Francis Shaw: Piano Concertos Nos. 1 & 2
Francis Shaw was born in Maidenhead, Berkshire, in 1942 and has become one of the most versatile of contemporary British composers, having written a wide range of music, most notably for film and television. In addition, he has enjoyed parallel careers as a respected professor of composition and musical administrator.
As with many composers whose work has taken them into diverse musical fields, the range of his accomplishments has tended to draw attention away from what lies at the heart of his output – his serious music, less extensive than that of his more commercial work, but which - as the concertos on this disc amply demonstrate - is of a quality and achievement manifestly deserving of far greater recognition than it has received hitherto.
Shaw’s serious output contains two operas and two further concertos (for viola and for harpsichord), but within his concert music, his piano concertos have to be considered as being amongst the most greatly significant contributions to the genre by any British composer of the last six decades – fully the equal of more well-known examples as those by Rawsthorne (No 2), Rubbra, Tippett, Bennett, Hoddinott and McCabe.
The First Piano Concerto, like its successor, is in three movements, the first of which rocks and sways with dissonance. By contrast the second ('Slow Blues') is candidly bluesy - a questing dream in aquamarine. It tends towards the woozily disorientating. The finale sends sparks and shudders in all directions but at its centre there is some very inward-speaking music. It's all recorded with attractive directness in a superb hall.
The revised concerto is as pithy as it is purposeful, employing an uncompromising but by no means intimidating language, and whose outer movements frame a heartfelt 'Slow Blues'. Here the piano writing unfolds as if a refraction of subdued Erroll Garner or Art Tatum improvisation, while the slow trumpet surely acknowledges the haunting slow movement of the Gershwin concerto. As for the actual performances, Martin Jones emerges as an exemplary champion, and the composer draws a spirited response from his hard working Bratislava band. The recorded sound is big and bold to match. Inquisitive collectors can safely investigate. Andrew Achenbach, The Gramophone
Robert Matthew-Walker’s very helpful notes typify the music as ‘a late twentieth-century expansion of serial thematicism’ but the broad base of tonality and the sense of forward movement, also mentioned, were more than enough to win me over. Overall there’s little here that lovers of Copland and Bartók would not respond to well.
With the composer himself on the podium, of course, the performances can be regarded as authoritative, which is just as well since I have no benchmark with which to compare them. This is, indeed, the only Francis Shaw recording in the UK catalogue.