Piano Concerto No.1 in F minor, Op.39
Piano Concerto No.2 in C minor, Op.77
Markus Becker (piano)
BBC National Orchestra of Wales
Recorded 30 June-2 July 2010 in BBC Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff
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Think Widor, think Toccata, think weddings. Thus posterity has judged Charles-Marie Widor (1844-1937): not even a one-work composer, for that Toccata (a striking creation, which the composer recorded) is from a larger work, the Fifth Symphony for Organ (Opus 42). Perhaps better to be remembered by a single hit than be completely forgotten. Yet, even more than one-hundred years on from the most-recent work here, both of Widor’s piano concertos are only now recorded.
Hyperion’s “The Romantic Piano Concerto” series here reaches Volume 55 and does so with musical distinction. Lyon-born Widor – organist at Saint-Suplice (Paris) for over six decades, and a considerable player – left us much music in various genres: if these concertos are typical of his neglected output, then we really should be given the chance to hear some more.
Widor’s Piano Concerto No.1 (1876) is full of individuality; true, it makes no claims to innovation, but within its traditional three-movement format there is nothing predictable about the invention. One appreciates the cut of the themes, the integrity between piano and orchestra, that the roulades of notes are part of the design rather than an excuse for virtuosity and – most of all – that Widor expresses himself with gentleness and restraint, saving more demonstrative passages as points of focus. He also has concision on his side: the engaging 11-minute first movement is over in a flash and spins lightly along. The slow movement, marked Andante religioso, is a darker and deeper affair; if Saint-Saëns has come to mind in the opening movement, then Chopin and Mendelssohn are now to the fore. These names are for reference only, for Widor clearly walks his own path, and the finale galumphs along delightfully.
In chronological order, and placed next on the disc, is the Fantaisie (1889). This substantial piece (22 minutes in this performance), longer than the subsequent piano concerto, is very fine, at once suggestive and serious as well as inviting. The opening slowness is richly melodious – with certainly a nod to César Franck, maybe Liszt too – setting the scene and the motifs that will be used with freedom to confirm the ‘fantasy’ billing, and not without quickness and a soupcon of drama. That events unfold quirkily is in-keeping with the carte blanche of the title. The conclusion – after a brass-laden, cymbal-clashing, piano-as-hero peroration – is a short-burst sprint. Whatever visions have been our dreams, we are now awake!
Piano Concerto No.2 (1905), like its predecessor, is in three movements, now shorter ones packed with imagery and mood-swings – the opening Allegro con moto patetico is turbulent, the central Andante operatic, fraught at its mid-point and somewhat relieved by Lesley Hatfield’s violin solo, and the finale is an active if sometimes-surreptitious conclusion to a really intriguing piece.
Throughout, Markus Becker plays with admirable restraint, always shapely and sensitive, and not forcing louder passages, having something in reserve for when a mighty contribution is needed. Thierry Fischer and BBC National Orchestra of Wales offer sympathetic support. In the airy and lively Hoddinott Hall acoustic (the venue is named after composer Alun Hoddinott) there are times when the orchestra seems a little subservient, even a little recessed – the piano is not too close however – although details are clearly registered, right down to a quietly pinging triangle. In short here are three very enjoyable and likeable works – the Second Piano Concerto being particularly fascinating – that are commendably presented.