Saturday 17 February 2018

Classical: Composers' inspired concertos that unfolded on piano

Travels: Rachmaninov practised on a silent keyboard on his way to New York
Travels: Rachmaninov practised on a silent keyboard on his way to New York

George Hamilton

As an occasional pianist, a much-loved entertainment is a trip to the concert hall in Dublin to hear a top performer in action with an orchestra. Recently in Earlsfort Terrace, Finghin Collins, playing with the RTÉ National Symphony and directed by Jaime Martin, held us spellbound with an impeccable interpretation of Robert Schumann's impossibly romantic masterpiece, written for his wife Clara.

The repertoire is full of such delights. You can dive in just about anywhere. Haydn - who gave us the symphony in its accepted form - was among the first to explore the possibilities of combining the keyboard with an ensemble.

He predated the grand piano so his compositions were for its predecessors, the fortepiano and the harpsichord.

Of course, they translate perfectly to the modern instrument.

Jollity and serenity in almost equal measure were served up by Mozart in the 23 original pieces he wrote to play himself. Beethoven delivered five masterpieces - summits of achievement in the pianistic pantheon.

Tchaikovsky and Grieg, often paired together on disc, gave us two of the most instantly engaging piano concertos. Rachmaninov wrote four, their evolution echoing the progression of a career that had its lows as well as highs.

His Second - announcing his comeback after he'd been panned for a symphony that didn't come up to scratch in the view of the critics - is stunningly inventive, offering a piano solo as its introduction, before embarking on a musical journey that leaves you gasping at its coruscating brilliance.

His Third isn't half bad either. He gave it its first outing in Carnegie Hall in New York in late November 1909.

Rachmaninov had travelled from Europe by steamer, using a dumb piano as he called it - a silent keyboard - to perfect his performance.

Whether that was to keep the piece secret until its first public outing, or simply to avoid annoying the other passengers, is not entirely clear.

Another triumph awaited.

With the New York Philharmonic conducted by none other than Gustav Mahler, Rachmaninov dazzled in a work of exceptional complexity.

The New York Herald, predicting that it would become one of the greats, noted that "its great length and extreme difficulties bar it from performances by any but pianists of exceptional technical powers". The composer was clearly one of those.

Johannes Brahms managed only two piano concertos in his lifetime.

The First, the work of a twenty-something finding his way, is a piece of burning intensity. The Second, written more than 20 years later, is a much more nuanced work, the product of a musician at the height of his powers.

It opens with a gentle horn solo, inviting a response from the piano. It's a trick that Brahms had deployed to great effect in the slow movement of his Violin Concerto, where he'd had the principal oboe prepare a path for the featured virtuoso.

It's something we find, too in the Piano Concerto by Maurice Ravel. Here the flute figures prominently, the sound of its wistful longing in the second movement promoting it almost to a position of equal prominence to the piano.

And that's before we've even got to Shostakovich's Second - the one he wrote in 1957 as a birthday present for Maxim, his son.

So much wonderful music. So many stories. And they all begin with a piano.

George Hamilton presents The Hamilton Scores on RTÉ lyric fm from 10am each Saturday and Sunday.

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