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Thu, 30 Mar 2006

British Piano Concertos

British Piano Concertos
Sir Hamilton Harty (1879-1941)
Comedy Overture
Fantasy Scenes
Piano Concerto in B minor
CD, NAXOS

Ulster Orchestra
Takuo Yuasa, conductor
Peter Donohoe, piano
Recorded in Ulster Hall, Belfast from 21st to 22nd February 2005

This recording is one of several by Naxos aimed at preserving and promoting British composers, in particular, British piano concertos. Sir Hamilton Harty was born in 1879 in Hillsborough (near Belfast), Northern Ireland; the son of an organist. At the age of 16 he moved to Dublin where he met Michele Esposito, an Italian composer, pianist and pedagogue who became a mentor as well as a friend, and to whom he dedicated his Comedy Overture and Piano Concerto. At the age of 21 he moved to London, working as a piano accompanist and later as the conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra and then the Halle Orchestra in Manchester. As a conductor, we can thank him for introducing such new works as Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, Shostakovich’s first Symphony and premiering Walton’s First Symphony. Whilst he is certainly a romantic composer, with such influences in his work as Brahms, Dvorak and Tchaikowsky there is always an Irish presence, whether overt or not.

A Comedy Overture was composed in 1906 and was first performed at the Queen’s Hall Promenade Concert in 1907. The character of the music is lively and light-hearted although Harty’s treatment of themes is thoughtful and entertaining. The Fantasy Scenes (From an Eastern Romance) tell a story in the style of Rimsky Korsakov’s Scheherezade. The first is called “ The Laughing Juggler”; the second is “A Dancer’s Reverie”; the third is “Lonely in Moonlight”; and the fourth is “In the Slave Market” and tells the story of Mohammed, a juggler who falls in love with Zuleika, the Sultan’s favourite dancing girl. The piano concerto was first performed with the composer as the soloist. It is romantic and virtuosic in style which shows us just how accomplished he was.

The orchestra provides beautifully clean string passages and the intonation from the woodwinds is excellent (I always find this can be lacking, even in recordings by some well established orchestras). In the concerto, the pianist and orchestra appear to have a good rapport which is important as the piano is often accompanying the orchestra. Peter Donohoe displays virtuosity, a clean touch and provides the passion needed for this rhapsodic style. All in all, I think that this music can certainly hold its own against other mainstream composers from Europe. (M.N.)

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