Here are three largely off the beaten path works for piano and orchestra, featuring pianist Orion Weiss, The Orchestra Now and conductor Leon Botstein. For devotees of the art, it may seem like an important project, but many others may wonder what all of the fuss was about.
Erich Korngold’s Piano Concerto in C-sharp for One Hand (lovingly written for Paul Wittgenstein who tragically lost his right hand in World War I—we can only shudder to think of the artistic losses Putin’s “military operation” will reveal if the smoke ever clears in Ukraine) is a free-flowing orchestrational tour de force where the piano is more a colleague of his instrumental colleagues rather than the usual leader of the declarative fray. It’s a heady mix of rhapsodic statements, edgy, angry outbursts, calming salves (notably the oboe) during the mostly conversational single-movement work. The two brief cadenzas readily unleash Weiss’ technical prowess and ability to use touch and tone to vary the moods as Korngold intended.
But by journey’s end, there isn’t the “aha” moment or climactic resolution of all that has been heard to lift this intriguing composition into the realm of a vrai classic.
Imagine being a music student, just 17, and given the assignment of setting “Là ci darem la mano”—"There we shall join our hands”—(the pivotal duet in Mozart’s dramatic/musical masterpiece, Don Giovanni) and turning in a set of variations that belied the burgeoning composer’s age (and just Op. 2) that foretells the genius of the Polish composer to come.
The introduction, like the opera’s overture, has many moods and tones, thoughtfully, lovingly laid out by Botstein and Weiss with typical flourishes, that would become one of Chopin’s hallmarks, setting the stage.
The theme proper has a marvellous sense of coquettishness and a welcome air of fun. Variation I exudes one of Mozart’s trademarks: happiness and joy. The second variation is all business with near-perfect ensemble. Variation III, like the opera, features two distinct voices and points of view; the right hand being straightforward while the left is more forceful and demanding. The fourth is fuelled with drive and energy before the orchestral transition foreshadows the darkness to come in Variation V. Here the rhapsodic minor utterings—replete with foreboding tympani strokes—recall the far more serious moments as hell is approached in the opera.
To relieve that stress, the concluding Alla Polacca puts an invigorating new set of clothes on Mozart’s music, tempting the ear with rhythmic and harmonic excursions that might have surprised the Viennese composer, but he most certainly would have been given an artistic thumbs up!
From a compositional point of view, the least successful offering of the three is Rimsky-Korsakov’s 14-minute Piano Concerto in C-sharp Minor. In the opening—with the piano serving more as accompanist than leader—the result feels more like a film score than classical art. Once this Alla Polacca arrives and the protagonist truly takes stage, there is a sense of the dance that the title implies. After a brief transitional cadenza (artfully rendered by Weiss), the calm of the second “movement”—a veritable song without words—tender, heartfelt—becomes the highlight of the work. A brief transition from the piano deftly ushers in the melancholic third frame. Heralding trumpets light up the vigorous finale, where a much drier staccato from the strings would have greatly improved the overall effect. Cadenza II featured Weiss’ unquestionable virtuosity before one and all brought Rimsky-Korsakov’s only piano concerto to a solid conclusion. JWR