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Part of the delight of a generous sampler such as this, introduced by concise, intelligent notes by Paul Conway, is the chance to reverse preconceptions about well-known composers. The concerto by Vaughan Williams, that quintessentially rural spirit, has plenty of urban dash, especially as played with panache by Howard Shelley. It reminds us that Vaughan Williams studied with Ravel in Paris for around three months in 1907/08, and the Frenchman’s influence clearly remained when this work was written, from 1926 to 1930/31. Its seductive qualities were doubtless emphasized during its premiere in 1933 by Harriet Cohen (1895–1967), who in addition to considerable keyboard skills was a glamour pinup and longtime lover of Arnold Bax. Among the concerto’s reported admirers was Béla Bartók.

There is also a wealth of lesser-known composers here, worth hearing not just because they earn a sympathy vote for hard-luck stories. John Foulds (1880–1939) died of cholera in Calcutta, while William Busch (1901-1945) was done in by a harsh Devonshire winter and wartime lack of transportation. Anecdotes aside, Foulds’ Dynamic Triptych is a splashily individualist statement, wilfully singular in the tradition of inspired British eccentricity, especially as played by Shelley (it has also been dashingly recorded by Peter Donohoe for Warner Classics). Although Busch was British-born (of German parents) and trained in the UK and America, his 1937-38 Concerto in F minor has some of the Teutonic sobriety of a fugal exercise, with candid heartfelt charm added. A pianist of some accomplishment, Busch was coached by the stern Wilhelm Backhaus and had some illuminating lessons too from Benno Moiseiwitsch, although the dream interpreter the composer may have had in his mind when writing it was more likely the former than the latter. Regardless, on this welcome reissue it is played with conviction by Piers Lane.

Then there are composers without spectacular incidents in their lives, whose music is neglected simply because they wrote in a modernist style. The 1939 concerto by Lancashire-born Alan Rawsthorne (1905–1971) is alternately delicate and percussive, persuasively played here by Malcolm Binns. Rawsthorne, who studied piano with Frank Merrick (1886– 1981), an English Leschetizky pupil, exudes a good-humoured view of keyboard classics, with possible influences running from Liszt to Saint-Saëns. The Welshman Alun Hoddinott (1929–2008), if a bit dogged at times, does manage to mine matter of melodic interest from a rather flamboyantly petulant orchestral texture. His First Concerto, from 1960, is given a zesty reading by Fowke, undaunted by competition from the percussion section.

For the 1962 Third Concerto of Australian composer Malcolm Williamson (1931–2003), the soloist is the composer himself, who proves a rather uncompromising interpreter of his own work, if one with naturally high convictions. Williamson’s dedicatee for this fantastical work was John Ogdon, who gave the premiere in Sydney in June 1964. Its sometimes jittery brilliance at times seems like a character portrait of the psychically fragile Ogdon. Its disparate and whimsical styles also possibly reflect Ogdon’s emotional makeup in a manic mood.

BENJAMIN IVRY Read the full review on Agora Classica


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