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Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971)

Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra

Presto – Andante rapsodico – Allegro capriccioso ma tempo giusto

Stravinsky was no mean pianist, and the Capriccio which he began at the end of 1928 and completed the following September was composed for himself to play on concert tours. He gave the first performance on 6 December 1929 in Paris with Ernest Ansermet conducting. The score was revised in 1949, mainly to correct errors.

In adopting the title Capriccio the composer had in mind its definition by Michael Praetorius (1571-1621) as synonymous with the fantasia, a free form, and he constructed the work by juxtaposing episodes of various kinds. He thought Weber’s piano sonatas might have exerted a spell while he was writing it, and although one should not expect this music to sound like anything but Stravinsky one might recognise Weber’s influence in the lightness and brilliance of the piano writing. Another influence is that of Bach, and the orchestra contains, as might a baroque concerto grosso, a concertino quartet of violin, viola, cello and double-bass separated from the other strings. The violins are not divided into firsts and seconds. The three movements are directed to be played without breaks.

Quick rising scales on the full strings contrasted with a slow descent by the concertino group make an introduction and coda to frame the first movement. The main body of this movement is a sort of moto perpetuo, at least from the pianist’s point of view. Variants of the introduction’s scales are added, then the key changes from G minor to G major for a passage with piano and flutes in partnership. A short episode for clarinet, bassoon, horn and piano marks the mid-point of the movement, after which an elaborated reprise of the G minor music leads to the coda.

Stravinsky was fond of the cimbalom (the dulcimer much used in Hungary and Romania) and kept one in Paris. He gave up writing for it because good players were hard to find, but he conceived some of the piano part in the slow movement of the Capriccio in cimbalom style. The principal F minor theme given out by the woodwind calls Bach’s arias to mind, the piano supplying an obbligato. A new theme is introduced by the soloist in the F major middle section. Then the first is recapitulated and a cimbalom-type cadenza (Stravinsky called it ‘a kind of Romanian restaurant music’) leads to the finale.

This is another moto perpetuo and is remarkable for its zest and wit. The piano succeeds at its third attempt to get the music going, then leads the orchestra to a loud chord which launches the G major Allegro proper. The piano’s lively theme is accompanied by and then exchanged with a closely related one for the orchestra. The development is brilliant, light and rhythmically pointed, and the playfulness is maintained to the end.

Eric Mason

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