Magnus Lindberg: EXPO - Piano Concerto No. 2 - Al largo
02 October 2013
I’ve read comments from critics and Lindberg fans alike to the effect that the Finnish composer may be accused of selling out in recent years. His earlier work such as Kraft (1985) was on the cusp of the Scandinavian avant-garde, but recent compositions seem to find him softening his uncompromising modernity for a more crowd-pleasing diatonicism. This probably helped garner his commission from New York Philharmonic Music Director Alan Gilbert who, after all, has to answer to a board like of directors and doesn’t want to explain why seats are empty in the hall. I can certainly believe that concertgoers didn’t stay away because of Lindberg’s offerings and can accept, despite a possible bit of hyperbole, Gilbert’s claim (about the debut of EXPO in 2009) that “With the crack of a whip and a blast of fresh air, a new era has begun for the nation’s oldest orchestra.” For those who think Boulez and Stockhausen are the ne plus ultra of contemporary music, there may be little to admire here. For the rest of us, the current disc should restore some of our faith in the contemporary music scene and provide an hour of gripping music-making from all involved.
If Lindberg’s big (almost thirty minutes) Second Piano Concerto doesn’t enter the repertoire of many big-name pianists, well, I miss my guess, which wouldn’t be the first time. But for me, this is an exciting, almost nonstop display of sheer virtuosity for both the pianist and the orchestra. It’s not entirely easy music to listen to, having the usual thundering dissonances associated with new music, but there are also traditional virtuoso flourishes at the keyboard and even identifiable themes and rich harmonies, some, in the finale at least, almost Rachmaninoff-like. Well, that might be going a little far since any such tendencies in that direction quickly “resolve into a dew” in typical post-modernist fashion. But one thing was obvious to me before I read the liner notes, and that is Lindberg’s references to the Ravel Piano Concerto for the Left Hand. As it turns out, both of Lindberg’s piano concertos “may be characterized as crypto-Ravelian, the first attached to Ravel’s G-major Concerto. . . .” If you’re going to pay tribute to a composer of concertos, you could certainly do worse!
So perhaps I’m not merely imagining that EXPO, the first work Lindberg wrote for the New York Phil, has some Respighian overtones. I hear definite echoes of Respighi’s Fountains of Rome in this work that “refers to exposition as a musical term. . . .” EXPO is concerned with the exposition of two dramatically contrasted musical ideas, one slow and one fast. However, the chief character of the piece is one of driving energy and orchestral color in the manner of the later Impressionists.
Like some of Respighi, I find the brief EXPO a little too brash, maybe even garish, and think there’s more to admire in Al largo, which Lindberg translates as “being at sea.” The work is propelled by a series of fanfares that erupt here and there throughout its length. Like the finale of Debussy’s La mer—Dialogue du vent et de la mer—it presents the sea as protean, constantly on the go, gorgeous and dangerous at the same time. While Al largo supposedly ends with a “quotation from the final bars of Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht (1899) —I’m not sure if there’s a subtle message in that—again, comparison with musical Impressionists makes more sense to me, given the wealth of orchestral color, plus harmonic and rhythmic variety Lindberg brings to his work.
The partnership between the New York Philharmonic and Dacapo, which began with an exciting version of Nielsen’s Second and Third Symphonies, seems likely to produce some really treasurable recordings if the current one is any indication. The performances are brilliant throughout—Bronfman is a wonder of stamina and control—and the live recordings (I noted just one fairly disruptive cough from the audience) are both bright and sumptuous.