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 [...]
Rhapsodies: Mathieu, Rachmaninov, Gershwin
They spoke about it
This recording presents three Rhapsodies performed by pianist Alain Lefèvre with the Montréal Symphony Orchestra. This event was the world premiere of the Rhapsodie romantique, written nearly fifty years earlier by Montrealer composer André Mathieu.
To the Ancient Greeks, a rhapsody was a literary work consisting of a series of poems of epic character strung together and sung by a rhapsode. A more modern concept understands a rhapsody to be an ecstatic, high-flown or strongly emotional utterance or literary work. By extension, a musical composition bearing the title “Rhapsody” may bring expectations of being a highly-charged instrumental work in irregular, free or improvisatory form, usually laid out as a single movement consisting of several linked sections. Each of the works on this CD reveals a different composer’s liberal interpretation of the term “rhapsody.”
Mathieu: Rhapsodie romantique
On April 4, 2006, pianist Alain Lefèvre gave the world premiere with the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal of the Rhapsodie romantique, written nearly fifty years earlier by Montrealer André Mathieu (1929-1968). Fifty years is a long time to wait for a first performance. Yet the vast majority of Mathieu’s works have yet to be heard in public. Literally hundreds of compositions remain in boxes and crates waiting to be sorted, catalogued, played and published. Alain Lefèvre has made this enormous undertaking his own, his ambition being to stimulate widespread public interest in a composer he calls a “hero”. The pianist has already recorded for Analekta Mathieu’s Concerto de Québec and a program of short piano pieces (Hommage à André Mathieu).
The Rhapsodie romantique was written in 1958 and heavily revised ten years later, just weeks before the composer died. The score is dedicated to Marie-Ange Mathieu, his widow. Lefèvre commissioned Gilles Bellemare to rewrite the orchestral score. The 23-minute work is laid out in one continuous arc of sound. It patently reveals the composer’s adoration of Rachmaninov, but also shows some influence from Debussy. Here and there the attentive listener may also detect snatches of another rhapsody, that of Gershwin.
How the Rhapsodie romantique came to light is a story in itself, one that bears analogy with an event in Mozart’s life. The music arrived at Lefèvre’s home in a plain brown wrapper. No return address, no indication who might have sent it. It was accompanied only by a cryptic message that read: “I can’t tell you who I am; I can say only that (…) you are the only person who should have this score.” One recalls the mysterious messenger clad in black who arrived at Mozart’s residence in 1791, bearing a commission to write a Requiem for an unnamed patron. This became Mozart’s last composition, left incomplete upon his death.
The comparison with Mozart invites further scrutiny. Both Mozart and Mathieu died before their fortieth birthday. Both had eccentric personalities and meteoric careers that catapulted them briefly and dazzlingly into the limelight, then fizzled. Both were already composing at an age when other children were still perfecting mud pies. Both astonished audiences far and wide with their pianistic prowess from a young age. And both went penniless to their graves. Small wonder Mathieu has been dubbed “the Canadian Mozart”.
Mathieu, again like Mozart, received his first lessons from his father Rodolphe who, like Mozart’s father Leopold, was also a prominent composer. In 1941, he appeared as soloist in his own Concertino No. 2 with the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal. This work also won first prize in a young composer’s competition by the New York Philharmonic, which accompanied Mathieu in a performance three days after his thirteenth birthday. Rachmaninov pronounced him “a genius, more so than I am.”
Mathieu’s fame peaked around 1950. Thereafter he continued to compose, but the world took little notice. He indulged in day-long “pianothons”, suffered a disastrous love affair, turned to alcohol, and died in abject poverty. Much about his life remains unknown, including the exact cause of his early death.
Rachmaninov: Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43
Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini is not really a rhapsody at all, at least not of the kind described above. This work by Sergueï Rachmaninov (1873-1943) actually follows a very clear, taut design, namely, a set of 24 variations. Wit, charm, romance, rhythmic verve and masterly orchestration combine in what many consider to be one of Rachmaninov’s greatest compositions. It was first performed on November 7, 1934 in Baltimore, with Leopold Stokowski leading The Philadelphia Orchestra and the composer at the piano.
The work begins with the curiously “misplaced” first variation; only afterwards do we hear the theme in its original, intact form. Variations 2-5 all retain rhythmic tautness and drive. Only in Variation 6 does a more rhythmically free and sentimental tone creep in. A new theme enters at Variation 7, that old funeral chant for the dead, the Dies irae. The variations continue until, softly intoned, we hear an old friend, that famous eighteenth variation, which is in fact just an inverted image of the Paganini theme. The music now proceeds swiftly to its conclusion, each variation more scintillating than the last. Finally, with a wicked chuckle, Rachmaninov ends his Rhapsody quietly with one last fragment of the memorable theme.
Gershwin: Rhapsody in Blue
The commission for Rhapsody in Blue, Gershwin’s first major orchestral work, came from band leader Paul Whiteman. In just three weeks, George Gershwin (1898-1937) created what he later described as “a sort of musical kaleidoscope of America – of our vast melting pot, of our unduplicated national pep, of our blues, our metropolitan madness.”
Gershwin originally wrote the score for two pianos. Composer and arranger Ferde Grofé arranged the second piano part for a twenty-two-piece jazz orchestra, in which form the Rhapsody had its world premiere in New York’s Aeolian Hall on February 12, 1924 at a concert led by Paul Whiteman. The Rhapsody catapulted Gershwin to international celebrity status overnight. During the next dozen years, it earned him over a million dollars in sales from sheet music, performance royalties and records. In 1926, Groféscored the Rhapsody for symphony orchestra, and in 1942 produced another version, the one most commonly heard today.
From its opening clarinet “schmeer” to its outrageously brilliant and jazzy conclusion, the Rhapsody carries an identity indelibly American, infused with raw energy, jovial abandon, the clamor of the great metropolis and warmly sincere sentiment. Gershwin intended to call the work American Rhapsody; it was his brother Ira who came up with the present title, a clever idea inspired by musical titles of Whistler’s paintings, one of which was in fact called Rhapsody in Blue.
© Robert Markow