British Piano Concertos - Ferguson, Gerhard / Donohoe

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For those of us who have learnt to play the piano over the last half century the name of Alec Rowley will be extremely familiar....
For those of us who have learnt to play the piano over the last half century the name of Alec Rowley will be extremely familiar. Even today when I visit the secondhand music shops in Kelvinside and Fishergate in Glasgow and York, I am amazed at the number of volumes of this composer that are always available. I have managed to build a small collection of his easier pieces. I doubt that there is much in print these days, but historically there are reams of miniatures and teaching pieces available to the interested explorer and collector. I did not realise until quite recently that Mr Rowley did have a serious side to him - that is until I inherited an album of organ works. None of these are for neophytes and all of them seem to be interesting examples of the ’tween-the-wars genre. However I will always remember him for two salon pieces – Witchery and Hornpipe – both for piano. I still play these at least once a month!

I have long known about the Concerto in D major and have plonked my way through the score. However, until this present release I had never heard it. And what a pleasure it is. I will state my case – I love the work – it is a fine discovery and deserves its place in the repertoire.

The work received its premiere in a BBC broadcast way back in 1938. The work is scored for soloist and strings; however there are optional parts for timpani and percussion. This is the version recorded here. From the very first note we are in the presence of a delightful work. Forget anyone who says that it relies heavily on Delius or Britten or Cyril Scott. This is an original concerto that is well scored and has ‘a breezy, open-air freshness about it’ that is both charming and satisfying. The work is well constructed, with the opening of the last movement mirroring the introduction to the first. My only criticism is that this concerto is too short! But Naxos and Mr Donohoe please note, there is another Piano Concerto and Three Idylls for Piano and Orchestra just begging to be recorded!

Christian Darnton is an unknown quantity to me and I imagine for many other listeners as well. However the Piano Concerto in C Major is a fine example of the genre. It was composed in 1948 for the South African pianist Adolf Hallis. In fact the work was premiered in Durban the following year.

It is quite a short work and this is perhaps its one fault. There seems to be a little bit of a stylistic imbalance between quite ‘elegant’ and sometimes even ‘dreamy’ music and the harder edged neo-classicism of Stravinsky. For example the first movement vacillates between these two contrasting styles and the disparity is too great for good balance. That being said there is much that is attractive about this work. Once again the contrasts in the middle movement are quite extreme. There is a whiff of Britten about the outer sections whilst the middle section nods to the Warsaw Concerto in its ‘heart on sleeve’ romanticism.

The finale is a good example of neo-classical fun. There are moments when Malcolm Arnold seems about to break through. However the entire movement is well wrought and is quite exciting.

I reiterate my comment that this work is far too short. There is a wealth of interesting material that could have been developed into a major work.

However, I do hope that Naxos will issue some more music by this obviously talented composer, for example any one of the four symphonies.

The Roberto Gerhard Concerto for Piano and Strings is the antithesis of the Darnton. It is slightly later, having been composed in 1951 (the CD cover states 1961 as the date of composition) for the Aldeburgh Festival. It is the first of Gerhard’s works to be written using serial techniques. Yet continuity with the past is introduced as the composer gives a renaissance musical title to each movement. The first being Tiento which is Spanish for ‘toccata,’ the second is Diferencias which is loosely translated as ‘variations’ and the last movement is inscribed Folias which means ‘fantasy.’

Gerhard uses the serial technique with subtlety. We are never conscious that the work is being controlled by a pre-defined sequence of notes. However its unity is never in doubt. This is an extremely well-balanced and nuanced piece that is totally consistent with itself from the very first note to the last. Harmonically there is none of the astringency of Webern and his followers; in fact it is difficult to pin the concerto down to a style or period. This is quite definitely a work that is infused with the moods of Spain. However do not look for Spanish Dances – the ethos is derived from darker aspects of Iberian culture.

There are two things to say about Howard Ferguson. Firstly, he wrote too little! It is always a great disappointment to me that Ferguson gave up composing in the early 1950s; he reckoned that he had said all he wanted to say! Of course the listener’s loss is the student and performer’s gain as most of the rest of his life was spent in editing early music and teaching material. The second thing is that every piece that Ferguson wrote is near perfect and commands our attention. There is nothing that does not deserve to be permanently in the repertoire.

The Piano Concerto is a case in point. I have no doubt that if this work was by a Polish or German composer it would be in the public domain. As it stands I imagine that it is well known to a handful of British music enthusiasts. Yet what a great and wonderful work it is. It is not really necessary to try making comparisons. I do not agree with Andrew Burn’s notes that it nods to Mozart. What we have is a beautifully composed piece that throws introspection and an extrovert, almost ‘puckish’ feel into contrast, yet manages to give a satisfying sense of completeness. Of course the heart of the work is the reflective ‘Theme and Variations’ – this movement is quite bitter-sweet and stays in the mind long after the last note plays. The last movement, an Allegro giovale, is a tour de force. However there are some quieter, more introverted moments and there is a reprise of the slow movement ‘tune’ towards the end. But this is positive, uplifting music that is a joy and pleasure and a privilege to listen to.

The sound quality is great. The playing is second to none. The programme notes could have been a bit more fulsome. The programme itself is well thought out and repays repeated hearings. All credit must go to Peter Donohoe and his British Piano Concerto Foundation.

Now a personal plea. Mr Donohoe, if you read this please can you consider one or two or more of the following for your next batch of releases in this great series – the piano concertos by William Baines, York Bowen, Rosalind Ellicott and Walford Davies. But whatever you choose please keep them coming and concentrate on those works that are not otherwise available!

-- John France, MusicWeb International

Product Description:

  • Release Date: February 22, 2005

  • UPC: 747313229024

  • Catalog Number: 8557290

  • Label: Naxos

  • Number of Discs: 1

  • Period: ""

  • Composer: Alec Rowley, Christian Darnton, Howard Ferguson, Roberto Gerhard

  • Conductor: Peter Donohoe

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: Northern Sinfonia

  • Performer: Peter Donohoe


  1. Concerto for Piano, Op. 12

    Composer: Howard Ferguson

    Ensemble: Northern Sinfonia

    Performer: Peter Donohoe (Piano)

    Conductor: Peter Donohoe

  2. Concerto for Piano

    Composer: Roberto Gerhard

    Ensemble: Northern Sinfonia

    Performer: Peter Donohoe (Piano)

    Conductor: Peter Donohoe

  3. Concerto for Piano, Strings and Percussion in D major

    Composer: Alec Rowley

    Ensemble: Northern Sinfonia

    Performer: Peter Donohoe (Piano)

    Conductor: Peter Donohoe

  4. Concertino Piano and String Orchestra in C major

    Composer: Christian Darnton

    Ensemble: Northern Sinfonia

    Performer: Peter Donohoe (Piano)

    Conductor: Peter Donohoe