KENNETH LEIGHTON - Orchestral Works Vol. 3

KENNETH LEIGHTON - Symphony No. 1 - Piano Concerto No. 3 - Howard Shelley (Piano) - Martyn Brabbins (Conductor) - BBC National Orchestra of Wales - Chandos 10608

Yet another impressive First Symphony that only now, 45 years after its creation, receives its world premiere recording. The Symphony No. 1, Op. 42 by Kenneth Leighton (1929-1988) was written in 1964, during a time when the symphony as a whole was considered old form and was of limited interest to the general public. Luckily for us some composers, like Leighton, still considered large scale symphonic works to be of the utmost importance for the personal development and creative output of a composer. He was primarily a choral composer. In fact, both his second and third symphonies include choirs, but this symphony is strictly instrumental.

If there is one thing that Leighton was very good at, it was at creating and maintaining tension within the musical discourse over a long period of time. The two outer movements of this three movement work attest to that. They both begin quietly and slowly, establishing a rather dark and bleak atmosphere, and with the utmost patience they build up a few times to eventually reach a powerful and resolute climax near the end. The middle Allegro movement on the other hand, with its multiple conflicts between various instrumental groups and cross-rhythms la William Walton, is a boisterous affair just full of momentum. Quite an impressive symphony for a composer who was used to building music around text.

If it wasn't for the piano opening the first movement of the Concerto No. 3, Op. 57 'Concerto Estivo' for Piano and Orchestra, you might believe that it's a fourth movement to the preceding symphony because the emotional outlook is the same. The pairing of these two works together on the same disc could not have been better. In general, the piano acts as an integral part of the orchestral textures in this work, and not so much as a front and centre solo instrument supported by an orchestra. It is there to create and propulse the musical idea, rather than to bring attention to itself, and in some instances, when paired with the tubular bells, generates some interesting sonic colors. Only in the final up-tempo movement does the piano act more like a strutting peacock, with pianist Howard Shelley leading the charge to a rousing and furiously active conclusion.

This CD is Volume 3 of a distinguished series launched by Chandos just over two years ago in May 2008, to celebrate the orchestral works of Kenneth Leighton. The initial 2 volumes, with the late Richard Hickox at the podium, were both very well received with Volume 1 earning a Torch on this website, and Volume 2 receiving a Rosette from the Penguin Guide. This release, with conductor Martyn Brabbins picking up the baton seamlessly where Hickox left off, should fare just as well if not better.

Jean-Yves Duperron - July 2010