No-one has done more to spread the word about Quebec composer André Mathieu (1929-1968) than pianist Alain Lefèvre. And here he is again with the original version—more or less—of Mathieu’s Concerto No. 3, also known as the Concerto de Québec. Mathieu was just fourteen years old when he composed the piece in 1943. At the time Mathieu was living in New York building his career as a concert pianist. The new concerto was to be a vehicle to show off both his performance and compositional talents. The score went through many transformations including as part of the sound track for the film La Forteresse (Whispering City) as arranged and orchestrated by Giuseppe Antonini. Thirty years later the concerto was once again revised and rearranged by Marc Bélanger for a recording by Philippe Entremont. In 2003 Alain Lefèvre made some revisions himself and recorded it with the Quebec Symphony (Analekta AN2 9814). Five years after that Georges Nicholson discovered the original autograph score of the concerto. Unfortunately, this original version was scored only for two pianos. But Lefèvre asked Jacques Marchand to score it for full orchestra, and this is the version that is featured on this new CD from Analekta.
Mathieu’s Concerto No. 3 is very much a showpiece for a virtuoso pianist. One can only imagine what the 14-year-old Mathieu would have done with his own music but in Lefèvre he has a worthy champion. The Québécois pianist tears out of the gate at the beginning of the first movement like a man possessed. It is an exciting opening and when the orchestra makes its first entry a little later the excitement builds even further to some glorious climaxes. This is music written in the late Romantic style with soaring melodies and impassioned tunes all over the place. The young Mathieu shows no indication that he had heard Stravinsky or Bartók, let alone Schoenberg. Nor was he touched by the American jazz music then sweeping the country and turning the heads of even the most serious composers. Structurally, Mathieu’s concerto doesn’t hang together very well. The first movement does not have much thematic development and in the last movement, the juxtaposition of a jaunty opening tune with a portentous Lisztian melody is not very convincing. The second movement has moments of great beauty but it overstays its welcome.
Nonetheless, Mathieu’s Piano Concerto No. 3 is an accessible crowd-pleaser of a piece and is an important piece of the puzzle as far as André Mathieu is concerned. He was one of the most gifted musicians ever produced in Canada and both his life and his music remain too little known. Let’s hope Alain Lefèvre continues his voyage of rediscovery in all matters Mathieu.
Some listeners might think it odd that the first recording of an obscure piece by an all-but-forgotten Quebec composer should be coupled on a CD with one of the most popular pieces ever written by an American composer. Yet the pairing is not only curious but interesting. For example, both Mathieu and Gershwin were child prodigy pianist-composers, both lived in the same era, and each man suffered the same fate of dying far before his time, at the age of 38 or 39: Gershwin died of a brain tumour at the height of his considerable fame, while Mathieu suffered through alcoholism and a broken marriage in his later years and never came close to fulfilling his youthful promise.
JoAnn Falletta has been doing excellent work with the Buffalo Philharmonic in the concert hall and on recordings. Their most recent recording together featured the music of Czech composer Vítězslav Novak (1870-1949) and excellent performances of In the Tatra Mountains Op. 26 and the little-known but impressive Lady Godiva Overture Op. 41 (Naxos 8.573683). Gershwin’s An American in Paris has not suffered from lack of performances or recordings but this newest version is lush and lively and probably as good as any available.
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