[Update: This disc has just been nominated for a Grammy.]
The featured soloist here, pianist Peter Donohoe, is intimately involved in the ongoing 'British Piano Concerto' series coming out on Naxos. This is a worthwhile venture for the company and certainly has some of us eager for each new release. I have previously written about the wonderful Rawsthorne concerti here at Amazon.
I had never encountered either of the concerti by Arthur Bliss (1891-1975) recorded here. The largest piece (and the first on the CD), the Piano Concerto, is a bit of an overcooked omelet. Bliss wrote it on commission from the British Council for the 1939 New York World's Fair and it was premièred by Solomon with the New York Philharmonic under Adrian Boult. He said that he wanted to write something 'romantic' ... 'for surely the Americans are the most romantic people on earth.' I'm not sure what to make of that comment, but he certainly did write a Romantic concerto with an abundance of Tchaikovskian gestures, particularly for the pianist. Unfortunately that approach coupled with Bliss's musical tendency to mix modal melody with Impressionist harmonies and, in this particular case, with 'American' unresolved dominant sevenths and blue notes, leads to a bit of a mess. The concerto does get stronger as it goes along. The first movement, at almost seventeen minutes, overstays its welcome at least partly because there is little melodic distinction, a fair amount of empty gesturing, and a tendency to get in a rhythmic rut. The second movement is a quiet rumination with some fuzzy and intriguing harmonies. The finale is an energetic rondo with the feeling of a perpetuum mobile, although there are some slower interludes. The ending, however, feels tacked on, almost as if the composer felt he had to end with a bang. Not a success, this piece, but it is nicely played by Donohoe. The piano sound is a bit forward, and the couple of places where the concertmaster's violin has a dialog with the pianist lose their effectiveness because the violinist's sound is so recessed.
From here on, though, is smooth sailing. Next comes a big, broad-shouldered piano sonata, written for Mewton-Wood in 1951. This 21-minute piece has a brusquely energetic first movement characterized by an arresting dotted-note upbeat rhythm (taDUT/DAAH) that has the feel of an Prokofievesque sicilienne, if one can imagine such a thing. The Adagio sereno begins with a series of chords harmonized as if by Debussy and the subjected to a set of increasingly intense yet still serene variations. For me, this is the emotional center of the sonata, and one that I find myself listening to repeatedly on its own and even trying to imitate by ear at my own piano. The third movement is a spiky Stravinskyesque romp, played brilliantly I must say, by Donohoe.
The final piece, the Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra, has an interesting history. Bliss wrote a piece for tenor, piano and strings in the early 20s. He then recast it for two pianos, winds, brass and percussion in 1924 and it was premièred in Boston the same year as the famous Aeolian Hall concert that featured Gershwin's 'Rhapsody in Blue.' It then languished until 1950 when he rewrote it for two pianos and full orchestra (the version heard here) and then finally, in 1968, he rewrote it again, this time for two pianists/three hands especially for the two-piano team of Phyllis Sellick and Cyril Smith, the latter having lost the use of one of his hands. (The same team inspired Malcolm Arnold's better-known 'Concerto for Phyllis and Cyril'). It is a twelve-minute work in three sections played without pause. Even more Stravinskyesque than the third movement of the Sonata, the orchestration is positively influenced by that of the early Stravinsky ballets. This lighthearted and sophisticated concerto has the clarity of the best French music of the period, with glinting runs and delicate washes of color from the two pianists. Donohoe is joined at the second piano by friend and colleague Martin Roscoe. Their performance is a triumph; they are in complete sync and yet one can hear two individuals playing. The important orchestral part seems less recessed than in the one-piano concerto recording. Conductor David Lloyd-Jones and his Royal Scottish National Orchestra give solid support.