Notes and Editorial Reviews
Symphony No. 1. Piano Concerto No. 3
Martyn Brabbins, cond; BBC Natl O of Wales;
Howard Shelley (pn)
CHANDOS 10608 (67:03)
In this the third volume of Chandos’s estimable survey of the rich orchestral output of Kenneth Leighton (1929–1988), we have two of the composer’s earliest and most persuasive triumphs. Like his exact contemporary Alun Hoddinott (1926–2009), Leighton evolved his approachably atonal and
moderately neoromantic language through a sophisticated awareness and discriminating adoption of postwar stylistic developments on the European continent. In his case this was facilitated by his studies with the noted Italian modernist Goffredo Petrassi. And consequently it was in Trieste that Aldo Ceccato conducted the 1965 premiere of this First Symphony—probably the only occasion in history when a relatively unknown Englishman was provided such prestigious auspices in a foreign country.
Consisting of three closely integrated movements—two longer and primarily slower expressions of grief and anguish bracketing a sulfurous scherzo of explosive fury—this work has an especially grim and desolating impact and is not recommended to any listener toying with thoughts of suicide. But the music itself is put together with such a convincing display of urgency and skill that formally and esthetically it provides a deeply gratifying experience.
The Third Piano Concerto, written several years later, in 1969, is drawn from a related wellspring of despair and defiance. Though ostensibly inspired by the natural beauties of summer (hence the subtitle “Sinfonia Estiva”), this work also is far from optimistic in detail or overall affect. Almost monothematic, it contains a good deal more drive and concentrated energy than the symphony, so that at times Leighton in his melodramatic frenzy begins to sound like an Anglican version of our own Benjamin Lees, because both of them are equally adept at building up tensions and creating unstoppable momentum. This work is built on a large scale, lasting seven minutes longer than the half-hour symphony, and one can say that in the long run perhaps it leaves a slightly less disquieting impression than the earlier piece.
Martyn Brabbins has taken over this series of recordings from the late-lamented Richard Hickox, and he shows himself to be fully up to the task of emulating his predecessor’s commanding control, selfless dedication, and piercing eloquence. The BBC Symphony of Wales abets him in these interpretations of unbending, even unforgiving, tenacity, and of course the Chandos sound spectrum has never been more three-dimensionally all-enveloping. This disc is an utterly flabbergasting success on every level and constitutes another milestone in the documentation of 20th-century English music. Don’t let it get away from you.
FANFARE: Paul A. Snook
Here are two very substantial works from Kenneth Leighton. Separated by some five years they are essays in accustomed formats: symphony and concerto. The two stand either side of 36 minutes duration. They feel as if they were intended to be major statements. Traditional names and structural expectations do not dictate content nor even subjugation to the patterns established by tradition. Still in this case the evidence of the listener’s ears shows the composer’s fealty to and even adoration of the past.
This grim three movement symphony launches with a movement at first suggestive in its icy distance of Sibelius's Fourth Symphony. It then becomes agitated and riven with a torment: part Nielsen and part Hilding Rosenberg. The central
Allegro Molto feels more hunted and under threat than joyful. This eerie and desolate music is either overcast or searingly cold especially in the massed strings of the finale. This is a world or a life under threat put across with a desperate seriousness of purpose unrelieved by any softer emotions. The sound-world parallels that of Shostakovich. The premiere was given in Trieste under the young Aldo Ceccato in 1965 and in the UK in Liverpool in 1967 by Charles Groves. This is a work unremittingly gaunt and potently tragic often painted in great surging and suffocating waves of string sound typical of the first movement of Shostakovich 6.
Concerto Estivo or ‘summer concerto’ expresses the sensations of the glorious summer of 1969, the first summer Leighton had spent in the south for some fifteen years. Apart from moments in the outer movements when the shattered stained-glass harmonies of Messiaen and of Malcolm Williamson's Third Piano Concerto this work has an illustrative feel. There’s a reduced sense of the adversarial struggle one might usually find in a concerto although there is some rhetorical emphasis especially in the finale. The shimmering middle movement contrasts with its two flankers. Then again the pizzicato dash which seems to pay fleeting homage to Shostakovich’s Second Piano Concerto (then making its way in the west) is entertaining and life enhancing. It also picks up on the syncopation of 1930s Tippett and of Bernstein. A warm radiant pulse lofts the music over the last five minutes. It was premiered by the composer with the CBSO who had commissioned the pieced with Feeney Trust funds. The conductor was Louis Frémaux whose Regis-reissued Ravel Collins Classics disc I recently had good cause to welcome back..
The excellent notes are by Leighton biographer Adam Binks.
An intriguing pairing with the symphony made of tough and sinewy material and the concerto a vehicle for joy - not unmixed - but joy all the same.
-- Rob Barnett, MusicWeb International Read less
Works on This Recording
Symphony no 1, Op. 42 by Kenneth Leighton
BBC National Orchestra of Wales
Period: 20th Century
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