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Tireless Pianist Howard Shelley Resurrects a Pair of Brilliant Obscurities

If brilliant, overlooked High Romantic classical music is your thing, you could spend a large proportion of your life getting lost in Hyperion Records’ Romantic Piano Concerto series. Over a grand total of eighty releases, they’ve resurrected many lesser-known works which are every bit as memorable as the famous pieces that get played over and over again in classical halls around the world (or used to get played there, before the lockdown, anyway). Much of this music falls into the haunted-castle-in-a-thunderstorm category, which is an accurate if overly reductionistic way to describe the latest edition in the series, Volume 80 – which hasn’t hit any of the usual online spots yet – where pianist Howard Shelley does double duty conducting the Sinfonieorchester St. Gallen in a couple of obscure treasures by Belgian composers Auguste Dupont and Peter Benoit.

The first piece is Dupont’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in F Minor, which the composer debuted in 1882. Beethovenesque bluster contrasts with proto-Rachmaninovian glitter and some genuinely stunning, bittersweetly cantabile tunesmithing in the first movement: it’s shocking that this music isn’t better known.

Likewise, the hush of the horns and strings versus Shelley’s moody forward drive in the rather reserved, nocturnal second movement is particularly striking. His romping, ascending phrases and cascades take centerstage in the triumphant concluding movement, whose counterpoint looks straight back to Beethoven.

Benoit was an early advocate for Flemish music. His darkly colorful mid-1860s Symphonic Poem, Op 43 is a tableau centered around the ruins of a castle in the composer’s hometown of Harelbeke.

On one level, it’s amusing to see how the composer – a pianist, no less – will cap off one crescendo after another with extended trills rather than the kind of virtuosic cadenzas you expect in this kind of music. Which explains why, in the late 1890s, pianist Arthur De Greef came up with his own arrangement to beef it up. For the record, Shelley and the orchestra play the original Benoit score.

A simple, stalking pizzicato riff from the cellos sets up the first variations on the starkly vivid initial folk-inspired theme. As the music warms, grows more stately and heroic, it prefigures Dvorak at his most dramatic. Listen closely to the slow, hushed introduction to the “Bardic Song” of a second movement and you’ll hear a wistful folk ballad, which Shelley and the ensemble shift elegantly to memorably, anthemic Romantic longing.

The finale is particularly interesting since the piano is so strongly present in the foreground in the initial exchanges with the orchestra, really keeping their distance here. Numerous fleetingly unexpected figures leap from the ensemble; there’s also a strange moment about two minutes in where the composer may have made a mistake and forgot to go back and tweak the harmonies. The phantasmagoria as the piece reaches the end is a long-awaited payoff.

September 1, 2020 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment