Forgotten Piano Concertos
Which neglected works deserve a place in the concert hall?
Since the invention of the piano in the late 17th century, composers have pitted the instrument against the might of the orchestra to create some of music’s greatest works. Whilst piano concertos by Beethoven, Rachmaninov and Mozart are routinely performed on the concert circuit, in among the big names lurk an array of rarely performed gems and some less familiar faces: Arnold, Lutosławski, Glazunov… How many other neglected masterpieces are there in the Piano Concerto repertoire?
We asked ten of today’s top pianists which concerto they think has been undeservedly overlooked - and members of the BBC Music Magazine editorial team decided to join in too.
Dvořák’s Piano Concerto is one of his earlier works. He wasn’t a pianist, so it’s written as if for ten thumbs rather than the human hand. It also had a rather difficult early life because someone called Kurz, a Czech piano teacher and pianist, decided it was unpianistic and made his own version of it. Whereas the original piece is very lyrical, understated and not virtuosic, Kurz tried to make it into a Lisztian-style big piece; but the material just doesn’t fit that style. I think this is one of the reasons it has been neglected because people heard it in that version and therefore got the wrong impression of it. I think it’s one of the loveliest piano concertos. The second movement is particularly extraordinary – it seems mystical in a nature-worshipping kind of way: you imagine forests and strange visions. It’s got very unsettling harmonies to it, heard below.
Reasonable suspicion is probably the first normal reaction when we hear about a piece by a composer you have never heard about. We are so sure of the fact that erosion over time leaves us only the very best music, we sometimes underestimate a priori the real beauty and even the real power of a concerto not performed anymore. But if you are curious enough, in the case of the Gabriel Pierné piano concerto you will have guaranteed double pleasure: discovering music that is so well written you will be left wondering why it is not more present on the concert stage and the pleasure, like me right now, of spreading the good news to others!
Also called the ‘Hindustani’ Concerto, Erik Chisholm’s Piano Concerto No. 2 (1949) is a unique work in the repertoire. Chisholm, a Scot who travelled the world, was a fine composer and wonderful pianist who really understood the instrument. His Concerto is like a distillation of his vast world musical knowledge – it uses Indian scales and rhythms as its building blocks, but the end result is something all his own. It’s strikingly original: it is very well written for the piano and the orchestration is colourful and vibrant while also being well balanced against the solo instrument. The narrative is also effective – the whole piece has a wonderful shape to it.
There are two works in the French repertory for which I have a weak spot. One is Saint-Saëns’s Piano Concerto No. 4 in C minor, the other is Franck’s Symphonic Variations for piano and orchestra. Both have quite banal tunes in them (at least at face value), but treated as they are by their respective composers, they are original and beautiful. The coda of the first movement of the Saint-Saëns Concerto is in particular one of those passages that haunts you, especially in the right hands (and no one played it better than Alfred Cortot many years ago, found here).
The Franck is somewhat out of fashion, nowadays considered maybe too slight as our listening is either very serious or very funky. But it, too, benefits from exploration and an almost detached touch – too much heart-on-sleeve can ruin French music, as its expression and sensuality generally lie happily just below the surface, and should probably be allowed to stay there.
Nikolai Medtner wrote three concertos, the second of which is my favourite. What is immediately striking about Medtner’s music is the way he takes a melody and develops it carefully throughout a piece.
The Second Concerto is an energetic and entrancing work. The outer movements are ebullient and very rhythmic, and the slow movement is wonderfully lyrical. Medtner was a pianist himself so his music fits under the fingers. It’s enjoyable to perform because it sounds a lot more difficult than it really is! I think it is fair to say that Medtner’s music does not always make its strongest appeal at first, but once you get to know it, it is guaranteed to take hold of you.
Kabalevsky wrote four Piano Concertos but I think the one that really stands out is his Second. It’s a large-scale virtuosic work and is really quite dark. There are strong references to Prokofiev and Shostakovich – it has that irony, that slightly sardonic quality to it. I’ve recorded all four Kabalevsky Concertos but nobody has ever asked me to play them and I’ve never seen the Second Piano Concerto programmed. And there’s no really good reason why. Kabalevsky wrote lots of things for children – I remember playing one of his pieces when I was six and he felt very strongly about music education. So it’s possible that people have grown up with an image of Kabalevsky as a slightly light-weight composer and haven’t been exposed to other things he’s written, which is a great shame. This would be a fantastic work for a young person really getting going on their first virtuosic concerto
I’ve played some very alternative-sounding concertos in my time, but the first that really springs to mind is the 1950 Concerto by the Norwegian composer Harald Saeverud. When I first saw the music of this piece, however, I couldn’t get the hang of it. It was only when I went to Norway and was taken to see the fjords one autumn evening that I suddenly got it. The scenery of this Concerto changes very dramatically,
just like Norwegian scenery – sometimes it is very gentle water flowing through and then suddenly rocks are coming down and the rhythms become very awkward, almost deformed. And then you have an almost tearful melody, followed by a very dark passage in which you can almost see the mountain trolls. Saeverud is very Norwegian – although his music is atonal, his melodies are quite simple to understand.
Wladyslaw Zelenski’s only Piano Concerto (1903) has everything: big sweeping melodies that are also really quite haunting, lots of bravura piano writing – including double octaves and a very impressive cadenza in the first movement – and some interesting parts for the orchestra as well. It’s not just a vehicle for the soloist to show off. It’s hugely Romantic – I would say it’s primarily quite Brahmsian but with some touches of Chopinesque filigree writing – and some of the themes also have a very Slavic feel. It is a very well orchestrated piece too. There are some concertos where the pianist has fistfuls of notes and is banging away at fff, but you can’t even hear the instrument above the big melody in the orchestra. Here, in contrast, you can almost always hear the soloist.
I’m surprised that Medtner’s Piano Concerto No. 1 is so seldomly played. It was Horowitz’s favourite Medtner piano concerto and he even contemplated recording it – had he done so, I have no doubt his works would be among the piano mainstream repertoire. And, as Rachmaninov said to Medtner: ‘You are, in my opinion, the greatest composer of our time.’ So why is it so rarely performed? The trouble is, as with all Medtner’s music, is that it hits one only after repeated listening, as the melodies are complex and the textures are dense – it takes time for the ear and mind to adjust and appreciate all the subtleties the music has to offer. From both pianistic and the listener’s points of view, the Concerto offers everything one can hope for: sweeping melodies, drama, virtuosity, introspective moments, rich orchestration and vivid interaction between soloist and orchestra. If only it wasn’t so incredibly difficult to play…
Arthur Bliss as a composer is worthy of more recognition generally but I genuinely don’t understand why his Piano Concerto isn’t played more often. It’s a massive work in three huge movements in the grand 19th-century tradition of very big rhetorical gestures but with an acerbity. The work was written in that period just before the Second World War and it’s always struck me that it deserves better than its almost complete neglect. I recorded it for my British Piano Concertos series and of the works included, I think it’s my favourite. It opens with a grand flourish in the orchestra followed by a huge cadenza before the main tutti. Harmonically it reminds me of that 20th-century Russian acerbity that you find in Prokofiev. The final movement has a very difficult Toccata for the piano and orchestra together and the excitement of it is phenomenal. I think Bliss is at his very best in the Piano Concerto.
It was a huge thrill to perform Busoni’s Piano Concerto at Carnegie Hall last December. It is a huge piece that Alfred Brendel once described as ‘monstrously overwritten’. It has everything imaginable – a tremendous nobility and dignity while remaining brilliantly fun. It’s like the native Italian and German-influenced sides of Busoni have combined. He created a pictorial representation of the concerto that shows the movements as three temples (first, third and fifth), an exotic bird (second), and the eruption of Vesuvius (fourth). But while it’s vast, it is also a very modest piece. So much of the piano line remains hidden as part of the orchestral texture. Edward Dent once said of it that, ‘the piano part is like Busoni sitting at the piano, listening, commenting, decorating and dreaming.’ The thrill comes from the sheer scale of it, and from how utterly sincere and heartfelt it is.
I can wholeheartedly recommend the Second Piano Concerto of Ferdinand Hiller. Written at around the same time as the Schumann and the Grieg, it’s a confident and taut work that fulfils all one expects of a Romantic piano concerto – a heroic quality, a balance of virtuosity and soulful writing, the dramatic integration of piano and orchestra, tunefulness, passion and repose.
Moving into the 20th century, while considering Kenneth Leighton’s Third or Herbert Howells’s First Concerto, I’d like to suggest the impressionistically beautiful Piano Concerto No. 1 by Cyril Scott. A Liverpudlian who studied in Frankfurt from the age of 12, Scott’s very successful early career as a composer was interrupted by the First World War, and a series of engagements across Europe where he would have premiered this work were cancelled. Debussy was a great admirer, and there are times listening to this work when you feel that it’s a work he could have written. It’s a fabulous work of great sensuousness, drama and charm.
Oliver Condy, editor, BBC Music Magazine
Jazz, post-Romanticism and traditional Azerbaijani mugam – or improvised singing – unite for Vasif Adigezalov’s exotic Concerto No. 4 for Piano and Orchestra, written as late as 1994. The effect of all these influences coming together is a work of beguiling beauty (with a bit of kitsch thrown in for good measure). It’s a little like listening to a work by the son of Rachmaninov,Prokofiev, Keith Jarrett… and Albert Ketèlbey. That all these elements should find themselves in Adigezalov’s music is no surprise – Azerbaijan has been a respected jazz hub for many years, nurturing such talents as pianist Aziza Mustafa Zadeh, and the country’s highly popular mugam is a form of art-singing where the (usually male) soloist takes improvisatory flight above an accompanying band of bowed and plucked string instruments. Adigezalov’s concerto is huge fun – full of lush chords, virtuosic writing and a soaring orchestral score.
Jeremy Pound, deputy editor, BBC Music Magazine
Robert Lorenz, a critic of The Musical Times in the 1920s, has a lot to answer for – it was he, who at the end of the premiere of Howells’s Second Piano Concerto in 1925, boorishly stood up and shouted ‘Thank God that’s over!’, causing the poor composer immediately to withdraw the work and plunging him into a well of self-doubt from which he never really surfaced. It’s hard today to understand Lorenz’s reaction, as this is a gorgeous Concerto: dramatic in parts, deeply pensive in others, but largely upbeat in feel. Harmonically complex, and occasionally almost oriental in feel, it is admittedly a large step away from the arch-Romanticism of Howells’s First Concerto of 1914, and its structure, or rather lack of it, was original too – and yet it was not so startlingly modern to make it that alien to audiences in Howells’s own day. Modern concert-goers would love it… if only it were ever performed. Mvt III performed below.
Daniel Jaffé, acting reviews editor, BBC Music Magazine
Although originally commissioned for the 1960 BBC Henry Wood Promenade Concerts, William Alwyn’s Second Piano Concerto never had a fair start. Written specifically for the Dutch pianist Cor de Groot, Alwyn created what surely would have been a crowd pleaser with plenty of showy virtuosity, colourful orchestration and haunting themes. Alas, disaster struck before the premiere took place, as de Groot suffered a nervous disorder in his right hand, forcing the cancellation of the Concerto’s performance and Alwyn being asked to write a replacement Overture. Alwyn scrawled ‘CANCELLED’ across his score and consigned it to a cupboard, only apparently taking it out once to remove its slow movement and add a bridging passage to tie the two lively outer movements. His widow discovered the score, and restored its dreamy and beautiful central Andante for a recording by Howard Shelley with the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Richard Hickox. With its dramatic opening movement, reminiscent of both Britten and Prokofiev, and even a touch of Gershwin, this is a concerto surely ripe for success.