IRELAND: Piano Concerto; BRIDGE: Phantasm; WALTON: Sinfonia Concertante – Kathryn Stott, p./ Royal Philharmonic/ Vernon Handley – Dutton

by | Jan 23, 2012 | Classical Reissue Reviews

IRELAND: Piano Concerto; BRIDGE: Phantasm for Piano and Orchestra; WALTON: Sinfonia Concertante for Orchestra with Piano – Kathryn Stott, piano/ Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/ Vernon Handley – Dutton CDLX 7223, 70:01 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] ****:
Dutton releases (as an Epoch Reissue) a disc originally on the Conifer Classics label recorded 10-12 July 1989. Having recently reviewed the classic 1942 performance of the 1930 Ireland Concerto by Eileen Joyce, I find it compelling to audition a modern performance of the work, often cited as the best piano concerto penned by an Englishman. In two major sections, the Concerto’s Lento espressivo segues directly into the finale, with its more than occasional references to Prokofiev’s Third Concerto. One critic describes the first movement as possessing a “cocktail-lounge jazz” sensibility. The chords and arpeggios Stott plays cascade in the manner of Romantic rhetoric we recognize from Debussy and Rachmaninov. The recorded sound well captures the alternately percussive and dreamy dialogues between piano and orchestra, and Vernon Handley (1930-2008) always had a deep reverence for British composition.
A soft moody meditation, the Lento espressivo takes up a secondary theme from the first movement. The affect remains pre-WW I, the sentiment optimistic and nostalgic. Thin and then aggressive snare drum taps move us along dark strings to the Allegretto giocoso, Stott’s tearing through a quasi-cadenza to the trumpet and woodwind accompaniment to the main bravura theme. The Royal Philharmonic enjoys the opportunity to strut some huge sounds in the horns and battery, and the romantic piano enters once more with bluesy riffs that hint at Saint-Saens and locales exotic. If the writing assumes a hard patina, reminiscent of Ravel, Gershwin, and Stravinsky, the effect seems deliberate; even more blatant appear chords lifted out of the Rachmaninov D Minor Concerto. A violin appears in concert with the keyboard, a virtual sonata for a moment until Stott executes a dazzling gossamer cadenza in rolling chords onto which a French horn attaches. The jazzy English boulevardier gallops forward, a swashbuckling allusion to Prokofiev with a saucy final cadence.
Frank Bridge (1879-1941) composed his Phantasm for Piano and Orchestra in 1931. We tend to judge Bridge by his effect on his most famous pupil, Benjamin Britten. The twenty-six minute work opens with a dream that might be Mallarme, but swirling nightmare visions come to haunt this world, most imbibed from the Great War, 1914-1918. Drum, bassoon, flute and twittering woodwinds usher in the piano’s first encounter with energetic cruelty, ostinati and agitated metric filigree that bears some weird relation to Stravinsky, either Rite or Petruchka. The explosive emotions invoke the pain we know from Bartok, but the modality differs in kind, if not in degree. Moments of light flicker in and out of the texture, upward scales and trills against suspensions in the strings. An eerie waltz finds its way into the labyrinth. A cadenza appears before the mid-point of the rhapsody, bluesy; then dark strings intervene to be answered by more nocturnal riffs that might equate to Bartok’s own night-music sensibility. The central Andante ushers in a solo flute and viola, soon the violin. Elegiac and melancholy, the central episode bespeaks a true lyricist in Bridge. The final Allegro, set to by percussion, brass, and pizzicato strings, takes a harsh look at the world, aggressive, its occasional playfulness grim and lacking mirth. The dark waltz that intrudes here could have replaced that by Bernard Herrmann for his score to The Devil and Daniel Webster when John Qualen dances to his death with Simone Simone. A relentless tympani ostinato on one note helps to drive the last pages, cymbals and horns roaring, into our minds. Stott and Handley convey the emotionally convulsive  miasma effectively, passionately, a performance to set the bar.
William Walton (1902-1983) composed his Sinfonia Concertante for Orchestra and Piano in 1925 for Serge Diaghilev as a possible ballet entry. Ernest Ansermet led the (rejected by Diaghilev) score in 1928 with York Bowen as soloist. Despite considerable revisions, made particularly in 1943, the piece never entered the mainstream repertory. Kathryn Stott and Vernon Handley revert to the “more interesting” original version, with its perhaps overbearing contrapuntal displays. The opening Maestoso; Allegro spiritoso attempts to portray Osbert Sitwell of the family of poets and scholastics that include Edith and Sacheverell.  The writing bears a darkly chromatic elegance and angularity that hints at Prokofiev’s G Minor Concerto, Op. 16, but commentators remain more quick to credit Stravinsky’s Petruchka as a direct colorist influence. The Andante commodo offers ostinati in keyboard and winds, the melody sad and touched by bucolic recollections. Edith Sitwell portrayed in her  strength, dignity, and innate passion? Edith’s music recurs just prior to the coda of the Finale, an Allegro molto whose “cowboy” energies in honor of Sacheverell Sitwell may borrow pages from Constant Lambert’s The Rio Grande. Handley and the RPO brass and percussion enjoy as thorough a workout as Stott’s digital dexterity, and together they make an indelible muscular impression.
—Gary Lemco

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