at Orchestra Hall

November 1

The piano concerto, that lofty and ostentatious instrumental genre, came into its own around the middle of the 18th century, when the recently invented pianoforte caught the fancy of composers, though the concerto had been in existence for over a century. The first concerti were church extravaganzas that put the spotlight on the organ; the concerti grossi of Handel and Corelli, more democratic in disposition, let all major instruments in an orchestral ensemble take a bow in turn. Bach too wrote numerous secular concerti, including the famous Brandenburg set. He was among the first to elevate the harpsichord–a predecessor of the piano–from its supporting if indispensable role as provider of the underlying rhythm in most instrumental groupings. In his Italian Concerto, for example, the harpsichord has the lion’s share of solo passages. But as a solo instrument it was not very impressive: its tinny sound and modest dynamic range were no match for an orchestra. When the more powerful and versatile piano came on the scene, it didn’t take virtuosos and composers long to realize its possibilities.

Mozart for one quickly seized on the piano’s potential. If, as musicologist Charles Rosen has pointed out in his landmark study The Classical Style, the concerto bears a close relationship to the operatic aria, then the piano is undeniably the prima donna. It enhances the two defining features of the concerto form: it can hold its own against the orchestra by furnishing a markedly contrasting sound; and it can call attention to itself through protracted exhibitions of virtuosity. Its star quality adds to the appeal of a concerto, which after all relies on listeners’ expectation of the soloist’s grand entrances. Mozart was a pioneer in exploiting this anticipation to the hilt. Much of the drama in his 27 piano concerti builds on the expressive solo turns that seem to emerge almost organically from the music. Beethoven, an innovator of piano techniques as well, went several giant steps beyond Mozart with his last three concerti–eliciting an epic drama from the give-and-take between a Promethean piano and an alternately obliging and antagonistic orchestra.

Throughout the 19th century–when great pianists reigned–the Beethoven model was copied, modified, and expanded. Liszt more or less conceived his two piano concerti as picaresque showcases for his own unsurpassed pyrotechnics. Schumann and Chopin cast the piano as an impetuous, romantic poseur in their concerti. Only Brahms, also a keyboard whiz but a more conscientious composer, succeeded in broadening Beethoven’s ambitious structures with his two powerhouse contributions. By then the genre was already showing the telltale signs of exhaustion. The pictorial and melodic concerti of Tchaikovsky and Saint-Saens are structurally loose and short on genuine drama. At the dawn of this century the genre finally hit a dead end, turning mannerist with Rachmaninoff’s garish vehicles, which overly glorify the piano.

Ever since, even venturesome composers have viewed the piano concerto with ambivalence and trepidation. For some members of the avant-garde it came to represent the bourgeoisie’s blatant star worship and excessive celebration of virtuosic displays. For others, the great specimens of the previous century intimidated rather than inspired. Besides, as the modern orchestra grew in size there was a place for the piano within it–it fit into the percussion section after all–and it was thus welcomed into the fold. Still, there has been a trickle of notable (and crowd-pleasing) experiments with the form. Ravel’s Concerto for the Left Hand is a ready example, as are the concerti by Prokofiev, Bartok, and Shostakovich. To be sure, these are modest compared with Brahms’s, and the piano writing, which emphasizes a wide palette of sonority and newfangled techniques over formal concerns, is strikingly different from the classicism of the past. And they didn’t forestall the postwar dry spell in piano concerti, which lasted into the 80s.

But of late the genre has been enjoying a mini-revival. Charles Wuorinen, Francis Thorne, and Gyorgy Ligeti have each made intriguing attempts at updating the form. So has the Polish veteran trailblazer Witold Lutoslawski. His Piano Concerto, written for fellow countryman Krystian Zimerman in 1988 though he’d begun sketches for it a half century earlier, was given its local premiere earlier this month by Ursula Oppens and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

I found the concerto to be a thoughtful, rivetingly playful traversal of the genre’s conventions and cliches. For the longest time in the opening movement the orchestra’s various sections primp, sounding each other out. Like self-conscious debutants at a cotillion, they’re nervy, reluctant to make any definitive declarations. And like the audience, they all realize who’s the belle of the ball. After much buildup, the piano enters–at first coquettishly. Once it overcomes shyness, it executes a series of exultant glissandi. The orchestra chimes in, and the exchange turns into a gale of teasing laughter reminiscent of Richard Strauss’s Burleske. Soon the piano reasserts its superiority in a round of Rachmaninoff-style flourishes and sweeping gestures. The orchestra applauds its bravura, the loudest cheers coming from the brasses.

The quick-paced second movement, which the composer calls “a kind of moto perpetuo,” serves up a jocular cat-and-mouse game between the piano and orchestra. Throughout the predominantly lyrical third movement, the piano is very much in charge, flirtatiously issuing long-breathed melodies (including a hyperkinetic cadenza). Showing off, it beckons the orchestra to join in but keeps racing ahead. The finale is an intricate passacaglia using Lutoslawski’s “chain” technique. Two sets of variations–one for the piano, the other for the orchestra–unroll simultaneously like interlacing strands of DNA. In effect the piano, though it occasionally echoes the orchestra’s motifs, flits in and out of the thickly textured soundscape in a stunning display of arabesques. The proceedings gradually pick up steam until the two strands at last converge, followed by a whirlwind of affirmations that ends brusquely.

What’s so refreshing about the half-hour concerto is that it fulfills–rather than rudely questions–the requirements of the genre, and it doesn’t come across as old-fashioned (like, say, Samuel Barber’s 1968 essay). Brilliant, flashy, and with plenty of devilishly difficult passages for the piano, it also serves up witty and at times dramatic “dialogue” between the soloist and the orchestra. The overall structure, excepting the mathematical last movement, is deliberately episodic, but that’s one of the shortcomings (or strengths, depending on the listener’s tastes) of modernity. Its sound–and this is Lutoslawski’s signal achievement–is decidedly postmodern: echoes of Schumann, Strauss, Stravinsky, and Bartok are filtered through the sensibilities of Boulez, Ligeti, and even Cage. Oppens–one of a handful of intelligent and capable interpreters of new music for the piano–was in her usual superb form, playing with panache and impressive dexterity. The orchestra, under the brisk direction of old-timer Erich Leinsdorf, provided avid support. There were moments in the finale, however, when the piano’s bass lines were drowned out or muddled by the orchestra–spoiling the effect of Lutoslawski’s “chains.” These blemishes aside, the CSO performance made a convincing argument for this work’s inclusion in the company of first concerti by Prokofiev and Shostakovich.

The concert opened and closed with exuberant programmatic music from the late 19th century. “Bohemia’s Meadows” and “Forests,” two tone poems from Smetana’s Ma Vlast (“My Country”), sounded pretty and sentimental, as one might expect of a Leinsdorf-led reading. After intermission the orchestra played Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake in a concert version Leinsdorf arranged. The performance was distinguished by sharply accented dance rhythms and a keen sense of pathos. The harp, a distant and much older relative of the piano, figures rather prominently in this music; and Edward Druzinsky made it sound heavenly. But there was no need to wonder why few concerti have ever been written for it.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Erich Hartmann–Magnum.