> MacDowell Piano Concertos [RW]: Classical CD Reviews- Aug 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Edward Alexander MACDOWELL (1860-1908)
Piano Concerto No 1 in A minor, Op.15 (1882)
Maestoso – Allegro con fuoco
Andante tranquillo

Second Modern Suite, Op.14 (1881)
Præludium – Andante maestoso
Phantasie - Tanz

Piano Concerto No 2 in D minor, Op.23 (1885)
Larghetto calmato – Poco passione
Presto giocoso
Largo – Molto allegro

Seta Tanyel (piano), BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra/Martyn Brabbins
Rec. Henry Wood Hall, London, UK. December 2000
The Romantic Piano Series No. 25 full price
HYPERION CDA 67165 [77.10]


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To many MacDowell is remembered for his To a Wild Rose (from the Woodland Sketches) and little else. Yet he composed a few orchestral suites, symphonic poems, as well as numerous piano pieces and songs. They say that MacDowell was America’s first important composer, but Gottschalk (1829-1869) has a far stronger claim to that title. He was among the earliest to use America’s indigenous rhythms and melodies his music, offering a direction which others ignored for nearly half a century.

MacDowell was in essence a European composer and in his music it is rare to find any significant use made of American themes or rhythms. His miniatures, composed after 1895, certainly take their inspiration from the very fields, lakes and forests of the America that MacDowell deeply loved. These are richly melodic compositions produced by a gifted ‘German’. MacDowell has a rightful claim to being 'the first American-born composer to have his works favourably compared with those of his European-born peers'.

Born in New York, from Scottish-Irish descent, he had piano lessons from the age of eight. Amongst his teachers was the great Teresa Carreño (1853-1917), a much-married Venezuelan virtuoso who later became one of the first pianists to include MacDowell's compositions in her programmes. In 1876 he went to Europe to study with Marmontel at the Paris Conservatory where one of his fellow students was Debussy. In Paris, Edward later took lessons from Louis Ehlert (1825-1884), a former pupil of Mendelssohn and Schumann.

Moving to the Hoch Conservatory in Frankfurt his first teachers were Carl Heymann (piano) and Joachim Raff (composition). Raff became a major influence on MacDowell's style, first in the development of his compositional style and second by introducing his pupil to Liszt. The American performed part of Schumann's Quintet in Liszt's presence during a visit to Frankfurt and later played Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No 14 to the composer.

The Piano Concerto No 1 in A minor is dedicated to Franz Liszt. The concerto, so the story goes, was composed in just two weeks. It was Joachim Raff who spurred MacDowell into writing it. Calling on his American pupil one day, he asked MacDowell what work he had in hand. Standing rather in awe of Raff at that time, MacDowell without thinking blurted out that he was working on a concerto (in fact, he had no thought of doing so). Raff asked him to bring the work to him the following Sunday by which time MacDowell had just managed to write the first movement. Evading Raff until the following Sunday - still not finished - he put him off again until the Tuesday by which time he had completed the concerto. Raff was so delighted with the results that he advised his pupil to travel to Weimar and show the work to Liszt. This MacDowell did, playing the work to the great man with Eugen d'Albert, no less, playing the orchestral part at the second piano.

Despite this impressive background, one could hardly regard this first Piano Concerto as a high ranking work, especially when set beside MacDowell's later pieces (someone once said they would give all his sonatas and both concertos for the two pages of To a Wild Rose). Somewhat immature, I find the development is predictable and certain bar groups tend to become repetitious. I agree with the notes that the work is of academic interest but doubt that ‘one can sense the white-hot inspiration in which it was written’.

After the opening maestoso chords (enhanced in a second edition, published in 1910 apparently), the soloist leads off into the fiery Allegro con fuoco (first movement). A gentle, lightly scored Andante tranquillo (second movement) suggests those ideas of simple lyricism that were later to become trademarks of the MacDowell's miniatures and this contrasts considerably with the crude opening movement. The Presto has a strong opening before launching into its virtuoso theme, deftly handled by Seta Tanyel. Changing chromatic moods are found to be punctuated by Dvořákian New World horn chords that lead to a rousing finale. [Interestingly, this Concerto was written 8 years before the more famous New World symphony was performed (1893) so did Dvořák borrow from MacDowell when in America forming his friendship with Herbert? No mention is made of any of this in the notes yet the concertgoers at the time must surely have recognised the similarity.]

The Second Modern Suite, dedicated to Mrs Joachim Raff, follows Liszt’s suggestion to write a series of pieces for solo piano. Many of the six pieces in this second suite were written apparently when commuting between Frankfurt and Darmstadt in order to give lessons. The themes are engaging and convey a number of moods. The Fugue unmistakably echoes Bach (and Raff) whilst the Rhapsodie hints of Brahms and the Scherzo of Schumann.

The Piano Concerto No 2 in D minor opens with the orchestra setting a dreamily tranquil scene before the piano interrupts with a short passage recognisable as similar to the ‘Warsaw concerto’. An enjoyable love theme later runs through the first movement. The work wakes up with true inspiration in the second movement with catchy thematic and rhythmic content, and clever orchestration. It provides an opportunity for good virtuosity and Tanyel rises to the occasion. It is understandable that this movement is sometimes played as a separate piece. The third movement moves to a sombre mood and back to the opening ‘Warsaw’ theme. Eventually it gathers strength to bring the piece to a rousing crescendo before relaxing into a dreamy passage. Energy gathers again for a spectacular finale.

The recording is first class with an exciting resonant bass lift to the piano’s lower octave, providing additional depth to the instrument. The piano is not placed too forward to drown orchestral detail and their excellent playing. Brabbins handles the orchestra sensitively and provides a good degree of colour. [I am not too sure why Hyperion have placed an 8 second playout spacer at the end of track 12.] Interesting and lengthy notes are given on the composer, but little is mentioned about MacDowell’s ideas in planning the pieces, which would have been useful to know about. The notes are provided in English, French and German.

Raymond J Walker

See also review by Rob Barnett


Hyperion Romantic Piano Concerto Series

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