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Edvard GRIEG (1843-1907)
Piano Concerto in A minor (1868-69) [32.53]
Piano Concerto No. 2 in B minor - sketches – (premiere recordings) (1881) [3.48 orchestral] [3.58 solo piano] (sketches arranged and orchestrated, and arranged for solo piano by Robert Matthew-Walker)
Frederick DELIUS (1862-1934)
Piano Concerto in C minor (1907 revised version) [24.21]
Three Preludes for piano (1921): [4.46]
On hearing the first cuckoo in Spring (1913, transcr. piano duet, Peter Warlock) [5.11]
Mark Bebbington (piano)
Irene Loh* (second piano)
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Jan Latham-Koenig
rec. 2017, St John’s, Smith Square, London (concertos and sketches); Wyastone Concert Hall, UK (remainder)

Here is another intelligent and imaginative release from SOMM. It ties the music of two major Late Romantic composers: Grieg and Delius. Grieg – and his beloved Norway - greatly inspired the younger Delius. It also intriguingly suggests what might have been had those Grieg Piano Concerto No. 2 sketches been developed.

The album opens with performances of the piano concertos of both composers. This Bebbington/Latham-Koenig performance of the enduringly popular Grieg A minor Concerto is one that appeals to the head rather than the heart which, perhaps, is no bad thing in an exploratory album of this kind. It begins in the usual robustly and confident manner but soon it is apparent that this reading will be unhurried and finely detailed – but, to my mind, rather detached. The lyrical passages are delicately rapt, yet they do not lean at all towards the mawkish. The central Adagio is warmer and nicely nuanced and the Allegro finale is attractively urgent and jaunty. Bebbington is poised and lucid, and technically secure. Latham-Koening’s equally assured orchestral accompaniment consistently elevates the performance and his woodwinds and horns deserve special mention.

Generally, Delius’ Piano Concerto has not been regarded as highly as his three later concertos: the double concerto for violin, cello and orchestra and the concertos for violin and cello. Bebbington and Latham-Koenig make a strong case for it though, delivering a leading recording in a not too crowded field. The music, in addition to the influence of Grieg and Liszt, is reminiscent of the Afro-American music the composer heard in Florida. The bombast of the opening movement is imposing but it is the quieter lyrical moments, delivered so poetically and plaintively here that linger in the memory; so too does the equally affecting languorous loveliness of the central Largo. And the repeats of the first movement’s material suffusing the third section are welcome because of their imaginative development for both keyboard and orchestra with some touching solos for horn, cello and violin as well as some haunting shimmering descending string material. In passing, readers might be interested in a review of the 2005 Hyperion recording of the original 1904 version of this concerto.

Grieg was approached to compose a second piano concerto in 1881 when he was 38. After the tremendous success of his A minor Concerto it must have been a daunting task to contemplate composing a work that would live up to the standard of the A minor, or even surpass it. Considering that Grieg was alive for another 26 years or so, he had plenty of time to complete the work from these sketches. I think we should bear this in mind when considering them. Robert Matthew-Walker is to be commended for his work in arranging Grieg’s sketches into a form – or forms, as here, with and without orchestral backing – that could be appreciated and assessed. I played through these sketches a good number of times. Except at the beginning of both sets, there is little imposing material beyond a few grand gestures in the Late Romantic tradition. Much of the material is folk-like in character – mostly bright and joyful. Yet there are moments, more revealingly in the piano sketches, when the mood darkens and there are more sombre considerations. Was it my imagination but, at one point did I hear a hint of the Dies Irae and some flashes of material that reminded me of Liszt and Totentanz? – intriguing. My own conclusion is that Grieg did not feel confident enough that he had sufficient quality material to seriously devote time to a Second Piano Concerto. One must defer to that decision.

Delius’s Three Preludes are little gems, exquisite delight; I guess Beecham would have called them ‘lollipops’. The ‘Scherzando’ is poignant and questioning, the second, ‘Quick’, is quicksilver and rippling while ‘Con Moto’ continues the material but at a slower pace. Lovely.

The cuckoo of Delius’s On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring is no English bird as might initially be imagined. Again there is a link between Grieg and Delius for both utilise an identical Norwegian folk-melody: Grieg, in his Op 66 (No. 14, ‘In Ola Valley’) and Delius for this cuckoo. As Christopher Palmer has noted about Delius’s bird, “[It] is no modest essay in folk-like ingenuous freshness, on the contrary it is considerably sophisticated…”. The 19-year-old Peter Warlock’s piano duet version was greatly appreciated by Delius for, as Robert Matthew-Walker observes, it captures the essence of Delius’s lovely tone poem. Bebbington and Irene Loh, deliver an exquisite rendering.

A very rewarding album for fans of these composers.

Ian Lace



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