SKROWACZEWSKI: Concerto Nicolò for Piano
Left Hand and Orchestra. Concerto for Orchestra.
Gary Graffman, pianist; Minnesota Orch/Stanislaw Skrowaczewski, cond.
REFERENCE RECORDINGS RR 103CD (F) (DDD) TT: 58:14
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At 81, Skrowaczewski continues to reveal a high degree of expertise not
only as a conductor but, at his best, as a composer. And his best, at least
that I know of, is the Concerto Nicolò for Piano Left Hand and
Orchestra on this sumptuous, Keith-Johnson-recorded CD from Minneapolis.
He composed it in 2002 (presumably, since the notes don’t tell us) for Gary Graffman,
who gave the premiere in February 2003 at Reading, Pennsylvania, with the
composer conducting the Curtis Symphony. Graffman has been the Curtis’ director
since 1986, where Skrowaczewski is a frequent guest with the Institute’s
orchestra. Like his contemporary, Leon Fleischer, Graffman developed a
physical condition that disabled his right hand. And so, for more than
20 years, like Paul Wittgenstein who lost his right-arm in WW-1, Graffman
has been commissioning left-hand concertos – so far from Ned Rorem,
Richard Danielpour and William Bolcom among several others. Skrowaczewski’s
is the most recent, and I’ll risk a wager the best to date.
Although based on the same 24th Paganini Caprice for solo violin
that Brahms, Liszt and Rachmaninov used in works of widely different character,
used the theme only as a point of departure (more or less as Albert Ginastera
had done in his Violin Concerto), not as a basis of form.” Cast in
four movements, the new concerto begins Lento: Languido, then continues
with a Largo: Come improvvisazione, poco rubato. The “scherzo” is
marked Presto tenebroso, with another cadenza (the first comes in the opening
Largo), that simply fades into silence before a fanfare launches the finale,
marked Moderato although there’s a Largo breather before the work
concludes Presto with “echoes” of the theme. Lavishly
scored but never overbearingly, it fairly glitters, with an undercurrent
of diablerie that Graffman and the orchestra exploit to the fullest. The concerto is
a tonal work, both chromatic and diatonic but spicily dissonant, especially
the writing for an enlarged percussion section. And it holds up under repeated
playings, as the concerto does that Ravel wrote nearly 75 years ago for
The Concerto for Orchestra was composed on commission in 1986 “to
commemorate the first decade of the Minneapolis Orchestra Hall,” which
Skrowaczewski opened during his 19 years as music director of the Minnesota
Orchestra (1960-79). He intended to “give every member of the orchestra
a chance to participate,” but a dozen years later “came to
feel he had been a little too indulgent...and that the work had consequently
suffered in respect both to its structure and its substance.” He
did not abandon the idea of a showcase, however – his command of
orchestral colors remains intact – nor the second of its two movements
as a tribute to “Anton Bruckner’s Heavenly journey.” That
journey, though,. marked Adagio, does not quote from the Austrian
master. What he attempted to do was honor Bruckner’s spirit, although
the movement (at 18:31) lacks trajectory despite its dedicatory reverence
managerial expertise. The opening movement is likewise marked Adagio,
but also Misterioso – perhaps too much of a good thing despite
an eloquent performance and superb recorded sound.
But there is that diabolic Concerto that everyone, Graffman especially
so, plays keep-worthily.
Let me commend Concerto Nicolò unreservedly to
lay-listeners and connoisseurs alike.
R.D. (April 2004)