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Mewton-Wood plays Twentieth Century Piano Concertos
Arthur BLISS (1891-1975)

Piano Concerto (1938-39) [37.36]
Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)

Concerto for piano and wind instruments (1924) [20.06]
Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)

Concerto for piano, trumpet and strings Op. 35 (1933) [21.08]
Noel Mewton-Wood (piano)
Harry Sevenstern (trumpet) (Shostakovich)
Utrecht Symphony Orchestra (Bliss); Residentie Orchestra, The Hague (Stravinsky); Concert Hall Symphony Orchestra
Walter Goehr (conductor)
rec. 1952 (Bliss, Stravinsky); 1953 (Shostakovich). mono. ADD
Transferred by Bryan Crimp from LPs drawn from the collection of Robert Milnes
Financial assistance from the Bliss Trust
Originally issued as Concert Hall LPs: CHS1167 (Bliss); CHS1160 (Stravinsky); CHSH4 (Shostakovich)


Let me first declare my interest as editor of the British Music Society Newsletter.

With this extremely generously-filled disc the British Music Society label makes its first foray into the increasingly crowded historic stakes. It comes at full price and in the case of the Bliss concerto it enters a crowded field. The war-time recording by Solomon is on Naxos at bargain price. There is a medium price issue of the Trevor Barnard recording on Divine Art which, depending on your taste, has a fatiguing edginess to its sound - a characteristic, I believe of the original LP recording. There is the reputedly stormy performance in a recording of the New York World Fair 1939 recording with Boult and Solomon (APR) although, as expected, the recording quality is a trial. For modern sound you can try to find the Unicorn CD which has Philip Fowke as the soloist but this too sounded less than perfect despite its late 1970s lineage. Peter Donohoe (who is recording the work for the Naxos British Piano Concertos series) performs the Bliss on 13 November 2003 with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra.

The present disc is in good mono and sounds very acceptable indeed - the best of the historical issues. All three works are taken from LPs rather than master tapes. Some whiskery surface ‘burble’ is in evidence but otherwise all the signs indicate that good condition copies were used. In the Bliss, the flute at 3.03 in the second movement sounds beautifully well. Of course when Bliss lets blast with a tutti as at 10.03 in the first movement the limitations of a recording made more than fifty years ago are apparent though hardly disastrous. Goehr and Mewton-Wood conjure silvery and romantic magic from this score better than any of the other available commercially recorded versions. I do not see this recommendation changing at least not until someone is able to produce satisfactory sound from an off-air broadcast by John Ogdon (Royal Albert Hall Proms, 2 August 1966, BBC Symphony Orchestra/Bliss). In that version the extraordinary Ogdon plays like a man possessed transforming this problematic Lisztian work into gold. Then again I listen to the wonders wrought by Mewton-Wood in the reflective episodes at 14.33 and I am in two minds. He manages to integrate the kaleidoscope of influences (Liszt, Chaminade, Tchaikovsky) extremely cogently and I should not forget Goehr either who elicits flames and silver from this survivor out of time.

With the advent of an Arthur Bliss Society we can hope for other revelations. The grand cantata The Beatitudes has never been commercially recorded yet it is easily as visionary a piece as Dyson's Quo Vadis. This needs to be recorded by a strong team. The BBC tapes of Vernon Handley's studio recordings of the Metamorphic Variations and the Violin Concerto (with the same John Georgiadis who recorded the Moeran concerto for Lyrita Recorded Edition LP) are in urgent need of issue. Perhaps someone could gather together all the Carlton BBC Bliss tapes and reissue those as well.

The Stravinsky Concerto bears the marks of the composer's neo-classical phase - almost a Pulcinella concerto. It opens with the austerity - almost gloom - of Purcellian funeral music. It is given an edgily explosive reading by Mewton-Wood and the Residentie Orchestra. Interesting to hear the overcast Purcellian element returning in the finale. The Shostakovich was Mewton-Wood's last commercial recording. It is eager and incendiary but makes time for reflection during the long moonlit lento. After the bright-eyed enthusiasm of the moderato we launch into the allegro con brio with its ‘Tom and Jerry’ sword-play between Mewton-Wood's piano and Harry Sevenstern's defiantly Pulcinella-like trumpet. The two soloists fly accelerator-floored through the breathless gaudy and braggadocio of the final pages.

The documentation for the disc is exemplary. There are new notes by John Talbot as well as Cecil Day Lewis's ‘Elegiac Sonnet’ written in memory of Mewton-Wood. John Amis's memoir of the pianist is typically engaging and certainly poignant. In addition there are reprints of William Mann's entry on the Bliss Concerto (from ‘The Concerto’ 1956) complete with nine music exx. Edward Sackville-West's Mewton-Wood portrait is also there. Obtaining all necessary clearances for this valuable copyright material music have been a considerable imposition. Whoever invested such time to achieve the end result can take pride in the extremely thorough level of background information - personal and factual. This generous textual context is printed in legible type - black on white - not to be taken for granted these days. The photographic plates are wonderfully clear and charming. I am not quite so sure about the colours of the booklet cover with their subdued terracotta ground and light orange lettering. It does not exactly command the attention on the crowded shelves of the retailer.

At 79 minutes there can be no complaints about parsimony. The notes are generous. Collectors would do well to keep a beady eye on the BMS label. In addition to its already splendid catalogue (the Bowen chamber disc represents the glories of the late romantic era; similarly the disc of cello sonatas by Foulds, Walker and Bowen) there are plans that will enthuse the avid collector of challenging and idiosyncratic music of the last century.

Warmly recommended then for those who collect Bliss or pianist recordings. It nicely complements the Mewton-Wood set issued by ABC in 1999. It is also a de rigueur acquisition for the growing ranks of those who have been won over by Arthur Bliss's music. Just hearing the stony brilliance of the cascade of notes at 9.41 in the third movement of the Bliss leaves me once again wanting to play this disc yet again. The Shostakovich and Stravinsky concertos are rare birds and will be wanted by those keen to experience a young and eloquently gifted pianist rising to the peak of his considerable powers.

Rob Barnett


See also review by Paul Shoemaker

British Music Society

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