Volume 19 Mackenzie and Tovey Piano Concertos Steven Osborne, BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra with Martyn Brabbins View larger

Volume 19 Mackenzie and Tovey Piano Concertos Steven Osborne, BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra with Martyn Brabbins



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Two first recordings of concertos by a Scot (Mackenzie) who settled in England as Principal of the Royal Academy of Music and an Englishman (Tovey) who settled in Scotland as a Professor at Edinburgh University's Reid School of Music.

Mackenzie's Scottish Concerto, premiered by no less a man than Paderewski in 1897, is a colourful and entertaining work which uses several Scottish themes in a fundamentally Lisztian design.

As befits the academic and scholarly Tovey, his concerto of 1903 is in a much more serious and Brahmsian vein, indeed the first movement in particular sounds uncannily like Brahms from beginning to end. The work is characterized by great rhythmic energy and superb, rich orchestration. Not just another piano concerto, but a major and unaccountably neglected symphonic work.

Please note the carefully chosen Mackenzie tartan featured as part of the cover design!


Both composers share a Scottish connection: Mackenzie was Scottish in name, accent, blood and culture; Tovey became Scottish by adoption, chiefly because he occupied Edinburgh’s Reid Chair of Music with great distinction for the last twenty-six years of his life. Mackenzie occupied a parallel role as Principal of the Royal Academy of Music in London (from 1888 to 1924), and although he had none of the academic pretensions of Tovey (who graduated with distinction from Oxford), Mackenzie was a fine linguist and had a mind of great sophistication and wit. He could count amongst his honorary degrees music doctorates from St Andrews, Edinburgh, Cambridge, McGill and Oxford Universities. Mackenzie was knighted in 1895, Tovey in 1935 (the year of Mackenzie’s death) and both men have suffered subsequently from being associated with the Establishment, though both were, in their own ways, quite radical. They gained little from their own exalted status and their music suffered the same neglect at home as that of other British composers; British publishing houses were not prepared to support British works, least of all piano concertos.

The Germans, however, without the same cultural prejudices, were ready to promote anything that was good; so the two works represented here were published in Germany. Tovey’s came out just in time to beat the crushing deadline of the First World War; while Mackenzie’s Scottish Concerto had been published in Leipzig seventeen years earlier, but was very nearly a casualty of the war—as he wrote to the pianist Frederick Dawson on 12 October 1914:

By the way, your (and existing copies in England) copy may well become very valuable! I see that the Germans are melting down all music plates for bullets: and as these are in Leipzig, no doubt by this time the concerto has been re-cast in another form, less musical, but more effective perhaps. You see how this ghastly business touches us all in many queer forms.

Although composed within six years of each other, the two concertos are superficially strongly contrasted. The Mackenzie is openly virtuosic, its Scottish bravura balanced by sentiment and wit. The Tovey is no less technically demanding and is unconcerned with display, though its rhetoric has both grandeur and vivacity. But in both works there is a sense of unity of purpose in which the early romantic battle between first and second subjects, often characterized respectively as masculine and feminine, is no longer a driving force, and in which the pitting of soloist against orchestra, individual against society, has no place whatever. The intellectual strengths in these two outstanding works are not revealed through argument, but through cooperation. In the case of the Mackenzie, the cooperation of masculine and feminine is fundamental.

Mackenzie and Tovey were both pianists. Mackenzie learned the hard way, improvising accompaniments for singers in Boucicault’s Westminster Theatre in London in order to keep body and soul together as a student, but becoming sufficiently skilful to pass off an improvisation at his final exam at the Royal Academy of Music as a previously unknown Schubert Impromptu, deceiving the Principal, Sir George MacFarren. Mackenzie was to succeed MacFarren as Principal, but on the strength of other merits, including his even greater skills as a violinist. The truth is that he was well ahead of most of his tutors, in his early teens having been a member of the ducal orchestra in the magnificent Schloss at Sondershausen, where the very latest works of Wagner and Liszt were performed, alongside late Beethoven and (in the castle chapel) Bach cantatas. No wonder that his days as a student composer in old London evoked comment from him (touched with a characteristic broad-mindedness):

Such mild liberties as may have been taken with the established canons of Harmony and Composition not infrequently called forth sarcasms referring to ‘Young Germany and Young Scotland’. But these occasional ‘scraps’ did not disturb the pleasant relationship between master and pupil, and a stricter discipline was of rare benefit to me.

Mackenzie’s knowledge of the orchestra was a revelation to Elgar who felt a violinist’s camaraderie with him and who, many years later, recalled their first encounter:

April 1930: My Dear Mackenzie, I am seldom in London now as I have—for the last lap in the race—taken up my rest in my old town. Here in 1881 ‘we’ (!) produced The Bride, you as composer and myself a fiddler therein: I often pass the old hall where the performance took place & think over those spacious days & my pride & delight at being presented to you by Geo: d’Egville. And what a lovely work it was (& is) & how you startled & dominated us all & how proud we were (and are) of you & none more than your old friend,
Edward Elgar

Tovey’s education was a different matter altogether. Under the benign and intelligent direction of his patroness, Miss Weisse, he was initially trained as a virtuoso pianist and composer. As precocious as Mackenzie, at the age of twelve on a journey to Wales he lost his luggage, his hat and his return ticket; but not the twenty-four miniature scores with which he has padded his jacket ‘for reading in the train’. Despite small hands, Tovey reached a high level of accomplishment, and premiered his own concerto. He was born in Eton, graduated in classical honours from the Scottish-founded Balliol College, Oxford, and died in Edinburgh, where his memory is still green.

Tovey was noted for his irreverent wit on matters musical—providing famous fugues and sensitive slow movements with ridiculous lyrics so apt that they cannot be quoted as they are capable of destroying for ever one’s finer feelings for works of genius. More seriously, he contributed to the art of writing programme notes with great distinction, publishing some of them under the title Essays in Musical Analysis. Perhaps he was inspired by his predecessor in the Edinburgh Reid Chair of Music, John Thomson (1805–1841), who is reliably credited with having introduced programme notes to the world. Tovey’s editions of Bach and Beethoven are still in use today and, quirky though some of them may be, his comments are always stimulating and intelligent. As a composer he has been neglected. Tovey’s only other concerto is the massive Opus 40 Cello Concerto which he composed for Pablo Casals, who premiered it in Edinburgh on 22 November 1934. It is probably the longest cello concerto ever composed, but its power and vivacity have kept it alive despite such an obvious obstacle. Besides these, there is a Symphony (1913), the opera The Bride of Dionysus (1907–1918) and a number of fine chamber pieces, notably the Elegiac Variations and the Sonata Eroica, both for cello and piano.

Sir Donald Francis Tovey
Piano Concerto in A major Op 15 (1903)

My concerto went very well: Wood [Sir Henry] proved a really wonderful interpreter & there wasn’t a single point in which he didn’t anticipate my most detailed and least obvious intentions, besides getting all the swing and balance of the whole. Stanford has been amazingly kind & has twice made the Royal College orchestra play it with me.

Thus Tovey, writing to Edward Speyer in November 1903. But despite this auspicious start and subsequent performances, including one under Fritz Busch in Aachen in 1913 and others in Edinburgh, the concerto only re-emerges from obscurity with this CD—and it is a revelation: Tovey is not a composer ignored because of his idiosyncracies, but because of his unaffected mastery. Brahms will immediately be invoked—and rightly. After all, this work was composed only three years after Brahms’s death, and composed by a young man still in his twenties. But it is no less lovely for being thoroughly Brahmsian, and the material is Tovey’s and it is handled with the consummate skill that can only be born from an inspiration that belongs to that composer and that composer alone. Mere derivation could not produce such a seamless, coherent and yet compelling work, and the concerto is a true and worthy child of its parent.

Tovey himself refused to comment on the work—unless one can include the delightfully revealing remark to his former student Mary Grierson:

I always remember your first performance, and I remember you wore a dress of a very pretty, soft blue which seemed exactly to suit the music.

Soft blue is scarcely the colour of the opening statement from the piano, threatening portentous matters. But A major is not a portentous key, and the breadth of this simple scale-and-arpeggio opening evokes an immediate response from the woodwind of staccato quavers which prefigure the celebratory nature of the movement. This terse contrast is essentially classical: there is no big romantic theme, rather there is a balanced conception which demands and receives expansion. A part of the ascending scale appears in heroic, exuberant and rich pastoral guises in quick succession; and suddenly we have reached the second subject in D major—warm and lyrical.

The piano enters with its opening material reworked and this double exposition leads to a more dramatic treatment in the development; and at all times the piano and orchestra are working together, leading up to the joyous recapitulation, the brilliant writing for the horns redolent of peals of bells. Here the power of the opening idea is asserted and the celebratory mood given final affirmation.

The F sharp minor Adagio opens with a dialogue of simple but expressive feeling, but the latent intensity is evoked by an echo of the opening of the first movement, and solo oboe and strings explore the loneliness as well as the sense of sharing that are so often at the heart of our deepest intimacies. Nothing is over- or understated in this beautifully scored movement, mature beyond its composer’s years.

The Alla marcia final movement starts light-footed, but soon picks up a young man’s stride, and a splendid fugato (one of the few such that sounds spontaneous) is perfectly integrated into the half-marching, half-dancing and utterly irresistible progress of Tovey’s musical troops. Ever and always the piano and orchestra travel together, and this absolute unity of purpose is one of the work’s great strengths. It is without bravado, yet it asserts magnificently an integrated self-confident vitality, in which individual and society are as at home with one another as this neglected work will surely be with its audiences.

Sir Alexander Campbell Mackenzie
Scottish Concerto in G major Op 55 (1897)

The Scottish Concerto is dedicated to Mrs Angelina Goetz, an accomplished musician in her own right, at whose instigation the work was composed. Paderewski premiered it in 1897 at a Philharmonic concert in London and, after many recalls, was obliged to repeat the last movement; it was subsequently performed and promoted by Busoni. Nor has the present writer forgotten the explosion of applause when this work concluded the 1992 Edinburgh International Festival (with Steven Osborne as soloist, then as now). All the more puzzling, therefore, that it had never really ‘taken off’. Mackenzie (modest and unassuming about his own music to a fault) was himself puzzled, as he wrote to Frederick Dawson in 1914:

As to the ‘Scottish’, I don’t know any particular reason why they don’t do it more frequently—except that, generally, British pieces are never in favour.

The Scottish Concerto is Scottish in every possible way. It is based on three well-known and old Scottish traditional melodies; it embodies and comments upon their character, both emotional and technical, and it draws its dramatic development from the lyrics associated with the tunes. It is declared to be Scottish, was composed by a Scot and, on this CD, is performed by a Scottish soloist and orchestra. But it is far from the romantic image of a Scotland of weeping glens and desolate moorlands, for this is a work of great wit, sentiment and panache, though however overt and open-handed it may seem, it has its own happy secrets.

The piano concerto in the nineteenth century became a quintessentially romantic form—employing the heroic genius and virtuosity of the individual’s assertions in the midst of the vast crowd of the orchestra, and this at a time when liberalism and nationalism were overturning the old regimes of Europe. But there is nothing jingoistic about the Scottish Concerto, and its moments of self-aggrandizement are often tongue-in-cheek. Apart from anything else, there is no sense of aggression or combat between soloist and orchestra; like the Tovey, but in a totally different manner, it is one of the most obviously cooperative of piano concertos and (once one understands its subject matter) it is easy to see why this must be so, for the work is a celebration of the masculine and feminine and their coming together—at one and the same time it contrives to be rhetorical and sprightly, and to create a pastoral idyll with the potential of a grand amour.

Mackenzie knew the words to the tunes he selected as the basis of the work, indeed he could not have summoned up these melodies without the words coming to the front of his mind—and this would be the case for any Scot as well versed as he in a tradition which he had already exploited in his Scottish Rhapsody No 2 (recorded on Hyperion CDA66764). Two of the most important studies of Scottish music of the period were dedicated to him (Professor J S Blackie’s Scottish Song in almost fawning humility, and John Glen’s Early Scottish Melodies) and Mackenzie’s character as a Scot was deeply appreciated by Stanford who, in 1921, dedicated his Interludes to him with the following tribute:

You have, throughout your happily long life, been a consistent supporter of all that is best. You have never bowed the knee to Baal. Scot you are, and canny you may be, as your birth-land proverbially expects. But your canniness has always been exercised to benefit others rather than yourself, and therefore I prefer to call it a wise humanity.

This was a ‘wise humanity’ which was nonetheless capable of double entendre and self-assertion. Alternative racier words to favourite Scottish songs were regularly referred to by the editors of the nineteenth century who, far from being prudes, let their readers know of the existence of bawdy texts, many of which were, and remain, genuinely unpublishable for a public which might want to teach the songs to their children. Mackenzie knew all this better than most and, as we shall see, he also had deep personal experience of the need for self-assertion.

The concerto opens with a splendid dignity derived from The Reel of Tulloch, one of the oldest bagpipe reels but one which is associated with the outlawed MacGregors, one of whom ran off with Iseabail Dhubh Thulach (with her passionate consent), an event followed by brutal family reprisals from which the couple escaped. Being a pipe tune, a piper is implied, and Mackenzie incorporates many of the stylistic elements that the Highland bagpipes have given to Scottish music. But after a dramatically assertive entry by the piano, it turns out that the main Allegretto is an irrepressibly skittish piece of writing which alternates and combines easily with an expansive, even grandiose theme, so that the music seems almost to dance upon its own self-importance. Its masculine self-assertion is indeed to be taken seriously—but never for too long! In this it reflects brilliantly the complex resonances of a story in which true love mocks the jealousy of its enemies.

Perhaps there was a personal meaning in this for Mackenzie, for his own marriage was deeply resented by his family (as bitterly and snobbishly recounted by his niece, Rebecca West, in her Family Memories); Mackenzie won, but he was free of base sentiments. After a brief cadenza incorporating the triumphant expansive theme and elements of The Reel of Tulloch itself the soloist leads to the heart of the concerto, in every sense of the word; for it is the human heart which evokes the tenderness of the tune The Waulking of the Fauld that underlies the slow movement. The title means the ‘watching over the sheepfold’—a classic situation for amorous pursuits—and the tune dates from the seventeenth century. It was originally a bawdy song, but in Alan Ramsay’s famous version it is associated with the soft singing of a girl in response to her shepherd lover’s pipe:

My Peggy sings sae saftly,
When on my pipe I play …

Though the pipes in The Reel of Tulloch are Highland ones and the shepherd’s pipe is a gentler instrument, the two are related—and it was not only in Burns’s The Merry Muses that the chanter pipe was a sexual metaphor. But just as Ramsay has softened the metaphor, so too Mackenzie has gentled the tune. Nonetheless, it is surely no accident that the melody is given to the cellos, for the cello has a woman’s shape. Ardent, and yet deeply nostalgic, the modal simplicity of the tune is asserted in the complex key of C sharp minor, and the innocence of the sentiment is expanded into an expression of love in which breadth and grandeur are now the unquestioned prerogative of all lovers. Mackenzie alternates this with delicate dialogues between piano, woodwind and horns, until the hazy drum-beat of summer heralds the return of the cellos. The movement ends with the oboe evoking the pastoral pipes, and the piano deciding the equivocal modality of the tune in favour of a blissful, contented E major.

The Finale is a wonderfully witty and knowing interpretation of Green Grow the Rashes O which, even in its mildest version, is one of the most happily suggestive of love songs: as Burns put it, ‘The sweetest hours that e’re I spent were spent amang the lassies O!’. This old tune makes its first appearance in the Straloch Manuscript of 1627–9 where it is titled Grein Greus ye Rasses—A Daunce, and this movement is certainly a dance of triumph and delight.

It starts with a reference to The Reel of Tulloch from the first movement, itself a triumphant dance; and there is no lack of mutual self-assertion, for upon their victory over her own family, Iseabail shouted ‘Give me a glass of your beer, love, and we shall dance the Tulaichean!’, but Green Grow the Rashes O is the theme which dominates—a theme of union rather than defiance. Of all the romantic composers who have used Scottish traditional melodies, Mackenzie is the only one to have done so with such a sophisticated yet unforced sympathy and musical understanding. The orchestra sets the scene, and the piano races to join them, itself fooling with the reel and the rushes, with a combination of pianistic and orchestral panache—the piano with block parallel chords, the piccolo cheeky and delighted as ever.

And then, quite unexpectedly, comes a strange, almost insouciant passage in E minor once again featuring the cellos—this despite Paderewski’s request that the tune be given to the piano. But Mackenzie, as we know, had his reasons; and they are underlined by Burns’s famous lyrics for Green Grow the Rashes O:

There’s naught but care on ev’ry han’
In ev’ry hour that passes, O;
What signifies the life o’ man,
An ’twere na for the lasses, O?

Perfect, the subtle reworking of The Reel of Tulloch so that it is now in feminine garb and played by the cellos: perfectly judged, the brief prospect (marked quasi dolente) of a life without women; perfectly judged, the reawakening in the knowledge that all is well and that love has triumphed. From this moment on the music chases itself into a wild celebration in E major, just to make sure that we understand that things have not ended in the same key as they began and that when it comes to love there is nothing better than action. There is no more appropriate way to describe the delight of the final Più mosso ancora than to quote Burns’s own concluding stanza for the song:

Auld Nature swears, the lovely dears
Her noblest work she classes, O:
Her prentice han’ she tried on man,
An’ then she made the lasses, O.
'Another hugely enjoyable release of Scottish music from Hyperion' (The Scotsman)

'A super disc' (Gramophone)

'What a bonanza this Hyperion offering is! If you fancy piano concertos you'll find plenty in these two neglected specimens to challenge and enchant you' (Fanfare, USA)

'A marvellous and magnificent disc' (Hi Fi News)

'A fascinating release. The whole enterprise could hardly wish for a more eloquent or dashingly persuasive exponent than Steven Osborne, who clearly believes in every note' (Piano International)

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