Romantic Concertos on the Hyperion label
© Chris Green, February 2019
Each year I try and present my students with a new musical topic. This year the new course is on " The Concerto ": less controversial than some recent courses, but fascinating in how this well-loved musical form emerged. So I thought that this month's review would give you a sample of concertos that time and audiences have forgotten - if ever they knew about the pieces in the first place.
A series that has provided me with much food for thought and no small number of surprises is one released by Hyperion Records. The Romantic Piano Concerto now features dozens of releases, and there is a companion Romantic Violin Concerto series. What I therefore present to you is but a small sample of released editions, beautifully recorded and presented. How the Executive producers discover these works, beats me.
In my lecture series, we started with the Italian baroque which set the scene for what followed. But then orchestras got larger, audiences changed and by the nineteenth century the performer-composer emerged and some would become feted celebrities like Chopin and Liszt. But there were others whose claim to fame was dull in comparison such as Adolf von Henselt (1814-1889). Born in Bavaria, he became Court pianist to Russia and a Piano Concerto together with a set of Variations is features in one release along with two Chamber Concertos by Charles-Valentin Alkan (1813-1888). Marc-André Hamelin is accompanied by the ever-dependable BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra conducted by Martyn Brabbins (Hyperion CDA 66717). Alright, there is plenty of note-spinning in Henselt's concerto, but the Variations on a theme by Meyerbeer are great fun.
There were few weeks on old " steam" radio when one would not hear Henri Litolff's scherzo. It was a favourite concert piece. Actually, Alsatian-born Litolff wrote many scherzos, but it was only one that was ever featured. The form called "scherzo" is incorporated into many of his Concerto Symphoniques and two (Numbers 3 and 5) are played by Peter Donohoe, another fine pianist, with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, this time conducted by Andrew Litton. Litolff (1818-1891) was something of a musical itinerant and his Third Concerto (featured) is dedicated to the people of Holland who embraced him when he was on the run after a misdemeanour in Britain.
The Third Concerto served not only as a "Thank you" to the Dutch, but reflected Litolff's political views - emphasizing the importance of nationhood, not only for his host country, but also for neighbouring Belgium which had gained independence from the House of Orange in 1830 - sixteen years before the premiere of the Concerto. The sleeve-liner booklet is a fount of information about this talented man who could woo audiences and other composers alike. Plenty of barn-storming passages and some strong tunes abound (Hyperion CDA 67210).
The Piano Concerto may have served as the principal instrument in the repertoire of the nineteenth century- it gained prominence not only on the concert-platform, but also in households where it became a social vehicle: people could join around the pianoforte singing songs and entertaining themselves. However, close on the heels of the piano was the violin. The challenge for composers was to balance the weight of sound produced by this smaller cousin against the growing size of the orchestra. Hyperion has again does us a great favour with another series, this time featuring Romantic Violin Concertos and the one I am including with this review has a soloist who performed with my British orchestra some years ago when he was a student. Anthony Marwood went to school in the city close to where I live, and has established an international reputation for himself as a soloist. With this Hyperion release he is accompanied by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, again conducted by Martyn Brabbins in two violin concertos by British composers. Samuel Coleridge-Taylor has the distinction of being one of the first black British composers to be recognised. Born in 1875 born in a suburb of London to mixed-race parents, he went to the Royal College of Music and whilst in his early twenties, he won praise from Elgar who ensured that some of his works were performed in the Three Choirs and Birmingham festivals. Coleridge-Taylor was destined for great things, but his untimely death in 1912- the year when his Violin Concerto was premiered in the USA robbed the United Kingdom of a distinctive voice. It was only after his death that the work was published.
I have never heard this work before, but its lyricism reminds one of Dvorak, and although there is some note-spinning, the work never overdoes the showy side of the solo instrument, although there are plenty of opportunities in the final fast movement. It really does deserve to be programmed, which I cannot say for the companion Concerto in this release by another Brit, Arthur Somervell (1863-1937). Like many of his generation, Somervell was over-awed by Brahms and this shows in the opening movement. Still, a generous pairing of two works that have gathered dust for too long (Hyperion CDA 67420).
Maybe, I can return in the coming months with more recommendations from this vast catalogue of neglected concertos?