Oxymoron for Orchestra

When is a concerto not a concerto? We’re all familiar with the term when it implies a soloist in a tug-of-tunes display, riding atop a generally subservient orchestra; and works such as the Brahms Double Concerto and the Beethoven Triple are a self-explanatory extension of that arrangement. The Baroque concerto grosso also neatly reflects the notion of a group of soloists being to the fore of the accompaniment. But the title ‘Concerto for Orchestra’ seems self-contradictory at first sight: who accompanies whom, and who gets to strut their stuff? It’s a convenient vehicle, of course, for proving the mettle of those very fine players who opt for a career in an orchestral seat rather than in the soloist’s spotlight, and the audience gets to hear a variety of virtuoso displays for the price of one.

bela-bartokPerhaps the Concerto for Orchestra that gets programmed the most is that by Bartók (8.571201). When I first heard the work in my youth, I had a problem with the second movement, usually called The Game of Pairs, which never sounded fun enough to warrant the title. Bartók was a stickler for correct tempi: he would be seen at the back of a rehearsal room, stopwatch in hand, checking that his speed indications were being precisely observed; and people who perform his music will have seen specific bar numbers carrying a time indication such as 1′ 15”. If you get there in 1′ 20”, you’ve failed to clinch Bartók’s intentions. It was George Solti who discovered the reason for my feeling of malaise with The Game of Pairs during a recording session for the work:

George-Solti“When preparing … for the recording I was determined that the tempi should be exactly as Bartók wrote and this led me to some extraordinary discoveries, chief of which was in the second movement. The printed score gives crotchet equals 74, which is extremely slow, but I thought that I must follow what it says. When we rehearsed I could see that the musicians didn’t like it at all and in the break the side drum player (who starts the movement with a solo) came to me and said “Maestro, my part is marked crotchet equals 94”, which I thought must be a mistake, since none of the other parts have a tempo marking. The only way to check was to locate the manuscript and through the courtesy of the Library of Congress in Washington we obtained a copy of the relevant page, which not only clearly showed crotchet equals 94, but a tempo marking of “Allegro scherzando” (the printed score gives “Allegretto scherzando”). I was most excited by this, because it becomes a quite different piece … I have no doubt that thousands of performances, including my own up to now, have been given at the wrong speed!”

Let’s hear an extract taken at that more satisfactory, upbeat tempo.

Many other composers have written a Concerto for Orchestra, and it’s a pity that they’re generally overshadowed by the public’s familiarity only with the Bartók work. So, today we’ll dip into several of these, hopefully whetting your appetite to hear more if you’re not already familiar with them.

Gian-Francesco-MalipieroIn October last year, Naxos released the world première recording of Concerti (Concertos) (8.573291) by the Italian composer Gian Francesco Malipiero. Written in 1931, its nine movements form a highly imaginative and diverse suite of miniature concertos for different instrumental sections of the orchestra. Here’s the opening of the ruminative eighth movement, Concerto of Double Basses.

joan-towerAmerican composer Joan Tower’s Concerto for Orchestra (8.559328) features instruments in solos, pairs and sections, requiring not only precision and virtuosity from the individual players, but also from the ensemble in its entirety. Here’s an extract from the first movement; the disc from which the recording is taken won three GRAMMY awards in 2008, for Best Classical Album, Best Orchestral Performance and Best Classical Contemporary Composition—a virtuoso feat in itself!

leonard-bernsteinLeonard Bernstein wrote his Concerto for Orchestra, Jubilee Games (8.559100) in 1986 to mark the 50thanniversary of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. The innovative first movement, Free-Style Events, involves a greater degree of improvisation than in any other Bernstein piece, and quotes the Old Testament, from Leviticus, in which Moses says:

“And Thou shalt number seven Sabbaths of years unto thee, seven times seven years. shall be unto thee forty times nine years. And ye shall hallow the fiftieth year, and proclaim Liberty throughout the land.”

Orchestral players underscore the significance of the number seven (‘sheva’ in Hebrew) by whispering or shouting the number seven times. Later, an exclamation of ‘hamishim’ (fifty) is followed by fanfare signals from the brass, imitating the motifs prescribed to the shofar, the traditional ram’s horn used to mark the fiftieth year as a holy year. Several of these fanfares are heard on pre-recorded tapes. Here’s the opening of the work.

You can find a number of further examples in the Naxos catalogue of a Concerto for Orchestra, including those by Hindemith (9.81113), Casella (8.573004) and Shchedrin, who wrote several (8.553038 and 8.572405). Let’s finish, however, with that by Witold Lutosławski (8.553779), composed between 1950 and 1954 and scored for large orchestra. Here’s the brilliant closing section of the work.

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