Piano Concerto in A Minor, op. 40, P. 40

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            A kernel of truth often lies in a cliché, and that is so for the old saw that through the centuries Italian musical culture has preferred and been more successful in vocal music than instrumental.   There are of course many and notable exceptions, and Ottorino Respighi is a case in point.  After Puccini, it is said, he was the most successful and popular Italian composer of the twentieth century, and his reputation is still rather high, today.   He was a prolific composer, active in most genres, including song and opera, but in this country, at least, his reputation has lain in less than a half dozen works for symphonic orchestra composed in the 1920s. No progressive or modernist, by any means, he nevertheless created a unique musical style in roughly the first quarter of the twentieth century.  He was fundamentally a late romanticist, influenced by Richard Strauss and Rimsky-Korsakov, and his mastery of lush, colorful, virtuoso orchestra textures is—like theirs—complete.  But to this romantic style he integrated a deep interest in the Italian music of the Renaissance and Baroque eras.  It’s an unusual combination of stylistic elements, but his genius in amalgamating them bore fruit in his ever-popular three symphonic suites based upon early lute and viol music:  Ancient Dances and Airs.   Turn on any classical radio station playing Renaissance music scored for large orchestra, and it just screams “Respighi!”

            He was born in Bologna, and early on learned to play violin and viola well, in addition to pursuing his life-long interest in musicology and the music of earlier centuries.  Composition lessons with a well-known composer of instrumental music rounded out his education, and by the age of twenty-four he had spent a couple of seasons playing viola in the Russian Imperial Orchestra in St. Petersburg.  While in Russia he studied for a while with the master of orchestration, Rimsky-Korsakov.  He composed from that time prolifically, finally moving to Rome, where he spent the greater part of his life its conservatory.  He was the toast of his country in his maturity, achieving widespread respect and popularity both there and abroad.  He maintained his integrity, both musically and politically—he was a favorite of Mussolini, but made no effort at all to ingratiate himself, nor engage with Fascist cultural politics.  He was working on his last opera, when he died young at fifty-five in 1936.          

            The Piano Concerto in A Minor is a youthful work, composed in 1902, when he was only twenty-two years of age.   For most of the last century it languished in some obscurity, but of late it is enjoying a modest revival, and is an ingratiating example of  Respighi’s early style.  The work bears considerable evidence of the influence of his Russian experience in its romantic grandiloquence, lush orchestral textures, and innate lyricism.   It’s not a very long composition, and generally reflective of Respighi’s fundamental orientation towards rhapsodic musical gestures, rather than to the conservative side of nineteenth-century musical language.  In other words, he’s not a disciple of Brahms.  Consequently, there’s less emphasis on clear, traditional formal structures and working through one’s ideas.  That said, Respighi does pull the concerto together with a unity wrought by motifs repeated from one movement to another.

            The flamboyance of Respighi’s Lisztian side is pellucidly clear throughout the first movement.  It begins with a sustained low E in the basses, serving as foundation for an impassioned, cadenza-like opening.  Punctuated by the full orchestra, the piano finally arrives at the main key, opened by the woodwinds.  A little three-note serves as the putative theme—one which will surface later almost everywhere--but cascading scales and elaborate pianisms characteristic of Liszt (especially the parallel sixths) carry all forward.  The writing is deft, totally masterful, and the wealth of winsome ideas, colorful orchestration, and general exuberance more than compensates for the somewhat loose formal structure.  The movement concludes peacefully, with the winds quietly intoning the material heard at the beginning.

            A quick modulation takes us seamlessly to the slow movement.  The piano begins with a chorale-like passage, in the modal harmonies so beloved by Respighi from his musicological studies of the past.  You may recognize the same little motive from the very beginning of the concerto—it seems to appear everywhere, over, under, and in the middle of the Lisztian roulades and flourishes—loud and soft.  The movement ends, as it began, with the serene, modal tune in the piano.  And, as with the first movement, woodwinds gently take the tune over; flourishes in the piano embellish them, and we’re done.

            The last movement dances along with a distinct evocation of the kind of sparkling texture of “Orientalism” so characteristic of the operas of his teacher, Rimsky-Korsakov.  It spins along in a charming brilliance, replete with the scales and twists of melody that nineteenth-century romantics imbued—in their imagination—with the East.  Other ideas in the same vein appear in profusion—you’d be hard-pressed, though, to leave the hall whistling most of them, as he zips from one to another with so much alacrity.  The variety of textures is rewarding—there’s even an implied fugato.  The conclusion is announced by the same tune that quietly ended the other movements, now pealed out triumphantly in a fashion so beloved of Rachmaninov, and a quick coda ends it emphatically.  It’s not a great masterpiece, of course, but it is marvelously executed within the scope of what the composer essayed.   The virtuoso pianism is deft, the command of orchestral texture is complete, and the musical ideas are attractive.  All in all, Respighi’s youthful concerto, while it may not match his contemporary Rachmaninov’s efforts, is nevertheless a worthwhile, well-crafted, and diverting example of where his immense musical talent would ultimately take him.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2015 William E. Runyan