About this Recording
8.223505 - DEVREESE: Piano Concertos Nos. 2-4

Frédéric Devreese (b. 1929)
Piano Concertos Nos. 2–4


Between 1947 and 1956 concertos were of prime importance in Devreese’s music. The Piano Concerto No. 1 of 1949 was followed by the Violin Concerto of 1951, and by Piano Concertos Nos. 2 and 3 in 1952 and 1956 respectively. However, nearly thirty years went by before he wrote another piano concerto, his Fourth, which was commissioned by the International Queen Elisabeth of Belgium Competition to be played as the set piece in the 1983 piano contest. Performers included Pierre Volondat, Wolfgang Manz and the soloist of this recording, Daniel Blumenthal.

The first three concertos, although written at an early age, already revealed the composer’s great personality, creativity and originality—qualities which are even more evident in his later and more mature work. In form and tempo these concertos are classical. The Fourth Concerto consists of two movements, but only in appearance: the opening movement—a series of variations—progresses into a lento cadence (the fourth variation) and this leads to the Andante ostinato (the fifth) which completes the first movement. However, these last two variations really make up a slow middle movement.

Many other elements show general flexibility of form, for example the fact that the three movements are always linked by an “attacca” and treated as a whole. In each concerto the classical structure yields an impressive solo cadence for the piano to round off the first movement. However, Devreese’s flexible approach also lets this cadence be the introduction to the second movement.

Besides variations, traditional sonata form is also used, and the same freedom of form ensures that the second subject does not only differ from the first in terms of lyrical melody, different rhythms, colour and orchestration: the composer also asks for an almost systematic slower tempo and gives different directions on performance. The recognisably classical form thus leans towards a rhapsodic-like progression of movements with contrasting tempos. Variations and sonata form become intertwined when the latter’s classical moment of development is absorbed in a continuity of variations, thus evolving away from the original theme. This transition is so smooth that the listener remains unaware of the underlying structural framework. The same is true of the slow middle movement of the Second Concerto, where continuous variations leave the original theme far behind—a theme which is nearly always a very simple melody. This simplicity of melodic material and the self- evidence of the motif’s development, combined with the composer’s prolific inventiveness, are characteristic for this veiled as well as veiling variation technique. In this respect, the surprising restatement of the exposition’s simple motif at the end of the second movement of Piano Concerto No. 2 is, in all its modesty, particularly powerful and effective.

The melodic material, which forms the main theme of the Second Concerto’s slow movement, consists of a chorale-like gospel melody. Devreese enjoys alluding to the most diverse forms of jazz—from swinging rhythms to sensual chord structures—and to other related forms of black music, such as blues, negro-spirituals and gospel songs. The finale of the Second Concerto is an exuberant jazz explosion, richly coloured with a personal sense of harmony, major-minor contrasts and non-functional dissonances.

Melody and harmony are also often based on a chromatic development. This is very noticeable in the slow introductions of the Third and Fourth Concertos. These originate in deep silence, and gradually paint an awakening and significantly rising image of creation. In the Third Piano Concerto chromaticism forms the basis of the three movements’ main themes, so that this concerto shows an inner cyclical structure. The main theme is built on the spiralling expansion of the central note C and develops from C to D-flat- B-D-B-flat-E-flat and so on, until suddenly the spiral is broken off, except in the lower register where it continues to fluctuate chromatically. This emphasises a clear tonal centre and a minor key atmosphere. The finale’s title, Quasi perpetuum mobile, expresses the spiral’s perpetual movement, found here in the opposite movements of both hands coming towards each other from both ends of the keyboard until they reach the smallest chromatic fluctuation in the semi-tone trill of C to D-flat. In the very fast-moving interplay of both hands in the perpetuum mobile motif, the spiralling expansion is still the driving force.

Devreese’s incorporation of a slowing-down process is equally remarkable. Motifs fluctuate in intervals of a fourth in the chromatic theme’s development, but are frozen on an accentuated note which is repeated six to seven times, an idea which reappears in the finale of the Fourth Concerto. All four concertos head for their final conclusion with an enormous rhythmical drive, but this ending is always more than simply an exuberant climactic apotheosis. As with the repeated note where the theme is frozen, Devreese has also incorporated restraint in the final bars: an enormous descending cascade over the whole keyboard, with the final chord abruptly broken off. Whoever expects to revel in sensual enjoyment of the final climax, will be disappointed! This ambiguity of the coda, revealing a sting in its tail, is a reflection of continuous major-minor duality, small contradictions and numerous restraints. Rhythm too plays an important part here and proceeds from very fast moving notes to somewhat longer note values towards the end of the short motif.

Rhythm, in a totally different way, also has an invocatory function, namely as the driving force in the fast jazzy parts—although in other parts too the music is characterized by rhythmical passion. This drive stems from the opposition of binary and ternary rhythms, developed in various ways, even including polyrhythm and polymetre. Continuous rhythmical variations, with finely detailed changes and not a single literal repeat, enrich each appearance of a motif, thus showing a different facet every time. These rhythmical variations are also incorporated, functionally, in the build-up towards climaxes, when the repeated motifs culminate in faster rhythmic note patterns, supported by insistent dynamics and increasing orchestration.

The treatment of the orchestra can either result in a forceful unit of sound, or in a supporting background role. Whenever a theme is introduced by the orchestra, colour is added by a solo instrument—flute, horn and trumpet being favourites. These instruments can also offer worthy counter-melodies to the piano, as a simultaneous answer to its own thematic material. In the Second Concerto the piano is almost constantly present as a solo instrument and, virtually without a bar’s rest, it has to try and merge fully with the orchestra. Themes are exchanged and the piano is sometimes given an accompanying chordal development; elsewhere it thrives on the wide sound spectrum of the orchestra. The piano score is written very fluently and with great skill: it explores the instrument’s full range of possibilities and displays a rhythmically sparkling and agile, but also unifying, interplay of both hands.

In the Third and Fourth Concertos we find longer orchestral passages and also polyphony in the orchestra’s parts, with an undisputed climax in the great canon at the end of the Fourth Concerto. In these concertos the obsessive drive has become greater still, in the dark and searching orchestral introductions as well as in the finales which never fail to excite. The relationship between the melodic lines and the part-writing is more complex here: counter-movements and polyphony—such as canons—come and go, while the exchanges between piano and orchestra can result in quick-tempered dialogues of witty motifs which cut each other short. The use of several simultaneous effects—including polymetre, polyrhythm and strong accents against the beat—reveal that the composer has assimilated his confrontation with Bartók’s and Stravinsky’s heritage.

Frédéric Devreese finds himself confronted with all the possibilities 20th century music has to offer: searching expressionism which abandons tonality, form-conserving neo-classicism adding new contents to tradition which remains its basic structure, and also diversity of expression in jazz and its related genres. He uses this rich spectrum in a very personal way—his intrinsic musical thought is always in evolution, permanently evolving in sound and diversity. His piano concertos reveal a brilliant versatility, as well as a mobile and flexible style. The soloist approaches the simplest melodic expression with as much intensity and respect as the exciting and monumental power which arises from the merging of piano and orchestra

Y. Knockaert
Translated by P. Rans

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