Concert Review: WSO with Alain Lefevre, Mathieu and Sibelius

by Tom Ingram

I had never heard of Andre Mathieu before I saw that his fourth piano concerto was being programmed opposite Sibelius’s second symphony at a Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra concert. The ridiculous number of honours that were heaped on him in life are like something out of a movie: he composed his first concerto at about five, performed one of his compositions on CBC at 7, won a New York Phil. composition contest at 12, and shortly thereafter performed one of his own works at Carnegie Hall. He was praised by Rachmaninov and compared to Mozart. But before he was twenty, he became disillusioned and fell into alcoholism, and died an early death at 39.

His music was mostly forgotten by then, and remained so until concert pianist Alain Lefevre started a campaign to repopularize Mathieu’s work. It was none other than Lefevre who the WSO brought in to play the fourth concerto. Lefevre played to a house only about a quarter full, a small but dedicated crowd mostly of music students and seventy-year-olds.

The pre-concert interview with Lefevre revealed him as an intelligent and articulate musical thinker (though he had a tendency to get distracted and go off on tangents). His passion for Mathieu’s music was obvious, but even given that, the ferocity with which he began playing the piano was still astounding. The other pianists who have appeared with the WSO this season were Horacio Gutierrez (Rachmaninov 2) and Michael Kim (Beethoven 3)—both excellent performers in their own right, but they were blown out of the water by Alain Lefevre. The man is a pianistic force to be reckoned with anyway, but no one could possibly compete with him playing the finest work of his favourite composer.

The first thing I noticed: Mathieu’s fourth concerto is violent. The key is E minor, and the soft dynamics serve only to emphasize the whiplash transitions to loud moments. This is staggering when you consider the age at which he wrote it (18, according to Wikipedia). The first movement is passionately Romantic, and the comparison to Rachmaninov could not be more apt. The parallels with Mozart are also strong—both composers lived short, tumultuous lives and achieved staggering success at a young age.

Mozart has some pretty frightening, perhaps violent works, too: the G minor symphony (which he wrote during a time of debt and illness) is fraught with nervous tension and contemptuous mockery. His otherwise calm and serene clarinet concerto has some bits that gnaw your soul and make the bottom drop out of your gut. But these pieces were written just before Mozart’s death. Mathieu was still a young man when he put out this tense, dramatic work.

The second thing I noticed: Lefevre’s total commitment to the music. Music teachers, especially for woodwinds, warn us about moving while playing. Some even go so far as to disallow it altogether. But Lefevre lost himself entirely in the music, waving his hand as if conducting when he wasn’t playing, following through his powerful chords with broad gestures. In someone less than wholly committed, this might look silly, and it’s certainly an inefficient way to play, but Lefevre was glorious in his inefficiency, a notion that is entirely Romantic. He mounted the bench in a power-squat, almost as if he was ready to lunge at the keyboard. It looked precarious, but I know better—if you were to climb up and shove him, he wouldn’t miss a note.

Through the gentle caresses, the peaks and valleys, the renewed outburst, Lefevre carried the music with savage passion. And, of course, there was no way that even Sibelius 2 in the second half could measure up. If the house was not even half-full, you would not know it during Lefevre’s bow. We lost what should have been a great Canadian icon when Andre Mathieu died. It’s shameful that he has fallen into such obscurity, but at least he now has a champion. And with a man like Alain Lefevre doing the job, we shouldn’t be surprised if in a few years the name of Andre Mathieu is beloved the whole country over.