The Romantic Piano Concerto, Vol. 54 = FREDERIC HYMEN COWEN: Concertstück; ARTHUR SOMERVELL: Normandy; Piano Concerto in A Minor, “Highland” – Martin Roscoe, piano/ BBC Scottish Sym. Orch./ Martyn Brabbins – Hyperion CDA67837 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi], 68:06 ****:
For Volume 54 of the Romantic Piano Concerto series, Hyperion returns to the mother country as it often has in the past. Not all these trips have been necessary, I feel, but then again, that’s true as well of some of the volumes featuring better known composers from the continent, and there are few music lovers who don’t feel indebted to Hyperion for this series. The current volume contains music that is unusually well written and tuneful and so is a pretty safe recommendation for those who cotton to late-Romantic concerted works.
For some reason, it took me a little longer to warm to Cowen’s Concertstück of 1897 than to the Somervell pieces despite the fact that Cowen is, or was, the more respected composer. Apparently, around the turn of the twentieth century he was as widely played and listened to as Stanford or Parry though he hasn’t been rediscovered by later performers and listeners as they have. The Concertstück, composed for Paderewski at the height of his fame, is splashy and echt-Romantic, with some Lisztian pretentions, including the use of the triangle à la Liszt’s First Concerto. Actually, however, the piece reminds me more of another Liszt disciple, Edward McDowell. The fiery coda alone bids fair to bring down the house, but like other short concerted works, the Concertstück probably won’t be heard in concert anytime soon, if ever.
Speaking of Stanford and Parry, Arthur Somervell studied with both those worthies, and the piano writing in his Normandy does remind me a little of Stanford’s Second Concerto; it’s light and crystalline, maybe in the manner of Saint-Saëns. Normandy is a set of variations on a theme from the French seaside village of Varengeville-sur-Mer. Like Franck’s Symphonic Variations, it has a symphonic superstructure, including sections that correspond to a symphonic slow movement and scherzo, as well as fast outer “movements.” The tune is an attractive one and allows for some equally attractive embroidery by the composer.
Tunefulness figures prominently as well in Somervell’s “Highland” Concerto, though here the melodies are clever imitations rather than authentic Scottish songs or dances. Somervell’s first theme has an obvious Scotch snap to it that turns, at certain points, into a Scotch stomp. The piano writing seems a bit beefier here as befits the more bracing atmosphere of the Highlands, but the development section is full of pearly runs as well as hearty chords. Spirits are high throughout the two outer movements, while the slow movement is quietly bucolic, with gentle solos for English horn and violin. Again, don’t expect to hear this concerto in the concert hall anytime soon, though I wish some brave music director would schedule it rather than the thousandth performance of the Schumann or Grieg Concerto in any given concert season.
Martin Roscoe, veteran of the Romantic Piano Concerto series and one of Hyperion’s house pianists, is as always a fluent sympathetic player, bringing color and contour to the piano writing, as well as a touch of fire to the Cowen piece. Of course, the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra has Somervell’s number, and the orchestra plays with polish and bravura throughout for Martyn Brabbins. Hyperion’s sound, as usual, is a trifle distant but clear and clean. This is one of the more enjoyable entries in a series that has brought, and continues to bring, a good deal of musical pleasure.
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