Martyn Brabbins / Howard Shelley / BBC Philharmonic Orchestra

Cyril Scott: Piano Concerto No. 1; Symphony No. 4; Early One Morning

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Cyril Scott: Piano Concerto No. 1; Symphony No. 4; Early One Morning Review

by Uncle Dave Lewis

The May 1915 premiere of Cyril Scott's Piano Concerto No. 1, given by Thomas Beecham at Queen's Hall with the composer at the piano, represented the peak of Scott's career in "serious" music and, in the short term, the work proved influential among young composers in England. Little did the 35-year-old composer realize that he was entering into a period of obscurity that would last the duration of his long life, during which the revival of the Piano Concerto No. 1 by Moura Lympany in 1969 in honor of Scott's 90th birthday would prove rare relief. Reception of the concerto was far more favorable in 1969 than anyone could have predicted, and although it did not lead to the immediate revival of Scott's music, it did ignite a small, slow-burning spark of interest in Scott's output of more than 400 works that would evolve into an explosion after the year 2000.

Ninety one years, equivalent to Scott's own lifetime, separate the premiere of this concerto and its eventual appearance on disc on Chandos' Cyril Scott: Symphony No. 4, the second in a series of volumes devoted to the prolific English mystic impressionist. "Eventual" is a good word, as this truly is an event; Scott's Piano Concerto No. 1 is a masterpiece of its time, standing between Sergey Rachmaninov's Piano Concerto No. 3 and Ravel's two concertos. It is unique in terms of its perspective -- while impressionistic; it is unmistakably English in style, and while amorphous in it's thrust it is not wholly without toughness. This is Scott's "finest hour," and its neglect is unfathomable. Neglect is a little easier to understand in the case of the 1952 Symphony No. 4, as its lack of confrontation and harmonically expansive, yet tonally centered, post-Romantic language was simply not in vogue in the a-thematic '50. The tone poem for piano and orchestra Early One Morning is quietly impressionistic, and in hindsight, sounds a little like English movie music. Nevertheless, it is certainly not transparent, cynical, or belonging purely to an "easy listening" vein -- Early One Morning is flawed and the most obviously dated of the three, but its sincerity of expression is admirable and it is certainly an easily enjoyable piece of music to experience.

Howard Shelley, who has recorded often and can affect a certain kind of cookie cutter manner when it comes to obscure piano concertos, is on his best behavior here. The BBC Philharmonic under Martyn Brabbins is warm and well balanced, and Brabbins obviously cares about Scott's music as he takes the time to build the sometimes fuzzily defined shapes that Scott favors in the orchestra and does not fall prey to impatience. One small complaint is that in quiet passages the recording sometimes drops below a comfortable listening level, an attribute seemingly endemic to Chandos' later recordings. Much of this music is quiet to start with, so at least if you have to crank it up there aren't going to be very many sudden events that roar back and terminate one's ears with prejudice.

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