on 8 February 2011
If you don't know Harty's Violin Concerto, you are missing out bigtime! It is a superb piece which deserves to be ranked alongside the concertos of, say, Glazunov and Dvorak. It really is that good. Harty does not have a particularly individual style and, if you know any of Stanford's orchestral music, you will recognize similarities...they both have a great fondness for the brass, for example. What makes Harty's concerto so outstanding is simply the quality of the lyrical ideas and the way he expands them into long paragraphs, often reaching a culminating idea which is even more striking than the first. The first movement is a standard sonata structure, the only unusual feature being that the (short) cadenza is placed before the recapitulation. You can't get lost, then, even at a first hearing. The second subject, much admired by Delius and first heard at 2 mins 49 secs (you don't really need to be told that!) is simply exquisite. Soon a solo 'cello joins the violin (perhaps an idea that Harty took from the first movement of Stanford's magnificent Second Piano Concerto) but Harty has not finished yet. More lovely ideas are introduced and the music culminates (at 4 mins 49 secs) in a wonderfully lyrical, intense and unforgettable phrase. The development is completely relevant thematically. The shortened recapitulation eventually arrives at that wonderful culminating phrase, this time even more passionately expressed. A very brief coda then briskly brings the movement to a close.
The slow movement is also wonderfully rich melodically. It is an easily followed ternary structure. As in the first movement the music unfolds with a completely natural and unforced eloquence. At no point in this concerto do you feel that you have to sit through pages of pyrotechnics from the soloist until the next lyrical interlude arrives. The return of the opening idea with its shimmering string accompaniment is particularly beautiful.
The finale is built on a wonderfully catchy tune which skips along until yet another lovely lyrical idea is introduced. Again, Harty's inspiration doesn't desert him for a moment. Technically the movement is again a sonata structure but you don't really hear the music in this way. A virtuoso but not at all showy coda brings this splendid work to a close. This is a concerto which truly sings in the way that violin concertos should.
The Piano Concerto is not quite as fine as the one for violin, largely because it is not quite as inspired melodically, but it is still well worth getting to know. It again shows the influence of Stanford, in particular of his Second Piano Concerto, a work which was itself clearly influenced by Rachmaninov's Second Piano Concerto. Compare the opening accompanying piano figuration in the opening themes of all three concertos. The main theme of the finale of Harty's concerto also bears a striking resemblance to that of the finale of Stanford's concerto and I don't think that I am being fanciful in suggesting that Harty pays direct homage to Rachmaninov at the end of his concerto. You'll know what I mean.
Structurally the concerto is similar to the Violin Concerto. The first movement is a sonata structure and the second is ternary. However, the finale of the piano concerto is more elaborate, including a middle section which, according to the notes, makes "passing allusions to an Irish tune, "The Wearing of the Green"".
The Violin Concerto is splendidly performed with beautifully judged tempi and excellent playing from Ralph Holmes. However, the performance of the Piano Concerto suffers in comparison with the one on Naxos with Peter Donohoe as soloist. Donohoe's performance is much more volatile. Tempi are faster, often, as in the opening of the finale, considerably so, and, as a result, the lyrical melodies flow better. This is particularly noticeable in the slow movement and in the more lyrical music in the first movement where Harty's somewhat clunky chordal writing tends to lose its shape at Binns' speed. The Violin Concerto, by the way, is also available coupled with Harty's attractive 16 minute "Variations on a Dublin Air for Violin and Orchestra" instead of the Piano Concerto.
The Chandos and Naxos discs were made many years apart but in the same place, the Ulster Hall, Belfast and all have a similar sound. The acoustic is clear and well balanced if not, perhaps, ideally spacious. Whatever you do, do not miss out on Harty's Violin Concerto. This is the only recording it has ever had.