SKROWACZEWSKI: Concerto Nicolò for Piano Left Hand and Orchestra. Concerto for Orchestra.
Gary Graffman, pianist; Minnesota Orch/Stanislaw Skrowaczewski, cond.

At 81, Skrowaczewski continues to reveal a high degree of expertise not only as a conductor but, at his best, as a composer. And his best, at least that I know of, is the Concerto Nicolò for Piano Left Hand and Orchestra on this sumptuous, Keith-Johnson-recorded CD from Minneapolis. He composed it in 2002 (presumably, since the notes don’t tell us) for Gary Graffman, who gave the premiere in February 2003 at Reading, Pennsylvania, with the composer conducting the Curtis Symphony. Graffman has been the Curtis’ director since 1986, where Skrowaczewski is a frequent guest with the Institute’s orchestra. Like his contemporary, Leon Fleischer, Graffman developed a physical condition that disabled his right hand. And so, for more than 20 years, like Paul Wittgenstein who lost his right-arm in WW-1, Graffman has been commissioning left-hand concertos – so far from Ned Rorem, Richard Danielpour and William Bolcom among several others. Skrowaczewski’s is the most recent, and I’ll risk a wager the best to date.

Although based on the same 24th Paganini Caprice for solo violin that Brahms, Liszt and Rachmaninov used in works of widely different character, Skrowaczewski “has used the theme only as a point of departure (more or less as Albert Ginastera had done in his Violin Concerto), not as a basis of form.” Cast in four movements, the new concerto begins Lento: Languido, then continues with a Largo: Come improvvisazione, poco rubato. The “scherzo” is marked Presto tenebroso, with another cadenza (the first comes in the opening Largo), that simply fades into silence before a fanfare launches the finale, marked Moderato although there’s a Largo breather before the work concludes Presto with “echoes” of the theme. Lavishly scored but never overbearingly, it fairly glitters, with an undercurrent of diablerie that Graffman and the orchestra exploit to the fullest. The concerto is a tonal work, both chromatic and diatonic but spicily dissonant, especially the writing for an enlarged percussion section. And it holds up under repeated playings, as the concerto does that Ravel wrote nearly 75 years ago for Wittgenstein.

The Concerto for Orchestra was composed on commission in 1986 “to commemorate the first decade of the Minneapolis Orchestra Hall,” which Skrowaczewski opened during his 19 years as music director of the Minnesota Orchestra (1960-79). He intended to “give every member of the orchestra a chance to participate,” but a dozen years later “came to feel he had been a little too indulgent...and that the work had consequently suffered in respect both to its structure and its substance.” He did not abandon the idea of a showcase, however – his command of orchestral colors remains intact – nor the second its two movements as a tribute to “Anton Bruckner’s Heavenly journey.” That journey, though. marked Adagio, does not quote from the Austrian master. What he attempted to do was honor Bruckner’s spirit, although the movement (at 18:31) lacks trajectory despite its dedicatory reverence and managerial expertise. The opening movement is likewise marked Adagio, but also Misterioso – perhaps too much of a good thing despite an eloquent performance and superb recorded sound.

But there is that diabolic Concerto that everyone, Graffman especially so, plays keep-worthily. Let me commend Concerto Nicolò unreservedly to lay-listeners and connoisseurs alike.

R.D. (April 2004)