYRITA
British Piano Concertos: Gordon Jacob, John Addison, Edmund Rubbra; Simon Callaghan, BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Stephen Bell and George Vass; LYRITA
Reviewed 27 September 2023

Returning to the treasure-trove of mid-Century British piano concertos, Simon Callaghan comes up with three gems, all receiving first recordings

Pianist Simon Callaghan has followed up his disc of British piano concertos from the 1950s [see my review], by returning to the the era for British Piano Concertos on the Lyrita label with a trio of concertante works by Gordon Jacob, John Addison and Edmund Rubbra, accompanied by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, conductors Stephen Bell and George Vass. All three are first recordings.

Gordon Jacob is perhaps best known not for his own music but for his arrangements, the orchestral versions of RVW's Folksong Suite and Holst's Moorside Suite are his. But he studied with Charles Villiers Stanford at the Royal College of Music as well as with Howells and RVW, and taught at the RCM from the mid-1920s until his retirement in 1966. 

His Piano Concerto No. 2 was written in 1957 and premiered by pianist Edith Vogel with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, conductor Sir Charles Groves. In three movements, the first is vigorous, athletic and rather jazzy but with moments of introspection and perhaps hints of RVW. The more serious slow movement begins with a striking and rather sinister orchestra introduction and then follows a set of variations in which the piano moves from thoughtful to intense and beyond, in music of appealing variety and depth. The finale is insouciant and rather perky, with a sound world that is pure 1950s English music.

John Addison studied composition with Gordon Jacob, but his studies were interrupted by the Second World War. After the war he taught at the RCM and had a busy and successful career including writing incidental music for John Osborne's The Entertainer at the Royal Court Theatre in 1957, but he is perhaps best known for his work in films including Reach for the Sky (1956) and A Taste of Honey (1961). His score for Tom Jones (1963) won an Oscar, Sleuth (1972) an Oscar nomination, and A Bridge Too Far (1977) a British Academy Award. Based on Los Angeles from 1975, his work there included the signature tune for the TV series Murder she wrote.

His Variations for Piano and Orchestra was written in 1948 and premiered at a BBC broadcast with pianist Margaret Kitchin. The work is written for a small orchestra, comprising double woodwind, four horns, a pair each of trumpets and trombones, bass trombone, timpani, modest percussion and strings. The opening material is rather sombre, a strong and intense orchestral introduction leads to a piano entry which almost comments on the orchestral material in a rather intriguing way. Addison then explores this material in variations that are by turns dark, perky and virtuoso, along with a demented waltz that leads to the climactic final section before ending in a sombre manner.

Edmund Rubbra studied at the RCM with Gustav Holst, after studying privately with Cyril Scott. In 1961 he began teaching composition at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. An accomplished pianist, he performed widely, initially as a solo recitalist and in a violin and piano partnership, and later as part of a celebrated piano trio. He wrote eleven symphonies from 1935 to 1979 along with several concertante works which are perhaps not as well known. 

His Piano Concerto from 1932 is the composer's first fully-fledged, large-scale work for soloist and orchestra. It was premiered by Kathleen Long with the New Symphony Orchestra conducted by Geoffrey Toye at the Royal College of Music in 1933. Rubbra was an intensely serious composer of great integrity, so his concertos eschew any sense of virtuoso dazzle or fancy rhetoric.

The opening movement begins with an attractively lyrical orchestral introduction before the rather jaunty piano introduces something like a march. The movement is substantial and feels very free, whilst it is technically sonata form it did seem to ramble somewhat during its ten minutes. The slow movement is equally substantial. This begins with a rather lovely moment where the piano is against rather rich orchestration, but then suddenly the soloist is all alone. There is a slow build but the ultimately the movement is about the lovely musical material rather than emotional climaxes. The finale is perky and has a swing to it (Ronald Stevenson evidently described it as a 'Scottish-sounding jig').

It seems amazing that, returning for a second disc of British piano concertos, Callaghan should again be able to come up with a trio of fine works which deserve to be better known and which are receiving their first recordings. Performances are excellent, allowing you to simply sit back, enjoy the music and wonder what else is out there!

British Piano Concertos
Gordon Jacob (1895-1984) - Piano Concerto No.2 in E-flat (1957) [30.27]
John Addison (1920-1998) - Variations for Piano and Orchestra (1948) [15:12]
Edmund Rubbra (1901-86) - Piano Concerto Op.30 (1932) [26:53]
Simon Callaghan (piano)
BBC National Orchestra of Wales
Stephen Bell (conductor - Jacob & Addison)
George Vass (conductor - Rubbra)
Recorded at Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff, 20-22 April and 22-23 November 2022
LYRITA SRCD416 1CD [72.36]

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