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Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Concert Review: The Forgotten Legend

The Orchestra of St. Luke's celebrates André Mathieu.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
The young master: André Mathieu at the Steinway.
Child prodigies populate the history of classical music. From the early works of Mozart to the precocious teenage operas of Erich Wolfgang Korngold, the names are legendary, and have become part of the genre's mythology. On Tuesday night, the Orchestra of St. Luke's and pianist Alain Lefèvre shed light on another prodigy: the Canadian composer André Mathieu. The occasion: a concert at Carnegie Hall, under the baton of Buffalo Philharmonic music director JoAnn Falletta.

By all accounts, Mathieu's gifts were astonishing. Born in 1929, he was playing piano at 4 years old. He gave his first recital at the age of six, and premiered his First Piano Concertino a year later. In 1942, he played Carnegie Hall, giving New Yorkers the chance to hear his Concertino No. 2. But a promising career as a composer and international soloist was damaged by rink and emotional immaturity. He stopped composing and fell into a downward spiral of drink and disease. He died in 1968.

This Carnegie Hall concert, given to celebrate the 70th anniversary of that appearace, opened with a work by another child prodigy: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. However, the Linz Symphony is a mature masterpiece, one of the six final Mozart symphonies that stand as a crowning achievement of the composer's career. It's hard to believe that the composer, working under the pressure of a sudden commission, banged it out in just four days.

Although this concert marked Ms. Falletta's debut leading this orchestra, the Mozart symphony clearly belonged to the Luke's players. They are skilled musicians who have this music in their blood. This was robust, energetic Mozart, relying not so much on the baton of Ms. Falletta as the skilled concertmaster playing of Krista Bennion Feeney and the rest of the orchestra following her lead. Transparent textures and brisk, busy rhythms made this a refreshing performance, with the warmth and humanism of Mozart's writing rising to the surface.

Then it was Mr. Lefèvre's turn. Mathieu's Concertino is a dazzling work, combining and synthesizing 20th century musical ideas to create a thrilling first movement that compels the listener to swim along a narrow, difficult path of pianistic invention. The crisp, bright writing and technical difficulty recall the early precocity of Shostakovich, and the central slow movement sounds like the best thing Rachmaninoff never wrote. Mr. Lefèvre played the solo part with clarity, commitment and force.

The Concerto No. 4 has an even more complex, troubled history than that of its creator. The work presented last night is in fact a reconstruction, built from the recordings of Mathieu himself, working out the solo part and demanding accompaniment on a collection of wax recordings. Working from these, composer and musicologist Gilles Bellamare rebuilt and orchestrated the concerto, filling in the gaps with orchestration and cadenzas of his own invention.

The work that stood revealed to the Carnegie Hall audience last night was in face a lost treasure. The bold opening movement is built around a repeated ostinato figure, a fateful call-and-response between piano and orchestra with the tutti answering more and more complicated ideas from the soloist until eventually allowing the solo instrument to win the day. Of particular musical interest: the writing for low strings, with the double basses in the unusual position of leading the musical charge against the overwhelming flood of notes pouring forth from the piano.

Following a dazzling cadenza (a Bellamare addition to the score) a strange coda serves almost as a second movement: a muffled, funereal march that is a grim statement of purpose. The actual second movement, a long serene Andante is much more tranquil, with piano and orchestra blending together and coming apart in a long, almost operatic aria of concordance. That insistent descending figure is still present.

These first two movements pave the way for the stunning third, a pell-mell ride through a sonic fun house of different musical styles. This was bold, edgy writing which relied on the firm hands of Mr. Lefèvre to stay on course, as the solo piano burst forth in eructations of sound that recalled Prokofiev, Shostakovich, and even the edgier harmonies of Scriabin. Following this dazzling set of fireworks, Mr. Lefèvre returned for one encore, a last dazzling example of Mathieu's pianistic invention.
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.