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Saturday, April 18, 2009

Fine Wine from Old Bottles

Piano Concerto in a, Op. 54 (1841-45) [28:02]
Edvard GRIEG (1843-1907)
Piano Concerto in a, Op. 16 (1868, rev. 1907) [28:33]
Camille SAINT-SAËNS (1835-1921)
Piano Concerto No. 2 in g, Op. 22 (1868) [22:25]

Howard Shelley (piano and conductor)
Orchestra of Opera North

Recorded at Victoria Hall, Leeds Town Hall, England 4 and 5 July 2008.

CHANDOS CHAN 10509 [79:00]

The romantic piano concerto falls into two categories: the virtuoso showpiece, in which the orchestra is treated as a necessary evil to accompany the flashy finger work of the composer/pianist; or, the symphonic expression, perhaps best exemplified by Brahms, in which the orchestra and soloist are of equal importance in telling the musical story. The three works on this disc seem to fall into the former category, although they are not as shallow as say the concertos of Liszt and Chopin which exhibit ultra flimsy orchestrations and somewhat shallow contributions from the soloist.

Schumann’s ubiquitous concerto, composed for his virtuoso wife Clara gets a refreshing performance here from Howard Shelley, England’s no nonsense yet tastefully expressive piano master. Clarity of line, spot-on choices of tempo and just enough romantic ache to remind us that the music was composed in the 1800s are the high points of this elegant and masterful reading of a piece that can easily succumb to either overt gush or tired indifference. Shelley proves himself to be at home with both orchestra and instrument in this well balanced reading.

Grieg’s equally over-performed work is also held in the bounds of good taste here. Unquestionably influenced by Schumann, Grieg adopts most of the elder composer’s conventions by eliminating a lengthy orchestral exposition, by linking the middle and outer movements without pause and even by choosing the same key. This tuneful work can often come across as elementary and trite in the wrong hands. Not so here. Again, good choices of tempo and a lack of fussiness make this performance fresh and enjoyable.

The real treat is the Saint-Saëns. Perhaps the most lyrical of the French master’s five piano concertos, Mr. Shelley plays with a great deal of élan, proving the composer’s own adept keyboard virtuosity. Saint-Saëns is a composer whose music has a certain classical balance to it. He was quite prolific, and it would be a good thing if more of his music, particularly the chamber works made it to the stage more often. Howard Shelley is fleet of finger, finding gallant lyricism in the filigree and bringing out the substance of thought that lies only inches beneath the surface of what could be interpreted as a mere showpiece.

This is my first encounter with the Orchestra of Opera North. They prove to be a very able band indeed, providing clear and balanced accompaniment, spot on intonation and clarity of line. Quite able to shine in the passages without the soloist, they also provide a fine and stable underpinning when the pianist is to the fore.

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