Commissioned jointly by the New York Philharmonic, the BBC, Radio France and NDR Hamburg; given its world premiere in New York on 1 February 2007 by Yefim Bronfman and the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by the composer, and its European premiere on 30 July 2007 at the BBC Proms by Yefim Bronfman and the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by the composer.
The movement opens with slow, rather solemn music in dotted rhythms scored for string orchestra, three piccolos, low woodwind and percussion. I imagined this music as a modern version of some very formal (imaginary) slow French court dance from the Baroque era.
The piano enters. The first phrases are pensive and tentative, almost as if improvising: the piano is creating its own language and grammar here. Sudden Timpani beats propel the piano into a faster, flickering kind of texture accompanied by the harp and the vibraphone as well as some wind soloists. The Timpani leads again to the next phase, where the harp, two clarinets and two bassoons play a variation of the previous piano music. This is the formal principle throughout the first movement: a continuous variation.
The piano enters. A playful dialogue between the soloist and woodwinds.
Orchestral Interlude I: A machine-like variation of the first piano solo.
The piano enters again. This time the piano line grows out of the orchestra almost imperceptibly. This episode is essentially a variation of the opening slow dance music. The persistent accompaniment figure in the left hand is going to be very important later on.
Orchestral Interlude II: A short passage for low woodwinds. Elegance of very large animals.
Now the pianist joins the solo viola as a duo partner. This music is constructed as a canon. The low woodwinds interrupt the duet suddenly. The little motif in the left hand earlier has grown into grotesque fast music here.
A fantasy on the note D. All movement rotates around the axis of this note.
Orchestral Interlude III: A fast tutti variation of the viola-piano duet.
The piano plays a new variation of the opening solo passage: forte fortissimo, with a grand romantic sweep, accompanied by arpeggios in the strings. This music slows down into a Coda, where the saxophone plays an endless, slow melody. The piano accompanies together with three piccolos. The music relaxes into a peaceful ending.
This movement begins with a piano cadenza, which is virtuosic, but somehow nostalgic in character. The woodwinds and the French horn join one by one, and lead to
Synthetic Folk Music with Artificial Birds I (My working title)
I imagined a post-biological culture, where the cybernetic systems suddenly develop an existential need of folklore. Composing intelligence creates music that somehow relates to an area that long time ago was called the Balkans. All this is accompanied by bird-robots. A Homage to Stanislaw Lem.
A lyrical section follows after the sci-fi nightmare fades away. The piano plays a simple melody against a background of muted string ornaments. A few lonely birdcalls from the distance.
Persistent Timpani beat leads to
Synthetic Folk Music with Artificial Birds II. This time the birds are mostly in the piano part.
The music grows into a tutti section where the full orchestra plays the melody originally heard in the piano a while ago. The piano plays a texture derived from the opening cadenza. After culmination, the movement fades away very quickly.
This is a kind of Rondo, where the recurring idea is not a theme, but a chain of five chords. These chords carry their own scale each, and therefore their own melody (or rather melodic possibilities)
The movement begins with an etude for the left hand, accompanied by a very lightly scored orchestra. A polyrhythmic juxtaposition of three notes against four becomes increasingly important. This virtuosic, kaleidoscopic music takes a breath for the first time when the D pedal point idea from the 1st Movement returns in a different guise.
Fast music returns. The rhythmic patterns become more irregular in this section. We hear constantly new metamorphoses of the five chords in the piano part.
A short lyrical section featuring solo strings continues into the third phase of the Rondo. The polyrhythmic conflict is brought to a crisis. The Timpani and drums restore the pulse violently. An accelerando leads to a virtuosic Coda. At the very end the opening music of the 1st movement returns, triumphantly.
My Piano Concerto is dedicated to my friend Yefim Bronfman, one of the great musicians of our time.
Programme note by Esa-Pekka Salonen
Other comments by Esa-Pekka Salonen on his Piano Concerto:
1. ON PRECEDENT
I think the latest of the “great” piano concertos — I don’t mean their quality, but rather whether they have entered the repertoire — were Stravinsky’s Piano Concerto, Bartók’s Third, and the Ravel piano concertos. Since then few new piano concertos have made it to the circuits. Therefore the successful models are relatively far away, historically speaking, so there is no direct model one can even think of using. In the 1970s and ’80s quite often the solo concerto was treated as some sort of socio-drama, with a formal emphasis on the relationship between the individual and the masses, so to speak. While this approach produced some incredible masterpieces — such as Lutoslawski’s Cello Concerto — I personally find it to be slightly dated at this point. Further, with the piano it is difficult, because of the sheer number of notes that it can play at any one time (as opposed to a violin), so it can be more than one individual. So this sociological metaphor is not very useful. Having said that, obviously my music — as is everyone’s — is influenced by music I have loved and learned.
2. ON THE ROLE OF THE PIANO SOLOIST IN THIS WORK
I was fascinated by the idea of having a completely flexible dynamic between the piano soloist and the ensemble, so that it continuously zooms in and out, very clearly assuming different roles as the piece progresses. The piano is the principal voice, but at times it plays a chamber music role, as a duo partner with a solo instrument from the orchestra; at others the piano becomes a part of the larger ensemble, and at still others it plays completely alone — and everything in between. I was most fascinated with this gradual and smooth transition between different stations.
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