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An Everest Among Piano Concerti

The MHS Review 401, VOL. 12, NO.5 • 1988

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Paul Kresh


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The three works for piano and orchestra heard in this program are all characteristic--each in its unique way--of the high romantic age in the 19th century. The first is a full-scale concerto; the second a deliberately light, sparkling, spun-sugar trifle; the third a deft, swift, subtly developed set of symphonic variations. But all three share in common the individuali­ty of the romantic spirit.

With its breathtaking proportions, its emotional appeal, its melodic inven­tiveness, its heroic, stirring sweep of move­ment contained so astonishingly within the formal confines of an essentially classical mold, Schumann's only piano concerto is unequaled in drive and persuasive power, save by the monumental achievements of Beethoven himself in extending the possibilities of works for keyboard and or­chestra. This is one familiar masterpiece that never seems to wear out its welcome. No matter how often it is encountered in the concert hall, over the air, or on recor­dings, here is a Teutonic guest, whether ex­pected or unheralded, I can never find it in my heart to turn away.

But then, just thinking of Schumann and the story of his life as well as his music, how can any heart not go out to this man--at once so sane and yet so mad--who could write music, write about music, and teach it so brilliantly; who passionately cham­pioned the music of Brahms and Chopin, yet whose own genius eluded even the perceptive Mendelssohn; and who in the end had to be rescued by his friends from suicide by drowning and shut up for his re­maining days in an asylum. Indeed, since the first performance of this masterwork in 1845, its heights have proven a for­midable challenge to the musical ambitions of countless soloists and conductors who have sought to storm this Everest among piano concerti.

Catnille Saint-Saens' Wedding Cake poses far less formidable problems to the per­former, yet in its very lightness lurk its dangers, for we all know what happens to a cake improperly prepared or allowed, as it were, to fall in the oven. Saint-Saens con­cocted this delicious musical dessert when he had completed the fourth of his five piano concerti and was not yet ready to start on the fifth. For a respite, he was ex­perimenting with the atmospheres of foreign parts, such as Africa and Cuba, in several such short, light pieces. In 1876, for Wedding Cake, a work for piano and strings which he called a ''caprice-valse,'' he turned for inspiration to the Viennese waltz. The result has proved popular ever since with virtuoso pianists, despite the contempt for the breed displayed by the same composer in his Carnival of the Animals.

As a composer, Cesar Franck was a late starter; he didn't finish his Symphony in D tninor until 1889, when he was 66. The Symphonic Variations by this gifted Belgian organist, teacher, and musical crusader as well as composer (who had already suc­ceeded in his day in distracting the atten­tion of the French musical world from opera back to absolute music) were not bas­ed on that symphony, as is popularly sup­posed, but came first, some three years earlier. While the turbulent, large-scale symphony heaves and sighs and seeks, try­ing (as T.S. Eliot's Prufrock never could dare) "to squeeze the universe into a ball and roll it toward some overwhelming question,'' the Variations are more modest in scale and scope. Although constituting the same sort of organic whole as the symphony--this time through the cyclical development of two distinct thematic subjects--the appeal of this beguiling work is more a matter of changing moods than strict adherence to form. So ingratiating is this music to the ear that it remains to this day its composer's most popular single achievement.

Two masterworks and a marvelous miniature for piano and orchestra, and all three on this release are interpreted with verve and style by pianist Jorge Federico Osorio under the baton of Enrique Batiz. They prove their worth as exhilarating purveyors of music in the European roman­tic tradition as surehandedly as in the fiery treatment of Spanish and Latin American music that first brought each of them to fame.

Review of Works for Piano and Orchesra by Schumann, Saint-Saens and Franck Page 55

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