Howells: Piano Concerto No. 1; Piano Concerto No. 2; Penguinski

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LABELS: Chandos
WORKS: Piano Concerto No. 1; Piano Concerto No. 2; Penguinski
PERFORMER: Howard Shelley (piano); BBC SO/Richard Hickox
The model for Herbert Howells’s First Piano Concerto, premiered at the Royal College of Music in 1914 when he was still a student there, is clear: this, despite odd nods to Elgar in the slow movement, is music that resembles most closely Rachmaninoff in his most Romantic, rhapsodic vein. This is no judgement of an adverse kind. Young composers need their models, and what impresses in this performance – possibly thanks to John Rutter’s restoration of missing bars at the end of the work – is Howells’s mature and confident handling of form and matter. He was already well able to express what he felt, and moreover to feel deeply. The Second Piano Concerto of 1925 shows that Howells did not lose those fundamental abilities – the breadth and cogency of this work are amazing – even after having found his individual, harmonically spicier voice, a voice that readily assimilated influences from the European avant-garde. In both works the solo part is severely testing. Howard Shelley, a still widely underrated and sensitive virtuoso, responds brilliantly to the challenge, and the BBC SO plays well for him under Richard Hickox. The filler, Penguinski, is a short ballet score of 1933 that apes Stravinsky’s Diaghilev ballets and will have had more of an edge then than perhaps it does now. Colourful, nevertheless. Stephen Pettitt