, December 2010
There has been a notable absence of British piano music in concerts and recordings made over the last thirty five years or so and it is therefore to be applauded that Naxos started to produce a ‘British Piano Concertos’ series. Fortunately this has increased the number of works by Thomas Pitfield available to us on CD.
Born in the first years of the twentieth century and belonging to a generation of composers whose works found their way into the concert hall following the Second World War, Thomas Pitfield was a largely self-taught composer who wrote prolifically for all kinds of instruments and for every type of ensemble.
Folk music influenced the style and form of his compositions but always remained subservient to self-expression. Of the pieces recorded here, it is most apparent in the second Piano Concerto (The Oak and the Ash) and the Studies on an English Dance-Tune (Jenny Pluck Pears).
Good craftsmanship is a quality ever present in Pitfield’s music and readily reveals itself in Piano Concerto No.1 in E minor. It was written in 1946–47 for Stephen Wearing who gave the first performance with the Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra under the direction of Hugo Rignold in November 1949. This concerto is one of Pitfield’s best large-scale works, presenting the soloist with some technical problems which Anthony Goldstone, well supported by Andrew Penny and the RNCM Orchestra, copes with admirably.
The interplay between piano and orchestra, especially in the canonic treatment of the first theme in the opening movement, is skilfully marked by clarity of line and texture in this performance. The canonic writing here is not only important as a hint of the canonic compression of the final movement’s rondo theme at the end of the work, but a hallmark of Pitfield’s style.
The outer two movements of the concerto are brilliant but the composer’s invention, musical charm and beauty show themselves to good effect in the middle movement which has a memorable main theme of some solemnity. Here too is a short, and beautifully written, mysterious scherzo-like section, deftly realized by the soloist.
Moments such as this, along with Anthony Goldstone’s generally sympathetic interpretation, lift the music to a level of inspiration beyond the simply pleasing and tasteful.
The length and form of Piano Concerto No.2 was governed by the restrictions imposed by the commissioner, Max Hinrichsen, who was looking for a miniature concerto for the use of American piano students in performance auditions. The result is a work of very unusual form but the main characteristics are unmistakably Pitfield. A quotation from Milton at the head of the score sums it up well—“…and bring with thee Jest and youthful Jollity”.
Inventiveness is the keynote of this work. The first movement (Dance-Prologue) using three simple tunes on the white keys treated with ostinati, hymn-like harmonization, various rhythms and decoration, is followed by a scherzo (Interlude on White Keys) of running figures and modal melody.
The last movement is curious in that it embodies both the slow movement and the finale presented as a set of variations on the English folksong, ‘The Oak and the Ash’. Here the performers enjoy themselves in the playful rhythms of the first and third variations which are separated by a delightfully contemplative variation scored for piano alone.
Both concertos are recorded with good piano presence and endowed with the rhythmic energy so essential to the composer’s style.
The works for solo piano should not disappoint as Pitfield’s favoured 5/8 and 7/8 rhythms, pianistic decoration and harmonies of almost French flavour, can all be found in his tuneful music. Studies on an English Dance-Tune, written for John McCabe who first performed it whilst still a student at the RMCM in 1961, subjects the folk tune, ‘Jenny Pluck Pears,’ to various rhythmic, modal and playing techniques in seven short movements. Peter Donohoe’s technique and artistry show themselves to good effect in this and the other two works for solo piano included on the disc.
Although an early piece, Arietta and Finale is all one would expect of the composer but it is the Toccata, written for Lucy Pierce and published in 1953, which demands the listener’s attention with its exuberance.
Always looking to the needs of performers, Pitfield often found himself writing for unusual instruments or combinations of instruments when required. His four movement Xylophone Sonata, composed for the Hallé Orchestra’s principal percussionist, Eric Woolliscroft, and superbly executed here by Peter Donohoe, is a work that falls into that category. This lively piece using 7/8 and 10/8 rhythms was published in 1967 and deserves to be heard.
All in all, this collection of works is truly representative of Thomas Pitfield’s output of music for piano. The recording gives much pleasure and, for those who are not already familiar with his music, it is well worth exploring at superbudget price.