Piano concertos are dramatic affairs performed live, with virtuoso pianist, conductor and orchestra all adding to the visual spectacle taking place on stage. Concertos are rarely run of the mill – too costly for that. Only the best performers will do. And at the moment, mid-pandemic, deprived of live performances of this nature, we have at least the recordings to console ourselves with.
Brazilian pianist, Clélia Iruzun, has released her latest CD of concertos and reading her bio I discover that she has performed thirty different concertos for piano and orchestra all over the world! No mean feat! I am intrigued by her recording of Henrique Oswald’s Concerto in G minor and relish hearing Camille Saint-Saëns’s 5th Concerto in F Major.
Born in 1852, in Rio de Janeiro, Henrique Oswald, is not a composer I had heard of. His G minor Concerto is rooted in the European Romantic tradition however. I was expecting an Ernesto Nazareth composition with plenty of tango-inspired music from the Argentinian dance hall. Not a bit of it. Oswald was of European parentage and left Brazil aged sixteen to study composition in Italy.
In Un poco agitato, the orchestra opens the movement on a grave, restless tone which crescendoes and then surrenders to the piano. Some expansive, explorative piano sequences ensue. Descents and ascents, arpeggios and chromatic scales, around a subject of four notes, repeated over and over. A beautiful romantic, Chopinesque interlude. Some parts could be considered syrupy but Iruzun plays with such natural and true feeling that you only see the beauty. Like Sisyphus, she translates perfectly the eternal climb and the inevitable descent of life.
Adagio which follows, is a gentle lyrical piano with orchestra. A rest from Iruzun’s, earlier pianistic gymnastics in the opening movement . A lullaby or slow dance with Iruzun’s beautiful Debussy-like glissandos.
If you thought the first movement was difficult for Iruzun, the Allegro really showcases her finger dexterity with huge leaps around the piano. She displays both lightness of touch, humour, strength and ability to play dizzyingly fast and gallop along to the finish without coming off her horse.
Saint-Saëns’s Fifth Piano Concerto premiered in Paris in 1896 with the composer at the keyboard. He wrote it when he was sixty years of age after a visit to Egypt. It is an assured, mature work, evoking a long voyage. In The Egyptian, (the other name for this concerto), we are captivated by the sparkling waters. The horns in the orchestral pull us out of our reverie and in Wagnerian fashion call the traveller to adventure. Swirling strings play in the lower register swell up and then fade as waves do. We are carried off into the wide expanse of blue. The more lyrical moments suggest the traveller looking back, perhaps with regret.
For the second movement get ready for the crash of tympani before entering an exotic slow section inspired by a Nubian love song Saint-Saëns heard on the Nile. There are some unusual harmonies and effects. The repartee between orchestra and piano is exquisite and joyous when the crickets chirp in – accomplished by Iruzun pressing her palm on the extreme high keys. I really enjoyed Iruzun’s ‘Spanish Guitar’ playing a loud staccato on piano, followed by a section of beautiful burnished sounding, calm-inducing chords. Lovely writing Saint-Saëns.
Listening to these two concertos has reminded me how lost we can get in large ensemble works and how they make us dream. An electrifying performance by both Iruzun and The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra under Jac Van Steen’s baton. Recommended.
Henrique Oswald: Piano Concerto & Saint-Saëns: Piano Concerto No. 5 ‘Egyptian’, released on https://www.somm-recordings.com on August 21st 2020.