Dvořák and Massenet--two beautiful and under-appreciated Piano Concertos

A great friend of mine agreed recently to a mutual (hopefully educational) music exchange.  The first assignment, posted here, was an exploration of piano concertos--this kind of turned into a list of lesser-known-piano-concertos-which-I-love-and-think-are-majorly-underrated, rather than a list of ultimate all-time favorites... and it includes only... 2. :P  I loved my friend's list very much and am thoroughly enjoying getting to know some incredible music--totally unfamiliar to me, I am ashamed to say: Saint-Saëns Piano Concerto No. 1 in D, Op. 17, and Spanish composer Xavier Montsalvatge's 1953 work, the Concierto Breve.

So, for my list.  Predictably (for those who know me), this is Romantic-heavy.  In no particular order.  

#1. The Massenet Piano Concerto.  


I first became familiar with this unassuming, relatively traditional and yet through-and-through French (to my ears) work in undergrad, while conducting a mission to find every unknown piano concerto ever written.  Thanks to Naxos (!) I found this on a cd of 'French piano concertos'--this is played by Marylene Dosse and the Westphalian Symphony Orchestra conducted by Siegfried Landau.  The disc also contains interesting works by Gabriel Pierne (of that quasi-baroque, contrapuntally-indulgent French organ school), Lalo, Cecile Chaminade, and Jean Francaix.  What I love about this work is its refreshing Frenchness--I find something here similar (perhaps) to my friend's sentiments regarding the Saint-Saëns No. 1.  It's light/fleeting in a French way--structurally and pianistically, but incredibly classical, and not necessarily a work which is out to impress--that is, impress in a 'virtuosity' way.  Also, it's relatively traditional--you have a sonata form first movement, an ABA second movement, and the Rondo finale.  If I try to compare this to other piano concertos, the only thing I can connect this with (quite tenuously) is Schumann.  But it also seems to reflect Faure, or somehow combine Faure and Saint-Saëns, at least in my unique conceptions of them.  

I. Andante moderato

 There is so much to love about this.  The opening's arpeggiations seem (to me) trying out a new landscape, going further and further with each iteration, and gradually becoming the familiar background.  The first theme (1:40) is so generous--it's like some themes you find in which every intervallic possibility of the harmoniy is explored--just pure enjoyment of the harmony.  Two of my absolute favorite moments (besides the first fully-fledged appearance of the awesome theme) is Massenet's fugato treatment of a theme which is either a secondary theme or a (more likely) transitional theme--you hear it first in the woodwinds at 2:25; the fugato treatment is in the development (at ~8:14), and the triumphant, amazingly exuberant chordal recapitulatory entrance of the theme with timpani underneath (at 9:10)...

II. Largo

I feel like the opening is missing the indication of 'religioso' which might underscore a really personal, experimental chorale opening.  Here I think perhaps more than anywhere else you hear Faure; the harmonic exploration of that opening is a stretch for Massenet, and for me, it works (especially from about 1:08-1:40 or so).  I love the unexpectedness of the progression taken further than it ought to be, and then some crazy voice-leadings which just make it wilder and wilder, especially coming after the beautifully voiced diatonic chorale opening.  Perhaps not so groundbreaking, but it also seems to prefigure Ravel's Concerto's 2nd movement opening with the almost over-long piano solo intro (I wonder if he was familiar with this as a student).  There is a beautiful developmental, almost thematic use of the trill--seen first in the orchestra following that long opening (2:44-45).  This eventually leads to a stormy middle section and the piano's octaves--and here is another magical moment; I find Massenet has these touching transitions down.  The storminess of that middle section translates into tremelos in the piano--it's such a dark coloristic choice, but basically negates the piano as a solo instrument.  And then, while the piano is providing nothing but color, the strings come back in with the chorale opening theme (6:29-6:45).  I just find that so awesome.

III. Airs slovaques - Allegro
Not much to say--my favorites are the first two movements (!).  I still find this exciting and effective... there seem some obvious moments of 'orientalism' and sort of embryonic/basic attempts at exoticism (I wonder if I should find this obvious from the title of the movement, but I feel like there could be some cross-pollinations going on...).  I love the peasant-like marching A theme found in this movement (0:43)--it is reminiscent of Grieg's third movement theme, and considering that Massenet only wrote this in 1903 it's quite possible he was influenced by Grieg's 1868 work.  In fact, that's somehow something else I like about this whole work--obviously the choice to be 'traditional' or 'classical' is deliberate--perhaps it's similar to Saint-Saëns' style of writing which would have gradually become deliberate because of a changing context?  There are some beautifully colorful moments here as well; a clever use of percussion chimes (2:07 on) and characteristic 'music box' piano writing (5:29 on).
Great piece.

#2. Dvořák Piano Concerto.


I don't care what anyone says, this piece (if flawed) is incredible.  I've loved it from the first time I heard it, and I am sure that the first performance I was acquainted with had a lot to do with that--an impossible-to-find recording of a live performance of Richter with the London Symphony Orchestra and Kirill Kondrashin (I'm 90% sure, but again, it only seems to exist in some out-of-print old scratched up copy in the little downtown library of my hometown).  This disc also contains Liszt 1 and 2.  The performance is spectacular--the recording quality is pretty bad which somehow (for me) works to great effect: Richter's often overly intense, hard-edged sound is blunted, but the intense undercurrent is still there.  It's apparently one of the most difficult concertos to perform and learn, and I believe it--although it doesn't always sound that way necessarily.  So many passages are, to my ears, conceived in a musical way which doesn't take into account the ridiculousness of the piano realization (for instance, 28:57-29:14 in the third movement); the closest thing I can find to the recording I was introduced to this concerto first is this.
Still not as good, but somewhat in the ballpark.  

I.  This has a very different profile emotionally and nationalistically (can you say, Slavic?), but it reminds me very much of Brahms' 1st concerto, especially in the opening.  The traditional orchestral opening precipitates a chordal entrance of the piano (but this entrance creates and intensifies harmonic dilemma with those diminished 7ths, unlike in Brahms).  This happens at 2:53--I find this entrance brilliant.  And that's something that bothers me a little bit.  People are always talking about how brilliant the piano's entrance in Brahms is, but you wouldn't necessarily hear that about this.  I find it's more brilliant because it initiates, like, a musical catharsis (gets over the first hump), and Brahms's opening just establishes the key and unassumingly walks in.  I don't know if half of what I'm saying even makes any sense... a super characteristically Dvořák-ian 2nd theme appears at 5:41, but gets quickly overtaken by what sounds a bit like horn calls, and then--THIS: 6:25.  This Brahmsian theme with playful Dvořák interjections is one of the most magical moments (for me) in the entire literature for piano and orchestra.  And the amount of sheer work the piano has to do to get to the pre-developmental orchestral tutti is just thrilling: 7:19-8:24 (I love Richter's obviously calculatedly flamboyant gesture at the end of this).  The whole orchestral tutti (8:24-9:20) is brilliant--I love Dvořák's use of trills in the horns (?) as a purely coloristic device; it makes you feel like you're lost in the woods in some threatening Czech fairy tale story.  I would just write pages and pages basically about this piece and just this movement alone, I love it so much.  So, a few other moments which are incredible: a new developmental theme (10:18) and its scary appearance much later in the coda (18:16-18:27)--there are so many tunes in the first movement, it feels so rich--like (again) a Czech fairy-tale landscape with lots of grotesque characters.

II.  A beautiful, lyrical second movement.  I don't really know what to say about it--there's obviously nocturne-like writing throughout, but it seems always on the edge of something dangerous; I always hear Dvořák's woodwinds--especially when he has various arrangements of them playing the hunting horn call--as 'uncultivated,' or like little chorales of forest animals.  For this literally being the case, you have to at some point check out his symphonic poems and read the narrative at the same time, or before. One of these is the Wood Dove, in which (in my perhaps re-interpreted remembrance) a woman conspires with her lover to kill her husband.  After she goes through with it and marries her lover, she goes into the forest and hears a dove sitting on a branch singing a sinister song.  She goes closer and turns out the dove is actually part of the tree, so it's made of wood (!).  I can't remember if she ends up getting the tree chopped down or what, but the wood dove keeps coming back somewhere else and singing this ominous song, until finally she can't take it anymore and she kills herself.  I find that menacing forest and disturbing undercurrents inform whatever is going on in the second movement here...

III.  This is a real barn-burner.  That moment I mentioned before (28:57-29:14) is just insane--I love this moment so much.  It seems like such an effective attempt at communicating an increase of intensity--the leaps becoming more and more impossibly far apart, the scrambling figurations which seems to comprise most of the whole concerto; I love the ridiculously athletic virtuosity of this movement--it's almost like trying to do a 500 meter hurdle with a baby elephant duct-taped to your back.  Or running a hurdle on a track covered with 2 feet deep of lasagna.  The 2nd theme here is also one of the things I find so enchanting, and yet frustrating (30:24).  The way it ends is so ineffective--the initial idea is beautiful in capturing a breathless, melancholy, personal impulse, but the tail seems not to belong (is it just me?)--it seems contrived.  I feel like Dvořák could have written something better (HA).  

As I write this I realize it's also going to take quite awhile; a short-list of what else was on my mind:

Scriabin Piano Concerto
Liebermann 2nd Piano Concerto or Carl Vine Piano Concerto No. 1
Bartok 3rd Piano Concerto