Like many young musical prodigies, including Raymond Lewenthal and Percy Grainger, Mewton-Wood had a weak and insignificant father and a strong, almost overbearing mother. She gave him his first piano lessons, but when young Noel was accepted at the Melbourne University Conservatorium, it was on the condition that his mother ceased his tuition in piano, and he took lessons from Waldemar Seidel. As a child Mewton-Wood, like John Ogdon, could learn a work in a matter of days, and as a result had a vast knowledge of not only the solo piano repertoire, but also chamber music, orchestral music and opera. When he was fourteen, his mother took him to London to audition at the Royal Academy of Music and after completing his studies there he decided to go for lessons with Artur Schnabel in Italy. He returned to London in 1939 where he studied composition with Frank Bridge, and asked Sir Thomas Beecham for an audition. Beecham immediately engaged him after hearing his audition, and Mewton-Wood made his London debut with Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 Op. 37 at the Queen’s Hall in 1940. In his usual fashion Beecham described Mewton-Wood as ‘The best talent that I’ve discovered in the British Empire’, while Henry Wood thought that his playing sounded like that of the great pianists of the past.
Noel Mewton-Wood was taken up by concert promoter Harold Holt and a tour of Australia was planned, but the outbreak of World War II prevented this and it was not until the end of the war in 1945 that he returned to tour his homeland. Although he played the mainstream repertoire he had an avid interest in modern compositions and programmed Hindemith’s Ludus Tonalis, of which he had given the world première in 1943 when he was barely twenty-one years old; but the work was not received with delight by the Australian audiences. His playing of Schumann’s Fantasie Op. 17 got rave reviews, yet he would also include lesser-known works such as a Weber sonata or Stravinsky’s Sonata for Piano. Reference was often made to his pianissimos which faded into nothing, as well as his ‘…range of tone and a control of shading far beyond the scope of most players’. One Australian critic concluded his review, ‘Clarity and refinement characterized the whole performance of this sincere and extremely sensitive pianist.’ During the tour of Australia he played two-piano concerts with Richard Farrell, giving Australian premières of Bartók’s Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion and Stravinsky’s Concerto for Two Pianos.
Returning to London, Mewton-Wood played the Piano Concerto by Benjamin Britten at the Proms in 1946 and he championed other British composers, playing the Piano Concerto by Arthur Bliss and works by Michael Tippett whose song cycles, The Heart’s Assurance and Boyhood’s End he recorded with Peter Pears in 1952 for Argo. He toured Europe, Turkey and South Africa, but by this time had formed an ultimately fatal liaison with William Fedricks, a man whom he had met in Germany and who was now acting as his manager. The arrangement of another tour of Australia for 1951 was problematic and delayed for three years for various unsatisfactory reasons. Near the end of 1953 Fedricks complained of severe pains in his stomach, but Mewton-Wood, being used to his companion’s hypochondria, and having himself meanwhile studied medicine, chose to disregard these symptoms. Unfortunately Fedricks died suddenly, and Mewton-Wood, only thirty-one at the time, suffered devastating guilt. He took an overdose of aspirin but was discovered by friends before causing himself any harm. However a short time later, after writing forty-three letters to friends, he poured a glass of gin, and swallowed cyanide. It is impossible to imagine the hideous death he must have suffered from this corrosive substance.
Mewton-Wood had a vast repertoire that included concertos by Brahms, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Chopin, Schumann, and Tchaikovsky as well as such rarities (for that time) as the Piano Concerto Op. 39 by Busoni, Bartók’s Concerto No. 2 and even the Concerto in E flat by Pfitzner. Of these he recorded both concertos of Chopin, Beethoven’s Concerto No. 4, those of Bliss, Schumann and Stravinsky, Shostakovich’s Concerto No. 1 and all three of Tchaikovsky plus his Concert Fantasia for piano and orchestra. All these were recorded around 1952 and released mainly on the Nixa and Concert Hall labels. Mewton-Wood was not partnered with great orchestras, but generally with the Utrecht Symphony or Winterthur Symphony and sometimes the Netherlands Philharmonic or Zürich Radio Symphony. The conductor in every case was Walter Goehr who seems to understand Mewton-Wood perfectly. The rubato in the slow movements of the Chopin concertos is breathtaking in its freedom, Mewton-Wood making the works sound fresh, as if we are hearing them for the first time. The slow movement of Beethoven’s Concerto No. 4 Op. 58 contains all the troubles of the world in a few minutes. These early LP recordings capture Mewton-Wood’s extraordinary tonal and dynamic range. Before World War II he also made some recordings for Decca which were issued on 78rpm discs. The repertoire included the first two piano sonatas by Weber, the Tarantella Op. 43 by Chopin and the Études Symphoniques Op. 13 by Schumann. There was also some Albéniz and a Beethoven violin sonata where he partnered Ida Haendel.
The Chopin, Tchaikovsky, Beethoven and Schumann concertos have been reissued on compact disc by Dante, as have the Weber sonatas by Pearl, so a large proportion of MewtonWood’s small discography has been made available.
However, what have not yet been made available are some of the recordings Mewton-Wood made for the BBC. The most important of these, the Piano Concerto Op. 39 by Busoni recorded in 1948 with Beecham, was issued on compact disc by Somm in 2003; but still unreleased are the same composer’s Fantasia contrappuntistica; a half hour recital of British music including a piano sonata by Constant Lambert and four bagatelles by Alan Rawsthorne from 1951; the Piano Concerto by Britten recorded in 1946 with the London Symphony Orchestra and Basil Cameron; Liszt’s Petrarch Sonnets, and a recital with violinist Max Rostal that includes sonatas by Stravinsky and Walton. The Sonata for Piano and Horn by Hindemith with Dennis Brain was issued in 2005 by IMG/BBC Legends. In 2001 ABC Classics in Australia issued a handsome three-disc set which includes two of the Petrarch Sonnets and Schumann’s Kinderszenen Op. 15 which was recorded for the Joint Broadcasting Committee in London. Also included are the Argo recordings of Busoni’s Violin Sonata No. 2 in E minor Op. 36a with Max Rostal, and Michael Tippett’s Boyhood’s End and The Heart’s Assurance with tenor Peter Pears.
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — Jonathan Summers (A–Z of Pianists, Naxos 8.558107–10).