The first time the Helsinki Festival commissioned a piano concerto from Magnus Lindberg the result was actually the huge ensemble concerto Kraft which was premiered in 1985. Six years later to the day, on September 4th 1991, came his second attempt.
This time around Lindberg learnt the error if his ways and set out to write a piano concerto and nothing but a piano concerto. His starting point was Maurice Ravel's G Major Concerto, the small forces of which closely resemble Lindberg's own instrumental requirements. A second link lies in the handling of the piano. Lindberg has rejected the habit - increasingly common since the days of Béla Bartók - of treating the piano as a percussive instrument. Instead he sought, once again, to bring out the piano's own natural sound.
When one considers what sort of works Lindberg wrote after Kraft it is possible to get at least some sort of idea of the sound one is likely to hear in the Piano Concerto. Kraft and the ensemble piece, UR, which followed it marked the end of the composer's manic exploration of the world of rhythm and rough, hard sounds. Kinetics, together with the piano work Twine that came shortly before it, introduced a new Lindberg who had opened up another drawer in his desk and found from it the key to the rich world of harmonies. The Kinetics line was extended in Marea for a classical orchestra line-up, and in Joy, written for large instrumental ensemble. Looking back on it, Lindberg now speaks of these as a trilogy. The Piano Concerto is Lindberg's first work that can be clearly labelled as an instrumental concerto and at the time of writing was his most extensive work - there are even more notes than in Kraft, though in places the texture is very thin. The abundance of notes on the page is the result of the fact that is concerto is fast music. The characteristic features are lightness, brightness and a scherzo-like feel. Lindberg says that he has written the first slow movement of his composing career, but he is doubtful as to whether anyone will notice, since even there the piano is blazing away in top gear.
The concerto is played without a break, but one can discern the shape of the three movements of the traditional concerto. The first movement is dynamic in character with a strong sense of development and it contains rather in the manner of Joy, a series of consecutive processes opening out in different directions.
The second movement is slow in terms of its overall motion, although the piano does shine and glitter in bursts of sound over a static surface. In terms of structure the movement approaches the concerto grosso, where sections dominated by the piano and various small instrumental combinations alternate with chorale type tutti sections from the orchestra. In the latter half of the movement the piano part moves diagonally - in the composer's description of the event - through the orchestral texture and arrives at a cadenza that takes us directly on to the third movement.
Lurking in the background to the first two movements one might remember Lindberg's comments on Ravel and the works of Stravinsky's neo-classical period, but with the third movement, written last and the longest of the three, the composer is off on another track altogether. Four solo violins saw away furiously at Zigeuner-flavoured figures over blocks of chords. The movement is a single long process. It leads to a climax filling the entire harmonic register which, so to speak, freezes in place and gradually finds it tonal colouring. Lindberg has made use of similar distillations of motion on previous occasions, for instance in Sculpture II and Kraft but rather than a single sound, we arrive at a sonorous harmonic state.
After this climax, we move into the second phase of the finale in which the piano paints a new pointillist landscape at the same time as the orchestra piles up aggressive columns of chords. Gradually the two musical elements, see-sawing between opposites, arrive at a balance and the music returns to the sensitive world of the opening to the first movement, The piano has scraped off all the extra material that has clung onto its surface during it headlong flight through the various episodes of the work.
If in the beginning there was rhythm, then in the "trilogy" harmony, now perhaps Lindberg is stepping into the world of form. Always assuming that form means changes in the relationships and functions of hierarchical worlds, time and motion, development and death. Playing with music.