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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Erica Jeal

Maconchy, Lutyens and Wallen: Works for Piano and Orchestra review – first-time recordings pack a punch

The BBC Concert Orchestra.
Uncompromising … the BBC Concert Orchestra. Photograph: John Owen

Even the ostensibly better-known British female composers have much music that is yet to be recorded. This is the first recording of Elizabeth Maconchy’s 1941 Dialogue for Piano and Orchestra and the same goes for the two works by Elisabeth Lutyens.

The artwork for Works for Piano and Orchestra
The artwork for Works for Piano and Orchestra Photograph: PR handout

It’s the Maconchy – essentially a concerto in four movements, each less than five minutes long – that makes the strongest immediate impression. What’s remarkable is the tautness of her invention: everything grows out of a rising figure comprising just two notes, from the stark, marmoreal opening through a perky, rhythmically tricksy second movement and a funereal third to the scampering finale. It packs a punch, with the BBC Concert Orchestra, conducted by John Andrews, bouncing off the coiled spring of Martin Jones’s piano playing.

Lutyens’s music is uncompromising on a different level – she was the first British composer to adopt the serialist techniques honed in Vienna by Schoenberg and Webern. Jones, who is in the middle of a project to record all of Lutyens’s piano music, does the scrupulous clarity of her writing full justice, capturing the moments of reflective beauty amid the muscular rigour of the 1964 Music for Piano and Orchestra. It might take repeated listens to the 1975 piece Eos to tune in to the idea that the music here traces the passage of the mythic personification of the sun across the sky; but its sonorities are immediately intriguing, overlapping and coalescing to make patches of texture that shift as if one is turning a kaleidoscope.

These works find an odd companion in the chatty Piano Concerto by Errollyn Wallen, the Covid-delayed premiere of which was given in Birmingham last autumn. Rebeca Omordia is the pianist here and is a polished advocate for the piece, which centres on a long second movement whose bluesy trumpet melody is eventually overcome by an orchestral juggernaut of ringing chords. It all seems laid on very thick next to the succinctness of the Maconchy and Lutyens.

This week’s other pick

Brevity is also a virtue in the 24 Preludes for Violin and Piano written in 1999 by the Russian-born, New York-based composer, artist and writer Lera Auerbach – which the Denmark-based duo of violinist Christine Bernsted and pianist Ramez Mhaanna have just released on Naxos. The structure of the set, with one piece in each key, nods to Bach and Chopin and the haunting mix of wit, bleakness and nostalgia brings Shostakovich or perhaps Kurtág to mind, but the sum of these parts is a collection of tiny gems, all Auerbach’s own.

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