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Many composers working in the concerto genre have rushed to oblige the two most written-for instruments, violin and piano. Not so Sir Peter Maxwell Davies. His Violin Concerto - admittedly rising to meet a grand occasion and a great soloist, Isaac Stern - appeared only after 30 years of creative activity, in 1985. Between then and the Piano Concerto, the score of which bears the date ‘September 24th 1997’, his series of Strathclyde Concertos to enrich the solo repertoire of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra’s front-desk players - including the double bass - was immediately complemented by the unlikeliest concerto-writing of all, for piccolo.
Stern has said of the Violin Concerto that it ‘challenges the total technique and sensibilities of both player and orchestra’, and the same is true of the Piano Concerto. The work is very much ‘for Kathy’, the soloist on the disc, whom the composer has heard in a wide repertoire; though the two works in which her interpretation has especially caught his imagination, John Ireland’s genial Piano Concerto and a Mozart concerto in which he has conducted her at the Orkney Festival, would seem to have had little bearing on the finished work. Initial talk of a Mozart model using Strathclyde chamber forces yielded to the concept of a virtuoso piece on the scale of Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto: ultimately, certain moods are closer to the concerto-worlds of two other composers he cites, Bartók and Prokofiev - especially Prokofiev’s chameleonic changes between sharp-etched activity and brooding atmosphere. Ultimately, it is Stott rather than Mozart or Prokofiev who offers the key: as Max says, ‘I listened to her playing very carefully and much of the piano writing is related exactly to how she plays.’
In practice, at a first hearing at least, the dazzling density of much of the piano writing must provide the thread for the listener’s involvement. Each movement has its own form, though as in many of the composer’s works, the music is in a constant state of development, right from the tense ‘Scots-snap’ rhythms, glissandi and scalic rushings of a clearly-outlined introduction. A vivacious dance, constantly shifting metre and passed from strings to woodwind while the piano scintillatingly keeps tabs, eventually yields to a rich Andante. Heard first in the orchestra alone, later reiterated by piano, it flanks this first movement’s central activity: dramatic transformation of the material in four contrasting ‘blocks’, which the composer defines as the hub from which he built the whole of the first movement. A familiar array of Maxwell Davies percussion plays an increasingly important role both throughout these four coursings and in a fantastically scored reappearance of the dance material.
Beginning with piano and only the softest of underpinning from bass clarinet, the Adagio proposes a cantabile melody and even a key, C sharp minor, and thickens towards an epic denouement. Then the hard-worked pianist takes up the finale without a break, launching into variations of the first movement’s dances, again with constantly changing time-signatures but this time with even fewer pauses for thought. Strings articulate another impassioned climax, leading to a substantial cadenza in which the pianist moves from delicate filigree to a dramatic fantasia. Then the final toccata-like runs in octaves bring us closer to Bartók and Prokofiev than anything else in the work - a well-deserved, good-humoured final homage.
© David Nice
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David Nice tel: +44 171 385 5932