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June 2012

At first sight these two late-Romantic piano concertos might seem odd bed-fellows, but they do have a number of features in common. The two composers are from the same generation: Georgy Catoire was born in 1861 and Percy Sherwood five years later. Both concertos were written at a time when musical fashion was about to leave them stranded: the Catoire was composed in 1909, just before, as we’re always told, Stravinsky launched modernism with The Rite of Spring – and the Sherwood was written way after the boat had left, in 1932-33. Another link comes in the two men’s family backgrounds: Catoire was born in Moscow, to French stock; Sherwood’s English father lectured (in English) at the University of Dresden (his mother, Auguste Koch, was a German singer). The opening paragraph of Lewis Foreman’s informative booklet essay gives a further link, identified by the soloist, Hiroaki Takenouchi – a brief leitmotif from the Catoire also appears in the Sherwood, but since it’s only three adjacent notes, I don’t think that proves the existence of God or the miraculous interconnection of His world.

The Catoire adopts the Rachmaninov style of concerto-writing, in both style and manner, with big, splashy piano textures against expansive orchestral lines – the difference being that Catoire is far more often content than Rachmaninov to let the piano retreat to decoration, with the main musical argument made by the orchestra. The 18-minute first movement takes the form of a theme and six linked variations, after an introduction (with cadenza), all helpfully banded separately in the Dutton recording. The sixth variation (track 7) sounds as if we might already have arrived at the slow movement, but that is a six-minute Andante cantabile still four more minutes away; when it arrives, it somehow manages to be impassioned and to meander wistfully at the same time. An emphatic recall of one of the variations launches the nine-minute finale (both passages are marked Allegro risoluto), where the soloist often struggles to make himself heard against the assertive but uneasy orchestra – a feature of the work more generally, with the result that, for all its Romantic fervour and soaring tunes, it comes across as rather oblique in utterance, more memorable in individual moments than as a whole.

Catoire, though an unfamiliar figure, was hardly an unknown quantity before this CD emerged, but Sherwood was: as far as I’m aware, not a note of his music has appeared in a recording before now. Sherwood’s story foreshadows, two decades beforehand, the flight of Jewish composers into exile from Hitler’s Germany and therewith into obscurity. From 1885 to 1889 he studied piano and composition at the Dresden Conservatoire, where his teachers included Draeseke; he picked up a raft of awards as a student (and then the Mendelssohn Prize for his Requiem in 1889) and soon joined the staff of his Alma Mater, becoming a popular teacher and acquiring considerable means, living in the grandiose Villa Sherwood (later flattened by Bomber Harris). At the outset of the First World War he was in Britain for some concerts and remained in England for the rest of his life, gradually fading from view – by the time of his death in 1939 he was almost entirely forgotten, although he had continued to compose. His surviving works (some scores are lost) include three symphonies and two orchestral serenades, two concertos for piano, two for cello and one for violin and cello; a sextet for piano, horn and string quartet, piano quintet, three string quartets (out of an apparent six), two cello sonatas; some generally small-scale piano music; and a handful of songs. One of his descendants had the wit to deposit the scores in the Bodleian Library a few years back, a move which has allowed scholars and musicians to begin to examine the music – and, now, record it.

Sherwood’s Second Piano Concerto would have been conservative 40 years earlier; that he could write something of the sort in 1932-33 suggests that his exile had left him out on a stylistic limb. Still, as Foreman points out, such attitudes do not matter now: it’s the quality of the music that counts. This concerto reveals a first-rate craftsman, one with a heroic cast to his manner of speaking – indeed, the grandiose language of the 15-minute opening Allegro almost suggests the millennial rhetoric of the politician. The principal model (as a booklet comment by Takenouchi suggests) ‘is Beethoven, especially the Emperor Concerto’; Sherwood’s teacher Draeseke seems also to have been a potent influence, and the epic tone of the Brahms piano concertos can’t have been far from his mind. The ten-minute central Andante, un poco tranquillo generally takes heed of the adjective in its tempo indication but can rise to ardent declaration. The headstrong finale, at eight minutes as big-boned as the rest, has perhaps the most memorable thematic material – for the first time in the piece one senses something of Sherwood’s own personality showing through, not least through a hint of a sense of humour; until now he seems more intent on the grand public statement, as if outward dignity were more important than inner feeling.

Takenouchi delivers muscular, even insistent, readings of both works, underlined by a slightly hard edge to the piano sound; although the solo part, far enough forward in the solo passages, tends to disappear into the orchestra when the volume increases. The orchestral playing occasionally suggests, too, that more rehearsal time would have been welcome (the strings are a tad hesitant in the Catoire, for example) – but in today’s climate it is a miracle that such recordings are still being made: a little wobbly string tone is a price well worth paying to hear, and the track record (pun intended) of Lewis Foreman and Mike Dutton in important discoveries is something to celebrate.

I hope I am not abusing my position by mentioning that the first all-Sherwood CD, of the complete music for cello and piano, is currently at the pressing plant, to emerge on my own label, Toccata Classics, in a few weeks’ time. I would be failing my musicians, the cellist Joseph Spooner and pianist David Owen Norris, if I didn’t try to sneak this information in. In the meantime, here’s a landmark release that will more than reward your curiosity.

Martin Anderson

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