• Hugh Wood
  • Piano Concerto (1991)

  • Chester Music Ltd (World)

Commissioned by the BBC

  • 2.2.2+Ebcl.2/2211/timp.3perc/hp/str
  • piano
  • 25 min

Programme Note

1. Vigoroso
2. Adagio mesto
3. Moltt vivace

Hugh Wood’s third solo concerto - his first for piano - was composed between 1989 and the early summer of this year. Superficially it looks and sounds like a conventional three-movement concerto: sonata-allegro first movement with a double exposition, variation slow movement, quick dance finale. But that description, though (I hope) accurate, masks many individual and a few curious features, some if not all of which the alert listener will at once spot.

The concerto was written for tonight’s soloist, Joanna McGregor, who as well as being a brilliant pianist is also herself a gifted composer and a former pupil of Wood’s at Cambridge University. The composer said he wanted to put something of her personality into the concerto. Its liveliness and energy (‘brash and extrovert’, Wood has called it) reflect her platform presence and her athletic technique, while contrasting slow movement, along with the more lyrical movements in outer, absorb her talents as a jazz pianist while at the same time perhaps casting a softer and more intimate light on her personality. But do the compositional subtleties and ironies (in the concerto) link these apparently very different manners also help colour in the portrait of a pianist who is a highly trained and literate composer? The question is hard for anyone but the composer to answer, since the contrast is fundamental to his own creative personality, and the links have been forged in work after work down the years.

The core of the whole concerto, both physically and emotionally, is the central set of variations on, as it transpires, Sweet Lorraine (the Burwell song popularised in the 1950s by Nat King Cole), which materialises in the course of the movement but whose implied piano style radiates backwards into the first movement and forwards into the last. It is typical of Wood that this whole lament of the music emerges gradually and at first hesitantly from material which, on the face of it, is diametrically opposite in character, lineament and technique.

The first movement opens (like, for example, Beethoven’s Fourth and Rahkmaninov’s Second concerts) with a series of piano solo chords, after which the orchestra launches into a vigorously rhythmic but neither jazzy nor popularistic exposition, based on a wide-arching twelve-note string melody accompanied by loud repeated quaver chords. It is this rather abrasive music (crystallising eventually into a crisp samba rhythm) which it is the task of Sweet Lorraine to tame.
But the process is cleverly abetted by Wood’s quasi-Classical form which, true to type, follows the main piano entry with an exposition repeat including a new cantabile theme (piano solo) that neatly straddles the divide (if it is a divide) between academic serialism and that kind of what one might call late-night pianism which we nearly all secretly wish we could master which Joanna MacGregor plainly has.

One other point about the first movement. The twelve-note basis is clear (in the score at least). But it is very Woodish that the serialism conceals opposed personalities: on the one hand Webern (perhaps via Stravinsky’s Agon) in the huge violin leaps, which turn out ot be stepwise chromatic lines blasted into widely-spaced orbits; on the other hand Berg, who like to redesign his note-rows into cycles of fifths and whole-tone scales. The background fifths can be heard in the wind accompaniment to the violins, and they become increasingly important (as harmony and melody) as the music heads for Lorraine. With them comes a harmonic expectancy not present at the start of the work, though the harmonic material is not strictly new.

The slow movement also has an introduction for solo piano, this time more ornate. The music then moves straight into what Woods calls Variation I, though its effect, for the time being, is of the basic choral sequence of a chaconne, which is increasingly fleshed out to the point where, in Variation V, the source melody appears with disarming candour on a solo trombone (‘very slightly swung’). Later (Variation VII) the piano has a fuller version of the tune-, and here, in the score – in his Symphony.

The listener need not stretch either ears or imagination too much to feel a connection between the chaconne chord sequence and the merging harmonies of the first movement. But it also points towards the rondo-like finale, a movement which audibly synthesises the contrasting aspects of its two predecessors. In movement rhythm and figuration it reverts to the first movement. But its harmonic world is closer to that of a second. The piano alternates a spiky theme derived from the first movement note row and salvos of chords in simple triads, left and right hands; there is a brief duo for piano and muted trumpet, with harmonies derived from the chaconne, and a misteriso episode with bongos and a smoother theme riding in whole-tone triplets, discreetly borrowed from Sweet Lorraine. But these connections are not laboured, even if they do have the last word.

Listen

Piano Concerto, Op. 31: I. Vigoroso
Piano Concerto, Op. 31: II. Adagio mesto
Piano Concerto, Op. 31: III. Molto vivace

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