Sunday, November 6, 2011

In review--Music for swooning

Grieg and Liszt
Piano Concertos
Stephen Hough
Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra with Andrew Litton
Hyperion Records

Many years ago when I researched European classical composers who included folkloric dance and folk songs in their work, I encountered Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg.  This was around the time that I became familiar with Norwegian folk music so the timing felt perfect.  As far as, the Hungarian composer Franz Liszt, I’m most familiar with the work he composed after he joined a Franciscan monastery.  However, I had read stories about the romantic composer’s affects on ladies in attendance at his concerts.  Remember the passionate violinist in the movie The Red Violin? I’m guessing that character was loosely based on Liszt or at least the composer’s persona.

So when I placed Stephen Hough and the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra’s latest recording featuring piano concertos by Liszt and Grieg, I expected to hear the kind of music that causes listeners to swoon.  And I wasn’t disappointed.  I also expected to hear folkloric influences and felt pleased when I could point those out to myself.  While these concertos which include Liszt Piano Concertos No 1 in E Flat major and No 2 in A major and Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A minor feature beautiful passages, I prefer to use the adjectives, powerful, bold, and in the case of Liszt, the descriptor brooding.  And true to the romantic era, you’ll hear fiery passages alternating with longing and a hint of sadness.

The opening of Liszt first piano concerto feels haunting, even foreboding. With its few notes acting as a theme or more or less, a motif, I’m reminded of Beethoven’s theme that opens his 5th symphony. You might think that something so simple and memorable would fall flat, but when combined with more expansive themes perform wonders on the listener’s psyche.  This motif is passed on from instrument to instrument, until an oboe (or is that an English horn) floats in with a more expansive motif which the piano then responds with a hint of wistful melancholy.  A cello takes up this new theme and engages in counterpoint with the piano. That is until the horns come in like a winter storm reintroducing the opening theme.

The second movement (although in the liner notes not called a movement), is sonata-like resembling a tranquil lake on a drizzly day.  I find the falling notes towards the end played on woodwinds enchanting.  And we go from tranquil to mischievous with the third section with the fourth section flowing in seamlessly with horns making declarations.

Liszt second piano concerto starts on a grief-stricken note, at least to my ears. A cello responds to the piano’s laments.  Then the pianist and orchestra launch into the long second movement which starts with a gypsy-like cello and more descending notes on the piano. The instruments brood with the cello taking brief flights of fancy.  Still this is a majestic piece that ends with a Hungarian gypsy extravaganza, which according to the liner notes didn’t go well with the music critics of that time.  However, I enjoy it.

The next two sections run just over three minutes and one and half minutes in length, but the composer and in this case, the pianist Stephen Hough and the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra portray a large palette ranging from waltz-like piano that sends my mind whirling around the room to ethereal passages that would inspire Debussy and Ravel and the Hungarian gypsy influence returns as well.  When the final notes of this concerto resonated in my ears my only response was “wow!”

The recording ends with Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A minor.  The bold opening with its descending notes sounds familiar to my ears. I think this is in part that classical radio stations play this concerto often and for good reason, it has everything.  The liner notes describe the first movement as sonata-like, but it’s also heroic.  Still I most enjoyed the lyrical flutes in conversation with a French horn alternating with the piano’s cascading notes, not cascading like waterfall, but of driving hail against a windowpane.

The liner notes describe the second movement as hymnal with its warm horns, and tranquil piano for the most part.  Woodwinds converse gently with the piano and the movement ends with piano flourishes and then on a restful note.  The third movement takes on a bold and heroic stance, almost defiant.  First we hear a flute or a piccolo in revelry and then the piano plays lullaby-like passages that remind me of a boat rocking back and forth on a lake.  I can see why Ravel was inspired by Grieg since the two composers write enchanting musical passages.  Throughout the movement we hear hints of Norwegian folk music which encapsulates the calm slower passages and the spirited dance melodies.  The ending is worth mentioning as the orchestra builds in intensity performing elongated notes with punchy horn and passionate piano and closing with a timpani roll.

I listened to this recording over headphones as I do most classical recordings.  I also found that if I focused my attention on the music without multitasking I was able to catch the various nuances and shifting tones.  In some ways I found these piano concertos meditative, but not conducive for sitting meditation.  I connected to the natural world while listening to the concertos and I enjoyed hearing folkloric influences.  Certainly a listener of Norwegian or Hungarian heritage will enjoy this recording more immensely than I did, but its music for everyone.

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