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Hugh Wood

Publisher: Chester Music

Piano Concerto (1991)
commissioned by the BBC
Chester Music Ltd
Soloist(s) and Orchestra
Year Composed
25 Minutes
Solo Instrument(s)

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Programme Note
Hugh Wood Piano Concerto (1991)
1. Vigoroso
2. Adagio mesto
3. Moltt vivace

Hugh Wood’s third solo concerto - his first for piano - was composed between 1989 and the early summer of this year. Superficially it looks and sounds like a conventional three-movement concerto: sonata-allegro first movement with a double exposition, variation slow movement, quick dance finale. But that description, though (I hope) accurate, masks many individual and a few curious features, some if not all of which the alert listener will at once spot.

The concerto was written for tonight’s soloist, Joanna McGregor, who as well as being a brilliant pianist is also herself a gifted composer and a former pupil of Wood’s at Cambridge University. The composer said he wanted to put something of her personality into the concerto. Its liveliness and energy (‘brash and extrovert’, Wood has called it) reflect her platform presence and her athletic technique, while contrasting slow movement, along with the more lyrical movements in outer, absorb her talents as a jazz pianist while at the same time perhaps casting a softer and more intimate light on her personality. But do the compositional subtleties and ironies (in the concerto) link these apparently very different manners also help colour in the portrait of a pianist who is a highly trained and literate composer? The question is hard for anyone but the composer to answer, since the contrast is fundamental to his own creative personality, and the links have been forged in work after work down the years.

The core of the whole concerto, both physically and emotionally, is the central set of variations on, as it transpires, Sweet Lorraine (the Burwell song popularised in the 1950s by Nat King Cole), which materialises in the course of the movement but whose implied piano style radiates backwards into the first movement and forwards into the last. It is typical of Wood that this whole lament of the music emerges gradually and at first hesitantly from material which, on the face of it, is diametrically opposite in character, lineament and technique.

The first movement opens (like, for example, Beethoven’s Fourth and Rahkmaninov’s Second concerts) with a series of piano solo chords, after which the orchestra launches into a vigorously rhythmic but neither jazzy nor popularistic exposition, based on a wide-arching twelve-note string melody accompanied by loud repeated quaver chords. It is this rather abrasive music (crystallising eventually into a crisp samba rhythm) which it is the task of Sweet Lorraine to tame.
But the process is cleverly abetted by Wood’s quasi-Classical form which, true to type, follows the main piano entry with an exposition repeat including a new cantabile theme (piano solo) that neatly straddles the divide (if it is a divide) between academic serialism and that kind of what one might call late-night pianism which we nearly all secretly wish we could master which Joanna MacGregor plainly has.

One other point about the first movement. The twelve-note basis is clear (in the score at least). But it is very Woodish that the serialism conceals opposed personalities: on the one hand Webern (perhaps via Stravinsky’s Agon) in the huge violin leaps, which turn out ot be stepwise chromatic lines blasted into widely-spaced orbits; on the other hand Berg, who like to redesign his note-rows into cycles of fifths and whole-tone scales. The background fifths can be heard in the wind accompaniment to the violins, and they become increasingly important (as harmony and melody) as the music heads for Lorraine. With them comes a harmonic expectancy not present at the start of the work, though the harmonic material is not strictly new.

The slow movement also has an introduction for solo piano, this time more ornate. The music then moves straight into what Woods calls Variation I, though its effect, for the time being, is of the basic choral sequence of a chaconne, which is increasingly fleshed out to the point where, in Variation V, the source melody appears with disarming candour on a solo trombone (‘very slightly swung’). Later (Variation VII) the piano has a fuller version of the tune-, and here, in the score – in his Symphony.

The listener need not stretch either ears or imagination too much to feel a connection between the chaconne chord sequence and the merging harmonies of the first movement. But it also points towards the rondo-like finale, a movement which audibly synthesises the contrasting aspects of its two predecessors. In movement rhythm and figuration it reverts to the first movement. But its harmonic world is closer to that of a second. The piano alternates a spiky theme derived from the first movement note row and salvos of chords in simple triads, left and right hands; there is a brief duo for piano and muted trumpet, with harmonies derived from the chaconne, and a misteriso episode with bongos and a smoother theme riding in whole-tone triplets, discreetly borrowed from Sweet Lorraine. But these connections are not laboured, even if they do have the last word.

Preview the score

  • Ensemble
    BBC Symphony Orchestra
    J MacGregor, piano
    Sir Andrew Davis
    Collins Classics:
  • 26 JUL 2012
    BBC Proms
    Royal Albert Hall, London
    BBC National Orchestra of Wales
    Joanna MacGregor; Thierry Fischer, conductor
  • 20 MAR 2007
    BBC/RPS Encore Scheme
    Symphony Hall, Birmingham, UK
    City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
    Joanna MacGregor; Michael Seal, conductor

Cast in the traditional three movements, it is anything but traditional in style, and is one of Wood’s most personal and original works. It contains elements of jazz, has Latin American rhythms, frequent episodes of dissonant harmony, and it has an emotional flavour somewhat reminiscent of the late Viennese school but which is nevertheless Wood’s own. The Piano Concerto is a rich and fascinating work with a predominantly energetic and dissonant first movement, a reflective slow movement, and a largely playful and rhythmically alive finale. The composer employs serial techniques in the first movement in a dramatic and often abrasive way. Its sonata form is derived from classical models, and interplay between orchestra and soloist is a vital feature, with the orchestra contributing as strongly as the soloist. [...] Most immediately beguiling is the central movement in which the tune “Sweet Lorraine” receives several variations reminding us of late-night jazz, but never sounding exactly like it. Think Bartok’s nocturnal music, and you’re some of the way there, but this is Wood, through and through. I enjoyed this immensely, and the last movement too, with its good-natured counterpoint and sprightly rhythms.
Christopher Gunning,,28/07/2012
Hugh Wood’s Piano Concerto is unusual in his oeuvre in that in addition to his exhilaratingly pungent dissonances and fiercely angular lyricism (a palpable debt to the Second Viennese School), there is a distinctly popular, jazzy streak running through the work. That is undoubtedly due to the personality of the pianist for whom the concerto was written: Wood’s former student Joanna MacGregor.
Barry Millington ,,27/07/2012
The concerto [is a] mixture of feisty, acid-edged harmonies, propulsive rhythms and bouts of jazzy yearning – the slow movement is a set of variations on the standard Sweet Lorraine.
Andrew Clements,,27/07/2012
Whether angular, aggressive, jazzy or meditative, the first two movements compel, the slow movement especially, breathed in on the cusp of audibility, sometimes alluding to Bartók’s ‘night music’, introducing a bluesy trombone solo, dripping in Berg’s brand of romanticism, and finally stating what has been ingeniously present all the while, the song ‘Sweet Lorraine’, perhaps most associated with Nat ‘King’ Cole. The first movement’s variety seems to reference to a British generation previous to Wood’s – such as, to various degrees, Alan Rawsthorne and Humphrey Searle, and to his contemporary, the late Alun Hoddinott; and further afield to Olivier Messiaen.
Colin Anderson,,26/07/2012
Known form had suggested that the world premiere of Hugh Wood’s Piano Concerto … would be something to look forward to – the more so since a new work by Wood is now a rare event. Sure enough, this one was more than worth the wait. The concerto attempts a tricky feat of musical conjuring – the interaction of Wood’s own, Schoenberg-related idiom, dominant in the first of the three movements, with the explicitly jazzy connotations of the second, a set of variations elliptically and beautifully derived from the tune Sweet Lorraine. Both sound-worlds are then drawn together in the speedy finale.
Malcolm Hayes, The Daily Telegraph,14/09/1991
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