• Peter Dickinson
  • Piano Concerto (1984)

  • Novello & Co Ltd (World)

Commissioned by the Cheltenham Festival

  • 3(2pic)33(bcl)3(cbn)4.3.2+btbn.14perc2hp.pf.celstr
  • piano
  • 24 min

Programme Note

The Piano Concerto is dedicated to Howard Shelley and was commissioned by the Cheltenham Festival with funds from South West Arts. The first performance was given on July 22, 1984, at Cheltenham Town Hall, with the Philharmonia Orchestra under Edward Downes, and relayed on BBC Radio 3. On January 21, 1986, Howard Shelley made a BBC recording of the work with the BBC Symphony Orchestra under David Atherton and these same performers made a recording on January 30, in Watford Town Hall.

The Piano Concerto is my most extended work since the Organ Concerto (1971) but the single movement layout of both is concentrated. There are virtually no tutties and the soloists are constantly involved as in a large chamber work, but with the dramatic confrontations possible with more performers. These confrontations are sometimes intensified by contrasts in musical style, so that they become momentary epiphanies of the kind used by James Joyce. The principal sections of the Concerto are clearly identifiable:

Adagio - declamatory attacks rising through all registers of the piano, further sustained in the strings and with echoes and resonances elsewhere, gradually subside to a frozen pianissimo solo.
Lento: a theme and variations, with piano cadenza.
- the theme is heard in the horns, a dirge overlaid by other brass as the variations develop. The piano superimposes an increasingly complex cadenza loosely linked to the orchestra which becomes more and more active too.
Adagio - the opening declamations return in the orchestra this time, with aggressive commentary from piano and percussion. A momentary glimpse of D major in the strings leads to the next section in which two types of music are in conflict: these form the second and third main themes of the Concerto.
Quasi Cadenza (with Adagio) - piano has a kind of toccata with a chromatic theme supported by drums (bongos and congas). Against this, in a different tempo entirely, the strings have a blues. The conflict leads to a crisis.
Tranquillo - the blues is now very softly decorated by piano, percussion and celesta. A mini-cadenza leads to a crisis of a different kind - another piano is heard in the orchestra playing a classical rag derived from the Concerto's three main themes.
Moderato - the rag on the upright piano, with its own rhythm section, floats in and out of earshot whilst the orchestra offers comment and interruption. So does the solo piano, by picking out fragments of the rag or distorting its harmony, which finally reaches a low register cadenza, a roaring springboard for the climax of the work.
Molto Allegro - a kind of apotheosis in which the solo piano has the dirge in simplest D minor pitted against an orchestral version of its own earlier theme and variations cadenza. This is all a graded diminuendo and the solo piano also goes through the chromatic toccata theme, now as a cantabile overlaid by percussion and celesta. When this ends the piano states the blues alone in plain D major (absolutely tranquil), but a brief rapid coda returns to end softly on D minor, stated by the brass and confirmed by the piano.

© Peter Dickinson

Stephen Ellis, Fanfare, May/June 2000
‘I am no less enchanted by these concertos…having lived with them for more than 12 years. The Piano Concerto grabs you right away with hammered, rising chords…That is just the first of the concerto’s 13 sections that take listeners through fascinating worlds of sounds and styles. The second section is a piano solo that is soon underscored by dirge-like horns en masse taking the theme through three brief sections of variations. Yet all the while a tension is mounting. But just as a movie-reviewer doesn’t give away the ending I will only tease you with a mention that the rest of the work includes such delights as a piano-and-tuned-percussion duet, commentary by bongo-like soft drums, and at one point an upright piano playing a classical rag. By now you should have the idea: Dickinson is enamoured of the simultaneous presentation of different types of music – what he dubs style-modulation. Sort of Ivesian but not as direct. Dickinson’s Piano Concerto is mostly slow, yet its 24 minutes pass all too quickly for involved ears.

Michael Oliver in Gramophone (1986)
Two of the main preoccupations of Peter Dickinson’s ingenious and entertaining Piano Concerto are the co-existence of ‘popular’ and ‘serious’ musics and the idea of simultaneity, of more than one thing happening at once. Dickinson’s ingenuity lies in the audibility of this demonstration and in the fact that his simultaneous strands can so clearly be heard and distinguished. The sense of perspective, of seeing one music through another (almost literally at one moment when a brief ‘window’ of D major…opens in the midst of another toccata) is very striking, and draws one back for further hearings, for the pleasure of watching this finely crafted orrery of a concerto go through its intricate but lucid rotations.