Hyperion’s admirable Romantic Piano Concerto series has been running for over 25 years. It would be easy to be exercised by the fact that it has taken until now, Volume 70, to arrive at a concerto by a female composer. Easy, but not entirely fair. Male dominance in the genre is almost total – even today – and perhaps more interesting than wrangling over quotas is the question of why. It’s a question this disc answers with vehement clarity. You only have to read the contemporary response to Amy Beach’s concerto – critics reading autobiographical significance into the lone voice of the piano crying out against the oppressive orchestra – to understand that a woman could never inhabit this most combative of musical forms on the same terms as a man. It’s interesting that both other concertos here eschew the traditional three-movement form – an attempt, perhaps, to reclaim and redefine their musical territory.
Dorothy Howell’s 1923 Piano Concerto stretches the definition of “Romantic” to its limit. Filmic in scope, an abstract tone-poem drawing heavily on Debussy and Strauss, this single-movement work is the weakest of the three – an attractive showcase for soloist Danny Driver’s limpid touch, and the fine woodwind section of the BBC Scottish Orchestra under Rebecca Miller, but little more.
Much more interesting is the Beach. Driver really shows his quality here in the delicacy of the plangent opening Allegro moderato and the joyous agility he brings to the demanding perpetuum mobile Scherzo. Beach’s mercurial moods are crisply articulated by the orchestra, bringing a depth and weight to their tone lacking in even the best of the extant three recordings.
If thoughtful gravitas is the hallmark of the Beach, Chaminade’s Concertstück is all outward display and divertissement. Glittering surfaces reflect like a belly-dancer’s jewels in a celebration of pianistic excess and musical exoticism. It’s handled skilfully, with no vulgarity, by Miller and Driver. Echoes of Saint-Saëns and Bizet are digested into a fluid, tuneful whole that is pure Parisian elegance. Hyperion has chosen well with their pioneering women. Let’s hope we don’t have to wait another 25 years for more.