Music Post: Inside the concerto


Sergei Rachmaninoff, playing the solo part of one of his own piano concertos.

When a classical music program functions mainly as a sampler – individual movements of works, to expose the listener to as many pieces as possible – it is probably inevitable that one will hear a lot of finales. Finales are full of energy, they are often briefer than some other movements, and for people familiar with the work you avoid the problem of switching to something else “in the middle of a piece.”

But that leads to a certain short-sheeting of inner movements from worthy works, which made it especially enjoyable when, a few years ago, on a program called “The Inner Game of Symphony,” I devoted two hours to inner symphonic movements. I resolved to do it again… and then promptly got sidetracked by other ideas.

This week I focus on the inner movements of concertos. While most symphonies have four movements, most concertos have only three, and the one middle movement is often slow-paced, reflective and less inclined to showmanship than the outer movements. There are, however, enough exceptions to these rules to present a varied program.

A logical place to begin is the middle movement of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21, K. 467, the movement that many people know from its use in the 1785 movie “Elvira Madigan.” That music, in turn, inspired the middle movement of Francis Poulenc’s Concerto for Two Pianos, and we’ll hear that, too.

It will also be fun to play, back to back, the bluesy middle movements of Gershwin’s “Concerto in F” and Ravel’s “Concerto in G.” The latter was something of a response to the former, and it is interesting to note the similarities and differences by two very different composers who had met and liked each other, and each other’s music.

I’ll also play the middle movement of the Piano Concerto No. 4 of Sergei Rachmaninoff, who had attended the premiere of Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” and was a fan of jazz generally. This work came out in 1926, a year after “Concerto in F” and a few years before Ravel began “Concerto in G.”

As a young adult exploring the classics out of order and unguided, I was slow to appreciate Chopin, and hearing his Piano Concerto No. 1 for the first time live, was actually bored with the middle movement… until a moment when the orchestra fell silent and the pianist gently played a tiny solo turn, a wisp of a phrase, offered three times, that I feel to this day is one of the most magical moments in the whole of the classical repertory. I’ll let you hear it and see how it strikes you.

Samuel Barber’s one Piano Concerto has a middle movement that offers the best of Barber: modern, not without dissonance and difficulty, yet surpassingly tuneful and beautiful. Like “Adagio for Strings” Barber himself broke it out to be played on its own in seversal guises.

Which concertos turn the model on its head and place a fast inner movement between two slower ones? Examples including Sergei Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No. 1, which in turn inspired the Viola Concerto of William Walton. I sample the middle movements of both.

I can think of one middle concerto movement that is even more beloved than the “Elvira Madigan” music, and that is the middle of Joaquin Rodrigo’s “Concierto de Aranjuez,” which will be featured after a worthy inner movement from the Piano Concerto No. 2 of Camille Saint-Saens.

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