Forgotten Piano Concertos
Which neglected works deserve a place in the concert hall?
This year the Proms celebrates the piano concerto with an array of rarely performed gems. So we asked a couple of top pianists which works they think deserve a place in the standard repertory – and members of the BBC Music Magazine editorial team decided to join in too.
Stephen Hough, pianist
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.
Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, pianist
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!
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 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.
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.
Elizabeth Davis, staff writer, BBC Music Magazine
Eyvind Alnæs is not a composer with whose work I am, generally speaking, overly familiar. However, when a colleague recommended his Piano Concerto I thought I’d give it a whirl – and what a discovery! A deliciously decadent late-Romantic work, Alnæs’s Concerto in D major, Op. 27 has three movements and is packed full of storming melodies. Alnaes was a church organist who lived from 1872-1932. He conducted choirs and was a renowned accompanist but is perhaps best known now as a song composer. His Piano Concerto seems to channel the work of the likes of Rachmaninov and Rubinstein and a contemporary described Alnaes as ‘a healthy and true musician, keeping both feet on the ground and remaining firmly within an expressive sphere accessible to his listeners.’ The work is at times ravishing, at times playful (the last movement is a homage to the Viennese waltz) and it absolutely deserves wider recognition.
In the July issue of BBC Music Magazine we ask 10 more great pianists about their favourite unsung piano concertos. Pick up a copy – or download it on iPhone/iPad, Kindle Fire or from the Google Play store – to find out which works the likes of Howard Shelley, Noriko Ogawa, Imogen Cooper and Yevgeny Sudbin think deserve more recognition.