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Piano Concertos 1 & 2
Improvisations on a Theme by Constant Lambert

Peter Donohoe (piano) & the Ulster Orchestra/Takuo Yuasa
Naxos 8.555959 [56:19]

The Naxos British Piano Concertos series has been launched auspiciously, and to my taste wisely, with those of one of my favourite composers of the mid-20 C., Alan Rawsthorne (1905-1971) - a fine CD by Peter Donohoe, who promises to devote himself to this ‘hugely rich and varied repertoire - - for whatever time I have left’.

Rawsthorne’s voice is instantly recognizable and quite distinctive, with his turns of phrase, juxtapositions of tonality, consummate craftsmanship and acerbic wit. Hans Keller praised him for being “not given to the bucolic meandering of the English 'cowpat school'”.

I have always enjoyed playing his Bagatelles and knew the Piano Concerto No.1 (1939) in its first version scored with strings and percussion. It “exhibits many of the characteristics of the composer, among them tonal fluidity, economy and clarity of means, and wit” (John M. Belcher).

A motoric Capriccio is followed by a moving Chaconne which rises by semitone increments in his “fluid tonal language”. The Tarantella finale has a light touch, and a topical reference to the Bandiera rossa, associated with the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War, before a muted, throw-away conclusion (Rawsthorne eschews the loud ending=strong applause convention).

The Second Piano Concerto, for the Festival of Britain, 1951, is more extravert. Naxos quotes the composer’s own note; and so do I:- "The concerto opens with a melody played on the flute, with a piano accompaniment. Other instruments join in, clarinets and oboes, and the piano then gives another, decorated, statement of this melody - - It is difficult to pass immediately from a rather amiable first movement to a lyrical slow one - - so, in this concerto, a rather violent scherzo is interpolated. This is in rondo form - - (the movement) dissolves, at the very end, into a chord consisting of the notes of the phrase which introduces the slow movement (which) has about it that nostalgic character so much disliked by the immobile intelligentsia of today, who confuse this quality with the emotional mess of the last century. - - The last movement opens with a short, cacophonous outburst by the orchestra, setting forth the first phrase of the main tune. This tune, saved, one hopes, from complete banality by its metrical construction (two-four/three-eight), provides the basis for an episodic type of composition, and for the fugato coda with which the work concludes." (Alan Rawsthorne 1958)

Improvisations on a Theme by Constant Lambert (1960) is a welcome rarity, sensibly interposed between the two concertos, the programme making for a good straight-through listen, just under an hour.

Whether the other concertos of the period come up to this level remains to discover; I took against the bombastic Bliss concerto, popular in its time and long since disappeared from concert programmes; it will be interesting to find how it comes across again with a new coat of paint.

Meanwhile, a hearty welcome to this one, well played and well balanced in this recording from Belfast.

© Peter Grahame Woolf