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Poul Ruders

Publisher: Edition Wilhelm Hansen

Paganini Variations - Piano Concerto No. 3
Work Notes
Piano Concerto No. 3
Edition Wilhelm Hansen Copenhagen
Soloist(s) and Orchestra
16 Minutes
Solo Instrument(s)
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Programme Note
Poul Ruders Paganini Variations - Piano Concerto No. 3
Paganini Variations – Piano Concerto No.3 (The original guitar-part arranged for piano and pianist Anne-Marie McDermott by the composer, 2014)

In 1999 my friend, American guitar virtuoso David Starobin, wanted me to write a concerto for guitar and orchestra. It quickly dawned on me, that this commission presented a golden opportunity to contribute to the time-honoured tradition of composing a series of variations on Nicolo Paganini´s famous 24th Caprice for violin solo, a work which itself is a set of variations. The 16 bar (with the first 4 bars repeated) theme is not particularly sophisticated or intricate, but its inherent simplicity and logic just grow on you, almost to the point of distraction – and the secret behind it being hauled through “the wringer” by composers as disparate as Liszt, Brahms, Rachmaninoff and Lutoslawski is perhaps found in its - what I´ll call, with a quick nervous look over my shoulder: brilliant banality. You can do anything with that tune, it´ll always be recognizable and just there, however much you maul it.

The piece (subtitled Guitar Concerto no. 2) was written pretty quickly, premiered and subsequently recorded for Bridge Records with David and the Odense Symphony Orchestra conducted by Jan Wagner, and everybody was happy. But the story didn´t end there, and it must be the ultimate proof of the durability of the theme, not to mention the flexibility and far-sightedness of David Starobin , when he 14 years later suggested “why not transcribe the solo part for piano?”. The idea appealed to me immediately. One thing was clear from the beginning: the new version could in no way sound like a transcription. My aim was to end up with a solo-part sounding like were it “the one-and-only”, the “real thing”, if you like.

The orchestral score remains exactly the same in both cases. Both versions, the two Paganini Variations, are comparable to a set of twins, not quite identical, but almost. And both each others´s equal.

The Theme is presented exactly as in the original version, except for the chords in the guitar. The piano takes over by supporting the harmonic foundation in low parallel octaves, kicked off by fast off-beat appogiaturas.

Variation I begins in near-similarity with the guitar part, but quickly settles in to “piano mode” with parallel action in both hands, predominantly with one- and two octave intervals between the lower- and upper parts.

Variations 2 and 3 are moulded in the same vein, but in Variation 4 the piano part suddenly stands out boldly in its own right, what with almost Brahmsian “breast-strokes” and triplets and duplets played against each other.

The main point of Variation 5 is the un-pedalled fingered tenuto (harpsichord/organ notation), backing and adding to the unison in the rest of the orchestra. From bar 9 and out the mood changes and the writing (and sound) becomes more that of traditional piano.

In Variation 6 I´ve placed the piano part up at the “northern-most” end of the keyboard, so that the piccolo flute solo unfolds beneath the piano.

In Variation 7 the right hand plays the same chords as the original guitar, whereas the left adds a new counterpoint.

The piano part of Variation 8 is so far the closest to the original guitar. Parallel octaves all the way through: four notes when it´s 3/8 – 3 notes in the lighter 2/8 meter.

In Variation 9 the piano imitates the strumming of the guitar through low-pitched appogiaturas on the beat.

Variations 10, 11, 12 and 13 are all slightly pianistic “show-off” versions of the original, and the “ear-candy” tune in Variation 14 includes two-octave gap parallel octaves.

Variation 15, 16, 17 are very much like variations 10-13 in character, but in Variation 18 I decided to add a little spice to the cautious one-note-at-a-time guitar part by having the right hand play softly and held out (no pedal, thank you very much!), flicked off by a short staccato attack in the left hand, one octave below, before moving into idiomatic piano mode from bar 14.

In Variation 19 the simple one-note guitar part has been livened up a bit through fast, metrically precisely notated appogiaturas.

In Variation 20 the original guitar part is simple and single-note linear. In the new version, however, I decided to have the same tune played with 5(!) octaves between right- and left hand, creating an interesting contrast to the near-naked sparseness in the orchestra.

Variation 21 with its almost muscular piano writing acts as a smooth transition into the fast and furious Finale. The right hand piano writing is here one hundred percent loyal to the original, but the left hand doubles it, one or two octaves below – sometimes parallel – sometimes in counter movements, a bit like a Bach concerto “tarted up” by Busoni. At the very end I´ve for the first – and only – time deviated from the original rhythmical pattern and let the piano follow the orchestra all the up to where the piccolo wraps up the whole piece with a smile.

- Poul Ruders

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