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 
Although not explicitly so titled this is the second volume of British 20th Century Piano Concertos from Simon Callaghan and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales recorded by Lyrita. Volume 1, only released in 2022 was warmly received on this site receiving “recommended” status (review). Of the six composers represented there two – Addison and Rubbra – are on the new disc as well. The main difference between the discs is that the earlier recital focussed on shorter, lighter works. Here we are given three premiere recordings of more substantial pieces. If at first glance the inclusion of the Rubbra Piano Concerto as a first recording seems an error, that is because the composer wrote two concerti which on paper are only differentiated by their opus numbers. However, Rubbra became dissatisfied with the earlier work – Opus 30 – and withdrew it refusing publication in his lifetime. It is only in recent times that the publishing arm of Lyrita have produced a score and performing parts hence the “first recording”.
Simon Callaghan’s discography continues to grow and he is proving to be an excellent guide especially in the field of British music. This new CD builds upon that reputation with intelligent and nuanced performances alertly accompanied by the BBC NOW recorded with Lyrita’s usual sophisticated engineering. The disc open with the longest work given here – Gordon Jacob’s Piano Concerto No.2 in E flat which runs to 30:27. The work was premiered in 1957 in Bournemouth with a Proms premiere the same year which happened to feature Rubbra in the programme as well. The programme for the latter performance expressed the view that it would become; “something of the popular success it deserves to be.” Somewhat sobering therefore to realise that since that concert Jacob has had a single work performed once at the Proms in the following 66 years (an overture in 1965) and that this attractive concerto has fallen from the repertoire. The concerto is written in the standard three movements with a central Variations framed by an Allegro vivace and an Allegro con brio. As is my preference with music I do not know, I listened to the disc before reading the liner. In doing so I noted a certain musical kinship to Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No.2 which as it happens also dates from 1957. The kinship is limited to clarity in the keyboard writing, an elegance and lightness in the musical material and effective use of the orchestra. Of course the Shostakovich has achieved the “popular success” that has eluded the Jacob. To my mind there are two main reasons for this – apt scale and melodic memorability. Shostakovich has the remarkable gift of writing instantly memorable tunes and his concerto is full of them especially in the central Andante. But he packs this into a sub-nineteen minute span with nothing outstaying its welcome. Jacob – rightly praised for the brilliance of his orchestration – simply is not blessed with a comparable melodic gift. The tunes ‘work’ and certainly in the central Variations provide the composer with an ideal framework to display his instrumentational skill. This movement is the most impressive of the three to my ear. Simply because it illustrates so well how Jacob can take a theme that initially seems austere and even rather melancholy and produce a series of very contrasting treatments. The quicksilver first variation for piano and wind is particularly delightful. Towards the movement’s close the final variation, which Paul Conway’s typically insightful liner describes as having “the swagger of a lively march”, reveals another musical kinship. This is Walton with the combination of spiky rhythms and brilliant brass writing echoing the younger composer.
But at thirty minutes this somehow falls between the stools of being a larger scale ‘serious’ work and an audience-pleasing diversion. Curiously I find that this work crystallises why Jacob’s music has not broken through into the mainstream/populist classical repertoire. The craft and skill is never in doubt, the music sounds grateful indeed interesting to play but somehow the qualities remain stubbornly intellectual rather than emotionally gripping. Glancing at the catalogue there is a distinct sense that the bulk of his recorded original orchestral music is included as part of compilation discs such as this one with the listener allowed to sample Jacob’s music as part of a wider survey. But when all is said and done the performance here – and this is true of the entire disc – makes the very strongest case for this work even if I am left more interested by it rather than swept away.
Much the same is also true of John Addison’s Variations for Piano and Orchestra. I had forgotten that Addison was a Jacob pupil and this is reflected in this work which again shows real skill and understanding in its handling of both the orchestral and solo parts. At just 15:12 this is a compact work which, although there is no indication of this in the liner, somehow feels as if it were originally intended to be part of a larger work. Paul Conway uses various adjectives in association with the theme itself; “sombre”, “sinuous”, “mournful” proving to be apposite descriptions. Addison’s skill is the manner in which he transforms it thereby “exploring the various expressive possibilities of [the] initial ideas.” This work was written when Addison was just twenty eight so his most famous work as a composer for film and television lay in the future but his talent for writing expressive, attractive and evocative music is evident here with the range of styles and emotions pre-empting his dramatic scores. Searching the catalogue for any music except those for film is a fairly fruitless procedure so this new recording is to be warmly welcomed. For sure this is not a major score but it is attractive and effective and again it gets the strongest advocacy on this new disc.
Edmund Rubbra’s Piano Concerto Op.30 is in fact the most impressive yet intriguing work here. Again, the performance itself seems ideal both in terms of its musicality, execution and recording. The piece is immediately attractive, well proportioned [three ‘standard’ movements running to 26:53] yet Rubbra withdrew the work and forbade publication during his lifetime. Conway provides no explanation for this decision but my guess is that reason is quite simple. Given that this is one of Rubbra’s first major scores and his first substantial concertante work it is remarkably confident and successful. Especially when you consider that the bulk of Rubbra’s pre-Op.30 music was devoted to smaller scale chamber music and songs. However, if you know your Rubbra from the Symphony No.1 on this work does not sound like mature Rubbra. The influences of his teacher Holst and by extension the modal/folk-influenced element of Vaughan Williams are fairly undigested. My strong sense is that Rubbra would have realised that this work was taking him down a musical path he did not want to travel. The pastoralisms of the very opening are genuinely beautiful but even the instrumentation as well as the melodic shapes – listen to that gently ecstatic violin solo – are so redolent of Vaughan Williams rather than Rubbra. The character here reminded me of the former composer – or indeed Holst – when they are in gruff-good-humour mood. The central Larghetto e tranquillo is again quite beautiful and skilfully executed but the innocent ear would instantly guess “English” but few would narrow it down to Rubbra. Rubbra was a skilled pianist in his own right and the solo writing sounds grateful and effective. Simon Callaghan and the BBC NOW – here conducted by George Vass – pace this perfectly. There is a visionary brass-led passage two minutes from the end of the movement that expands climatically to great effect. By some measure the closing Molto Vivace is the least impressive. The music is a jocular 12/8 Grainger-esque jig or reel. Rubbra encounters the age-old problem of folk music – what to do with such a melody except to repeat and play it louder. He diverts the listener’s attention with colourful orchestration deploying extensive percussion from tambourine and castanets to xylophone and glockenspiel. But even he is at a bit of a loss so after just 5:30 and one more thematic repetition the work ends with a rather unconvincing final major chord. But this is still rather fun and the concerto as a whole is a genuine pleasure to listen to. So, much gratitude to Simon Callaghan and Lyrita, as both publishers and recording company, for bringing this fascinating byway of English music to the public’s attention.
Ultimately a very well played and engineered disc of music that probably deserves its ‘forgotten’ status. All three works are genuinely enjoyable and worth hearing if – like me – you are interested in British 20th Century music. But none are major works that demand restoration to the active repertoire.
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Previous review: Rob Barnett (August 2023)