Magazine article Gramophone

Weber's Konzertstuck, in F Minor: Having Long Fallen out of Favour, This Work Is Best Appreciated without Reference to the Story of Its First Hearing Believes Jeremy Nicholas, Who Delves into a Mixed Bag of Recordings and Retrieves Some Real Gems

Magazine article Gramophone

Weber's Konzertstuck, in F Minor: Having Long Fallen out of Favour, This Work Is Best Appreciated without Reference to the Story of Its First Hearing Believes Jeremy Nicholas, Who Delves into a Mixed Bag of Recordings and Retrieves Some Real Gems

Article excerpt

Two eminent commentators of an earlier generation had something to say about Carl Maria von Weber's Konzertstuck. Albert Lockwood, in his Notes on the Literature of the Piano (1940), said: 'The Concertstuck, grand old stand-by that it is, still occasionally makes a brave showing. It is interesting to recall that it was the first piece of its type, and that Mendelssohn was so entranced by it that he copied its form fairly literally in his Capriccio brilliant, Op 22.' (The 12-year-old Mendelssohn almost certainly attended the premiere of Weber's work, and he first played it himself in the same concert at which his Midsummer Night's Dream Overture was premiered.)

In The Literature of the Piano (1950), Ernest Hutcheson, having passed peremptorily over Weber's two piano concertos, finds that although the Konzertstuck is now 'irretrievably hackneyed, [it] long occupied a foremost place in the pianist's repertory and was a necessary part of every ambitious student's education. Much may still be learned from it, for it is a model of bravura style and a historical landmark.'

Indeed it is. With Spohr's Violin Concerto No 8 ('in Form einer Gesangszene') of 1816, Weber's Konzertstuck Op 79 is one of the earliest examples of a continuous concerto design. Later, Mendelssohn, Schumann and, most successfully, Liszt developed the concept. But this 'grand old stand-by' has now been stood down, no longer 'irretrievably hackneyed' for it has fully fallen out of favour. Look no further than its history at the BBC Proms a regular visitor from the early years until the 1940s but not invited back for the past quarter of a century.

THE KONZERTSTUCK'S STRUCTURE

A brief road map of the work, then. It is a fantasia in four continuous movements (560 bars) linked by short transitional passages: 1. Larghetto affetuoso in F minor; 2. Allegro passionato in F minor, after which five plaintive adagio bars from the solo bassoon lead directly to 3. a march in C major for the orchestra (except for a solitary glissando of the soloist); this, too, subsides, followed after a sinister drum roll by a 21-bar piano solo (piu mosso) marked con molto agitazione, ending in a topmost E trill (jf), launching into 4. finale in F major, Presto giojoso (con molto fuoco e leggierezza).

It began as a projected third piano concerto, which we first learn of in a letter dated March 1815 from Weber to a friend: 'A sort of story has taken hold of me. It will serve to link the movements together and determine their character in detail, as it were, dramatically.' But Weber was hesitant about the concept of what we now call programme music, conveying emotional states and writing imitative tone-painting. He set the piece aside and did not return to it for six years.

Resuming work on it in February 1821, he eventually completed the Konzertstuck on June 18, the day on which he was due to conduct the premiere of Der Freischutz. That very morning he played through the Konzertstuck for his wife and his young German pupil Julius Benedict. As he played, Weber provided a commentary on the music which Benedict noted down from memory afterwards: a lady longing for the return of her Crusader husband, summoning fearful visions of his death in battle, hearing the triumphant army return to be safely reunited with her love. This would suggest that Weber had relented over giving his music a specific programme, but he never published this pianistic scena or gave it his public approval.

Personally, I think it a pity that this revolutionary work has become so attached to this second-hand narrative. It detracts from Weber's achievement. The Konzertstikk is best appreciated without reference to it, relished as a proto-Romantic creation, the link between the piano concertos of Beethoven and those of Moscheles, Chopin, Mendelssohn and Liszt.

THE ESSENCE OF WEBER

Before we embark on our trawl through the available recordings, it is worth recalling what Lockwood had to say about playing Weber's piano music in general, thoughts that should be borne in mind when it comes to the most successful accounts of his Op 79: 'Pianists who want to enjoy Weber must be in the mood to welcome gaiety, even frivolity, and willing to be amused with obsolete elegancies and polished manners . …

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