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 [...]
Concerto de Québec; Warsaw Concerto; Concerto in F
They spoke about it
Performed by Alain Lefèvre and the Orchestre symphonique de Québec, this program offers three piano concertos written by composers from three different countries during the second quarter of the twentieth century: André Mathieu, George Gershwin et Richard Addinsell. Each concerto is linked to or associated with a different city—Quebec, Warsaw, and New York—but all three are united by their romantic fervor, audience appeal, and use in film scores.
André Mathieu: Concerto de Québec
“The incarnation of pure genius for Quebec and Canada” is Alain Lefèvre‘s unequivocal assessment of André Mathieu. This composer and pianist, a child prodigy who was once dubbed “the Quebec Mozart,” has been largely forgotten, but Lefèvre’s ambition is to revive public interest in Mathieu. “The first piece I ever heard by this composer was his Prélude romantique,” relates Lefèvre. “I was fifteen at the time, and was stunned by its beauty. Mathieu has been my passion ever since. I think it’s almost scandalous that he remains unknown.”
Montreal-born André Mathieu (1929-1968), like Mozart, received his first lessons from his father, and was already composing little pieces at the age of four. Also like Mozart, he astonished audiences far and wide with his pianistic prowess from a very young age: at Montreal’s Ritz-Carlton Hotel at six; on Radio-Canada playing his Concertino No. 1 with orchestra at seven; in Paris later that year; in New York’s Town Hall at ten. Following another recital in Paris at age ten, the critic Émile Vuillermoz wrote: “If the word ‘genius’ has any meaning, it is surely manifest here.” Rachmaninov pronounced him “a genius, more so than I am.”
Yet fate was not kind to Mathieu. He undertook composition studies in Paris, then later in New York, and after World War II again in Paris with Arthur Honegger, but did not advance far enough to produce formally coherent large-scale compositions. Most of his works are short piano pieces, some of which show charm and at times an original voice.
The 25-minute Concerto de Québec, however, betrays Mathieu’s lack of formal training, and musical theorists will be quick to pounce on its episodic construction and formal weaknesses. On the other hand, there is a surging, unabashed romanticism at play here, a style inspired by Grieg, Puccini, Korngold, and above all Rachmaninov. “Think of the music as an uncut diamond,” Lefèvre volunteers enthusiastically, “or an unpolished stone whose appeal may be compromised by surface impurities, but which nevertheless possesses great inherent beauty.”
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 poverty. Much about his life remains unknown, including the exact cause of his early death, and his compositions have yet to be properly catalogued (there are reportedly more than 200 of them). One sometimes sees reference to the work on this program as “Concerto No. 3,” but Lefèvre cautions that this is highly unreliable. “There are at least five works for piano and orchestra that were lost or destroyed,” he says, “and the works that survive have undergone name changes.
There are no fewer than six different scores of the work we are calling the Concerto de Québec, and the name changes from score to score. I have spent more than a decade studying, correlating, and correcting these sources—notes, rhythms, tempos, pedaling, articulations, even the distribution of material between soloist and orchestra—to make a proper performing edition. We don’t even know for sure who wrote the original orchestration—maybe his father Rodolphe.”
Mathieu completed the Concerto de Québec in early February, 1943, just short of his fourteenth birthday. (Sources that claim 1947 are in error; the manuscript is clearly dated “1943.”) The date of the first performance is uncertain, but Mathieu was soloist in a Radio-Canada broadcast conducted by Jean Beaudet in early February of 1943, on which occasion the announcer referred to the composer-pianist as “still just thirteen years old.”
The piano part is prodigiously difficult, is studded with densely packed chords, and requires an enormous stretch for the hands. Stylistically as well as pianistically, it is a close relative of Rachmaninov’s works in the genre. “Mathieu was in the predicament of knowing that he was overly romantic and ‘behind the times,’” explains Lefèvre. “Suddenly, he’ll inject some bizarre attempts to be modern, then just as quickly switch back to his Rachmaninov mode.” Mathieu’s Quebec roots are revealed in the rondo-finale, where the style definitely has a folksy, dance-like tang to it. The second movement is probably the most successful, and was used in Fédor Ozep’s 1947 film La Forteresse (Whispering City in its English version). “You can’t deny the derivative romanticism here,” notes Lefèvre. “It is even in the same key (D-flat major) as that famous 18th variation from Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. But you also have to remember that it was written by a thirteen-year-old with limited formal training, and that neither Mozart, nor Mendelssohn, nor Saint-Saëns, nor Prokofiev, all of whom were composing prolifically at that age, had found a distinctly personal voice yet. To record this concerto is to revive the past.”
Richard Addinsell: Warsaw Concerto
Like a number of other composers, the Englishman Richard Addinsell (1904-1977) initially went to law school before turning to music. He spent time in Hollywood during the 1930s, then returned to England to write radio and film scores. Dangerous Moonlight (Suicide Squadron for American audiences), a 1941 film about a Polish concert pianist set against the background of the Nazi rape of Poland, ensured Addinsell immortality. It incorporates the music known as the Warsaw Concerto, a single-movement, nine-minute work for piano and orchestra.
It has been recorded more than one hundred times, and has sold some three million copies, though few of these interpretations are still available. The score is thoroughly steeped in the opulent romanticism of Rachmaninov, with soaring themes, sensuous harmony, and idiomatic use of the orchestra. The film starred Anton Wallbrook, himself an accomplished pianist. Wallbrook gives a nearly complete performance of the Warsaw Concerto on screen, near the end of the film, but on the soundtrack it is the Hungarian-English pianist Louis Kentner who is actually playing. In formal terms, the appellation “concerto” is hardly appropriate; perhaps “rhapsody” would have been a better choice, though this detracts not a whit from the music’s emotional appeal.
Following a dramatic opening for piano and orchestra, the soloist introduces a sumptuously romantic theme that alone would be sufficient to ensure lasting fame for the Warsaw Concerto. A second lyrical theme is announced by the English horn and taken up by the piano, but it is the former theme that Addinsell dwells upon lovingly and that brings the work to its glorious conclusion.
George Gershwin: Concerto in F
It is surely symbolic that George Gershwin (Brooklyn, 1898-Hollywood, 1937) was born on one shore of America and died on the other, for his music has been played, embraced, loved, and cherished as has that of virtually no other classical composer this country ever produced. There was a romantic flair about Gershwin, he commanded world-wide fame while still in his twenties, and he died young. Gershwin’s first major orchestral work was Rhapsody in Blue, premiered in New York, in 1924. At that concert was Walter Damrosch, conductor of the New York Symphony (which merged with the Philharmonic in 1928). Damrosch was sufficiently impressed with the young Gershwin (just 25 at the time), both as composer and as performer, to commission him to write a full-length concerto for piano and orchestra. The projected concert would take place on December 3, 1925, giving Gershwin about eight months to write the concerto. The composer would of course be soloist for the occasion.
The 1945 biopic Rhapsody in Blue incorporated excerpts from the concerto, with pianist Oscar Levant playing the role of the composer. The first movement of the Concerto in F is in freely modified classical sonata form, with a restless and energetic first theme announced in the bassoon (immediately following the percussion introduction), and a poignant, lyrical theme introduced by the piano in a long solo passage. The lively Charleston dance rhythm pervades the movement. The slow movement has a “poetic, nocturnal atmosphere which has come to be referred to as the American blues” (Gershwin). The brilliant, highly energetic finale is “an orgy of rhythms” (again quoting the composer) and employs the rondo form. Themes from the earlier movements are recalled.
© Robert Markow