Hyperion Records

Piano Concerto No 2 in D minor, Op 23
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The first major piano concerto written by an American, MacDowell’s D minor is one of the finest and most accomplished works of its kind. It has survived its composer’s dwindling reputation, his only large-scale work to remain in the active repertoire and also his most frequently played work in any form. Though traditional in many respects, it is quite distinctive and, in the words of one writer, with this single work ‘ensured his niche in the gallery of immortals’.

The first movement (‘Larghetto calmato’) opens pp and closes ppp. In between, the music surges ecstatically to a series of crescendos in the best Romantic tradition. The brilliant ‘Presto giocoso’ Scherzo (second movement), sometimes heard separately, was inspired, according to Marian MacDowell, by Ellen Terry’s portrayal of Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing. Immediately after her performance in London, MacDowell dashed home and sketched the movement for two pianos, entitling it originally ‘Benedick’. The third movement (‘Largo – Molto allegro’), unusually in 3/4 time, makes forceful use of the brass section and harks back to themes from the first movement, with MacDowell’s gorgeous melodies and sparkling writing for the soloist providing a thrilling finale.

It was the German-born conductor Theodore Thomas who conducted the New York Philharmonic and the composer in the world premiere of the Second Concerto on 5 March 1889 at Chickering Hall, New York. The Tribune critic, H E Krehbiel, asserted that the concerto ‘must be placed at the head of all works of its kind produced by either a native or adopted citizen of America’ confessing that he ‘derived keener pleasure from the work of the young American than from the experienced and famous Russian’ (Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony had received its New York premiere on the same programme). One of the most notable triumphs of MacDowell’s career was when he played his Second Concerto with the Philharmonic Society of New York on 14 December 1894 under the baton of Anton Seidl when he received ‘a tremendous ovation such as was accorded only to a popular prima donna at the opera, or to a famous virtuoso of international reputation’. The critic Henry T Finck described MacDowell’s playing as of ‘that splendid kind of virtuosity which makes one forget the technique’. The Second Piano Concerto was first recorded by Jesus Maria Sanroma in 1934 with the Boston Pops Orchestra conducted by Arthur Fiedler.

from notes by Jeremy Nicholas © 2001

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