Tuesday 15 April 2014

Cameo Classics bring us fine works by Kenneth Leighton and Ruth Gipps performed by Angela Brownridge with the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Michael Laus

Cameo Classics www.wyastone.co.uk/all-labels/cameo-classics.html are doing a great service to British music with their British Composers Premiere Collection that has, so far, featured composers such as Lillian Elkington (1901-1969), Dorothy Howell (1898-1982), Cyril Scott (1879-1970), Josef Holbrook (1878-1958), Alexander Mackenzie (1847-1935), Arthur Somervell (1863-1937), Maurice Blower (1894-1982), Robin Milford (1903-1959), Frederick Kelly (1881-1916) and Walter Gaze Cooper (1895-1981).

The latest release in this series features works by Kenneth Leighton (1929-1988) and Ruth Gipps (1921-1999). Angela Brownridge  www.ctcinternationalartists.com/page_1698974.html  joins the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra www.maltaorchestra.com conducted by Michael Laus www.um.edu.mt/performingarts/music/staff/visiting-staff/michaellaus  in piano concertos by both these composers as well as two attractive works for solo piano by Gipps.

Kenneth Leighton has already been well served by Chandos Records www.chandos.net who have recorded his solo piano music, some of his choral music and three volumes of his orchestral works including his Piano Concerto No. 3, Op. 57 'Concerto estivo' (1969).

This new disc includes the first of his three piano concertos. Leighton was born in Wakefield, Yorkshire and was a chorister at Wakefield Cathedral. He attended Queen Elizabeth Grammar School where he performed at school assemblies and concerts, while also composing settings of poetry for voice and piano and solo piano pieces. While still at school he obtained the Licentiate of the Royal Academy of Music (LRAM) in piano performance. As a university student at Queen's College, Oxford, on a Hastings Scholarship to study Classics, he continued to study music, tutored by the composer Bernard Rose. At Oxford he came to the attention of Gerald Finzi, an early supporter and friend, who performed some of his works including his Symphony for Strings Op.3. He gained the support of Vaughan Williams who attended some of his performances in London. After gaining a BA in Classics in 1950, and a BMus in 1951, he was awarded a Mendelssohn Scholarship, which enabled him to study with Goffredo Petrassi in Rome.

On his return from Italy, he taught at the Royal Marine School of Music in Deal and held a Gregory Fellowship in music at the University of Leeds. In 1956 he was appointed lecturer in music at the University of Edinburgh. Following a period as Fellow of Worcester College, Oxford University from 1968 to 1970, Leighton returned to Edinburgh as Reid Professor of Music, where he remained until his death. 

Leighton’s Piano Concerto No.1 in D minor, Op.11 dates from 1950, the year he graduated from Oxford. The first movement has a lively start for piano and orchestra, full of life and momentum with the piano and orchestra sharing the vibrant theme. It rises in romantic, virtuoso music, complete with massive descending scales right up to the end.

Brass opens the second movement before the full orchestra enters with the soloist playing chords in this rather serious, gloomy theme. Slowly the piano reiterates its chords with more definition before moving into a real tune, still with an underlying insistent feel. A melancholy flute melody is picked up by the clarinet before the piano enters with large chords as the orchestra moves the music passionately forward.  Eventually the music reaches a peak before falling back. The piano plays a florid passage as the music heads to the coda which, after a quiet cymbal clash, arrives peacefully.

The soloist opens the finale before the orchestra joins in this decisively played music, the piano providing a rhythmic theme with more virtuosic passages. There are cascading orchestral passages before the music quietens with attractive woodwind passages. As the movement progresses there is a terrific interplay between soloist and orchestra before a cadenza that is full of demanding writing, superbly handled by Angela Brownridge. A fugal theme appears for the piano, picked up by the orchestra that leads to the coda concluding on a rising scale for piano.

Michael Laus draws enthusiastic playing from the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra though their string section can often sound rather thin. Angela Brownridge is an excellent soloist in this repertoire. The recording, made in the Manuel Theatre, Valletta, Malta is rather dry and boxy.

Ruth Gipps was born in Bexhill-on-Sea, England and was something of a child prodigy, performing her first composition at the age of eight. Gipps studied music theory, composition, piano, and oboe at the Royal College of Music where her teachers were Leon Goosens, Tobias Matthay, Gordon Jacob and Ralph Vaughan Williams.

She was thirty three when an earlier hand injury ended her performance career, causing her to concentrate on conducting and composition. A major point in her compositional career was her Symphony No. 2, Op. 30, first performed in 1946, which showed the beginnings of her mature style. She went on to write five symphonies in total as well as two piano concertos, a large amount of chamber music, choral works, vocal works and piano music.

She founded the London Repertoire Orchestra in 1955 as an opportunity for young professional musicians to become exposed to a wide range of music, and the Chanticleer Orchestra in 1961, a professional ensemble which included a work by a living composer in each of its programs. She held faculty posts at Trinity College, London, the Royal College of Music and, finally, Kingston Polytechnic.

There is a leisurely, nostalgic opening theme Ruth Gipps’ Theme and Variations for Piano, Op.57a which is soon given over to a series of richly imaginative variations that have a freshness that is wholly appealing. There is a hint of John Ireland at times before the beautiful, gentle, reflective coda.

There is occasionally a French feel to Ruth Gipp’ Opalescence, Op.72 that has a rippling, undulating melody that develops into moments that are quiet florid before returning to the rather simpler nature of the opening and ending gently.

Again Angela Brownridge proves to be a first rate advocate of this music. The recordings of these two solo works were made in the Fairfield Hall, Croydon, England and are full of clarity and fine piano tone.

Ruth Gipps’s Piano Concerto, Op.34 comes from the era of her Second Symphony, a fine work that has been recorded by Douglas Bostock and the Munich Symphony Orchestra for Classico. www.amazon.co.uk/Butterworth-Symphony-No-1-Gipps-No-/dp/B000026BZN/ref=sr_1_4?s=music&ie=UTF8&qid=1396956322&sr=1-4&keywords=gipps  I found her concerto to be equally fine with a first movement that opens with a broad orchestral theme, full of passion and momentum. The music quietens for the piano to enter playing the theme, full of romantic ardour. Gipps’ use of the orchestra is very attractive with a freshness and expansiveness that is instantly appealing. This first movement, almost as long as the two succeeding movements, presents the material in various guises, sometimes gentle and more reflective before rising to a climax. There is a gentle woodwind theme before a virtuoso passage for piano as well as light and faster sections for piano and orchestra.  Angela Brownridge is terrific in this freely virtuosic work that retains its rather windswept nature right up to the decisive coda.

A clarinet opens the second movement, soon joined by the orchestra in a gentle, rather pastoral theme. The piano enters to mull over the theme before being joined by the orchestra. This is beautifully atmospheric, nostalgic music that later becomes more animated, calming for the exquisite coda.

A trumpet announces the piano theme for the finale, a fast, rolling theme. The orchestra enters as this folksy theme moves forward with a rapid piano part. The music soon slows a little but picks up in a jaunty rhythmic theme, again with an appealing freshness that leads to the coda.

I found this to be a very appealing concerto brilliantly played by Brownridge. Whilst the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra is not in the top league of orchestras they play their hearts out for their conductor, Michael Laus. The recording is, again, a little dry.

We should be enormously grateful that Cameo Classics have brought us these fine works. There is a well illustrated booklet with informative notes by Angela Brownridge. Oddly there are no tempo markings shown for either concerto. 

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