Andre Mathieu: Concerto No. 4 / Ballet Scenes / Four Songs for Choir and Orchestra Import
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Andre Mathieu: Concerto No. 4, Orchestral Works
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Born in 1929 in Montreal, André Mathieu, like Mozart, received his first lessons from his father, and was already composing little pieces at the age of four. Also like Mozart, he astonished audiences far and wide with his pianistic prowess from a very young age. When he was 12 years old, his composition, Concertino Op.13 No. 2, won First Prize at the Philharmonic-Symphony Centennial Young Composer's Contest in New York (over Leonard Bernstein's composition), organized by the Philharmonic Society of New York.
He performed it at a Gala concert at Carnegie Hall on February 21, 1942, three days after his 13th birthday.
His fame peaked around 1950. Thereafter he continued to compose, but the world took little notice. He indulged in day-long "pianothons," suffered a disastrous love affair, turned to alcohol, and died in poverty. Mathieu left behind wax recordings completed in private homes and studios of what the solo piano part of his Fourth Piano Concerto should sound like, how he envisioned the orchestral accompaniment to go, what the main and secondary themes should be, and many other ideas for the work. Ultimately, however, he ran out of time. It was left up to conductor and composer Gilles Bellamare to reconstruct, or perhaps create, the concerto from these recordings over the span of a year and a half.
Mathieu conceived of the concerto under the tutelage of Arthur Honegger while studying in Paris, where he moved when he was 17. Its influences are equal parts Romantic and Modern. "I hear it as perhaps a fifth Rachmaninoff concerto with a touch of Prokofieff," Bellamare recounted, "very energetic." Alain Lefèvre, pianistAcclaimed as a "hero" (Los Angeles Times), a "spectacular pianist" (Fanfare), a "smashing performer" (Washington Post), an "artistic winner" (Music Week, London), a "genial talent" (The Gazette), and as "the 10 most agile fingers to have emerged from Quebec..." (Toronto Star), Canadian pianist and composer Alain Lefèvre has a sparkling international career, touring repeatedly world-wide, performing to prestigious venues, in recital and with international orchestras and leading conductors. Having completed over a decade of extraordinary artistic leadership, George Hanson begins his 13th season as Music Director and Conductor of the Tucson Symphony Orchestra in 2008. Critics have noted remarkable artistic growth by the Tucson Symphony Orchestra during George Hanson's tenure as Music Director since 1996, firmly establishing his reputation as an orchestra builder.
In the U.S., Mr. Hanson served as Associate Conductor of the Atlanta Symphony from 1988 to 1993, assisted Kurt Masur at the New York Philharmonic from 1993 to 2000, and was Music Director of the Anchorage Symphony from 1994 to 1999.
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Featuring Mathieu's impressionistic "Scenes De Ballet" (Ballet Scenes) and the Four Songs for Chorus and Orchestra, which bears a similarity to the short works for chorus and orchestra that Brahms had composed a century earlier, this CD from the Canadian label Analekta also contains the composer's lengthy but brilliant 1950 Piano Concerto No. 4 In E Minor, a sweeping piece of 20th century Romanticism if ever there was one (no less an authority than Rachmaninoff himself deemed the young Mathieu in 1939 a genius). The concerto gets an incredible performance here (possibly its world premiere performance, even if the liner notes on the CD don't say for sure) by Canadian pianist Alain Lefevre.
Just as impressive, however, is the performance given by the Tucson Symphony Orchestra under the direction of its music director George Hanson, with the Tucson Symphony Chorus featured in Mathieu's "Four Songs." Here, both orchestra and chorus have made their very first ever recording in their nearly eight decade-long existence. The precision that Hanson and the orchestra, along with the chorus (prepared by Bruce Chamberlain), and Lefevre display here is incredible, doing both Mathieu and the Tucson classical music audience proud.
Tucson has long rightly boasted about being the hometown of one of the great female pop music icons of the last fifty years, Linda Ronstadt. Now, thanks to this recording, this lush desert city in southeastern Arizona can soon boast about find itself on, at the very least, the regional classical music map of America as well.
The fourth piano concerto is a startling work, grand and sweeping. The style is much like late Rachmaninoff. There is struggle to it more than triumph perhaps, but it is the struggle of a giant, and I like it very much. It is very well played by Lefevre and the Tucson Symphony. I'm reluctant to call it a great work, but I think it has great spirit, and I think if you like Rachmaninoff you will be very glad to know it.
So who was André Mathieu? Known as "le petit Mozart canadien", Mathieu was something of a wunderkind, and became known as a composer and pianist relatively early on. His life seems to have been a tragic one, and he died young (of the effects of alcoholism). His music, however, seems to have retained a certain degree of popularity in his native Quebec, and it does indeed contain some good ideas - thoroughly conservative and eclectic, of course, and with a certain lack of formal cohesion (the composer's studies with Honegger did, apparently, not work out very well). Much of it was left in an incomplete state at the composer's death, and Gilles Bellemare and the soloist here, Alain Lefèvre, have apparently done a great deal to piece it together and revive it.
As mentioned, however, the concerto is far from a masterpiece. Lovers of Rachmaninov will like it, and there are undoubtedly some really fine ideas - the last movement, which is the most successful one, even bears repeated listening. The Scènes de ballet are rather impressionistic, but slight and anodyne. The four songs are intermittently charming and atmospheric but frankly rather boring.
The performances are decent but not really more than that. This is the debut recording of the Tucson Symphony, and it certainly sounds like a fine band, but their tone is too thin for the richly opulent scoring of the fourth concerto. Hanson makes some amends for the shortcomings by conducting them with energy and momentum, and Lefévre's piano playing is overall pretty good. The same considerations about opulence apply to the Scenes de ballet - I am not sure adding some richness would really have saved them, but it certainly couldn't have harmed them either. The chorus is fine in the songs, however. To sum up, despite its shortcomings the concerto remains the main reason for obtaining this release, and while its Rachmaninov-and-water style may be enjoyable once, I wouldn't really go out of my way to get to know it. The sound is dry but decently balanced.