• John McCabe
  • Piano Concerto No. 3 'Dialogues' (1976)

  • Novello & Co Ltd (World)

Commissioned by Ilan Rogoff

  • 3(pic)33(bcl)3(cbn)4.3.2+btbn.1timp.3perchp.celstr
  • Piano
  • 37 min

Programme Note

PART I: Moderato - Allegro - Intermezzo (Andante) - Vivo Deciso - Moderato
PART II: Andante Flessibile - Allegro Moderato

This concerto was commissioned by the virtuoso pianist, Ilan Rogoff, and first performed by him with Sir Charles Groves and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra at Sir Charles's Farewell Concert in Liverpool, in 1977.

In two previous piano concertos, I have adopted different solutions to the problem of balancing a piano soloist with an orchestra. In the first, their roles are more or less the traditional ones, the soloist's part complete with cadenza. In the second, scored for a smaller orchestra, there is a chamber group of nine players drawn from the orchestra who turn the work into a kind of expanded chamber music in which there is an especially important piano part. In this third concerto I have reverted to the idea of a dominating solo part - indeed, this is done to the extent that the soloist hardly seems to stop playing, so demanding is the solo role in this work.

But this time the basic idea underlying the music is that of a series of dialogues of various kinds. There are, of course, dialogues between soloist and orchestra, sometimes just a soloist or a small group drawn from the orchestra (as, for example, at the start of part Two, where the piano and two horns have a sizeable section together, and then shortly afterwards piano and three clarinets), sometimes the full band. There are also contrasts between harmonies which different instruments or groups keep to themselves - or sometimes there is a kind of tug-of-war between two or three chords. There is also quite a complex rhythmic dialogue in the music. This is heard at its simplest in the scherzo-like Vivo deciso in Part One, where the basic triplet rhythm is interrupted several times by fast duplets in the piano part, but it pervades much of the music and extends to questions of tempo and pulse. This latter is perhaps the most fundamental dialogue in the concerto, for though much of it is written at a fairly slow tempo not all of it sounds as slow as it really is - even in the Allegro moderato which forms the finale of Part Two (and of the whole work), the fast feeling of the string fugato sections which start and punctuate the music is to some extent misleading, for the tempo is not really all that fast, as the brass and woodwind make clear (though it is the piano which has the last word, driving the concerto to a headlong conclusion).

If all this sounds forbidding or too abstract, it must be remembered that composers are always intimately concerned with their own techniques of composition, which is why it is always difficult for them to writ programme notes on their own works - they are too close to the technical side of the composition to be able to stand back and provide a reliable guide to the music for the listener to whom it is unfamiliar. But despite my concern with the technical side of the work, it is the expressive nature of the music that one hopes listeners will find rewarding. It is always tempting to try and explain what one meant by such and such a piece of music, but it is much better for the listener to try and interpret the sounds for himself or herself. If one could "explain" the music in words there would be no reason to write the music - it is the essential nature of music, and its eternal challenge, to be a means of expressing things which cannot be expressed or defined in any other way.
© John McCabe