Benjamin Britten's "Scottish Ballad" is a fine work that is rarely heard and has rarely been recorded; I do have another version on Centaur Records (coupled with RVW's Concerto for Two Pianos), however other than that, whatever else exists is long out of print. Martinů's "Concerto for Two Pianos" is the better known piece here, however it still remains in the shadows of his extraordinary (solo) piano concertos as well as other concertante works (such as the sublime Rhapsody-Concerto).
Martinů's concerto is a work of great energy and invention, and has a suggestion of the composer's earlier neo-baroque style with an element of Czech folk melody. Also rarely heard are the two two-piano works "Fantasie" and the "Three Czech Dances", both lively works, mostly full of good cheer (Czech Dance II makes a melancholic entrance, however it is lovely with its quiet sense of longing).
My only quibble with this recording is the sound quality; it is far from crisp, however a few adjustments on your amplifier will remedy this satisfactorily. Otherwise the performances are commendable, and exciting.
Britten's Scottish Ballad for Two Pianos and Orchestra was given its first performance in the winter of 1941 by two musical acquaintances of the composer ''on the keys'' - the husband and wife piano duo Ethel Bartlett and Rae Robertson. Eugene Goosens directed the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. After Britten's return to England in 1942, Bartlett and Robertson made successful tours of America and Europe performing the "Ballad" and other works, but soon after the Scottish Ballad simply fell from the concert repertory. Whether or not is has been performed in concert at all over the last several decades I know not.
The Thematic material is derived from old Scottish tunes to "evoke", says Britten, "a sequence of ideas and emotions that have have been characteristic of the life of the Scottish people during centuries of stormy history". The work is in one continuous movement, in three distinct sections. In the first section, a Lento introduction uses the psalm tune "Dundee" as a basis for variations. The central section is based on the lament "Flowers of the Forest", and the repeated motif by the pianos contrast with the mournful interjections of the orchestra. "Dundee" is recalled before the final section, where, in the Scottish custom of dancing reels after a funeral, pianos and orchestra vie with each other in a lively, headlong chase.
Martinů's "Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra" was written early in 1943 and given its first performance the following November by Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra. Playing the fiendishly difficult solo parts were Pierre Luboschutz and Genia Nemenoff. The composer wrote: "I have used the pianos for the first time in a purely solo sense, with the orchestra as accompaniment. The form is free; it leans rather towards the concerto grosso. It demands virtuosity, brilliant piano technique, and the timbre of the same two instruments calls forth new colors and sonorities". -Some astute listeners may notice that the main theme from Martinů's wonderful "Sinfonietta La Jolla" is quoted here, especially in the first movement!
The first movement is contrapuntally complex, with soloists complementing the orchestral texture with arpeggio figures and fast-moving passages. Much of the second movement is for soloists alone, with the orchestra playing in the central section. The last movement is more energetic and light-hearted, though the soloists have a cadenza in a contrasting slow tempo. This is, all around, a knockout concerto!
The "Fantasie" for Two Pianos is an earlier work, begun in Bohemia and completed in Paris in 1929.
It is harmonically and rhythmically complex, with a strongly bitonal flavor. Though it is written in a neo-classical style, there is an emphasis on dissonance, and the work emerges as a virile, invigorating essay in pianism.
Martinů moved to Paris in 1948 but returned to New York in the autumn. The following spring saw the completion of "Three Czech Dances", written (as was the Concerto for Two Pianos) for Bartlett and Robertson. Once more, Martinů's music demands a formidable technique; of the three dances, the second compliments the outer, toccata-like movements.
1) Scottish Ballad, Op. 26 (13:10)
Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra
2) Allegro non troppo (6:13)
3) Adagio (9:58)
4) Allegro (6:29)
5) Fantasie for Two Pianos (6:54)
Three Czech Dances
6) Allegro (3:26)
7) Andante moderato (4:53)
8) Allegro non troppo (4:57)
It's been a rough week for me, so I will try to post more tonight and during the weekend for everyone.