TOMAS SVOBODA. PIANO CONCERTOS
Piano Concerto No. 1, op. 71; Piano Concerto No. 2, op 134
Tomas Svoboda (1) & Norman Krieger (2), pianists
Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Neal Gittleman
2001 Artisie 4 1006. TT: 63:00
Svoboda's piano concerti are unequal in length but both have, in addition
to melodic appeal, interesting use of instrumental resources, both that
of the soloist and of the orchestra., wide range of dynamics and tempi,
and tremendous rhythmic excitement. Svoboda's acknowledged early influence
by Martinu particularly shows in the rhythmic-driven momentum of many
Concerto No. 1, from 1974, is in a single, nineteen minute movement.
Thematically, it is in eight sections, each intended to get further and
further away from the piano's principal theme before a return at the end
to the place it started. Svoboda, who strongly believes in the expressive
nature of music, likens this to distant travels to new and exciting
places but in a full circle back to one's homeland. Commissioned by the
Chamber Music Society of Oregon, the scoring is for strings, timpani and
woodwind sextet (not further specified, but my ears tell me this includes
a trumpet.) At the premiere, the entire work was repeated as an encore.
The introduction begins with a bouncy string melody, with woodwind, brass
and timpani before the piano enters. Forceful and vigorous proceedings
yield to an extended section or series of sections featuring the woodwinds,
often staccato, sometimes under flowing string playing, leading to an
interlude for woodwinds alone, notably the bassoon, without the piano
playing at all for about a minute and a half. At almost exactly the
midpoint of the concerto a drumroll initiates a more and more vigorous
momentum and force: presto tempo, pounding dynamics, and bouncy rhythm.
After a change of pace for the cadenza, the conclusion is exciting,
Concerto No. 2 is nearly three quarters of an hour in duration with a
twenty-five minute opening movement, allegro ma non troppo. The short
middle movement is marked lento recitativo and the finale is presto. It
premiered in 1989 with garrick Ohlsson the soloist and Thomas Conlin
conducting the West Virginia Symphony, which commissioned it for its
50th season. Svoboda reports that the work originated in intense and
contrasting feelings centering on a sense of dislocation he experienced
in Frankfurt after his first visit to Czechoslovakia in 21 years. The
piano solo, for Svoboda, represents his response to the hearing of
cathedral bells on that occasion.
Those bells can be heard unmistakenly with the entrance of the piano
after a fiercely stormy and lengthy orchestral introduction lasting close
to three minutes. When proceedings quiet down there is a lyrical melody
for the oboe, but it is mostly the piano we hear until the tempo picks
up. Some of the orchestral accompaniment is particularly interesting:
high woodwinds over prominent basses, quick-step motion over deliberate
pacing by the piano, brass flourishes with drums over emphatic playing
by the soloist, lighter and faster piano against gestures by the strings,
an oboe heard over the timpani, tubular bells adding to the piano's
bell-like tones. Some angular rhythms, snare drums and very loud
dynamics create considerable tension, and the piano returns to the kind
of emphatic sound that marked its first entrance. The second half of
the first movement is mostly fast and loud, a bit of it reminding me
of Bartok. Before the end, though there is some quiet piano and a high
oboe is heard. A final orchestral onslaught gives way at the end to a
very quiet conclusion with, this time, hign notes for a solo violin.
The lento movement begins with a bassoon solo (significant enough for
the soloist, Jennifer Kelley Speck, to be credited on the disc), which
returns. Most of the movement is quiet, slow, meditative: in a word,
lovely. There is some high, shimmering string accompaniment preceeding
an increase in tension and louder playing especially by the piano. After
a third bassoon solo, and soft piano playing, a very quiet clarinet is
heard as the music dies away.
The thirteen-minute presto finale is very vigorous and exciting: fierce,
pounding, thumping rhythms, driving pace, and rushing strings; emphatic,
staccato percussion; loud brass; emphatic playing by the soloist. Yet
this is relieved by some some relaxed, quiet moments: light rapid piano
playing, some legato and some shimmering string passages, a touch of
tinkling percussion, and quiet woodwinds. At one point the piano plays
quietly while accompanied by slow but emphatic drumming. In its turn
the piano is emphatic during what is a thrilling conclusion to the piece.
As these descriptions show, there is tremendous variety in Svoboda's
music, but I never ask myself, where is this change in mood coming from?
The transitions between rising and falling tensions never sound forced.
This is one of the things I want to say about Svoboda's writing.
The performances on this disc are superb. Both soloists have tremendous
power and skill to spare. The orchestra, under Neal Gittleman, whose
performances with the Milwaukee Symphony, where he was Associate and
Resident Conductor for nine years, were much admired by me and others,
plays very well. The tempos are satisfying and always apt.
Copyright 2007 by R. James Tobin
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