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Steve Schwartz
Classical Net, December 2009

…Donohoe and Lloyd-Jones navigate the treacherous waters superbly. The Royal Scottish National Orchestra play with bite and conviction. In short, a wonder of a CD with marvelous music (it will probably show up on my best of the year), and it’s on bargain-label Naxos besides. What are you waiting for?

Penguin Guide, January 2009

This coupling of two of John Gardner’s major works, plus a sparkling comedy of overture, could not be more welcome, brilliantly played and recorded. Here is one of the most unjustly neglected composers of his generation. The Symphony No. 1, the most extended of the works on the new disc, is in four movements, spanning over 40 minutes. Though it was written in 1947, it was not performed until 1951. Its brooding opening Lento e Grave movement leads to an Allegro with echoes of Walton in its jazzy syncopations, though with sharper harmonies. As always in Gardner’s music the orchestration is brilliantly clear. Full of good ideas, it has a structure which is quite hard to grasp but is well held together in this superb performance. An attractively bucolic Scherzo follows, showing Gardner’s skill at attractive, piquant orchestration. The dark lento is at times reminiscent of The Firebird in its atmosphere, while the vigorous finale finally allows the work to end optimistically in D major. The Piano Concerto No. 1 of 1957 offers a contrasted idiom in its percussive echoes of the Bartók Piano Concertos, suiting Peter Donohoe’s strong style admirably in another performance brilliantly backed by David Lloyd-Jones and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. The clangorous opening movement leads to a still slow movement with more echoes of Bartók but also of John Ireland. Its Tema con Variazioni is not quite as distinctive as one might wish for, but this leads into a pleasing Rondo finale. The disc is dazzlingly rounded off with a rumbustious Comedy Overture, Midsummer Ale, written for the orchestra of Morley College, of which Gardner was music director. By rights this disc will bring renewed attention to the music of a most attractive composer.

American Record Guide, January 2008

John Gardner is a prolific English composer born in 1917 who was still actively writing as late as 2004…This new Naxos begins with a short, effervescent overture, Midsummer Ale, that evokes ”Merrie Englande” and that the notes aptly categorize as ”British light music”. The 1947 First Symphony and 1957 First Piano Concerto, however, are full-scale compositions, coming in at 41 and 26 minutes. The symphony is expansive and richly scored. Slow movements are dreamy and impressionist in the English rather than French manner—kin to Vaughan Williams rather than Ravel. The driving finale has bumptious energy and drama also derived, surely, from RVW.

Gardner’s 1957 Piano Concerto, though still sensuous and lush, is less impressionist and (though this is not mentioned in the detailed annotations) unmistakably indebted to Bartók—in particular his lyrical Third Piano Concerto. Bartók’s asperity is much softened, his darkness lightened, his ”Hungarian” inflections removed, and his signature ”night music” absent. Nor is Gardner a composer in Bartók’s league. (Who is?) Nevertheless there are all sorts of textures, turns of phrase—even the fugato in the final rondo—that recall BartóK at his most ebullient and celebratory. I don’t say this by way of criticism: Gardner’s concerto isn’t “Bartokian” (in the way many works by his many imitators are); the influence is perhaps comparable to the influence of Prokofieff on Walton’s Cello Concerto. You can’t miss it, but it doesn’t really compromise the composer’s individual profile or the distinct English flavor of the music.

Without making extravagant claims for Gardner’s importance, I have to say that his symphony and, especially, his piano concerto are consistently engaging and satisfying. There are no dull or weak spots to spoil my enjoyment of either, and I’m grateful for this chance to discover them—and to the performers, especially Peter Donohoe, who plays the socks off the concerto. Sonics are clear and strong. I’ll return to this many times; it is sure to please listeners looking to broaden their view of modern-but-mainstream symphonic music.

Dominy Clements
MusicWeb International, November 2007

John Gardner was still teaching at the Royal Academy of Music when I was there in the 1980s, and I received some valuable lessons at orchestration classes where he unfortunately had to put up with singers and the like who, obliged to complete the subject for their course work, had no interest in the subject whatever. I enjoyed his gruff directness and avuncular style, and remember him inviting me to throw in everything to my work: “nobody’s going to play the thing, so why not?” and so I would be allowed go off and play with impractical but satisfying Sibelian effects like huge trombone sections and colourful percussion. One other golden tip was always to make sure you have more staves on your manuscript paper than you think you will need when you start. “You’ll always find yourself needing more—you can never have too many”, and it’s a truth which has kept me in good stead for the last twenty years.

I also remember many amiable hours in the Academy bar spent over many gin and tonics—John was always ready with an entertaining anecdote and was a very good friend even to shy and retiring types like I was all those years ago.

MusicWeb International has some very useful resources on John Gardner, with articles on his life and work and the symphonies in particular. As the booklet notes for this excellent release begin, “The neglect suffered by John Gardner’s considerable output is both surprising and hard to understand.” Indeed, and on the evidence presented by this CD his work is long overdue for a big renaissance. The Overture: Midsummer Ale is great fun, packing Bernstein’s swagger into an Arnoldesque romp written for the Morley College Orchestra and that institute’s 75th Birthday celebrations. Gardner the storyteller comes through loud and clear in the booklet: “Debussy and Joan Last must be the only composers who never found the naming of pieces a hell of a chore. I spent longer searching for the title of this piece than in writing down its notes on a five line stave…”

The overture is fun, but the invention and searching seriousness of the Piano Concerto No.1 is in a different league. Given its première by Sir John Barbirolli at the Cheltenham Festival in 1957, the performance with as soloist Cyril Preedy failed to launch the piece as a staple of the repertoire, and other than a brief revival by Malcolm Binns in 1965 the work has lain dormant until the present recording. As one might expect, Peter Donohoe is entirely convincing, indeed brilliant as soloist, and the orchestra pulls no punches in the energetic opening Allegro con brio, the balance of the recording realistic in the way that the piano is pitted directly against the orchestra in a grim battle for supremacy. An atmospheric final section concludes the first movement, and wind solos and climbing figures from the piano wind through a bed of restless chords in the strings. This chorale-like harmonic movement is taken up by the soloist in the second movement, whose Tema con Variazioni moves darkly though a nocturne of cinematic gorgeousness. The more lively development recalls Bartók in places, and the whole movement has a rich strangeness which is entirely fascinating. This moves directly into a Finale: Rondo which introduces a kind of fugal resolution, using material from the other movements. Something about the intervals Gardner uses bring my ear back to Bartók, but his idiom is of course entirely different, if hard to categorise. Perhaps this has been a problem in ‘selling’ Gardner’s music—if it lacks an immediate sense of Englishness than how to categorise it? To European ears it would probably be more immediately associated with a British tradition than anything else, but one can sense the work seeking out worlds beyond that island’s shores.

This is also true of the Symphony No.1, which has however fared a little better than the concerto, receiving a number of performances since its première, again under the baton of John Barbirolli, this time at the Cheltenham Festival of 1951. The work’s success brought recognition to Gardner, and a string of subsequent commissions allowed him to become established as a composer. The low opus number of the work comes as a result of the “new start” Gardner made after the war, having withdrawn his pre-war works, but in fact drawing on some of the old material in the composition of the first symphony. As Chris Gardner—the composer’s son if I’m not mistaken—writes in the booklet notes, “to listen to the symphony is to go on a journey, but the themes are tightly integrated and in a constant state of development and transition, and this is what gives the work its cohesion and drives it towards its triumphant final D major chord.” There are many fascinating moments along this journey, and with a scoring which allows for a huge variety of tonal colour, with harp, triple winds and cleverly subtle use of percussion Gardner allows himself plenty of room for all kinds of expression within this wide palette. Moments of lilting melody and passages of chamber-music like ensemble writing vary the potential power of the orchestra in full cry, and one can immediately sense the appeal this work would have on any audience. It is approachable but complex at the same time, at times relaxed and/or ebullient without being vapid or superficial. There are tunes which have an air of folk-like familiarity, but like those of Malcolm Arnold they are elusive—conjuring nostalgia, but quite from where or why one knows not. Unlike Arnold, Gardner’s seriousness of purpose prevents him from straying from the idiomatic path he has set himself, and while the work is in no way dour there is no sense of sardonic cynicism in his elegant whiffs of contact with the more commonplace.

Other than some small scale works heard while a student at the R.A.M., I have, shamefacedly, to admit an entire lack of knowledge of my old teacher’s music. Now I’ve heard some, and performed superbly by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, I can honestly say I am deeply impressed, and now understand just a little more of the personality which had such a positive influence on us rebelliously ignorant youths of ’85-’86. Gardner’s music has a grit and no-nonsense character which is reflected in the composer’s character—equally, it has a sparkle and warmth which could come from no-one else. “Gin & tonic please, Brian….”

Bryce Morrison
Gramophone, November 2007

A brilliant birthday tribute to a shamefully neglected composer

This coupling of two of John Gardner’s major works, plus a sparkling comedy overture, could not be more welcome. Celebrating his 90th birthday this year, he has always been astonishingly prolific; maybe one reason for his neglect when there is so much to choose from.

The First Symphony (1946–1947), the most extended work on the new disc, is in four movements spanning more than 40 minutes. The idiom is more abrasive than in Gardner’s late works, with a grinding slow introduction leading to an Allegro with echoes of Walton in its jazzy syncopations, though with sharper harmonies. A chattering Scherzo in triple time leads to a Lento slow movement with whole-tone passages and orchestration echoing Debussy and Ravel. The finale is strongly rhythmic. As always in Gardner’s music the orchestration is brilliantly clear, and after an interlude of stillness, the work ends with a ripe and optimistic D major chord.

The First Piano Concerto (1957) offers a contrasted idiom in its percussive echoes of the Bartók concertos, suiting Peter Donohoe’s strong style admirable in a performance brilliantly backed by David Lloyd-Jones and the RSNO. The clangorous opening movement leads to a still slow movement with echoes of Bartók but also of John Ireland. The finale brings more echoes of Walton and Arnold in music that is invariably attractive and distinctive.

The disc is dazzlingly rounded off with a rumbustious comedy overture Midsummer Ale, which I hope will bring renewed attention to the composer’s most attractive music.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, September 2007

John Gardner belongs to that era of English composers that were willfully betrayed by a British music establishment besotted by the avant garde Central European composers, and failing on every count to promote their own national music. Born in 1917 he enjoyed success as a pianist almost from childhood, his musical education completed at Oxford University. Enjoying a career as a school teacher and composer when the Second World War erupted, he joined the armed forces, and at the end of the conflict shelved all of his previous compositions. It was to be mark the beginning of work on his First Symphony, described as opus 2 and completed in the summer of 1947. Premiered three years later it persuaded Gardner to largely commit himself to composition, and he has since built up a formidable catalogue of works reaching opus 249 in the Concerto for Bassoon completed when he was 87. Wedded to tonality in its many variants—a cardinal crime in establishment circles—the symphony is in the conventional four movements, thematic ideas tossed around to a degree that they are not easy to follow on first acquaintance. The happy second movement scherzo (track 6) makes a good sampling point, while the finale is forceful and tender in equal measures and makes for a satisfying conclusion. Above all Gardner’s orchestration creates a very individual style, though if you imagine a serious Malcolm Arnold you have a rough guide to Gardner. The Piano Concerto can be viewed as an English Prokofiev, the pungency of the opening giving way to a quiet and introverted slow movement, the proactive finale a vivacious and virtuoso showpiece for the soloist. Commissioned to write a piece for the 75th anniversary of Morley College resulted in the lighthearted Midsummer Ale, the word ‘ale’ used in its traditional meaning of a feast or celebration. Peter Donohoe’s playing is superb and unstinting in his obvious enthusiasm for the work, his finale a full of outgoing virtuosity. The RSNO play for David Lloyd-Jones with the conviction that convinces us they play this as part of their standard repertoire. Generous in use of reverberation, the sound is punchy when appropriate but essentially one of great beauty. This is a major addition to British 20th century music on disc and to piano concertos in general.

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