It is sixty years since the death of Australian pianist Noel Mewton-Wood and as the years pass it seems that his talent may be forgotten by future generations. This could be because he made few commercial recordings. Radio performances were mainly broadcast live in the first half of the twentieth century and only a small portion were recorded for broadcast at a later date. Mewton-Wood died at the age of thirty-one and, therefore, had a very short career, so any broadcasts that add to his recorded legacy are of the utmost importance.
Benjamin Britten gave the premiere of his Piano Concerto at the 1938 Proms, but he revised the work in 1945, specifically the third movement. This version was first performed by Mewton-Wood at the Cheltenham Festival on 2 July 1946 with the composer conducting the London Philharmonic Orchestra. The London premiere was given at the Proms on 2 August 1946. On this occasion the pianist was joined by the London Symphony Orchestra and Basil Cameron. The following December the same forces went into Wembley Town Hall to record it for the BBC Transcription Service.
Pears commissioned two new works from British composers for a recital that he and Mewton-Wood were to give in May 1953 – To Poetry, by Mátyás Seiber and Voices of the Prophets Op.41 by Alan Bush. Four months later, the BBC asked the two musicians to record the works for future broadcast. Pears and Mewton-Wood went to the BBC studios in Maida Vale at 2.30pm on the 25 September 1953 to rehearse and recorded the programme at 4pm.
The very fine BBC recording was broadcast on 9 January 1954, by which time Mewton-Wood was dead.
Toward the end of 1953, having disregarded complaints of stomach pains from his partner William Fedricks, the shock of Fedricks’ sudden death led Mewton-Wood to attempt suicide by taking an overdose of aspirin.
Rescued by friends, but determined to succeed, cyanide was later ingested by Mewton-Wood who was found dead on 5 December 1953 aged only thirty-one. The following year Benjamin Britten wrote his Canticle III: Still falls the rain for a memorial concert which took place at the Wigmore Hall in January 1955.
Sixty years on, it is important to keep Mewton-Wood’s name in the public eye – apart from being an extraordinary pianist, he strove to serve British music and British composers and for that alone he should have a secure place in British musical history.