David Truslove listens to a new release from Lyrita, featuring the BBC National Orchestra of Wales and pianist Simon Callaghan, as part of their British Piano Concertos Volume 2.
Lyrita’s second instalment of British Piano Concertos forms another significant addition to the catalogue, providing a valuable spotlight on three rarely performed 20th century works, each receiving their recording premieres. In a collaboration between pianist Simon Callaghan and conductors Stephen Bell and George Vass, the BBC National Orchestra of Wales presents a three-decade traversal of work by Gordan Jacob, John Addison and Edmund Rubbra. As with the previous disc, this is a wonderful tribute to a trio of composers whose work is seldom heard in the concert hall and largely unknown today were it not for the efforts of enterprising record labels.
Of the three composers, John Addison (1920-1998) is more likely to be familiar with film aficionados. His superbly crafted music has been immortalised in numerous scores including A Bridge Too Far, Tom Jones and Reach for the Skies. But how many will have heard or even know of his Trumpet Concerto (1949), the Sinfonietta (1956) – written for the National Youth Orchestra – or his ballet music for Carte Blanche premiered at the 1953 Edinburgh Festival? From 1975 he was based in Los Angeles, writing mostly for television, including the signature tune for the popular series Murder, She Wrote for which he won an Emmy. His Variations for Piano and Orchestra belongs to 1948 and according to Paul Conway’s excellent programme notes, it was first performed in a BBC broadcast in 1960 by Margaret Kitchin.
Addison’s Variations alternately brood and scintillate, and across its 15-minute span, it’s clear the composer knows what he wants from his expressive survey of its initial ideas. He is generous in his allocation of solo opportunities all of which are impressively shaped. Simon Callaghan cleanly articulates the nimble solo writing, and the whole is superbly judged in terms of balance and pace by Stephen Bell. If the absence of a cadenza may deter pianists from investigating this work, it is, nonetheless, wonderfully diverting and demonstrates the composer’s keen ear for sonorities and orchestral colour. ‘If my music entertains’, he once commented, ‘I am pleased enough, but I hope that there is also something of myself in it’. There’s certainly integrity in the way the work closes, eschewing cinematic display for a mood of sober contemplation.
The disc opens with the Piano Concerto No. 2 in E flat by Gordan Jacob (1895-1984), a work to which the BBC players respond with evident enthusiasm. There can’t be too many occasions, if any, when the orchestra has encountered the works of Jacob, whose four hundred or so works include two symphonies and several concertos. In fact, the players may only be familiar with his name through a pair of reference books, Orchestral Technique and How to Read a Score, once an invaluable source of information to music students. Completed in 1957, his Concerto was premiered by the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra under Charles Groves and later given at the Royal Albert Hall with Basil Cameron and the LSO. Lasting some thirty minutes, its three movements dazzle in their wealth of invention. The opening ‘Allegro vivace’ bristles with restless energy; its athletic piano writing sparkles, individual players assume the limelight with complete assurance and the overall ensemble is highly polished. The second movement, entitled ‘Variations’, repays close attention for its interlinked mystery, wistfulness and playfulness. A chorale-like variation brings a plaintive sarabande (echoes of John Ireland perhaps?), followed by a sparkling waltz and an unruly farewell. Jacob rounds off his Concerto with a buoyant finale – a frothy, refreshing movement, more prosecco than champagne, but undoubtedly invigorating.
Edmund Rubbra (1901-1986) has been described as a traditional English composer who stood at a considerable distance from the avant garde. His reputation rests largely on his 11 symphonies, much-neglected works spanning nearly forty years of creativity. Although his music was regularly performed during the mid-20th century, much of his work has fallen out of fashion today. Adrian Boult admired his work but once declared he ‘has never made any effort to popularize anything he has done, but he goes on creating masterpieces’. An obituary in The Times observed that across “forty years his music had changed little”, adding he had “pursued his lonely and steadfast road, undeterred by the neglect of his larger works which, playing no regard to current fashion, went their own way with entire integrity”.
Rubbra’s Piano Concerto, Op.30 (1932) is the composer’s first fully-fledged, large-scale work for soloist and orchestra. While it remained unpublished during his lifetime, its premiere at the Royal College of Music drew a favourable response from critics, The Musical Times affirming it as being ‘cleverly designed and full of colour, spontaneous and well-organized’. This performance, conducted by George Vass, is an involving account fully realising the Concerto’s unpredictable spirit and Celtic sensibility. The opening movement unfolds from a dawn-like opening (shades of Vaughan Williams here) with beautifully fashioned solos from cor-anglais and violin. A jaunty folk-like march launches an ‘Allegro con moto’, its swagger neatly outlined by pianist and orchestra, with climaxes nicely integrated into a movement shaped as much by its pastoralism as its pageantry. The ‘Larghetto’ brings a more relaxed lyricism, and if there’s no deep emotional probing within its longwinded rumination, the roistering finale (Percy Grainger meets Vaughan Williams) offers an unbuttoned leave-taking. High spirits dominant this imaginatively scored movement (including an ear-catching xylophone), and the work closes abruptly as if the composer has suddenly tired of his material.
In short, this rewarding disc comes highly recommended. As ever, the BBC NOW is marvellously alert and responsive to this repertoire, Simon Callaghan an exceptionally fine soloist and conductors Stephen Bell and George Vass are exemplary tour guides. No less admirable is the recording’s sound quality – Lyrita once again producing a first class compilation.
Gordan Jacob – Piano Concerto No. 2 in E flat, John Addison – Variations for Piano and Orchestra, Edmund Rubbra – Piano Concerto, Op.30.
BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Simon Callaghan (piano), Stephen Bell & George Vass (conductors).
Lyrita SRCD.416 [72.36]; Recorded at Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff; April & November 2022