A Dozen Piano Concerto Discs

by | Sep 27, 2009 | Special Features | 0 comments

A Dozen Piano Concerto Discs

If you’re as much of a fan of piano concertos as I am, you’ll want to check out these 12 CDs devoted to them.  The little stack has been piling up in my office for far too long, so pardon me if some of them are not exactly new releases.  If you’re getting tired of the same old same old in piano concertos both on recordings and on symphony concert programs, you’ll find many new very worthwhile discoveries among these discs. — John Sunier

It seems improbable how many volumes Hyperion’s The Romantic Piano Concerto series of CD has accumulated so far – it’s close to 50! First, here are just three that deserve your attention:

The Romantic Piano Concerto – 37 = EDUARD NAPRAVNIK: Concerto symphonique in A minor Op. 27; Fantasie russe in B minor Op. 39;  FELIX BLUMENFELD: Allegro de concert in A Major Op. 7 -Evgeny Soifertis, piano/ BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra/ Alexander Titov – Hyperion CDA67511, 57:44 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi]:

Napravnik, who lived until 1916, played a historic role in Russian music.  Of Czech origin, he was principle conductor at the Kirov/Mariinsky Theater most of his life. He was much influenced by Tchaikovsky in the four operas he composed, and considered conservative in both his own music and conducting. His Concerto symphonique of 1877 opens with a hint of the Dies irae theme which was beloved by Rachmaninoff and others. The finale includes a Russian dance, and becomes more and more virtuosic towards the end, with a very exalted, hymn-like climax – in common with a number of Russian piano concertos. Napravnik’s Russian Fantasy is even more strongly based on Russian folk tunes, beginning with The Volga Boatmen.

Blumenfeld, who lived until 1931, was a fine pianist and composer who also worked with Napravnik. His pedagogical work included many famous pianists – among them Horowitz. His Allegro de concert dates from 1889 and follows in its 14-minute length the model of Liszt’s piano concertos. An oriental sort of flavor common in several Russian composers is heard in the work, and it has an ecstatic finish.

The Romantic Piano Concerto – 39 = DELIUS: Piano Concerto in C minor; JOHN IRELAND: Legend; Piano Concerto in E flat Major – Piers Lane, piano/Ulster Orchestra/ David Lloyd-Jones – Hyperion CDA67296, 64:24 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi]:

Shortly after Delius met Grieg for the first time the Norwegian composer gave Delius a copy of his piano concerto. It is felt that the success of Grieg’s concerto caused Delius to consider creating a concerto of his own. The initial work was a Fantasy for piano and orchestra, but it underwent many changes and reorganizations over the years until it finally received some regular performances in the 1950s using an arrangement by Sir Thomas Beecham – a great supporter and performer of Delius’ music.  The version on this CD goes back to 1904 and is a three-movement work which shows in its first movement the influence of the Afro-American sounds which fascinated the composer during his stay in Florida.  The solo part in the concerto is often quite percussive, and the finale ends the work with a blaze of orchestral color. Critics cannot criticize this concerto as an example of Delius’ music not seeming to go anywhere.

Both of John Ireland’s works for piano and orchestra were written for performance by one of his promising piano students, Helen Perkin. The two-movement Piano Concerto was for four decades the pre-eminent British piano concerto performed by leading pianists. Written in 1930, it asks for dance band mutes on the trumpets and features the Chinese block in the second movement.  It was compared to both Gershwin’s music and Ravel’s G Major piano concerto.  The Concerto abounds in extended passages of solo piano, with the full orchestra only used for big climaxes. As with all of this Hyperion series, the recording quality is top flight, with a just-right balance between the piano soloist and the orchestra.

The Romantic Piano Concerto – 44 = HENRYK MELCER: Piano Concertos No. 1 in E minor & No. 2 in C minor – Jonathan Plowright, piano/BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra/Christopher König – Hyperion CDA67630, 66:41 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi]

As you might expect, by Volume 44, we are bound to be getting into composers nobody has ever heard of before. Melcer, who lived until 1928, was a Polish composer/pianist/conductor/teacher/music administrator. He studied music in both Warsaw and Vienna. His First Piano Concerto is written in the style of Liszt and Chopin and dedicated to M. Bösendorfer. It has three movements, of which the third has a very strong Polish character, building from a simple mazurka theme thru a rapid accelerando to a frenetic kujawiak which ends the concerto.

The Second Concerto won the Ignacy Jan Paderewski Competition in 1898, which was open only to Polish composers. The first of its three movements opens in C Major and the second Andante movement has a three-part song form. Melcer’s piano concertos demand a high degree of virtuosity and stamina from pianists. No. 2 is especially tuneful and full of expressive Polish folk themes.  One wonders why this fine concerto is not in the repertory today.

CONSTANT LAMBERT: Piano Concerto; Romeo & Juliet; Prize Fight; The Bird Actors; Elegiac Blues – Jonathan Plowright, piano/ English Northern Philharmonia/David Lloyd-Jones – Hyperion DCA67545, 62:52 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi]:

Lambert’s piano concerto is only one of the five selections on this CD, and not even the longest of them – that honor goes to the Romeo & Juliet ballet of 1925, which caused a dustup between the composer and ballet impresario Diaghilev. The scenario takes place in a classroom where the dancers rehearse scenes from Romeo and Juliet, but with most lighter musical accompaniment than Prokofiev’s ballet.
Lambert, who lived until 1961, has had a number of recordings lately and is felt to be a leading British composer of the generation of Walton, Tippett and Berkeley. His early Piano Concerto of 1924 (he was only 19) is scored for piano, two trumpets, strings and timpani – only nine other players plus the pianist. It survived only as a two-piano score and was orchestrated by others for its first recent performance in l988. In four continuous movements, it doesn’t match the stature of some of the other concertos we’re considering here, but has some sections of great beauty.

KAZIMIERZ SEROCKI: Romantic Concerto for Piano and Orchestra; TADEUSZ BAIRD: Piano Concerto; JAN KRENZ: Concertino for Piano and Orchestra – Adam Wodnicki, piano/ National Polish Radio Symphony Orchestra in Katowice/ Tadeusz Wojciechowski (Jerzy Swoboda, cond. on Baird concerto) – DUX 0651, 64:45 [Distr. by Qualiton]:

These works are all world premiere recordings. (And am I glad I don’t need to pronounce any of these on the air anymore.) Both Serocki and Baird lived until 1981 and Krenz is a living composer. All three members came to be known as Group 49.  They had to fit into the era of socialist realism during the Communist control of Poland, and escaped into the world of folklore. One reported that “drawing on folk elements, it was possible to write music that was at once ‘ours’ and fairly accessible. But after all, that style had a long and rich tradition in Polish music.”

Serocki’s concerto seems in a 19th century style, though with numerous more modern touches. He wanted to revive the tradition of the romantic piano concerto in a modern harmonic idiom. The main theme of the first movement is based on the pentatonic scale, giving it a strong folk flavor. The Baird concerto is more innovative, with an extensive use of chromaticism and spectacular virtuoso passages. Folk motives are woven into all three movements.  The Concertino is a lengthy as the other concertos, and is based on neoclassical models. Krenz came in for more criticism than the other two composers: One critic describe him as wandering “between the shadow cast by the monument of Bach and extreme innovation.”  It has a generally lively and joyous character, however. Both the performances and recording quality of the CD are top flight.

PHILIP GLASS: The Concerto Project Vol. II = Piano Concerto No. 2, After Lewis & Clark; Concerto for Harpsichord and Orchestra – Paul Barnes, piano/R. Carlos Nakai, native American flute/Jillon Steppels Dupree, harpsichord/ The Northwest Chamber Orchestra/ Ralf Gothoni – Orange Mountain Music  0030, 58.9 min. [Distr. by Harmonia mundi]:

Glass’ Second Piano Concerto had financial support from the Nebraska Lewis and Clark Bicentennial Commission, and its three movements are based on the story of the explorers, presenting both the white and native American perspectives – which explains the presence of popular native flutist Carlos Nakai, heard on many New Age albums. Glass describes the first movement as a “musical steamroller,” representing the resolve and energy required by Lewis and Clark on their expedition. The second movement is titled “Sacagawea,” is scored only for strings, and has a duet between the piano and native flute. “The Land” is the third movement, with expansive themes standing for the vast lands explored by Lewis and Clark.

As a sometime harpsichordist myself, I have to say I find Glass’ Harpsichord Concerto not only one of his best works in my estimation but one of the best modern harpsichord concertos I have heard.  It is baroque in style but unmistakably Glass.  Harpsichordist Dupree exalts in how well-written for the harpsichord she found it. The second and third movements even throw in a bit of jazz influence with the baroque.  Ms. Dupree also appreciated that although he uses amplification in many of his performances, Glass eschewed it in this case, customizing the orchestration so that the harpsichord is always clearly heard.

GEORGE ANTHEIL: Piano Concertos No. 1 & No. 2; A Jazz Symphony; 5 Other short works – Markus Becker, piano/ NDR Radio Philharmonic/Eiji Oue – CPO 777 109-2, 65:38 [Distr. by Naxos]:

Antheil was known as the Bad Boy of Music. Starting as a child prodigy, he had a patroness and for all his career he had great confidence and a sense of mission.  For example, he reported that during the riot at the premiere of The Rite of Spring, he had no fear, because he had a loaded pistol in his pocket. His first Piano Concerto of 1922 is a typically brash work, with obsessive repeating of short rhythmic passages and not much thematic development. Various quotations and snippets are trotted out like a guessing game for the listener: references to Stravinsky, Ravel, Scriabin and Debussy – even some Ives cacophony and a bit of the Carmina Burana.  It’s great fun. The Second Concerto comes from 1926 and is a more neo-classical work, though still drawing on Stravinsky in addition to Bach. The slow movement is quite beautiful and not representative of the composer’s more violent side.  The Jazz Symphony is only eight minutes long and employs 22 instruments forming a jazzy chamber ensemble.  The music has Antheil’s usual bits and pieces, sounding almost like dialing a radio between different stations.  The five short pieces have titles such as Can-Can, Death of machines, and Little Shimmy – and deal with their materials in a miniaturized fashion rather than being strung together into a longer Antheil work.

DARIUS MILHAUD: Complete Works for Piano & Orchestra = Le Carnaval d’Aix; Ballade; Cing Etudes; First Concerto; Fantaisie Pastorale; Deuxieme Concerto; Troisieme Concerto; Quatrieme Concerto; Cinquieme Concerto – Michael Korstick, piano/ SWR Radio Orchestra of Kaiserslautern/ Alun Francis – CPO 777 162-2 (2 CDs), 136:44 [Distr. by Naxos]:

Compositions for piano and orchestra have had a less important role in French music than in, say, German or Russian. So it is interesting to note that both Milhaud and Saint-Saens each wrote nine such works. Milhaud felt his own skill as a piano soloist was limited, but that didn’t stop him from writing all these works featuring the piano.  The most popular has been the 12-movement suite Le Carnaval d’Aix, which Milhaud arranged from his already-existing score to the ballet Salades.  He created a piano part that was appropriate for his limited performing capabilities. His Five Etudes of 1920 had some rather avant sections for the time, and the work almost caused a riot at its premiere. In a way, his Ballade goes even further by overlaying three different key signatures as well as intricate polyrhthms. Polytonality is a prime device in much of Milhaud’s music.

Each of the composer’s five piano concertos gets a bit longer until we pass the 21-minute mark with the Fifth. They are less experimental than his earlier works.  The First is in a stylized French baroque style with strong bitonality, and its writing for the piano is not as appropriate as some other concertos due to Milhaud not being a “pianist’s composer.”  The Second Concerto was written in 1941 in the U.S.; it has a baroque spirit but broken up by music hall-type orchestral passages. During his stay in the U.S. many instrumental soloists requested Milhaud to write works for them to perform. Such was the case with pianist Zadel Skolovsky and the Fourth Concerto in 1949. In it Milhaud reverses the usual roles of pianist and orchestra: the piano takes over the material presented by the orchestra in the first movement. The work has some dissonances and an extremely virtuosic technical level.  The Fifth Concerto of 1955 also reverses the piano and orchestra roles in the second movement. It has a cheery main theme, and a heavily contrapuntal final movement. These seems to be the only collection of all the composer’s piano & orchestra works and a fine addition to the catalog.

SIR HAMILTON HARTY: Piano Concerto in B minor; Fantasy Scenes from an Eastern Romance; A Comedy Overture – Peter Donohoe, piano/ Ulster Orchestra/ Takuo Yuasa – Naxos 8.557731, 55:09:

Harty was the best-known Irish composer early in the previous century, and he was also a pianist and conductor. As with his Irish Symphony, which has had multiple recordings, this piano concerto is influenced by Irish folk music – in spite of the fact the composer wrote it while staying in Italy. It has a number of folk-like pensive melodies and jig-like rhythms, plus some virtuoso piano writing – since Harty was a skilled pianist.  The Fantasy Scenes is not at all Irish, but conjures up a similar exotic picture to Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade. The lively Comedy Overture which opens the CD is not for a particular theatrical piece but a jaunty stand alone work.

BECHARA EL-KHOURY:  Concerto for Piano and Orchestra Op. 36; Poems Nos. 1 & 2 for Piano and Orchestra; Serenade Nos. 1 & 2 for Strings Op. 10 & 20; Poetic Meditation for Violin and Orchestra Op. 41 – Abdel Rahman El Bacha & David Lively, pianos/Gerard Poulet, violin/ Orchestre Colonne/Pierre Dervaux – Naxos 8.557692, 66:00:

Composer and poent El-Khoury is a Franco-Lebanese who seeks to “set to music human nature and its passions.”  Naxos has done two previous CDs of his music. A strong lyrical vein is central to all his music. The Piano Concerto of 1984 is a traditional structure in three movements with rich orchestration and demanding much of the soloist. However, the harmonies vary from simple chords with a sort of oriental ambiguity to harsh and sometimes atonal harmonies.   The composer reveals that there are a lot of personal feelings in the work.  The two Poems contrast in the first having little opposition between piano soloist and orchestra, while the second has a more demonstrative concertante character.

WILLIAM ALWYN: Piano Concertos Nos. 1 & 2; Sonata alla toccata; Derby Day Overture – Peter Donohoe, piano/ Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra/ James Judd – Naxos 8.557590, 59:35:

Alwyn, who lived until 1985, was a sort of British version of Samuel Barber – an unashamed romantic and usually quite tonal. His output was very large, including over 200 film scores as well as five symphonies, some operas and a number of concertos. His First Piano Concerto of 1930 is only a quarter-hour long, in a single movement, and one of his more adventurous works. The Second Piano Concerto is an exuberant work that was commissioned by the BBC in 1960. It was virtually forgotten after an accident made the scheduled soloist impossible to perform it, and it has never had a public performance. Its second movement, in spite of the orchestra being reduced to chamber proportions,  has a magisterial sweep that might remind one of Rachmaninoff. Some jazzy passages intervene in the brilliant finale.

WOJCIECH KILAR: Piano Concerto (1997); Mother of God, for mixed chorus & orchestra; Grey Mist, for baritone & orchestra; Koscielec 1909 (Symphonic Poem) – Waldemar Malicki, piano/ Wieslaw Ochman, baritone/ Warsaw National Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra/ Antoni Wit – Naxos 8.557813, 68:46:

Kilar is of Polish and Ukranian background and his composing music for Polish and other films since the 1950s but only recently has come to the attention of Westerners. His score for Bram Stoker’s Dracula as well as one selection heard in The Truman Show are powerfully effective.  Kilar’s music has a directness of expression and impact that works well for both film scores and more abstract music. His Piano Concerto draws on such sources as Catholic liturgy and Beethoven’s piano concertos.  The first of its three movements begins with a gentle pattern in the piano which eventually evolves in complexity and dynamics. The central movement – Corale – is the longest and features a solemn chorale theme. Mother of God is a choral/orchestral fantasy based on an old Polish hymn which was also used by Panufnik in his Sinfonia Sacra. Grey Mist is a vocal tone poem using texts from folk sources. The closing symphonic poem is vividly evocative in a tribute to the death of the leading Polish composer Karlowicz – in an avalanche while skiiing.

 — Above reviews – John Sunier

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