British Piano Concertos
Gordon Jacob (1895-1984)

Piano Concerto No.2 in E-flat (1957)
John Addison (1920-1998)
Variations for Piano and Orchestra (1948)
Edmund Rubbra (1901-1986)
Piano Concerto Op.30 (1932)
Simon Callaghan (piano)
BBC National Orchestra of Wales/Stephen Bell (Jacob, Addison), George Vass (Rubbra)
rec. 2022, Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff, UK
Lyrita Recorded Edition SRCD.416 [73]

Lyrita serve up three British works for piano and orchestra. These are otherwise unrecorded works – one from each of the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s. Two of them are titled ‘Concerto’ with the Addison being a set of Variations. The composers were born in successive decades (as near as damn-it) and they departed the scene during the 1980s and 1990s. The Jacob Second Piano Concerto is on about the same half-hour three-movement scale as the Rubbra, though differing in mood and morphology.

The Gordon Jacob concerto is largely bright and glittering with a touch of Holst’s brass band suites about its bluff and bluster. Remission comes part way through the first movement when the music enters a becalmed phase. Most of the movement squares up to the listener, bushy-tailed and alert. The long (13:00) central Variations movement seriously repents of its predecessor’s teenage heroics. Instead we hear Jacob the poet of meditative stoicism. This seems to speak of moonlit meandering and moth-wings. The dynamics are recessed, timorous even. A couple of minutes before the movement closes it rouses itself for a moment. The heroics resume for pianist and the wider orchestra in the finale which assumes the brilliance of a gambolling jester. Complex cross-cutting rhythms run riot. Its emotions are showy and certainly it lacks the overwhelming emotional surge of the Rhapsody for two pianos and brass band which surfaced in the form of a work for two pianos and orchestra on EMI ASD2612. There are even some recollections of the Ravel G major Concerto.

This Second Concerto was premiered on 11 July 1957 in Bournemouth, where the pianist was also the work’s dedicatee, Edith Vogel (1912-1992). The Bournemouth Orchestra was, on that occasion, conducted by its ‘resident’ of the time, Charles Groves.  A month or so later the Concerto – and Vogel – raised their heads at the Royal Albert Hall Proms, but this time with the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Basil Cameron.  

You may well be curious about the First Piano Concerto (1927). This can be heard on Somm with Mark Bebbington as soloist.  Jacob wrote a great deal but it’s ironic that it is his orchestral transcriptions that have secured some fame for his name: Vaughan Williams’ English Folk Song Suite, Holst’s Moorside Suite and Elgar’s Organ Sonata.

John Addison was born in Surrey. He joined the staff of the Royal College of Music as Professor in 1950.  His Divertimento for brass is among his most celebrated concert works. As a screen music practitioner, his name is linked with the vivacious and swashbuckling A Bridge Too Far (1977) and Murder, She Wrote (1984-1996).

Addison’s Variations for Piano and Small Orchestra was written in 1948. In its small compass – three short movements – it is rather like a scorched and desolate Rachmaninov; a touch of Rawsthorne as well. Addison puts the piano through its paces. The Variations are without studied contrivance and sport a natural reflective flow. The score ends in a jazzy euphoric finale which drifts and drizzles down into dank stability and silence. Hats off to Addison for embracing this self-effacing gesture rather than an explosion of thunder and sparks.

Edmund Rubbra was born in Northampton. He was a distinguished and practical pianist as well as a composer and academic. He performed, broadcast and recorded as part of a Trio alongside violinist Erich Gruenberg and cellist William Pleeth. There are several works of his for piano and orchestra; the present 1932 Concerto is not to be confused with the already well-known Piano Concerto from 1956. The latter has been recorded by Malcolm Binns (BBC Radio Classics), Piers Lane (review; review) and Denis Matthews (review; review). In addition there is a very substantial Sinfonia Concertante which is on CD from Howard Shelley (review) and also from a BBC radio broadcast by the composer and the CBSO/Hugo Rignold (review). His overture-scaled Nature’s Song is on an earlier Lyrita disc (review; review).

The 1932 Concerto, op. 30 was premiered by Kathleen Long and the New Symphony Orchestra conducted by Geoffrey Toye in March 1933. Ultimately, it struggled to find favour with its composer who had misgivings about it, such that the 1956 Concerto was not designated as “No. 2”. The first movement of the op, 30 marries up a true Andante moderato with an Allegro con brio. It starts in self-effacing way and almost surreptitiously. The atmosphere and images are of sun-dappled spinneys, rather like Paul Nash’s Wittenham Clumps. Howells and RVW are kindred spirits here, with the music warm and ecstatic but without the Pan-like supernatural element (so, not Bax). It’s magical stuff, later giving way to “rum-ti-tum” folksy passages. Towards its close there is really splendid work for horn and trombone as well as a seraphic intertwining solo violin. Triumphant Sibelian passages ripple with energy. Marked Larghetto e tranquillo, the central slow movement is slowly tolled out. With its slow sun-struck self-confidence and plangent arpeggiation it recalls the First Piano Concerto of Cyril Scott who was also one of Rubbra’s teachers. The music morphs into the defiant and the bardic in the manner of Bax’s Symphonic Variations but less loquacious, more concise and concentrated. The finale is a jolly Molto vivace in the manner of RVW (Pastoral Symphony and Wasps) and Grainger (Scotch Strathspey and Reel and Green Bushes). The xylophone jangles to sweep the listener along in the action. The work ends abruptly. Even so, there’s a great deal here to like.

The keen-edged and eager performances convince you that Callaghan, the BBC NOW (who as a broadcasting ensemble are well used to breathing fresh life into music outside the mainstream) and the two conductors are everything you might cherish for such a project.

Paul Conway’s utterly indispensable notes support the listener in first recordings of these works (made in association with BBC Radio 3). His writing is packed with factual context and biographical material as well as analysis.

SRCD.416 is effectively Volume 2 to an earlier ‘collation’ of piano concertante pieces that, by and large, eschewed the title ‘Concerto’ (Lyrita SRCD407). Works by Addison and Rubbra were also featured there alongside four unusual others.

These three works are far from rugged, rebarbative or unapproachable. They appealingly beckon and entreat listeners who need have no misgivings about performances or Lyrita’s engineering.

Rob Barnett

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