The Romantic Piano Concerto, Vol. 81 = RUBBRA: Piano Concerto in G, Op. 85; BAX: Morning Song: “Maytime in Sussex”; BLISS: Piano Concerto in B-flat Major – Piers Lane, piano/ The Orchestra Now/ Leon Botstein – Hyperion CDA68297, 77:27 (5/29/20) [Distrib. Harmonia mundi/PIAS] ****:
The music of Edmund Rubbra (1901-1986) first came to my attention via an EMI LP of his Symphonies No. 5 and No. 7 (LHMV-1011), relatively modern works set in a tonal, accessible idiom. His Piano Concerto in G (1955-1956) resonates in an overtly Romantic manner, despite its lying well beyond the traditional designation for such a genre, c. 1820-1920. A certain, lush gloss or sheen emanates from the first movement, a combination of two diverse impulses, those of Hindustani sarod performer Ali Akbar Khan, and the pantheism of a soul invested in Nature, as attested by the title: Corymbus: Adagio, calmo e quasi improvisatore. A “corymb” defines a cluster of flat-headed flowers whose stalks at various heights on the stem, lengthen towards the edge of the cluster. The poet Francis Thompson invokes the flower as a metaphor for the strands of a faith that embraces a Classical (or Pagan) sensibility and its extension into Christian symbolism. Piers Lane serves as both soloist and piano obbligato whose sounds infiltrate the orchestral tissue. The music traces out a large arch-form, with each of the melodies’ reaching out to embrace the other tones – especially those from the oboe and celesta – into the matrix of evolved, singular tissue.
After the exclamatory yearnings of movement one, the second movement Dialogue: Lento e solenne, proffers a nocturne built on three repeated notes and trills, the sonority quite “Eastern” in its modal climate and angular use of scale patterns. The texture thickens to a quasi-martial status, only to relent and pass away into a spatial radiance. For his finale: Danza alla rondo: Allegretto giocoso, Rubbra invokes a Bacchic feast, with intervallic thirds’ defining the momentum, and a strong presence of the tympani. The whole Concerto has been obsessed with the three-note motif, and we traverse much by way of previous themes, making for a cyclic structure. The tuttis enjoy that same “symphonic” explosiveness and color that the first movement utilized; and, while no extended cadenza marked the first movement, Piers Lane enjoys an improvisatory, even meditative, section in the last movement that owes much to Ali Akbar Khan’s example on his native sarod. The brilliant colors of tympani and harp enliven the blithe and brief coda that ends this rare item in the concerto repertory.
Arthur Bliss composed his Piano Concerto in B-flat Major for the 1939 World’s Fair – with a dedication to the American people – and its realization by the British pianist and complete virtuoso Solomon Cutner made it worthy of respect. In New York City, a performance from Gina Bachauer and Dimitri Mitropoulos injected a particular punch and majesty to the score, already conceived by the composer as having been written “in the grand manner and what is loosely called ‘romantic’ [since] surely the Americans are at heart the most romantic in the world.” The tempestuous largesse of the Concerto meant to solidify the bond between Britain and America at a time of impending world crisis, when such a unity might have to serve a more than artistic purpose.
The opening surge of double octaves and the declamatory urgency convey something of the Tchaikovsky virtuosity, Allegro con brio, a fanfare of militant trumpets and trombones that suggests the ‘mechanism’ of thought behind the World Fair’s theme of “Building the World of Tomorrow,” with its H.G. Wellsian imagery. Recall that Bliss had composed the music for the Wells film The Shape of Things to Come. There does occur a more tranquil section of lyrical outpouring, but this bucolic mood succumbs to the rhythmic propulsion in both the keyboard and tympani. Lane’s right hand finds itself almost incessantly active in runs, trills, ornaments, and glistening octaves. Meanwhile, the orchestra has a broad melody that Bliss harmonizes in a most Hollywood/Technicolor mode that achieves a huge climax. When a serene repose sets in, the moment presages the potent cadenza rendered with finesse and color for the rich textures Bliss invokes.
The middle movement, Adagietto, provides an immediate relief from the onslaughts of movement one. Despite the serene mood intended to soothe us, intrusive elements from the brass and tympani remind us of lingering doubts and menace. Some effective writing for the woodwinds and strings proffers consolation. Lane has significant material that lingers in the upper registers of the piano, but even he will utter a bitter, crashing chord of dissonant anguish. The strings attempt to console us once more with their luminous magic, but the cumulative effect remains ambiguous. Bliss had stated that he wished to produce “a British Emperor Concerto,” so his broad finale, Andante maestoso – Molto vivo, begins ominously in the brass and bass strings, and a percussive Lane must shape out an attractive, melodic kernel, that the ensuing molto vivo sweeps aside with a rondo in the form of a swirling tarantella. The militant triplet figures soon become obsessive, with staccato figures that sound a musical battlefield. Whatever relief we procure comes from two oboe figures in tandem with Lane’s bluesy meditations. Horns and leader Yurie Mitsuhashi contribute to the brief idyll. The whirlwind resumes all too soon, breathless and insistent, catapulting us, molto vivo, to Lane’s compressed cadenza. Now, Andante maestoso, the extended coda builds in the major key, tutti, in an evocation of jubilant triumph of the spirit.
The British Council of 1938 had commissioned, besides Bliss, both Ralph Vaughan Williams and Arnold Bax to compose for the 1939 World’s Fair. Bax preceded Bliss as Master of the Queen’s Music, and he conceived his own Seventh Symphony for the World’s Fair commission. For the upcoming 1947 twenty-first birthday of young Queen Elizabeth II in 1946, Bax created the bucolic and festive Morning Song, to be premiered by pianist Harriet Cohen, Bax’s inamorata. The highly pictorial writing captures the mood of the work’s subtitle, “Maytime in Sussex,” with its post-war feeling of rebirth and ambling, vital energy.
Recording producer Andrew Walton and Lane’s Steinway collaborate, along with Maestro Botstein’s ardent forces, to render us a powerful addition to this fascinating line of concerto documents.