Classical Reissue Reviews

BRITTEN: Piano Concerto in D; SEIBER: To Poetry; BUSH: Voices of the Prophets – Peter Pears, tenor/ Noel Mewton-Wood, p./ London Sym. Orch./ Basil Cameron – Testament

Testament resurrects rare and powerful documents of Noel Mewton-Wood, the tragically short-lived Australian pianist of potent conviction and virtuoso temperament.

Published on February 17, 2014

BRITTEN: Piano Concerto in D; SEIBER: To Poetry; BUSH: Voices of the Prophets – Peter Pears, tenor/ Noel Mewton-Wood, p./ London Sym. Orch./ Basil Cameron – Testament

BRITTEN: Piano Concerto in D, Op. 13 (revised version); SEIBER: To Poetry; BUSH: Voices of the Prophets, Op. 41 – Peter Pears, tenor/ Noel Mewton-Wood, piano/ London Sym. Orch./ Basil Cameron – Testament SBT 1493, 64:47 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] ****:

Australian piano virtuoso Noel Mewton-Wood (1922-1953) receives few mentions in contemporary reviews and radio broadcasts, but his prowess at the keyboard was much admired – by Beecham and Britten – and he made many recordings with Walter Goehr. Born in Melbourne, Mewton-Wood studied with Waldemar Seidel; then at age fourteen at the Royal Academy of Music in London, then on to studies with Artur Schnabel in Italy, only to return to Britain for lessons with Frank Bridge. A lover of contemporary scores, Mewton-Wood performed the Busoni Piano Concerto, and he gave the Australian premieres of Stravinsky’s Concerto for 2 Pianos and Bartok’s Sonata for 2 Pianos and Percussion.  Mewton-Wood likely debuted Hindemith’s Ludus Tonalis in Britain; and, at the National Gallery he performed pieces by Rawsthorne, Lambert, Tippett, Bliss, Searle, and Walton. At the announcement of Mewton-Wood’s death (by suicide), The Times wrote of his debut:

“At once his remarkable control [in the Beethoven Third] and his musicianship were apparent: the ascending scales in octaves, with which the pianist first enters, thundered out with whirlwind power, but he could summon beautiful cantabile tone for the slow movement and the phrasing of the rondo theme was admirably neat for all the rapidity of the tempo; a true understanding of the relationship in concerto between soloist and orchestra, and of the soloist’s part in ensemble, betokened the musician, the potential chamber performer.”

The Testament program begins with the 9 December 1946 (from Wembley Town Hall) inscription of Britten’s fiendishly athletic D Major Piano Concerto, which the composer had premiered at the Proms, 1938, but which he revised in 1945 and performed by Mewton-Wood at the Cheltenham Festival 2 July 1946, the composer’s leading the LPO.  Britten chose Mewton-Wood not only to proceed with the Concerto, but Mewton-Wood was to replace Britten as accompanist with tenor Peter Pears (1910-1986) for two commissions Pears arranged for a concert on 22 May 1953 for British composers Matyas Seiber (1905-1960) and Alan Bush (1900-1995). The recording of the Seiber and Bush works occurred at the Maida Vale Studio, 25 September 1953 and was broadcast 9 January 1954, after the passing of Mewton-Wood.

The Piano Concerto has four movements, arranged like a suite, opening with a brisk Toccata in which Mewton-Wood plays martellato octaves over throbbing chords in the woodwinds. The second subject is more lyrical, heard in strings and winds.  A brass fanfare separates the two impulses. Mewton-Wood has an imposing cadenza which leads to a clever superimposition of the two motifs in new textures, tranquillo in the piano and pizzicato on the low strings and harp, in augmentation. The Waltz: Allegretto projects an ironic character, first on the horns in fourths, then the viola and clarinet extend the line. The piano’s version of the tune finds itself surrounded by odd or dreamy colors, which the trio section continues by pitting the keyboard against the glockenspiel and strings, col legno. Britten recycled music he had composed in 1937 for his radio play King Arthur for his Impromptu section. This movement had been his Recitative and Aria; now it finds a simple statement from the piano which the orchestra embellishes in somber, militant variations. Some noticeable swish infiltrates the sound document. A rather trite tune supplies the final March: Allegro moderato, smacking of a cross between Shostakovich and Mahler. Mewton-Wood invokes the fanfare motif to build a gradual crescendo that incorporates bass drum, grumpy brass, and cymbals. Eventually, the music achieves a grand, hothouse peroration in D Major that salutes the military sensibility. The final pages send Mewton-Wood into blistering runs that crash decisively into the extended coda.

Matyas Seiber fled the Nazis to become a British citizen in 1935. He wrote his song cycle To Poetry in 1952, using seven lines from the Louis MacNeice translation of Goethe’s Faust to form the three middle poems. Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18, “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day,” provides the first extended conceit to poetry’s preservation of beauty through time. “Tears” is another Elizabethan poem, anonymous, that John Dowland had set to music. The most interesting moment occurs when the keyboard moves in contrary motion to the lines, “Sleep is a reconciling.” Timor Mortis (“Fear of Death”) by William Dunbar laments eight quatrains for the memory Scottish poets. Aside from the quotations of the Dies Irae and cycle’s end in C Major, there seems little to recommend the Seiber work except the earnestness of the performers.

The cantata by Alan Bush, Voices of the Prophets, utilizes texts from the Book of Isaiah, John Milton’s “Oration Against the Scholastic Philosophy,” Blake’s “Selections from Milton,” and Peter Blackman’s “My song is for All Men.”  One contemporary critic, Colin Mason, felt that only the Blake song elicited any real exhibition of talent in the composer. The other texts, Mason insists, simply do not lend themselves to musical treatment easily. The Milton segment asks much of Mewton-Wood’s contrapuntal capacities. The Isaiah text sets the tone for much of Blake, particularly the idea of rejoicing “in Jerusalem.” That Mewton-Wood controls his dynamics, even in the midst of harmonic complexities, to permit Pears his clear articulation, stands as a testament to natural chamber musician. As Colin Mason declares, “Whatever any of the works may have lacked, it was not persuasive advocacy. . .from Pears. . .or from Mewton-Wood.”

—Gary Lemco




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