Even in this phonographic "Age of Complete," an integral recording of all John Field's piano concertos is perhaps something no one would have expected. Here it is, though, the seven concertos played by John O'Conor with the New Irish Chamber Orchestra under Ja'nos Fu rst. The four-disc set, recorded by the Irish company Claddagh, has been put into international circulation on the Dutch label Fidelio (SPH 994043).
Field (1782-1837) was the Irish virtuoso credited with the "invention" of the piano nocturne. He was apprenticed to Muzio Clementi at the age of 12, accompanied Clementi to Russia eight years later and decided to remain there. He toured Europe from his base in Moscow, where he gave some lessons to Glinka and had a famous encounter with Hummel. His dissolute ways took their toll, and after being rescued by a Russian family from a Naples hospital in which he languished for nine months without funds to pay for adequate treatment of a fistula, he died in relative obscurity.
The English pianist and composer Frank Merrick once wrote that Field was "the first composer for the piano in whose style no trace of harpsichord influence remains." As an innovator, Field was far ahead of his time, and his influence--not only on Chopin, but on the Romantic movement in general--was by no means limited to his invention of the nocturne. Merrick pointed out that "a knowledge of the concertos is indispensable to a more comprehensive appreciation of his style and of his contribution to the development of early piano music."
Field was not yet 17 when he introduced his First Concerto in London in February 1799, but it is the work of a seasoned craftsman as well as an imaginative artist. The slow movement is an especially enchanting set of variations on James Hook's ballad "Within a Mile of Edinboro' Town." The orchestral writing is unspectacular but deft enough to ensure that the orchestra's part is more than mere accompaniment. There is no traditional cadenza, nor are there in any of the subsequent concertos except the Fifth, which has an accompanied cadenza in its first movement.
In some of the later concertos Field made use of his nocturnes. He composed only two movements for his Third Concerto, but is known to have performed his Fifth Nocturne, in an orchestrated version, as that concerto's middle movement, and that practice is followed in the new recording. The Sixth Nocturne is brought into similar service in the Sixth Concerto, and the slow introduction to the opening movement of the Seventh Concerto is a reworking of the 12th Nocturne.
That opening movement of the final concerto happens to be the only one among all these works that Field wrote in a minor key. Robert Schumann was especially fond of this work, and the wind scoring in its opening phrase seems to "pre-echo" the coloring of his own piano concerto (though there is no further likeness). A near-Berliozian storm section in the first movement of No. 5 is the explanation for the subtitle "L'Incendie par l'orage." There is really no want of fine tunes or imaginative touches in any of the seven concertos.
The nocturnes have been recorded several times and are decently represented on records now. The First and Third concertos have been recorded in the past by the enterprising Felicja Blumental, and the Second by Rena Kyriakou, but these have not been in circulation for some time. O'Conor's new complete set actually represents the only recording of any of Field's music beyond the nocturnes available at present. As such it would be welcome in any case, but it happens to be a distinguished offering.
Throughout the eight sides the playing suggests nothing less than a labor of love, on the part of a pianist who knows the music intimately and has all the skills necessary for its full communication. The Hungarian conductor Fu rst also shows a most sympathetic response to this material, and the two work together on a level suggesting the productive intimacy of chamber music. The recorded sound is unostentatiously true to life, with the piano and orchestra ideally balanced, and the pressings themselves are exemplary, as is the accompanying annotation by Patrick Piggott.