Hailed as a “hero” (Los Angeles Times), a “smashing” performer (The Washington Post), “a pianist who breaks the mold” (International Piano) and “who stands out from the typical trends and artifices [...]
Mathieu: Concerto No. 3 - Gershwin: An American in Paris
They spoke about it
The world premiere of André Mathieu’s Concerto No. 3 performance in Buffalo (USA) received a standing ovation at two jam-packed concerts.
— Le Devoir
The result is striking! This work is now a fleshy, generous, ambitious and complete concerto.
— ICI Musique, Radio-Canada
Pianist Lefèvre, BPO channel music of Mathieu in glorious concert.
— The Buffalo News
It is a committed performance, with Lefèvre in muscular mode.
— Montreal Gazette
Concerto No. 3 in C Minor, Op. 25 by André Mathieu (1929 – 1968)
In early July 1939, the Mathieu family left Paris and boarded the legendary Normandie for what they thought would be a holiday back home. Their baggage contained the assurance of his renewed commitment from Paul-Louis Weiller, among the most powerful men in Europe; a file of reviews from Parisian critics that would be the envy of any established artist; a publishing contract and copies of previously published works; engagements for Belgium, Holland, and, according to André, South Africa for the 39–40 season; and, hot off the presses, a record of André playing his own works on the Boîte à Musique label. André’s father, Rodolphe, might well declare: “Mission accomplished!”
Then, on September 1, 1939, Hitler invaded Poland, marking the start of World War II. Paris was closed to the Mathieu family, and they had to start over.
But the U.S. stayed out of the war, so the “Canadian Mozart” went to New York City to rebuild the career so carefully crafted by Rodolphe. On February 3, 1940, André performed at the Town Hall, and cosmetics industry empress Elizabeth Arden took the prodigy under her wing. She entered Mathieu’s Concertino No. 2 in a competition for young composers held by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra to celebrate its centenary. Thereafter, André played seven times in New York between January 11, 1942 and January 11, 1943, including three times at Carnegie Hall.
One of the key players in the U.S. music scene was Arthur Judson, manager of the New York Philharmonic, the most powerful impresario on the continent, and the second-largest shareholder in the CBS radio network. Rodolphe had already approached him to represent André, and Judson had no doubt heard the concert of the NYPO contest winners. In order to win him over completely, André set about composing his Concerto No. 3, which he completed on June 20, 1943. He was exactly 14 years, four months, and two days old.
Between June 20 and November 28, 1943, André Mathieu was playing his life, the new Concerto was intended to be the key that would open the door to a successful career. Conductor Wilfrid Pelletier, who had always supported André, organized a secret audition of the Concerto by piquing the interest of conductor André Kostelanetz, husband of the coloratura Lily Pons, whom Pelletier conducted regularly at the Metropolitan Opera. An orchestral reduction of the second movement, arranged by the CBS house arranger, was broadcast live on the network in prime time on Sunday, October 31, 1943. On November 19, Leonard Bernstein wrote to André Mathieu asking him when he could come to New York, “so you can play for Dr. Rodzinski, who is anxious to hear you”. Nine days later, André wrote to Pelletier that “Mr. Rodzinski and Mr. Bernstein were very kind to me, and I believe something may come of it. I must return to New York shortly about this matter”. But instead was the deafening silence of expected replies that never came.
In 1946, Paul L’Anglais, radio producer and future co-founder of Télé-Métropole, launched the cinema production company Quebec Productions. The plot of his first film featured a young composer whose concerto was to be premiered and an improbable exchange of murders. L’Anglais shrewdly asked Mathieu, then at the height of his fame, to grant him the rights to his Concerto No. 3, which for the purposes of the film, shot entirely in Québec, was entitled Concerto de Québec. (Perhaps L’Anglais had heard the October 1943 broadcast?) The most well-known arranger of the time, Giuseppe Agostini, was asked to split up, alter, and orchestrate the score for the film. But in the end, L’Anglais used only the main theme of the second movement.
The film (La Forteresse/Whispering City) was a hit, and when Mathieu returned from Paris in the fall of 1947, it was the Agostini version that Radio Canada asked him to record. Thirty years later, this same version, revisited, revised, and rearranged by Marc Bélanger was recorded by pianist Philippe Entremont and the Orchestre du Capitole de Toulouse following the Olympic Games of Montréal. In 2003, this same arrangement, revised by Alain Lefèvre himself, was recorded with the Orchestre symphonique de Québec.
In 2008, I was browsing through the Mathieu archival fonds in Ottawa when I “discovered” André Mathieu’s original autograph score for two pianos. We were curious to see how the original Concerto No. 3 differed from the Agostini/Bélanger/Lefèvre Concerto de Québec and whether those differences were enough to warrant a complete revision and re-orchestration of the work? The answer was a definitive “YES!”
One might liken the immense endeavour undertaken by composer and conductor Jacques Marchand, whom Alain Lefèvre tasked with reconstructing the score, to the spectacular restoration of the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling. All that is familiar about the old version remains, but themes that were cut or shortened have reappeared, smoothed-over harmonies have recovered their sparkle, the rhythm follows the shape of the phrase, the original conception reappears clearly and cleanly, restoring the organic logic of the three movements and conveying the work’s emotional eloquence. What emerges is Mathieu’s innocent revelation of the tempests and passions of adolescence, and the limits of his young compositional skills. Nothing has changed, but everything is different.
To balance the first movement, which compensated for a lack of development with a profusion of themes, each one more beautiful than the last, Marchand composed a cadenza that exploits and enhances this generous material and extends its
Not one note has been removed from the original score, not a single harmony has been changed, so that we may, after three-quarters of a century, hear one of Mathieu’s key works, a missing link in our musical history – indeed in our history period.
© Georges Nicholson
An American in Paris by George Gershwin (1898 – 1937)
In the spring of 1928 Gershwin visited Europe where he met composers as diverse as Milhaud, Prokofiev and Ravel. Although he had once before visited the French capital, the trip also fueled his pen for the sassy tone poem titled An American in Paris. In fact, the travelog was commissioned by the New York Philharmonic, which premiered the piece under maestro Walter Damrosch at Carnegie Hall on December 13, 1928.
About the evocative music, Gershwin noted:
“My purpose here is to portray the impressions of an American visitor in Paris as he strolls about the city, listens to various street noises, and absorbs the French atmosphere.”
“The opening up-beat section is followed by a rich ‘blues’ with a strong rhythmic undercurrent. Our American friend, perhaps after strolling into a café and having a couple of drinks, has succumbed to a spasm of homesickness. The harmony here is both more intense and simple than in the preceding pages.”
“This ‘blues’ rises to a climax followed by a coda in which the spirit of the music returns to the vivacity and bubbling exuberance of the opening part with its impressions of Paris. Apparently the homesick American, having left the café and reached the open air, has downed his spell of blues and once again is an alert spectator of Parisian life.”
“At the conclusion the street noises and French atmosphere are triumphant.”
Despite the high-tech, nouveau chic of modern Paris, most long-time residents confirm that the charm of the boulevards and sidewalk cafés remains virtually intact with the spirit which prevailed almost 90 years ago. Everything you ever heard about the traffic madness around the Arch de Triomphe, Rive Gauche bouquinistes (Left Bank book stalls), the poignant quiet of the wee hours, children singing school yard chansons, baguettes under arm (long French bread loaves) and everywhere everybody carrying something to read.
All of this remains up to date with Gershwin’s evocative score, which incidentally inspired a marvelous film from MGM in 1951, directed by Vincente Minnelli and starring Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron. As for the music, the memoir begins in a light, skipping mode, as if conjured from the famed Tuilleries next to the Louvre. What follows is a glittering sketch of the luster of Paris, complete with a stroll down the Champs Elysée under a jazzy lyric in the solo trumpet, nagging taxi horns, lots of bristle and banter in the woodwinds, lovers on the banks of the misty Seine, tone-painted in the strings, dreamy midnight solos in the tuba and bass clarinet and finally, a wailing close. C’est magnifique !
P.S. Ever respectful, when Gershwin met Maurice Ravel, he asked the Impressionist French master if he would be willing to give him lessons in composition. Ravel smiled and replied: “My dear monsieur Gershwin, I am well aware that you are very wealthy because of the royalties from your music. Truly, it is me who needs lessons from you!”
© Edward Yadzinski