Americans typically think of wintry weather, like the present cold snap, as coming out of the north. So it seemed an ironic twist that Tuesday night it was fiery music from Canada heating up a Carnegie Hall crowd.
Canadian pianist Alain Lefèvre has championed (and commissioned) music from numerous modern-day composers over his career. Over the last several years he has made a special effort to re-introduce the music of Québécois child prodigy André Mathieu (1929-1968); Lefèvre even collaborated on a 2010 film, L’Enfant prodige: l’incroyable destinée d’André Mathieu, based on Mathieu’s life. Tuesday night he and the Orchestra of St. Luke’s under the direction of guest conductor JoAnn Falletta made a searingly good case for revivifying Mathieu’s oeuvre and reputation.
A quintessential child prodigy, Mathieu also, alas, lived the quintessential child prodigy’s life, a burst of youthful brilliance followed by a sad descent through an unproductive late youth, alcoholism, and an early death. Apparently, much of his music wasn’t adequately codified on paper or recorded, requiring detective work, transcription, and orchestration to make it performable today.
Child prodigy indeed: Mathieu wrote the first two movements of his Concertino No. 2, the first of his works on the program, before he turned six. You read that right: before he turned six. The brief, tense first movement constitutes a firm statement of a remarkable talent. Its insistent chromatics, and the second movement’s repeated fifths in the left hand, remind us that the composer had tiny hands at the time and couldn’t have played an octave. But the second movement shows he didn’t need manual reach to produce music of real beauty. And the larger third movement, written later, in his teens, in itself makes a solid case for the composer as a figure of significant stature in 20th century music. Filled with fury and pianistic color, it features a cadenza and coda that suggest both the angularity of Bartok and the density of Rachmaninoff.
If the preceding discussion of Concertino No. 2 makes you wonder at what age Mathieu must have come up with No. 1, I wonder too. The second half of the program didn’t answer that question. It was occupied by a work of Mathieu’s teen years, the Piano Concerto No. 4. Lyrical passages leavened the first movement’s straightforward attack, which gave way to a swelling romanticism heightened by what sounded (to these ears unfamiliar with the music) an orchestra and pianist locking beautifully together. A thunderous cadenza by Gilles Bellemare, who was responsible for editing and orchestrating the concerto, led to a fiery final section featuring (I think) whirling changes in time signature. The audience, virtually none of whom knew this music, was with-it enough to know that the close of this section was not the end of the concerto, yet nevertheless applauded enthusiastically in one of those welcome moments when an exciting new (or “new”) work induces a crowd to break the reverential quietude typical of classical music concerts.
The orchestra bestowed a warm glow on the yearningly romantic second movement, parts of which felt like they could have come from a top-notch midcentury film score. (I am a big fan of film scores.) An insistent 5/4 rhythmic figure glued the broad, episodic finale together as Lefèvre got his best opportunity yet to display his opulent, crowd-pleasing flair backed up by admirable technique and, in the quieter passages, an austere sensitivity that drew out the music’s emotional complexities.
If the music had more of those emotional complexities than formal structure, that didn’t bother the crowd, including me. Lefèvre’s powerful playing, backed by Falletta’s graceful handling of the orchestra, proved him to be a vivacious and convincing ambassador for Mathieu, of whom, despite his sad life, Canadian music lovers should be duly proud, especially given the thin ranks of Canadian composers. (How many can you think of? And no, Bryan Adams and Alanis Morissette don’t count.) Much credit is also due to Bellemare and everyone else involved in rescuing Mathieu’s music from the obscurity of fuzzy 78s and incomplete or nonexistent scores.
Falletta and the orchestra opened the concert with a solid reading of Mozart’s Symphony No. 36 in C major, the “Linz.” Though not a work of Mozart’s youth, it was an appropriate juxtaposition in a way. Composed over just a few days it’s an excellent demonstration of the preternatural skill and inspiration of that earlier child prodigy. Though interlocking rhythms were a tiny bit shaky now and then, especially in the first two movements – and as for the third movement, I guess I just don’t much care of it – a gracious overall rendering of the finale captured Mozart’s sublime energy, its familiar style settled my ears for the ensuing fireworks out of the north.