Peter Donohoe / Takuo Yuasa / Ulster Orchestra

Sir Hamilton Harty: Piano Concerto; Fantasy Scenes; Comedy Overture

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Ignore for a moment that this recording is part of Naxos' British Piano Concertos series. Hamilton Harty is among the five or six names that come to mind (usually after some thought) when asked to name Irish classical composers. His most popular works -- An Irish Symphony, With the Wild Geese, In Ireland -- do refer to his homeland in some way. However, he was well-educated musically and spent much of his career conducting the works of many composers in Europe, America, and Australia. It isn't a surprise, then, that the two larger works on this recording by the Ulster Orchestra and conductor Takuo Yuasa are more cosmopolitan in nature. All three works here are true to the Romantic tradition, using full and colorful orchestrations and emotionally rich, tonal melodies and harmonies. Also, one of Harty's better-known works, the Comedy Overture, which opens the program, is a concert overture that alternates a lively, sunny, almost reel-like theme with a calmer, warm one. Yuasa makes sure the orchestra doesn't lose momentum in the slower passages, and maintains a breezy lightness throughout. The influence of Rimsky-Korsakov, and even Borodin, is plain in the Fantasy Scenes, subtitled "From an Eastern Romance." Much of the harmonies are the same as in In the Steppes of Central Asia and Prince Igor, and the four-movement programmatic idea of a court entertainer falling in love with and rescuing the Sultan's daughter follows from Scheherazade. The use of flutes and bells in the music is also reminiscent of the Russian composers' writing. The movements are brief, but very picturesque, as in the Overture. It does sound old-fashioned for its 1919 date, but it entertains in a more lighthearted, swashbuckling way than those earlier masterpieces. The Piano Concerto is more expected for its time, the early '20s. It is a lush, passionate work in the vein of Rachmaninov, complete with gong, with the orchestra and piano complementing and setting off each other's part. It opens with a headlong downward spill that ends with the tympani booming, and it continues with swells and troughs of emotion. In both the outer movements, lyrical, and at times florid, melody is mixed with a tense drama that occasionally reveals its origins with a Scotch snap. The middle movement feels nocturnal, yet still summery and warm. It's a real workout for the pianist, Peter Donohoe, who puts wonderful ripples into the ornamental runs. Both he and the orchestra put their all into the music, but it is always precise and well shaped, never overdone. The sound of the recording is also very good, full and lush, like the music, making this a rewarding sample of Harty's writing.

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