Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Sir Arthur Somervell; Piano Concerto in A minor ‘Highland’ (1921)

I find that Sir Arthur Somervell's Piano Concerto in A minor ‘Highland’ dating from 1921 a little bit problematic. This is not to say that there are not some lovely moments in this work. Certainly, the work is well constructed with some good melodies and attractive writing for piano. However I do worry a little about the use of tunes that seem to be ‘highlan’’ folk-tunes. At times there seems to be just a little bit too much of the ‘scotch snap’ about this work: it is almost like a parody of Scottish music. Lewis Foreman assures the listener that all the themes are original although they are ‘based on such strong traditional Scottish elements as to make one constantly find the title of a familiar tune is on the tip of the tongue’.
The first movement is massive and vacillates between ‘pesante’ dance tunes and a romantic ‘second subject’. It is really a set of variations; yet again it does appear to have a sonata form structure. The opening of the slow movement is ‘misty’. However the composer has suggested that this is more ‘Scottish’ than ‘Highland’. There is a lovely pentatonic melody which dominates much of the musical development of this movement. Actually, this is heart-achingly lovely music that would ‘bring a tear to a glass eye.’ As a Scot myself, I find this music is really a tone poem that paints a picture of a ‘lowland landscape’ possibly the Solway (Somervell would have known that area as a Westmorland lad) or the Clyde Estuary on an autumn day. It is certainly a deliciously romantic mood that reminds this particular listener of many happy days with remembered friends in Scotland. The finale is a successful balance between the vitality of dancing and the continuation of the romance. It is a great way to bring this concerto to a conclusion.

I guess that my overall impression of this Piano Concerto is that it has the qualities of film-music. It could be used as a soundtrack to a piece of highland jiggery-pokery such as Brigadoon or the Gathering of the Clans. That does not make it a bad piece of music: it just suggests that it is a wee bitty full of ‘clichés.’ However, in spite of one or two reservations, I will return to this largely impressive and often beautiful work in the future. It is a good connection with my Scottish roots and brings many memories back to this sentimental Scot.

This concerto can be heard on The Romantic Piano Concerto Volume 54 HYPERION CDA67837

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