PITFIELD: Piano Concertos Nos. 1 and 2 / Xylophone Sonata (Andrew Penny/ Anthony Goldstone/ Peter Donohoe/ Royal Northern College of Music Orchestra) (Naxos: 8.557291)
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Thomas Pitfield (1903-1999)
Piano Concertos Nos. 1 and 2 Studies on an English Dance-Tune, etc.
Thomas Pitfield was born in Bolton in 1903 and died inBowdon, Cheshire, in 1999. His father was a joiner andbuilder, and his mother a dressmaker. Although frominfancy he had first artistic and then musical leanings,these were denigrated by his conformist family, and atthe age of fourteen he was pitchforked protestingly intoa seven-year apprenticeship in engineering. His savingsduring this period did, however, afford him a year'sstudy of piano, cello and harmony at the RoyalManchester College of Music. After attempting afreelance career as a musician, commercial pressuresdictated a change of direction and he won a scholarshipto study art and cabinet-making at the Bolton School ofArt. During his years as an arts and crafts teacher in theMidlands he became increasingly known as acomposer, owing to the help and encouragement ofHubert Foss of the Oxford University Press, whopublished many of his compositions and commissionedfor the press cover-designs (including that for Britten'sSimple Symphony), cards, folk-song translations andbook illustrations. In 1947 Pitfield was invited to teachcomposition at his old College, and remained on itsstaff (through the transition to the Royal NorthernCollege of Music) until his seventieth birthday in 1973.
In a long and happy retirement he continued to pursueboth his musical and artistic interests until well into hisnineties.
As a composer Pitfield was essentially self-taught.
Most of the works in his substantial output arecollections of miniatures, many written for children oramateurs, for whom he seemed to compose with aninnate understanding of their capabilities. Larger worksinclude a five-movement Sinfonietta written at therequest of Sir John Barbirolli for the Halle Orchestra,and concertos for piano, violin, recorder andpercussion, and there is a quantity of chamber musicwritten for many distinguished artists of his own andsubsequent generations, including Goossens, EvelynRothwell, Archie Camden, Dolmetsch, and Osian Ellis.
A speciality was composing for unusual instruments,including solo works for accordion, clarsach,xylophone and harmonica, and he even invented hisown instrument, the \patterphone", to produce rain-likesounds.
Despite being a somewhat idiosyncratic performeron the piano, Thomas Pitfield was strongly attracted tothe instrument throughout his life, one of his earliestpublications being Prelude Minuet and Reel, still hisbest known work. The idea of a piano concerto was firstmooted by the Australian pianist Beatrice Tange, whohad recorded Prelude Minuet and Reel for HMVSydney, but when the resulting work, with stringorchestra accompaniment, was sent to her, she returnedit unplayed as not being "in her line" - though perhapsthe fact that it was dedicated to the Liverpool pianistGordon Green may not have helped. This earlyConcerto was eventually performed by anotherLiverpool pianist, Douglas Miller, but Pitfieldsubsequently withdrew it, and used the material in otherworks.
His next essay in the form, Concerto No. 1, inE minor, with full orchestra, was written in 1946-47 atthe request of yet another Liverpool pianist, StephenWearing, who gave the first performance with the(Royal Liverpool) Philharmonic Orchestra under HugoRignold on 12th November 1949, winning criticalpraise from The Liverpool Daily Post. Subsequentperformances followed under Louis Cohen, Boult (forthe Festival of Britain), John Hopkins and VilemTausky, but then, despite having had three broadcasts,it fell foul of the BBC's reading panel, to thecomposer's composer's chagrin. The offensive reportwas read to Pitfield at his insistence, and "the wordsregistered as if burnt through my skin", as he wrote inhis autobiography - "Moody and Sankey - sentimental- academic - derivative-Liszt - produces a mouse....."The work was, however, revived for Pitfield'sretirement concert at the RNCM in 1973, when it wasplayed by Anthony Goldstone. The concerto, which isin three movements, bears many of Pitfield'sfingerprints, parallel triads, folkish melody, cheekygrace notes, lush hymn-like harmonisations, andblack/white note cascades between alternating hands, aswell as hints of Gershwin, Poulenc and Ravel. Thecomposer's own programme note for the work reads asfollows:"The interval of a fourth, with which the presentwork begins, is used as a kind of motto throughout. Itsometimes undergoes a gradual chromatic expansion, asin the rocking bass which becomes conspicuous quiteearly in the exposition.
"The first subject provides, through manytransformations, most of the contrapuntal fabric of thework, and the slow theme beginning the secondmovement, much of the harmonic. After a statement oftheme 1 in the basses (with a little help from the cellosand bass-drum), it is restated in canon between pianoand woodwind - except that the latter have it in reverse.
Subsequently there are many transformations:expansions, compressions, ostinatos, canons in twokeys, and finally, in the extended coda, fugaltreatments.
"While one of the first movement's three subjects isin contrast to the remaining two - and chiefly confinedto the piano - echoes of the other two (and particularlythe interval of the fourth) still persist. The third andmore cantabile theme turns up again fragmentarily inthe next movement.
"A solemn dirge-like theme (lower strings usedantiphonally with the piano) initiates the secondmovement, which owes most of its existence to thistheme. If the concerto were a play, the theme wouldprobably be rightly regarded as the leading character. Itis not, however, unconnected with plays, for it waswritten for an amateur production of Hamlet during myyouth, when it provided the incidental music to theDeath scene. Regarded graphically rather than purelymusically, it can be traced (by outline) in the slightlymysterious scherzo which comprises a section of thismovement.
"Movement 3 is gay and impudent - a Rondo with afugal appendage. The gay mood and that of the fuguehave a brief struggle for ascendancy, the latterprevailing. (The subject is again the first of movement1). Soon the main theme from movement 2 graduallyemerges (in solemn chords on the brass) like athreatening shape, at first faintly visible through themore transparent and complex texture of the fugueitself. Finally the dirge-like theme succeeds in floodingthe fugue and emerges blazoning its triumphunchallenged, except that it accommodates the rhythmof the fugue subject (pounded on the bass drum andcymbal) to its own purpose. The elation of triumphsubsides and some brief reference to other moods of thework (including a canonic compression of the Rondotheme) brings the work to an end."Piano Concerto No. 2 had an even more chequeredhistory than the first. It was commissioned by Pitfield'sfriend the publisher Max Hinrichsen at the instigation ofPeters Edition in the United States, and bears apublication date of 1960. Piano students in Americanuniversities had to play a concerto movement lasting tenminutes for their performance auditions, and theintention was to provide a miniature concerto withinthat timespan, thus allowing for the variations in speedand mood that a single extracted movement would notprovide. At the suggestion of the publisher, but againstthe composer's better judgement, the work waspublished with the subtitle "The Student". Notsurprisingly, this was seen as patronising, and the workfell between two stools, being shunned by bothprofessional and students alike, despite a play-throughby a student with the BBC Northern SymphonyOrchestra. The composer's collection of programmesdoes not include any reference to a formal premi?¿re ofthe work.
The concerto is prefaced by a quotation fromMilto