Cipriani POTTER: Piano Concerto No. 2 in D Minor; Piano Concerto No. 4 in E Major; ‒ Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra / Howard Shelley, piano and conductor ‒ Hyperion

Cipriani POTTER: Piano Concerto No. 2 in D Minor; Piano Concerto No. 4 in E Major; Variazioni di bravura on a Theme by Rossini ‒ Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra / Howard Shelley, piano and conductor ‒ Hyperion CDA68151, 73:57 ****

Virtuoso writing for both the piano and orchestra by an English Romantic.

What first attracted me was the name: mellifluous Italian first name wedded to the kind of blunt Anglo-Saxon surname that, once upon a time, proclaimed the family profession. Then there was the portrait on an album cover, image of an intense if not downright fierce-looking young man. If that weren’t enough to stimulate interest, what about the fact that here was a composer from the “land without music” (as German critic Oscar Schmitz famously described England) who had managed to write ten(!) symphonies? Remember Mahler’s trepidation at starting a tenth symphony? The supposed curse that hung over the ninth symphony because no composer after Beethoven had completed a tenth? Well, Cipriani Potter (1792–1871) is one of at least two composers I can think of who completed a tenth symphony before Mahler’s day, the other being Joachim Raff, who went Potter one better. (Louis Spohr wrote ten symphonies as well, though the final symphony was incomplete at the time of his death.) And Potter’s symphonies are rather commanding works. If you have a hankering to hear them, Nos. 8 and 10 have been recorded by the Milton Keynes Chamber Orchestra under Hilary D. Wetton (Unicorn DKPCD9091).

What is Potter’s music like? First of all, it’s important to note that he effectively stopped composing in the 1830s, not long after penning his Fourth Concerto (1835).  So Potter’s sound world is that of the late Classical/early Romantic era. The notes to the current recording mention John Field as a point of comparison, and he’s a pretty good one, especially considering the tenderly lyrical slow movement of the Fourth Concerto, which note writer Jeremy Dibble compares to a Field nocturne. But other composer-pianists of the same era come to mind as well: Kalkbrenner, Moscheles, and Ferdinand Ries. Like Ries, the argument could be made that in his symphonies at least Potter is one of those Beethoven epigones of the 1830s and 1840s whose stars quickly faded. Ferdinand Fesca, Johann Wilms, Georges Onslow, and Carl Czerny are other names that come to mind in this connection. While there are some Beethovenian gestures in the rather grand finale of Fourth Concerto, lyricism prevails in these concerted works, and the most memorable passages are those in which the piano reflects quietly and poetically on Potter’s attractive melodies. One such moment in the finale of the Fourth has the cello join the piano in these musings, and the effect is charming.

In fact, Potter’s writing for the orchestra is just as accomplished as his writing for his own instrument, the piano. In the Second Concerto, Potter’s orchestra includes a single trombone, which provides additional color as well as heft. And the concerto begins with some lovely music for the woodwinds that isn’t the stuff of the standard-issue virtuoso concerto à la Friedrich Kalkbrenner, where it really is all about the piano.

Potter’s Italian first name honors the Englishman’s godmother and turns out to be predictive of his affection for Italian opera, as evinced by the bravura variations on a theme from Rossini’s Mathilde di Shabran. This is a splashy little work, with the pianist bounding up and down the keyboard, except in the memorable fifth variation, where the mood is lyrical and reflective, the piano and cello again briefly crooning together. The final variation is a jaunty march in which the piano competes against brass and drums and, of course, emerges the winner.

This release is number 72 in Hyperion’s venerable Romantic Piano Concerto series, and it’s one of the more rewarding of recent years. For me, it rounds out the picture I have of Cipriani Potter, placing him in the context of his pianist-composer contemporaries, and Potter makes a very credible showing.

As always, Howard Shelley plays this early Romantic music with bravura and obvious affection. There simply is no better advocate of music from this period, whether at the keyboard or on the podium. The 45-member Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra makes a big sound in those brassy outer movements of the concerti and the Tempo di marcia finale of the Rossini variations, but also, under Shelley’s direction, catches the spirit of Potter’s generous lyricism. I’m ready for Concertos 1 and 3—and others of those ten symphonies. Are you listening, Hyperion?

—Lee Passarella

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