Gabriel Pierné: Piano Concerto in C minor, Op. 12

performed by Jean-Efflam Bavouzet and the BBC Philharmonic under Juan José Mena, or below by Marylene Dosse and the Stuttgart Philharmonic under Matthias Kuntzsch

Henri Constant Gabriel Pierné was born 16 August, 1863 in Metz, in northeast France. His family moved to Paris in (or after) 1871 after the Franco-Prussian war, and he later studied at the Paris Conservatoire, where he studied under people like César Franck and Jules Massenet, among others, and eventually won first prizes for solfège, piano, organ, counterpoint and fugue! He wrote a cantata titled Edith, for which he won the Prix de Rome in 1882. He eventually succeeded César Franck as organist at Sainte-Clotilde Basilica in Paris in the late 1890s.

What an impressive little career so far. You might be wondering, then, how it is you’ve (very likely) never heard his name. Well, there is one very famous thing that he did, an event of which you are surely aware, but still likely not associated with his name: he conducted the world premiere of Stravinsky’s ballet The Firebird, at the Ballets Russes on June 25, 1910, 107 years ago this month. Wikipedia says that he wrote “several operas and choral and symphonic pieces, as well as a good deal of chamber music,” stating that his most famous composition is likely an oratorio called La Croisade des Enfants, based on a book of the same name, apparently. He has a square named after him in Paris, the Gabriel Pierné square.

In his relatively brief (English) article on Wikipedia (I didn’t look at the French one), the piano concerto only gets mention in a list of his orchestral works. The concerto itself, though, does have its own article. It was composed in Paris in 1887, after the composer’s three-year stay in Rome. The recording I have, with the superb Jean-Efflam Bavouzet and the BBC Philharmonic, has liner notes written by Gerald Larner, which are also quoted in the Wiki article. In part, they say:

Dedicated to Marie-Aimée Roger-Miclos, well known as an interpreter of the music of Saint-Saëns, it was modelled on that composer’s already popular Piano Concerto No. 2 in G minor, Op. 22.

Larner and others also suggest it as inspiration for Rachmaninoff’s (far more oft-performed) concertos. He says that:

It is remarkable more for its anticipation of Rachmaninoff, who comes to mind again in the main ‘Allegro deciso,’ not in the first theme but when the piano introduces the splendid E-flat-major melody which is to dominate the middle section of the movement and inspire its broad central climax.”

What praise! Rachmaninoff’s piano concertos are some of the absolute most famous, iconic works in the form, of any generation, whether you like them or not, and I think very few people have considered what the composer’s inspiration or influences might be when he composed them. As unheard as this work is, I too find it somewhat surprising. Was Rachmaninoff aware of this work? Was there a time in which it was regularly gracing concert halls?

It is in three movements, with the central movement marked scherzando, leaving us wondering if there’s a slow movement.

Actually, I should say here that some of Pierné’s work was personally recommended to me by Bavouzet himself. I had the privilege of attending one of his concerts here in Taipei a few years ago, with a stunning performance of an excellent program, made yet more exciting by wonderful encores, one of which I did not know. I had a chance to shake his hand afterward, and asked him, and he seemed pleasantly excited to share, and wrote down the name of the piece:

It was with this outstanding impression of both the composer and the performer that I purchased his recording of the piece, and now finally have a chance to feature it. It is wonderful!

The first movement begins straightaway with the piano, and the orchestra answers quietly. There’s that same kind of towering, ominous nature we hear in Rachmaninoff, that perhaps because of him has perhaps become associated with a ‘Russian’ sound. After a very pregnant pause, the two entities join hands and come to life in a fiery, very satisfying passage. In contrast with that is a softer, sumptuously rich lyrical expression, less brooding, but still of dark blues and grays.

With such a vivid, intense first movement, absolutely captivating, it’s a surprise this work isn’t a mainstay of concert halls. In its only eight minutes, it manages to scratch every piano concerto itch there could be, with crunch and fire, shimmering, extravagant lyricism, beautiful orchestral swells. As we shall see, it’s such a compact little piece, but so full of absolute perfection, it makes my heart melt a little bit. The first movement is pure excitement, but full of contrasts. It’s not empty thrills, but never stops giving us jaw-dropping energy and exquisiteness. It induces chills and gasps by the end of the first movement alone.

Pierné’s pristine writing in the first movement, those broader glimpses of something soft and lyrical, make me want a slow movement, something to explore that particular facet of the glimmering gem we just witnessed, but instead, we have the second and shortest movement, marked scherzando. It’s about half the length of the first movement, which was quite short anyway, but it’s no menacing scherzo. In fact, it’s quite light, playful, even, like children playing in a Parisian park on a warm spring day. There’s a lightness and clarity to the work that shows Pierné can avoid being bogged down in big showy Romantic tunes. The trumpet picks up the piano’s main theme at one point, either muted or offstage, giving a greater sense of openness to this buoyant, bucolic middle movement. In this three-movement form, then, we are without a slow movement, but the scherzo satisfies my desire for an interlude of sorts, some respite from the overwhelming excitement and aggressive Romanticism of the first movement. There’s even a bit of a cadenza toward the end, but it doesn’t culminate in any big fireworks. It’s light, like flowers swaying slightly in a cool, sunny breeze. It ends with a little wink.

But the work is in C minor, and we are reminded of that by the very opening bars of the finale, more virtuosity from the soloist, with suitably rich orchestral accompaniment. Despite the brooding entry, the piano part leads us around to some bouncy, syncopated lines with now vibrant bright blues and oranges from the orchestra that seem more like foregleams of Gershwin rather than Rachmaninoff, almost bluesy.

Ultimately, though, in what seems like a rondo finale, we see Pierné’s finesse at balance. Just when the brooding C minor Romantic piano concerto atmosphere becomes familiar, he throws us something else, like that zingy syncopated theme, but then there’s something else after it, a lyrical echo of the main theme, sweetly, and from afar, always keeping our interest and giving us something new without losing the line of the overall piece. For pure enjoyment, indulgence into that sweeping, gushing, Romantic idiom, this is everything you could ever want.

If you’ve ever been to one of those really fancy multi-course restaurants that have a chef’s tasting, a place where they swap out all your silverware and scrape the table clean before the next course, you will be familiar with the idea of this concerto, I think.

Some chef somewhere, Thomas Keller, maybe, talked about his concept behind plating. He’s surely not the only one to do this, but it makes my point. The portion of each course is just enough that you want one more bite, always erring on the side of not quite enough rather than just enough or too much, before giving the guest something entirely different yet somehow, in the big overall scheme of things, related.

Pierné gives us such a complete, fulfilling, irresistible experience in less than 19 minutes, and by the time the work is over, I’m left satisfied, thrilled, really in awe, but it doesn’t feel compact or small in any way. It packs a hell of a punch, hits its mark, and you should definitely have this piece in your collection, especially considering the Romantic-era piano concerto is such an accessible genre for so many listeners, no matter how (in)experienced. It’s just so good.

And I’d like to thank Mr. Bavouzet for his outstanding recital back a few years ago, his truly superb recordings of the Beethoven piano sonatas (a few of which we discussed a few weeks ago), and for introducing me to the works of Gabriel Pierné. What a stunning find. If you don’t know Bavouzet’s work, go find a piece you like out of what he’s recorded and see if it isn’t wonderful. I’ve still to acquire the rest of his Beethoven sonatas, his reading of the Prokofiev concertos, and some other stuff, but his Debussy and Ravel are also sublime, and also stay tuned for a bit more Bavouzet next week. In the meantime, go learn more about Pierné and Bavouzet, et merci beaucoup pour votre attention. À la prochaine!

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