BEACH: Piano Concerto in C# minor; HOWELL: Piano Concerto in D minor; CHAMINADE: Concertstück in C# minor – Danny Driver (p) / BBC Scottish Symph. Orch. / Rebecca Miller – Hyperion

Three inspiring works for piano and orchestra by three women composers.

THE ROMANTIC PIANO CONCERTO Vol 70 : Music by Amy Beach, Dorothy Howell and Cécile Chaminade – Danny Driver, piano / BBC Scottish SO / Rebecca Miller –  Hyperion CDA68130, reviewed as hires 24-96 flac download;  TT 69:31 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi/PIAS] *****:

Hyperion’s series The Romantic Piano Concerto reaches Volume 70 with this release of three very fine works for piano and orchestra, the orchestra being the one involved in the original discussion for this series rather more than a quarter of a century ago in 1990.  Released to coincide with International Women’s Day during March 2017, this is valuable and most welcome addition to the collection.

The disc opens with the Piano Concerto in D minor by Dorothy Howell (1898-1982). Howell was a piano pupil of Tobias Matthay, teacher to so many with so much talent, and a composition pupil of Sir John McEwen whose Solway Symphony had a rare and welcome outing on the BBC recently.  Her tone poem, Lamia, was very well received just after World War 1 and had many performances, and the recording on Cameo Classics is worth seeking out.  Four years later, the piano concerto was not as well received so this fine work languished in the shadows until fairly recently.  Listening to it now, its neglect seems surprising.  The concerto is in a single movement in three parts, at times big and bold, at others showing a delicacy in writing and orchestration. Danny Driver, the BBC Scottish SO and Rebecca Miller produce an excellent account; in quieter sections, the balance between piano and members of the orchestra is most beautifully captured.  Perhaps a slightly more emphatic and extended close to the concerto would have roused those early audiences more.

The Piano Concerto in C sharp minor, Op 45 by Amy Beach (1867-1944) is a formidable and substantial work in four movements and is rather better known.  Nigel Simeone in his excellent essay for the booklet for this release outlines the difficulties Beach had in her childhood and later on being denied the opportunity for learning the instrument and later on performing in public.  Fortunately, her husband did encourage her writing and the catalogue of her works is lengthy.

The first movement of the concerto is big and bold and comprises about a half of the whole work. There is plenty of interplay and much argument between piano and orchestra, and the movement includes a large cadenza.  Admirably judged by Danny Driver and the orchestra, the architecture of the movement is kept intact, and the quality of the writing is allowed to shine through.  A shortish scherzo follows, Driver displaying the filigree writing, the orchestra sensitive with its contrasting accompaniment. The final movements are linked, the moving adagio re-appearing towards the end of the final rondo all-in-all a deeply felt rendition.  Alan Feinberg with Kenneth Schermerhorn in Nashville on Naxos produce a perhaps occasionally more febrile reading.  The tone of the piano used in that recording is somewhat clattery, though I guess may be closer to that heard at the first performance in Boston back in April 1900, but will not appeal to all tastes.  Driver’s Steinway sounds in splendid form.

The programme ends with the Concertstück in C sharp minor, Op 40 by Cécile Chaminade (1857-1944).  Those used to the more intimate, relaxing miniatures for piano solo by Chaminade will be impressed immediately by another muscular work for piano and orchestra.  First performed in 1888,  the work grabs the attention from the off with Wagnerian splendour and virtuoso writing rivalling Liszt all with an originality the hallmark of a little masterpiece.  Danny Driver brings off the demanding writing with bravura and soul and he is accompanied by Rebecca Miller and the orchestra with impressive ensemble.

Recorded during August 2015 at City Halls, Glasgow by Simon Eadon & Robin Hawkins, the sound as auditioned via a high resolution 24-96 download is excellent.  The acoustic allows the music to breathe, especially in louder sections, and the piano sound is exceptionally well caught. Balance between piano and orchestra is thankfully realistic both in width and depth.

Danny Driver, whose recordings of York Bowen and Erik Chisholm have already enriched the catalogue, displays his now well-known virtuoso and sensitive playing.  The BBC Scottish Symphony is in excellent shape, and Rebecca Miller, from California and now based largely in the UK provide such intelligent companionship in the three works.

This is a rewarding release for so many reasons. It has encouraged repeated listening from this reviewer who enjoyed each hearing with increased pleasure.  What could be more satisfying than that?

–Peter Joelson

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