Concertino for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 15 (1923)

By Peter Laki

Written for the concert The Neoclassical Mirror, performed on Nov 21, 2003 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

Leó Weiner’s career as a composer got off to a brilliant start at the beginning of the twentieth century. His appearance on the scene coincided with the debuts of Bartók and Kodály, but his orientation was different from theirs. His artistic homeland was the world of Beethoven, Mendelssohn, and Brahms, as well as another, perhaps more unlikely favorite: Georges Bizet. Nevertheless, Weiner was open to influences from Hungarian folk music, and found a way of reconciling those influences with his own essentially nineteenth-century outlook. The very specific way in which he had interiorized the romantic tradition made him one of the great chamber-music teachers of the twentieth century. Although not a concert performer himself, he trained generations of performers including Sir Georg Solti, Janos Starker, and many others who credited him with imparting some essential lessons about music and music-making.

The Concertino for Piano has remained a staple in the repertory of many Hungarian pianists, although it is rarely performed outside the country. It was officially dedicated to Ignaz Friedman, the famous Polish virtuoso; but a copy of the two-piano reduction, preserved at the National Library in Budapest, bears a handwritten dedication to Dohnányi—the composer colleague in whom Weiner saw a natural ally, since Dohnányi had also preserved his artistic independence from the new styles of Kodály and Bartók. In fact, it was Dohnányi who played the solo part at the premiere, given at Budapest’s Academy of Music, on March 21, 1926. The same year Friedman performed the work in Stockholm.

The Concertino is in two movements and runs just under twenty minutes in performance. Both movements begin in E minor and end in E major. Weiner ingeniously enriched his basically Chopinesque pianistic idiom by modal turns of a distinctly Hungarian flavor. At first sight, it all seems to be little more than a graceful masquerade, but an early critic felt there was more to the piece: “How much deep, fatefully serious artistic humility lies hidden behind this strainless, superb game; humility towards the material of music, humility toward the laws of harmonies, melodies, rhythms, tone colors and instruments.” And the critic added, “Only he who has devoted his life to searching for the eternal rules of game, who wants to discover the intellectual law of his dreams, desires and passions in the laws of the musical material and nowhere else, can play with the material of music in such a magical manner.”

The second movement is a sparkling rondo with some lyrical episodes and occasional echoes of Hungarian folk music. Its playful tone contrasts effectively with the dreamy romanticism of the first movement.