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After his success as soloist in his Concerto for Piano and Winds, which he performed nearly 40 times in Europe and America, Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) decided that another piano-orchestra showpiece that he would perform was the order of the day. Having demonstrated his affection for Tchaikovsky by using many of his pieces in the ballet The Fairy’s Kiss in 1928, he thought to extend the Tchaikovskian aura in the new piano work with a generous application of melodiousness, although he confessed that while writing the piece he was thinking of the two composers he called the “Beau Brummels” of music, Weber and Mendelssohn.

Whether or not one hears an association with the composers mentioned is a matter for the individual listening ear, but by almost any reckoning, the Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra (1929) is a curious piece. It is in a traditional three-movement structure but stubbornly skirts any other semblance to the formal conventions of concerto style. It is knotty and technically demanding for the soloist but studiously avoids being an all-out bravura showpiece. Its amalgam of styles revolves around a discernibly vital Stravinskian profile over which one can find superimposed at times Prokofiev’s keyboard motorism, Poulenc’s skittish nonchalance, Saint-Saëns’ effortless busyness, and even a dash of Liszt’s rhapsodic Hungarianism. There is really nothing forbidding about the work. On the contrary, Stravinsky seems to have set about to be utterly charming and appealing, and he achieved this goal smartly. Considering the Capriccio’s attractiveness and its accessibility by way of its middle-of-the-road contemporaneousness, there is no apparent reason for its general neglect by current pianists. Since its local premiere under the composer in 1941, the work has appeared on Philharmonic programs in 1952 and 1982, both times at the Hollywood Bowl, and then in 1988 and 1995 at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, which, come to think of it, isn’t a bad record.

In that the last movement was written first, Stravinsky’s unusual compositional procedure might be blamed for the work’s lack of consistency of stylistic thought and emotional tenor. The piece begins by wringing its hands in despair, concludes by kicking up its heels in boulevardier brashness. Between those points, seemingly unable quite to decide which of the two temperamental roads to follow, it ends by vacillating between them. In fact, the resultant ambiguity is part of the Capriccio’s charm.

The other parts have to do with all manner of ingenuities that are shot through the score, beginning with an introduction that epitomizes the contrasting nature of the work: Three explosive measures, each with horns, whirlwind string scales, timpani, and piano moving from unison Es to forceful Fs, are capped by an emphatic chord in full orchestra. This wake up call is followed by a quiet, expressive phrase in the concertino string quartet. (The string complement is divided into two groups as in a Baroque concerto grosso, one acting as concertino – solo group – the other as ripieno – full ensemble.) The procedure is repeated, with winds taking the quiet phrase the second time. All the while in this introduction the piano is having a trilling time until it begins the movement proper with a percussive idea in the low bass (centering around G/B-flat) that gives rise to myriad adventures in which individual winds particularly are provoked into commentary and benign conflict with the virtuosic keyboard. The feisty activities include a very short section in a faster tempo; toward the end of the movement, the introductory material returns, this time extended to form a pensive coda in which the piano and timpani recall the important G/B-flat interval.

The piano opens the second movement with an at once exotic and arrogant pair of ornate measures, followed by a conciliatory wind passage. Throughout the movement, a toccata-like keyboard texture exploiting repeated notes produces the effect of a cimbalom (a favorite instrument of Hungarian gypsies and one that Stravinsky was fond of). The Hungarian intent seems to be borne out at the end of the movement when Liszt invades the territory and rhapsodizes in his best Hungarian manner. A very unStravinskian moment.

If Hungarian Stravinsky is a surprise, the Parisian one that takes over the last movement is less so in light of the Russian composer’s French sympathies. The music of the Allegro capriccioso winks, smiles, and beguiles, as it anticipates Ravel’s prescription for a concerto, to wit, “[it] should be lighthearted and brilliant, and not aim at profundity or at dramatic effects.”

Orrin Howard, who annotated Los Angeles Philharmonic programs for more than 20 years while serving as Director of Publications and Archives, continues to contribute regularly to the Philharmonic program book.

DETAILS:

Orchestration:
3 flutes (3rd = piccolo), 2 oboes, English horn, 3 clarinets, (2nd = E-flat clarinet, 3rd = bass clarinet), 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, strings, and solo piano.
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: February 13, 1941, with soloist Adele Marcus, Igor Stravinsky conducting.