Orchestration: 2 flutes (2nd = piccolo), 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, percussion (bass drum, cymbals, scraper, snare drum, vibraphone, whip, xylophone), strings, and solo piano. First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: November 26, 1999, with pianist Alicia de Larrocha, Jesús López-Cobos conducting.
As exemplified by this work, composed by Xavier Montsalvatge in 1953 and dedicated to Alicia de Larrocha, a short concerto can be thematically and virtuosically as rich as the more extended and weighty examples of the genre. By the time he wrote the Concierto, Montsalvatge had struck out in more than one compositional direction. In the 1940s capitalizing on his theatrical tendencies and his keen rhythmic sensibility, he became associated with the Goubé-Alexander ballet company and turned out some 20 scores for them. A natural consequence of his absorption in the diverting music for the theatre that he was writing was the evolving of a style that reflected the young French attitudes of Les Six (Milhaud, Honegger, and Poulenc plus three) and also the vital ground-breaking voice of Stravinsky. On the other side of the composer’s ledger were the West Indian works that he produced. Montsalvatge explained that "West Indian musical style, which was itself originally Spanish, exported overseas and then reimported into our country, finds a place at the periphery of our traditions as a new, vague, and evocative manifestation of musical lyricism." Several of his works in the West Indian manner, such as the Cuarteto indiano and particularly the Canciones negras, are ones that have brought Montsalvatge’s name to a relatively substantial public.
Educated at the Barcelona Conservatory, where he received the coveted Pedrell Prize, Montsalvatge remained on an eclectic path before indulging in the serial method of composition. But in whatever style he wrote, the expressive element was for him all-important, and he proceeded on a highly individual and varied course. For example, it is difficult to believe that such a piece as the darkly dramatic Laberinto of 1971, inspired by the labyrinths of the Alhambra in Granada, came from the same pen that created the rhapsodic and romantic Concierto, which is essentially lightweight, a large bagatelle, as it were. But as a showpiece for the piano it exploits the keyboard virtuosity of its dedicatee in much the same manner as a full-blown concerto.
The piece is set on its course by a loud chord from the orchestra that elicits from the piano a harmonically pungent solo that out-Ravels Ravel and touches briefly on Stravinsky. The orchestra eventually takes up the piano’s material and from then onward the many ideas, including a secondary theme that is as lilting as you please, virtually step on each other’s toes. An introspective solo cadenza ending in a dashing downward flurry of notes ignites the orchestra, which, along with the piano, ends the movement with a two-note exclamation point.
The second movement begins with a lengthy, pensive English horn solo that can’t resist a touch of orientalism or a touch of the blues. The piano solo that emerges has the air of serious, navel-gazing improvisation. Then, after a flute comment, the piano renews its French passport briefly before an insistent orchestra takes the piano along on a grand concerto type episode. An extended, rhapsodic cadenza seems Debussy/Ravel/Gershwin-inspired (and are those the familiar opening four notes of the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto slipped slyly into a little descending passage?). The cadenza ends with a series of repeated notes that nudge the xylophone into action and the finale begins. This is a jaunty, exhilarating affair that includes a scintillating piano passage in two very fast contrapuntal voices, some echoes of the first movement, and a very witty and spirited ending that has the piano teasing the orchestra, which responds with one decisive final chord.
Be it genuinely Spanish or not, Montsalvatge’s very attractive Concierto breve has been neglected long enough. Brava, Mme. de Larrocha, for reviving it.
Orrin Howard, who annotated Los Angeles Philharmonic programs for more than 20 years while serving the Orchestra as Director of Publications and Archives, is currently the Philharmonic’s Archives Advisor. He continues to contribute regularly to the Philharmonic program book.