About this Recording
8.557290 - FERGUSON / GERHARD / ROWLEY / DARNTON: Piano Concertos
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Alec Rowley (1892-1958): Piano Concerto No. 1 in D major, Op. 49
Christian Darnton (1905-1981): Piano Concertino in C major
Roberto Gerhard (1896-1970): Concerto for piano and strings
Howard Ferguson (1908-1999): Concerto for piano and string orchestra, Op. 12

This recording brings together a fascinating collection of piano concertos by four very diverse composers that were all written in the middle decades of the last century. Alec Rowley is a neglected figure nowadays, although his music enjoyed wide currency during his lifetime. His career embraced composition, performance (as organist and pianist), teaching and writing. He studied at the Royal Academy of Music where his composition teacher was Frederick Corder. In 1919 he became professor of composition at Trinity College, and during the 1930s he formed a piano duet partnership with Edgar Moy, with whom he was frequently heard in BBC broadcasts. Much of his music was conceived for educational or amateur purposes and includes a series of what he called ‘miniature’ concertos for piano, violin, cello and organ, as well as works for strings (English Dance Suite) and orchestra (In an Apple Orchard). Other orchestral works include two piano concertos and the Three Idylls for piano and orchestra heard at the Proms in 1942. Further information about his life and music may be found in Beryl Kington’s fascinating book Rowley Rediscovered.

Rowley’s First Piano Concerto received its première in a BBC broadcast in August 1938. The soloist was Franz Weitzmann with members of the BBC Orchestra conducted by Warwick Braithwaite. Apart from strings, the concerto is deftly scored for ad lib percussion and timpani which are included on this recording. It opens with an arresting introduction marked by a fanfare motif and piquant harmonies. The music that follows, clearly based on the fanfare, has a breezy, open-air freshness about it and has as its secondary theme a winsome, lyrical melody. A simple wistful waltz, full of pastoral charm and a hint of Delius, provides a foil to the energetic outer movements. The opening of the finale is an exact repeat of the first movement’s introduction until it veers away on a course of its own, with the fanfare motif now transformed in the bass. Overall the mood is jocular as heard in the contrasting theme with its teasing syncopations. The fanfare motif returns to crown the concerto before it ends with a sparkling coda.

Christian Darnton is the least known composer represented here and the primary source of information about him may be found in the pioneering thesis of Dr Andrew Plant, whose generous help the present writer gratefully acknowledges. Darnton studied composition with Charles Wood at Cambridge University, then the bassoon and conducting at the Royal College of Music in London, with further composition lessons with Max Butting in Berlin. Darnton’s early music of the 1930s is advanced and dissonant and includes the Piano Concerto and the Five Orchestral Pieces, a critical success at its Warsaw première in 1939. His book You and Music published in 1940 was also widely admired. During World War II Darnton became a communist and consequently decided that his music must become populist, which led to a radical simplification of his style. Works that reflect this stance include the unstaged opera Fantasy Fair. In the 1950s, discouraged by the lack of success, he gave up composing for almost twenty years. Later he abandoned communism and in the last decade of his life had a remarkable rekindling of creativity, composing two major works in the 1970s, the Concerto for Orchestra and the Fourth Symphony.

The Concertino for Piano and Strings, composed in 1948, was commissioned by Darnton’s staunch supporter, the South African pianist Adolf Hallis, who gave the première in April 1949 in Durban with the Johannesburg Symphony Orchestra. Its overall character, reflecting Darnton’s rejection of his earlier style, is couched in a Stravinskian neo-classical idiom and the music is built around the interval of a third and by extension the triad. A languid elegance is apparent in the opening theme announced initially by the strings although the music gains a more steely edge as it proceeds. The slow movement is characterized in its outer sections by a graceful nonchalance and filigree lightness as the upper and lower lines of the piano gently chase each other in imitation. In the middle there is a more overtly romantic outpouring which gradually darkens to the lumbering tread of a slow march. The movement ends with a descending chain of thirds, Brittenesque in character, reflecting another compositional influence on Darnton. Neo-classical restraint is thrown to the winds in the finale with the soloist plunging headlong into a pounding bravura display of pianistic pyrotechnics. There is a lighter playful development section before a return of the main idea and a majestic culmination with the transformed return of the opening of the first movement.

Although Spanish, Roberto Gerhard lived in England for a quarter of a century and became a British citizen. He was the most important Spanish composer in the generation following Falla. From his first teachers, Granados (piano), and Pedrell (composition), he became steeped in the tradition of the nationalist school, but then his interest in the radical developments within European composition led him to study with Schoenberg. During the 1930s he became a leading figure in Spanish and particularly Catalan artistic circles, but in 1939 after Franco’s accession to power following the Spanish Civil War, he moved to England. Notable works of the 1940s include his ballet Don Quixote and the opera The Duenna. From the 1950s onwards his music became advanced and exploratory, as he developed his own personal brand of Schoenberg’s serial technique, which was combined with a superb ear for instrumental sonorities. The music of his last twenty years led to international recognition and includes four impressive symphonies composed between 1952 and 1967.

Gerhard’s Piano Concerto, first performed by Noel Mewton-Wood at the 1951 Aldeburgh Festival, with the Festival Orchestra conducted by Norman Del Mar, was the first of Gerhard’s works composed with serial techniques. Each movement is headed with a title that refers to Renaissance Spanish keyboard music. Tiento refers to the name used by sixteenth-century Spanish organists for toccata and the movement has a whirlwind energy in which the soloist barely pauses for breath. Diferencias is the Spanish equivalent of the English divisions or variations and Gerhard suggested that the ‘theme and diferencias here may be taken as seven different visions of the same face’. Based on a Catalan religious song, the movement is among Gerhard’s most powerful utterances, a dark lament for his country under the yoke of dictatorship into which the Dies irae is also woven. Folias was a fantasy-like form on ground bass line. It was associated with a popular seventeenthcentury melody which was widely used in keyboard and string music. Gerhard makes prominent use of the first three notes of the Folia tune in his finale which he described as having ‘a frenzied carnival-folly atmosphere’ reminiscent of Goya’s Burial of the Sardine.

Howard Ferguson’s relatively few compositions belong to the earlier part of his career, although many have been revived and recorded in the last two decades. Born in Belfast, he studied at the Royal College of Music as well as having private tuition with the pianist Harold Samuel. As a composer he came to attention in the 1930s with the First Violin Sonata and the Octet, and consolidated his reputation with the Partita and the Piano Sonata. During the war he assisted Myra Hess with the organization of the daily lunch-time concerts of chamber music at the National Gallery. Amongst later works are Five Bagatelles for piano, the Second Violin Sonata and two choral works Amore langueo and The Dream of the Rood dating from the 1950s. After this Ferguson decided that he had said all he wanted to say as a composer and instead devoted himself to musicology, editing, for example, the complete solo works of Schubert. He was also known as a pianist throughout his career and taught composition at the Royal Academy of Music.

Ferguson’s Concerto for Piano and Strings was commissioned by the Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts (Northern Ireland) to mark the Festival of Britain in 1951. Ferguson himself was the soloist at the première in June 1951 with the City of Belfast Orchestra conducted by Denis Mulgan. The concerto is classical in conception and scale, as exemplified by the extended Mozartian opening tutti in which the principal ideas are heard. Near the end the soloist has a lengthy cadenza followed by a short coda in which the music fades to an enigmatic close. A theme and six variations form the heart of the work. The sad theme is embellished by the piano in the first two variations. A puckish third briefly brings a lighter mood, but with the fourth brooding introspection creeps in. The fifth variation opens and closes tenderly, but is overwhelmed by an intense Animato in the middle. Finally the movement is brought to a climax with a solemn outpouring of the theme. The concerto is capped with a care-free, high-spirited rondo whose themes come and go in playful succession.

Andrew Burn


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