CD Review

Neglected Concertos on Hyperion


© Chris Green, January 2016


I have just finished giving a series of Lectures on Symphonies that have changed the musical world. It could so easily have been "concertos" that had been chosen instead, for the genre developed from the same lineage as did the symphony. Yet, concertos never seem to have been so significant in the development of musical ideas. I suppose part of the difference is that a concerto is essentially a vehicle to allow an individual performer (or more than one) to present a work especially written for a particular instrument, although there are concertos composed especially for a person.

One of the consequences of agreeing to do this 10 lecture series was to make me research composers whose names were really only passing references in music textbooks like Sammartini, Wagenseil, Carl Abel, and - slipping a couple of centuries and more - William Schuman, Alan Hovhaness and Olivier Messiaen. Which only goes to show that there is a whole world out there of neglected composers.

One recording label that has done so much to make amends for this when it comes to concertos is the British label, Hyperion Records. "Romantic Piano Concertos" and "Romantic Violin Concertos" are just two of the series of CDs that have been released over the course of years and I reckon that there must be dozens now available. All are of the highest quality of recording and performance; something that used to be all too rare when it came to this kind of repertoire with orchestras provided little studio time and conductors who were certainly not of the top drawer. That cannot be a charge levelled at these Hyperion releases and to prove it, I am presenting you a quartet featuring different instruments. From 1998 comes a recording of three of Prokofiev's Piano Concertos with Nikolai Demidenko as soloist with the London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Alexander Lazarev (Hyperion CDA 67029). Piano Concertos Numbers 1, 4 and 5. Spanning a period of 20 years in the composer's life, it is incredible that the Fourth was not performed until 1956 some 40 years after its composition. Composed for Paul Wittgenstein (an artist who had lost his right arm in the Great War), Wittgenstein had rejected it as he did not understand "a note of it". It was another German who discovered reference to the work in a catalogue and who, like Wittgenstein, had also lost his right arm.

Demidenko and the LPO make easy work of these concertos and although they may not be as technically demanding as those of Rachmaninov form the same period, they require an assured approach to the different qualities of each movement or section for the concertos are not conceived on a grand scale; for example, the Fifth Concerto is in five movements, none lasting more than seven movements and the middle Toccata only two minutes.

Howard Shelley is one of the United Kingdom's finest pianists and like many others, has turned to directing the orchestra as well as performing as soloist. For Volume 32 in the "Romantic Piano Concertos" series he and Hyperion have selected three Piano Concertos by Ignaz Moscheles (1794-1870). Now, I only remember Moscheles from the Technical Studies that were placed in front of me as a young pianist. I failed with them but Howard Shelley is sure-footed as he plays Concertos Numbers 1, 6 (Fantastique") and 7 ("Pathetique"). The Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra provides a firm backing in works strongly influenced by Beethoven whom he had met when in Vienna. By now the three movement concerto form had become well established with the second movement providing a slow section sandwiched between two faster movements (Hyperion CDA 67385).

And the same pattern applies to the two concertos composed by Louis Spohr (1784-1859) for his Clarinet Concertos composed in 1808 and 1810 respectively. By now the new-fangled clarinet had become part of the symphony orchestra and following Mozart's example (albeit with the basset horn), composers were anxious to exploit its potential. Weber may have established a strong foot-hold with his works for clarinet and orchestra but there is much to enjoy in the works composed by Spohr with both concertos and two shorter works programmed in this release with Michael Collins and the Swedish Chamber Orchestra conducted by Robin O'Neill (Hyperion CDA 67509). Apart from the beautifully-toned playing by Collins, one of the positives about this series is the excellent CD booklets, usually trilingual- and packed with fascinating detail. For example, German-born Spohr was appointed to a Court as Kapellmeister, but dignitaries thought he was too young for such a post and so cheated and lied about his age making out he was older than he really was. Now, no one tried that with Mozart.

Which brings me to the fourth of this set of releases and a composer with whose music I was totally unfamiliar - Jeno Hubay (1858-1937). If the word "Romantic" applies more to the period in the case of Moscheles and Spohr), then Volume 6 of "Romantic Violin Concertos" is very much in the spirit for these are exquisite compositions - two Concertos No 1 ("Concerto dramatique") and No 2 with a Suite for Violin and Orchestra - a quasi concerto thrown in for more than good measure. Soloist Hagai Shaham and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra conducted by Martyn Brabbins revel in the rich sounds of Hubay. Composer, violinist, composer and, most significant of all, teacher, Hubay's pupils included Eugene Ormandy and Joseph Szigeti. His use of Hungarian dance forms and styles were to influence both Liszt and Brahms. I can also detect a touch of Hubay in listening to the concertos by Max Bruch and Erich Korngold. Yes, this is music to enjoy in spirit - just immerse yourself in it (Hyperion CDA 67498).