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Piano Concerto No.1 in C minor Op.4
Piano Concerto No.2 in C major Op.39

Howard Shelley, piano
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Richard Hickox

Herbert Howells remains an important figure in British music, whose compositions will continue to maintain their position in the repertory. This recording of little known repertoire is therefore welcome in extending our awareness of the nature of his art, as it is in raising the profile of the music itself.

Howells (1892-1983) lived a long life, surviving the Great War, unlike so many of his friends and fellow musicians. Ironically he suffered a life-threatening illness during the war years, from which he recovered to live on past ninety. For many years, until well past the conventional retirement age, he worked at the Royal College of Music, where Paul Spicer, the author of the accompanying essay, was one of his students.

Howells began composing his opus 4, described here as Piano Concerto no. 1 at the age of 22, in the middle if his studies at the Royal College of Music. Spicer's essay gives the background to the composition, which was Howells's first large-scale orchestral work, and written for his fellow student Arthur Benjamin. Since the Concerto was not published, there was no definitive score, and in fact the last few bars were missing. They have been added for this recording by John Rutter, who explains that his task was not so difficult since Howells left such a detailed programme note.

But what of the music, and of the performance too? The latter is imposing, and richly recorded by a top class orchestra. Howard Shelley gives fully committed performances of both these concertos, whose music reveals how thorough was Howells's awareness of contemporary trends: Debussy, Ravel and Rachmaninov as well as Brahms, can be suggested as influences. The First Concerto, to quote Spicer, is 'a prodigious achievement'.

The Second Concerto followed some ten years later, a Royal Philharmonic Society commission in April 1925. It is a brilliant but complex work, and the scandal of the premiere, at which the critic Robert Lorenz actually stood up and shouted out 'Thank God that's over!' led Howells to decline its publication, with enduring consequences, of course.

It is certainly a complex score, which has only been properly available to the public since the present recording by Shelley and Hickox, and a few years ago by Kathryn Stott and Vernon Handley (Hyperion). In both these performances, supported by the wizardry of modern recording techniques, the music emerges as a virtuoso tour-de-force.

Both the First Concerto and the short ballet item, Penguinski, receive their premiere recordings here. The latter was composed in 1933, on the occasion of the visit of the Prince of Wales to the Royal College of Music. The musical style is uncomplicated, an affectionate tribute to Stravinsky and the Russian Ballet, which had been successful in London for many years. Although barely four minutes long, there is a big piano part, but above all the music is notable for its vitality and wit.

Terry Barfoot

See also review by Hubert Culot

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