Friday, March 13, 2015

Concerto solo

No. 189 of the ongoing ITYWLTMT series of audio montages can be found in our archives at

So far, we’ve considered concertos in the spirit and context that took shape in the Classical era – that is to say, pieces for soloist and orchestra.

The term concerto, however, is literally “a concert”, and on the strictest of terms needs not involve a soloist (or a small soloist group) and a larger orchestra. Indeed, Johann Sebastian Bach composed a good number of “concertos” for solo keyboard, some for organ and many for the harpsichord (later taken over by the piano) – one such example is his Italian concerto

Today’s podcast takes a pleasant departure from the classical setting of the “solo concerto” and looks at a pair of – shall I say – mammoth pieces for solo keyboard that have earned the subtitle “concerto for solo piano”, beginning with a “cruelly taxing” piano work by Charles Alkan.

The three pieces that make up this “concerto” are part of a 12 piece cycle entitled Douze études dans tous les tons mineurs (12 Studies in the Minor Keys), published in 1857  With sections marked "Tutti", "Solo" and "Piano", the piece requires the soloist to present the voices of both the orchestra and the soloist. The pianist Jack Gibbons comments: "The style and form of the music take on a monumental quality—rich, thickly set textures and harmonies ... conjure up the sound world of a whole orchestra and tax the performer, both physically and mentally, to the limit."

How’s that for sheer length: the piece, including all 3 movements, is 121 pages long and takes about 50 minutes to perform. The first movement on its own, comprises 72 pages and takes over 29 minutes to play (Jack Gibbons comments that "the first movement has more bars in it than the entire Hammerklavier Sonata by Beethoven").

Alkan authorized the piece to be truncated to make "un morceau de concert, d'une durée ordinaire" (a concert piece of normal duration). It may be that the composer himself performed the first movement (alone) in such a shortened version. Pianist John Ogden, himself known for taking on obscure and taxing works (such as Busoni’s Piano Concerto), is our soloist.

Robert Schumann’s piano sonata output – and numbering – can be confusing. The Piano Sonata in F minor (Op. 11) and the Piano Sonata in F minor (Op. 14) are numbered 1 and 3 respectively. He he later wrote Three Piano Sonatas for the Young Op. 118. Because it was published before the F minor sonata, it was given an earlier sequence number (No. 2) but still kept its later opus number (Op. 22). This has caused confusion, and recordings of the G minor Sonata have sometimes been published as "Sonata No. 3". There was also an earlier sonata in F minor, which Schumann abandoned; this is sometimes referred to as "Sonata No. 4".

The Dritte grosse Sonate, Opus 14, was completed a year after the first, in June 1836, and dedicated to the pianist Ignaz Moscheles, and not to Clara Wleck (whom he would later marry). This is probably indicative of the tense relationship between the couple and Clara’s father.

In F minor, the work was first published with only three of its original five movements, which had first included two scherzos and a different finale. Schumann revised the sonata in 1853, including the second of the two scherzos and revising the first movement. Due to its length and complexity it earned, presumably at the instigation of its publisher Haslinger, the subtitle Concert sans orchestre. The sonata was given its first public performance six years after Schumann’s death by Brahms, while no listing of the sonata is found in any of the programmes of Clara’s own concerts. It is performed today by Vladimir Horowitz.

I think you will love this music too.

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