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Melcer: Piano Concertos/Plowright

Jed Distler

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Henryk Melcer (1869-1928) loomed large in Warsaw’s musical life in the late-19th and early-20th centuries. A pupil of the legendary Theodor Leschetitsky (who taught Schnabel, Paderewski, Moiseiwitsch, and other such luminaries), Melcer served as artistic director for the Warsaw Opera and Philharmonic Orchestra and taught at the city’s conservatory. Although Melcer’s compositional output was not large, his two award-winning concertos from the 1890s gained popularity. Henry Wood conducted the E minor concerto in 1911 and declared the work “quite worth hearing once.” That’s generous praise. Barely an original idea peers through its foursquare phrase structure, academic harmonic vocabulary, and generic melodies. Still, a few unusual features deserve mention, such as the first movement’s declamatory octaves from out of nowhere (about 6:51 into the movement), and the lovely woodwind scoring at the Finale’s outset.

Happily, the C minor yields far more inventive results on Melcer’s part. The first movement features muscular call-and-response sequences that pit the soloist’s block chords against those of the orchestra–imagine a Slavic rewrite of the Brahms D minor concerto’s first movement. In the central Andante, Melcer gets effective mileage from a simple repeated-note theme accompanied by a leisurely chordal procession. However, the composer pulls out his creative trump card for a whirling and fiery Finale.

Both concertos previously have been recorded, but not to the exacting and scintillating standards set here. Indeed, you could take accurate dictation from Christoph König’s direction and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra’s pointed, supremely balanced execution. Jonathan Plowright commands the ways and means to obtain maximum character and musicality from Melcer’s thankless double notes, taxing interlocking octaves, and less than grateful leaps. At the same time, his large portfolio of articulations and pedalings ennoble the composer’s slower, more lyrical pages. Hyperion’s engineering and annotations measure up to this series’ finest. Take or leave the First concerto, but the Second, to paraphrase our friend Sir Henry, is “quite worth hearing”–and more than just once. [3/4/2008]

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Recording Details:

Reference Recording: This one

HENRYK MELCER - Piano Concerto No. 1 in E minor; Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor

    Soloists: Jonathan Plowright (piano)

  • Record Label: Hyperion - 67630
  • Medium: CD

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