About this Recording
8.110682 - BEETHOVEN / BLISS: Piano Concertos (Solomon) (1943-1944)

Great Pianists • Solomon (1902-1988)

Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 3 • Bliss: Piano Concerto

In 1938 Arthur Bliss was on the jury of the Ysaÿe competition for pianists. In his autobiography Bliss quoted from a letter he sent his wife at this time: "I have heard twenty-two pianists play the same piece by Bach, the same piece by Scarlatti, and expect to hear them sixty-three times more. Never again!…….I am learning a lot by listening to these young players — the standard is high — and my Piano Concerto is going to benefit the experience." Bliss went on to say "Hearing hour after hour so much brilliant piano playing made me wish to write an extended work for the instrument myself. I must have put intensive concentration into the wish, for almost immediately afterwards the opportunity arose. In the summer of 1939 a World’s Fair was to be held in New York; there was to be a week’s participation by Great Britain in which the arts were to be represented, and an invitation came to me to write a piano concerto especially for Solomon to play on this occasion."

In March 1939 a paragraph in The Times headed New British Music for New York Fair formally announced the commission of the work. "The BBC announces that Sir Adrian Boult has accepted an invitation from the organisers of the New York World Fair to conduct two concerts there with two of the leading American symphony orchestras on June 9th and 10th. At these concerts he will conduct the first performances of three new works by British composers, which have been commissioned for the occasion: a pianoforte concerto by Arthur Bliss, in which Mr. Solomon will be the soloist, a new symphony by Sir Arnold Bax, and a violin concerto by William Walton." In the event, the concerts were held at Carnegie Hall with Boult conducting the New York Philharmonic orchestra, not at the World’s Fair venue in Flushing Meadows.

Bliss conferred with Solomon during the final stages of composition. "As was only natural, Solomon, before definitely accepting, wanted to see what views I held about piano technique and whether he was sympathetic to the general atmosphere of the work. Thus began a close and stimulating collaboration. He was meticulous in making technical suggestions, and, when the whole concerto was ready for engraving, his editing was of the greatest benefit to me." The work is technically very demanding and Bliss states that backstage at Carnegie Hall (10th June 1939) Solomon was pacing up and down saying ‘I do not feel I can go on and play’. Solomon played it again in 1942 at the Proms and the following January HMV recorded the work in sessions produced by Walter Legge. The recording took place in Liverpool, at the Philharmonic Hall on the 12th and 13th January 1943 with the Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Adrian Boult. Four sessions were needed to cut the ten sides required for this long work, and all sides needed at least three takes made for each.

It has to be said, though, that few pianists after Solomon have taken the concerto up. Noel Mewton-Wood, that indefatigable Australian who played many twentieth century concertos, played and recorded it, as did his compatriot Trevor Barnard. Gina Bachauer played it with Dmitri Mitropoulos and the New York Philharmonic in 1960.

Solomon Cutner, who always used his first name for performing, was born in the East End of London in 1902 and had played the Third Concerto of Beethoven when he was ten years old, the child prodigy’s career being steered and held firmly on course by his teacher Mathilde Verne, herself a pupil of Clara Schumann. During his prodigy years Solomon played a special piano constructed by Blüthner with keys that were narrower than normal in order to accommodate his child-sized hands. Not surprisingly, at around the age of fifteen he had had enough of being the sailor-suited prodigy, turned against the piano and asked Henry Wood what he should do. Wood’s advice was sound — that he should give up the piano for a time and retire from the stage. After two years of study in Paris with Marcel Dupré and Lazare-Levy, Solomon emerged in 1924 at the age of 22 and was hailed in Europe and America as a mature adult artist.

Solomon played the Third Concerto of Beethoven throughout his career. As already mentioned, during his years as a boy prodigy he had played it at the Queen’s Hall with Henry Wood in 1912 where the same programme included Liszt’s Hungarian Fantasy. He continued to programme the concerto throughout the 1930s and chose it for a joint celebration (organized by the Daily Telegraph) of Wood’s 75th birthday and the 50th anniversary of the Proms at London’s Albert Hall on 3rd March 1944. It was war-time and the Albert Hall was affected by a bombing raid so the concert was postponed to 25th March. Walter Legge decided that HMV should have a recording of the work now so associated with Solomon and recording sessions were held out of central London, no doubt for fear of further bombing. Solomon, the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Adrian Boult travelled to Bedford Grammar School for three recording sessions on 8th, 9th and 11th August 1944.

Solomon continued to perform the concerto on tour in Zurich in 1948 with Paul Kletzki, Boston in 1949, and, in 1951, for the Festival of Britain celebrations with Otto Klemperer in London. One rather precious critic stated "An equal, perhaps greater because rarer, joy was the accompaniment to Beethoven’s third piano concerto, which Dr. Klemperer caressed, as it had been a new-born babe, thus stimulating Mr. Solomon to even more affectionate, expressive treatment than is his gratifying wont; he played Clara Schumann’s cadenza, which brings out the lamb as much as the lion in the work, and so accorded aptly with the performance’s character." Although Beethoven wrote a cadenza for the first movement of this concerto many performers of the nineteenth century such as Ignaz Moscheles composed their own for this and other concertos. Clara Schumann composed hers in 1868 and it was quite popular well into the twentieth century. Frederic Lamond, Liszt’s last great pupil, was performing it in 1939, and although purists will object to it being used when there is one extant by the composer, it should be said that it is a well-crafted cadenza well within the style of the work. Solomon must have been introduced to it by his teacher Mathilde Verne who no doubt learnt it from Clara Schumann herself.

Solomon played the Beethoven Third Concerto and the Brahms D minor on his winter tour of South Africa in 1955 and it was only a few months later in 1956 that he tragically suffered the stroke that ended his career. He died in 1988.

Jonathan Summers

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