GODARD: Piano Concerto No. 1 in A Minor, Op. 31; Piano Concerto No. 2 in G Minor, Op. 148; Introduction and Allegro, Op. 49 – Tasmanian Sym. Orch./ Howard Shelley, piano and cond. – Hyperion CDA68043, 70:13 (6/30/24) [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] ****:
Benjamin Godard (1849-1895) maintains his reputation on the basis of but a few of his rather prolific number of compositions: his 1876 Concerto romantique for Violin and the 1888 opera Jocelyn, whose “Berceuse” provides him immortality. As part of the ongoing series “The Romantic Piano Concerto,” No. 63, pianist-conductor Howard Shelley (rec. 23-27 April 2013) performs the two piano concertos and the 1880 Introduction and Allegro, brilliant but conservative efforts from the Parisian master to stem the rising tide of Wagner’s influence.
The No. 63 of “The Romantic Piano Concerto” series opens with Godard’s four-movement 1875 A Minor Concerto, whose potent opening Andante – Allegro vivace utilizes a dark, thirteen bar motif that infiltrates the turbulent movement. The heavy tread breaks off for an E Major second subject, con fantasia. If the energetic girth of the writing does not quite equal Liszt, it does emulate much of Anton Rubinstein in the keyboard fioritura and grand orchestral tuttis. Like the Brahms B-flat Major Concerto, the Godard proffers a Scherzo second movement, frisky and light-hearted in character. A salon charm permeates this clever fusion of whimsical keyboard writing and color elements from horns, bassoons, and flutes. If this music reminds us of anyone else’s sly skills, it would be Saint-Saens.
The B Minor Andante quasi adagio movement plays Godard’s strong suit, his natural melodic gift. Here, the Chopin “funeral march” concept dominates, moving to a B Major elegy. The lyricism of the writing becomes most affecting, and one is tempted to play “name the composer,” given the obscure beauty of the moment. A powerful motif in octaves sets the stage for the finale, Allegro ma non troppo, which utilizes pedal points in F and A to extend its bouncy folk song. Pianist Shelley has busy hands to coordinate the splashy filigree of his instrument with the shifting colors and metrics of the orchestra. Lightweight emotionally, the music does exhibit a rich color amalgam, not so far from D’Indy, and the piece concludes with happy punctuations in A Major.
Yet another four-movement concerto, the 1893 G Minor seems to extend the melancholy flavor of the previous concerto, but it moves to the G Major second subject of the first movement Con Moto – Allegro – Moderato more quickly, surrounded by arpeggiated flourishes, more than reminiscent of Saint-Saens. The music likewise conveys a faintly Slavic character, even in its brisker sections, rife with sixteenth and thirty-second note bravura. Oboe and flute contribute to the creamy mix, which often prefigures Hollywood pathos and a melodrama by Douglas Sirk.
The central two movements connect, attacca, having first presented a salon sensibility in the B-flat Major Andante, whose harmonies suggest Faure. The seamlessly passionate melody moves to a D-flat middle section, easily influenced by Schumann harmony. The quietude returns, only to connect to the brief F Minor Scherzo, a true dazzler in the mode of the ubiquitous Litolff Scherzo, which Shelley manipulates with sparkle and gossamer finesse. A cyclic ploy returns us to the first movement for the last, Andante maestoso – Moderato, a virtuoso keyboard toccata in perpetual motion that sports a cadenza prior and a series of acrobatics – often in diminuendo – that include sextuple groups, a catchy flute tune, and a grandiose finale that interlocks chromatic octaves. Shelley must have wrists of steel and oiled ball bearings, since he makes these hurdles sound effortless.
The 1880 Introduction and Allegro confirms the Schumann connection in Godard’s music; but unlike that composer’s direful D Minor, this bravura work dances with light feet. The pedaled “strum” effects at the opening might steal the show from the rest of the virtuoso romp. In his excellent notes, Jeremy Nicholas compares the invigorated filigree to the music of Gottschalk. Good call.
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