Gary Higginson
British Music Society Journal
July 2020

I have wondered for years why Rubbra’s Piano Concerto has not been recorded since 1956 when Denis Matthews was the soloist under Sargent.

I suspected that it would eventually appear in Hyperion’s Romantic Piano Concerto series and here it is in a highly desirable coupling with Rubbra’s friend and colleague Arthur Bliss. There is also a short work by Bax who had preceded Bliss as Master of the King’s Music.

Rubbra was a fine pianist and his concerto, written when he was at the height of his powers and popularity, is dedicated ‘in homage’ to the Pakistani musician, Ali Akbar Khan. The latter played a ‘sorod’, which Rubbra described as ‘a complex Indian string instrument’.

Rubbra was fascinated with Asian music for much of his life. He heard Khan play and he loved the way ‘he felt his way into the improvisation’; here the first movement does just that.

But this arch-shaped movement is entitled ‘Corymbus’. Rubbra explained to me that he had taken a strong interest in Botany whilst living on the Chilterns, and that this word describes a ‘cluster of blossoms whose stalks of the lower flowers are longer than those of the upper’. He drew the shape for me in my miniature score. Musically, ideas are stated then they flower and enlarge.

The middle movement is called ‘Dialogue’, proving that this concerto is not a typical Romantic, confrontational work but one in which the material is evenly divided, almost spiritually, between the soloist an orchestra.

The bumptious finale, a ‘Danza alla Rondo’ has a cadenza towards the end which quotes from the earlier two movements but its slightly menacing atmosphere might be explained by another, curious quotation in the score, from Dante’s ‘Inferno’, which translates as ‘Speak not to them (the damned) but look and pass’. In this work Piers Lane is at one with the work’s transcendent qualities.

Bliss’s longer concerto is more in the Romantic tradition. It is in three movements with the last having an andante maestoso introduction before launching into a tarantella-like molto vivo. This is a bravura concerto as witnessed right from the start with its towering double octaves from the piano which even scared the great Solomon for whom it was written.

The British Council commissioned it for a first performance in America under Boult, and Bliss, who, having American relatives and also being a man to produce music for the grand occasion, was the ideal composer for the job. Piers Lane is as much in tune with the virtuosity as he is to the work’s romantic qualities. He is supported by the strong sympathies of Leon Botstein and the orchestra.

In between the concerti is one of Bax’s late works, one of his shortest and sunniest, ‘Maytime in Sussex’, the county which became his home after the Second World War.

Throughout the disc Lane, Botstein and the orchestra play with fervour and total understanding. I like their sometimes more relaxed tempi and the essence of the best of British music is captured to perfection.