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8.553267 - MENDELSSOHN / LISZT / GRIEG: Piano Concertos
Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy (1809 - 1847)
Franz Liszt (1811 - 1886)
Edvard Grieg (1843 - 907)
Felix Mendelssohn, grandson of Moses Mendelssohn, the great Jewish thinker of the Enlightenment, was born in Hamburg in 1809, the son of a prosperous banker. His family was influential in cultural circles, and he and his sister were educated in an environment that encouraged both musical and general cultural interests. At the same time the extensive acquaintance of the Mendelssohns among artists and men of letters brought an unusual breadth of mind, a stimulus to natural curiosity.
Much of Mendelssohn's childhood was passed in Berlin, where his parents moved when he was three, to escape Napoleonic invasion. There he took lessons from Goethe's much admired Zelter, who introduced him to the old poet in Weimar. The choice of a career in music was eventually decided on the advice of Cherubini, consulted by Abraham Mendelssohn in Paris, where he was director of the Conservatoire. There followed a period of further education, a Grand Tour of Europe that took him south to Italy and north to Scotland. His professional career began in earnest with his appointment as general director of music in Düsseldorf in 1833.
Mendelssohn's subsequent career was intense and brief. He settled in Leipzig as conductor of the Gewandhaus concerts, and was instrumental in establishing the Conservatory there. Briefly lured to Berlin by the King of Prussia and by the importunity of his family, he spent an unsatisfactory year or so as director of the music section of the Academy of Arts, providing music for a revival of classical drama under royal encouragement. This appointment he was glad to relinquish in 1844, later returning to his old position in Leipzig, where he died in 1847.
The Piano Concerto in D Minor was written for performance at the Birmingham Festival of 1837, where Mendelssohn won further success as pianist, organist, conductor and composer, with the oratorio St. Paul. The writing of the concerto coincided with his honeymoon and it was with some irritation that he found himself obliged to travel to London and to Birmingham, the city for which he was to write the Lobgesang and the oratorio Elijah.
The concerto opens again with the briefest of orchestral introductions, allowing the soloist to make an immediate impression with a dramatic opening passage. The second subject is introduced by the piano, making its way to the expected key of F major. It is the soloist who leads to the B flat major slow movement, where the first theme is entrusted to the orchestra, to be capped by the soloist with material of a more rhapsodic kind. The last movement, as economically scored as the rest of the work, allows the soloist a display of delicate brilliance in music that is thoroughly characteristic of the composer.
Franz Liszt was born at Raiding, in Hungary, in 1811, the son of a steward employed by Haydn's former patrons, the Esterházy family. As a boy he showed extraordinary musical ability, and money was raised, after he had played to the Hungarian nobility in Pressburg (the modern Bratislava), to send him to Vienna, where he took lessons from Czerny and was kissed by Beethoven, impressed by the boys playing, in spite of the fact that he was almost stone deaf. In 1823 the family moved to Paris, a city that Liszt was later to regard as essentially his home. From here he undertook concert tours as a pianist and it was here, in 1831, that he heard the violinist Paganini, and resolved to follow his example.
Liszt became one of the most remarkable pianists of his time, fascinating audiences in a way that has its modern parallel in the adulation accorded to much less worthy popular performers. A liaison with a married woman, the Comtesse Marie d'Agoult, the mother of his three children, led to extensive travel abroad, and after their separation to an important change of direction, when, in 1848, he settled in Weimar as Director of Music to the Grand Duchy, solaced there by the presence of Princess Sayn-Wittgenstein, estranged wife of a Russian prince. Here he turned his attention to the creation of a new form of orchestral work, the symphonic poem, and it was here that he wrote the final versions of his two piano concertos.
The last twenty-five years of his life Liszt described as a vie trifurquée, largely divided, as time went on, between Rome, Weimar and Budapest. In 1860 Princess Sayn-Wittgenstein had gone to Rome, hoping to have a first marriage annulled, as it had already been by the Russian Orthodox Church, and thus to be able to marry Liszt. He followed, in October 1861 reaching Rome, where he expected to marry. Permission, however, was not immediately granted. Liszt settled in the city, lodging with a religious order, although not without material comforts, and turning his attention to church music, while the Princess continued her 24-volume study of the interior causes of the exterior weakness of the Catholic Church, living elsewhere in Rome. In 1869 he undertook to return from time to time to Weimar to teach and in 1871 he made a similar undertaking to Budapest, where he was regarded as something of a national hero. He died in 1886 during the course of a visit to Bayreuth, where his unforgiving daughter Cosima, the widow of Richard Wagner, continued the festival of her husband's works.
Liszt's legacy as a composer is a remarkable one. As a performer he led the way to new feats of virtuosity, a fact that has led some to regard his work as nothing more than facile showmanship. Yet even in those popular transcriptions where an element of the meretricious may seem to predominate, there is evidence of a strong and extraordinary musical intelligence and originality. His influence on his contemporaries was considerable: subsequent generations have found in his music some justification for claims that he and Wagner put forward as propagators of the music of the future.
Piano Concerto No.1 in E Flat Major a work in one movement, was completed in 1849 with the assistance of Joachim Raff, who claimed a considerable share in Liszt's early orchestral compositions. It was twice revised, in 1853 and 1856 and is something of a symphonic poem in itself.
When the Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg was still a student in Leipzig he had heard Schumann's widow Clara play her husband's piano concerto. His own piano concerto, written in 1868 during the course of a holiday in Denmark, is very much in the style suggested by the earlier work. The idiomatic piano-writing may well owe something to Liszt, who had seen the concerto in manuscript and to the composer's astonishment had played it through faultlessly at sight. Grieg had been equally impressed by Liszt's sight- reading of a violin sonata of his, in which every detail was included.
Grieg revised his Piano Concerto several times, as he did a number of his other compositions. He rejected at least one of Liszt's suggestions on orchestration, the use of trumpets for the second theme in the first movement, eventually given to the cellos, but was grateful for the encouragement Liszt gave him. The concerto came at a time when the composer was turning away from the predominantly Danish atmosphere of his middle-class Norwegian childhood and the German emphasis of his later musical education towards the music of Norway itself. Whatever its formal debt to Schumann the Piano Concerto has about it much that is purely Norwegian, particularly in its wealth of melodic material.
The concerto opens with a drum-roll leading to the entry of the solo piano, descending the keyboard, followed by a theme given first to the wood-wind, repeated by the piano, which later takes up the second theme, suggested by the cellos. There is a development section which develops relatively little and in the final section a rhapsodic cadenza, followed by a brief coda.
The second movement shifts to the key of D flat major, to be heard as the middle note of the chord of A major. The effect of the change is one of relief from the tumultuous activity that had gone before, orchestra and soloist proposing different melodies, but with no sense of conflict.
The finale is dominated by a Norwegian dance-rhythm, that of the halling, but has time for the kind of rhapsodic piano-writing that has made the concerto one of the most successful and popular in the romantic repertoire.
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