British Piano Festival Launches Trio of Rare British Piano Concertos

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Jacob, Williamson, Carwithen: Mark Bebbington (piano), The Innovation Chamber Ensemble/Richard Jenkinson,(conductor), Adrian Boult Hall, Birmingham Conservatoire, Birmingham, 14.6.2015 (RB)

Gordon Jacob: Concerto No.1 for piano and string orchestra
Malcolm Williamson: Concerto No.2 for piano and string orchestra
Doreen Carwithen: Concerto for piano and string orchestra


This was something of a challenge to audiences. Here was a Sunday evening concert consisting of three rare 20th century British piano concertos … one after the other. The Birmingham Conservatoire and Archery Promotions were having no truck with received wisdoms about ‘overture-concerto-symphony’. With an audience of about forty, being about twice the number of strings in the Initium Ensemble, this was perhaps a concerto or two too far. It’s a case of ‘more’s the pity’ and not one of these concertos was a flop. They were all tonal and without blandness were rife with melodic invention.

The hugely accomplished and valiant Mark Bebbington who has unmatched credentials in this field flew at the virtuoso demands of each work with as much precise abandon as there was poetry in his fingers for the more reflective moments. The playing of the Initium Ensemble (strings from the CBSO) under the full-on conducting of  Richard Jenkinson was brilliant, muscular and affecting. Each of the slow movements and many episodes in the flanking movements of these three concertos yielded and met the most poetic and touching fragile playing. The writing for the violins in the Carwithen and Jacob was notably succulent – even ‘silver screen’. The Jacob seemed once or twice to predict the writing in Tippett’s 1930s Concerto for Double String Orchestra.  No wonder the conductor called on the principal and section leaders to take a bow at the end. They had much to do in exposed solo roles in the Carwithen and not only there.

Each work had its own character. This was not a case of photo-fit Englishry. The Jacob (1895-1984) which dates from 1927 was flamboyant and with something approaching the jazzy ways of Constant Lambert though not as acidulous. It was also showily heroic in the cinematic way that is familiar from Moeran’s Rhapsody No. 3 for piano and full orchestra. It is notable that it achieves this with a string orchestra rather than the full orchestra one finds in the much later Moeran and in the Bliss concerto.

After the Jacob came the Malcolm Williamson (1931-2003) – a work familiar to some from an EMI LP in the 1970s but more recently dusted off in a two CD set from Hyperion. Williamson, who was Master of Queen’s Music, wrote his concerto – one of four – in 1962. His palette is more accommodating of dissonance but this aspect is swept along in a phantasmagorically exciting colour scheme. The ear-engaging clangour of the rushing piano writing in the first and last movements seems to touch on Messiaen. The discords were no more disturbing – if that is the word – than those you find in Malcolm Arnold’s Concerto for Phyllis and Cyril. The middle movement is a miracle of hush and quiet poise. No one dropped a pin but if someone had ….

After a short interval came the Carwithen. Doreen Carwithen (1922-2003) was the wife of William Alwyn. She was a composer in her own right as we have known for years from her two Chandos CDs. Her Piano Concerto dates from 1948. Graham Parlett’s excellent programme note places the music broadly within the Rachmaninov camp but with a strong presence of Moeran and Vaughan Williams. That’s a pretty accurate summary though I question the Moeran reference. All I would add is that its melodic invention several times convinced me that Carwithen, consciously or sub-consciously, took the great heart-stopping theme from Butterworth’s orchestral A Shropshire Lad as an inspiration. The concerto is a glorious work and keeps cousinly company with the other two concertos and indeed with the Howells’ piano concertos. The Carwithen was heard in Worthing in 2014 when it was most enjoyably played by Anthony Hewitt under John Gibbons’ adventurous Worthing Symphony Orchestra (review).

You get a chance to hear the programme at home as it replicates a CD recently issued by Somm and reviewed here.

I hope we have not heard the last of such concerts. They serve to shake up tired and rutted expectations; not to mention delivering delight.

Rob Barnett

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