CD Number: Reference Recordings RR-103CD
In the age of recorded sound quite a few composers have had the skill (or clout) as conductors to preserve for posterity their own interpretations of their orchestral works. On rare occasions composers have made distinguished recordings of works other than their own (Richard Strauss and Benjamin Britten come to mind), and even more rarely (I can think only of Bernstein and Boulez) an artist has been renowned equally as composer and conductor. On the other side of the ledger are composers who have been famous almost entirely for their conducting, and who have only occasionally been able to commit their own works to disc: e.g., Wilhelm Furtwängler and Jean Martinon in the past, Esa-Pekka Salonen in the present. In their company is Stanislaw Skrowaczewski, Conductor Laureate of the Minnesota Orchestra (he was their leader after Antal Dorati, when they were still the Minneapolis Symphony). He studied under Nadia Boulanger, no less, has received important commissions, and over the years has recorded several of his works with Minnesota and other groups. I have no acquaintance with his earlier music, but can say that the new Reference CD is an exciting accomplishment, offering two major recent works in committed performances, with brilliant sound.
The Concerto Nicolò joins the still-growing list of important compositions for piano left hand. As many readers will know, the pianist Paul Wittgenstein, who lost his right arm in WWI, commissioned left-hand concertos from several of the leading composers of his day. Thanks to him we have Ravel's astoundingly original concerto in one movement, along with such lesser-known but fine works as Prokofiev's Fourth Piano Concerto. In our time, more music has been written for two superb pianists who have been unable to perform with their right hand, Leon Fleischer and Gary Graffman. It is the latter for whom Skrowaczewski wrote the Concerto Nicolò, premiered in 2003 with the Curtis Institute of Music Symphony Orchestra (Graffman is director of the school) and who joins the composer/conductor in Minneapolis for the recording.
Both works on this disc are in an atonal musical idiom that might be traced back to Alban Berg and has some affinity with Skrowaczewski's Polish compatriot Witold Lutoslawski. However, each also has a link to a particular 19th-century composer. The Concerto Nicolò joins the company of works by Liszt, Brahms, Rachmaninoff and quite a few others who have made use of the famous 24th Caprice for violin of Nicolò Paganini. Rather than writing variations, like most of the others, Skrowaczewski uses only the opening segment of Paganini's melody: we hear it from time to time being passed about among the piano and other solo instruments, but for the most part it is inverted and otherwise tossed about in the manner of a fantasia.
In its four movements, played without pause, the Concerto Nicolò is rather a night-piece, with its quiet, mysterious opening, marked Lento: languido (though the music soon becomes agitated and feels more menacing than languid), followed by a moody Largo, a shadowy scherzo marked Presto tenebroso (dark or gloomy), and a finale with ominous, almost violent moments of its own. Making much use of solo woodwinds and pitched percussion (marimba, vibraphone, chimes and timpani, among others) that exchange phrases with the piano, the piece is a haunting nocturnal journey, with plenty of opportunity for left-hand virtuosity.
The two-movement Concerto for Orchestra recorded here is a 1998 revision of a 1986 composition commissioned for the Minnesota Orchestra. According to the composer, quoted in Reference's program notes, the original version was too much of a display piece for every instrument in the orchestra; the revision (premiered, like the piano concerto, by the orchestra of the Curtis Institute) is supposedly leaner and structurally tighter. Without being able to make a comparison, one can say the revised Concerto is still a piece for a grand orchestra, augmented by even more pitched percussion than the piano concerto has: e.g., the boobam (a row of struck sound boxes) and Thai gongs. The shorter first movement, beginning with an Adagio misterioso that leads to a very agitated allegro, often feels nervous, like the Concerto Nicolò,. The second movement is an almost 19-minute adagio, subtitled Anton Bruckners Himmelfahrt (heavenly journey). The piece does not directly quote any Bruckner music, according to the program notes, but rather has an "overall air of serenity" that bespeaks a deep spiritual kinship” with a composer that Skrowaczewski has often performed and recorded. Certainly there are moments of great calm and lovely, delicate sounds, along with episodes of impassioned yearning (or so I hear it) that I could connect with the great adagio of Bruckner's unfinished Ninth Symphony. Still, the restlessness and expressionistic tension of other passages make me think much more of the adagio of Berg's Lulu Suite than anything in the world of Bruckner. In any case, this brooding composition is a fitting companion to the piano concerto.
Reference's sound is absolutely first rate, with clarity, realism and power. Each solo instrument is vivid in timbre and precise in location, and the ensemble passages are forceful. The Minnesotans play passionately for their Emeritus Conductor in performances unlikely to be bettered.