Friday, 29 June 2007

Rare, Ravishing Romantics

When alliteration goes too far.

One of the most satisfying concerts I have given for a long time. The building (Emmanuel URC) and the instrument (a Kawai grand with a huge dynamic range and golden touch) were magnificent. And the programme, despite my nagging doubts up until 12.58pm yesterday, proved not to be cloying, but rather rousing.

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912) Three-Fours (Valse Suite), Op. 71 , I, II & VI
His songs and smaller instrumental works were all the rage in the early part of the century, but it all went quiet until Classic FM rediscovered and popularised Coleridge-Taylor’s violin concerto a few years ago. This set of waltzes reveals the hand of a fine pianist with a real gift for melody. The first is very ambiguous in mood and tonality until the final few lines. The second is what one might call ‘cheesy’, a languid, ravishing dance. The sixth is hammer and tongs all the way. His father, from Sierra Leone, had faced insurrmountable predjudice in starting his medical career in England, but Samuel was perhaps too successful: extensive concert tours and a professorship at Trinity College London contributed to his early death from exhaustion.

Theophilus Ayo Bankole (1932-1976) Rhapsody on a Theme from Egun
Bankole’s roots were even more firmly in Africa: though he studied in London and Cambridge he returned to his homeland of Nigeria to take up a distinguished composing and conducting career, cut tragically short. The theme has two essential elements: a set of chords heard at the start, which almost hum with melancholy and mystery, and a haunting melody which overlays the chords. Each of the episodes of the work varies one or both of these elements. Occasionally the music goes off in an unusual direction, and many of the central passages are exciting and upbeat, but it closes as it began, in haunting simplicity. The Rhapsody was never published and only exists today because of a transcription made of Bankole himself improvising at the keyboard.

Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943) Prelude in B minor, Op. 32, No. 9 & Prelude in B major, Op. 32, No. 10
The last great romantic left Russia forever in 1917 and settled in the US. He already had three piano concertos and two symphonies to his name, but was forced to make his living as a pianist – not that this was a great problem, since Rachmaninov was one of the most talented virtuosi who has ever lived. Many recordings he made survive to demonstrate that. There could hardly be a greater contrast than between these two preludes – the first a funereal monster, dark, brooding, even savage in places; the second, light and airy, in the manner of a Siciliano, a Renaissance courtly dance.

Richard Wagner (1813-1883) Album-Sonata in A flat
In 1875, while recovering from the long task of completing Götterdämmerung, the final opera in his Ring cycle, Wagner wrote to Betty Schott, widow of the famous music publisher. He had promised her a work many years previously, and was now able to deliver this, his final work for piano. Unlike the juvenile sonatas, which are very much pastiches, this piece speaks with Wagner’s own voice. It is in a single movement, slow-fast-slow, noble and only rarely agitated. As we might expect the textures are rich and the small amount of melodic material is transformed and reinvented on every page.

Richard Addinsell (1904-1977) Warsaw Concerto
The film Dangerous Moonlight, about a Polish pianist/pilot who joins the RAF during the Second World War, was a patriotic romance that suited the needs and mood of audiences of 1941. The centrepiece of its score has stood the test of time rather more successfully. Its enduring popularity lies in the fundamental quality of the material such that it transcends mere pastiche. This arrangement for solo piano is by Henry Geehl.