Forgotten Composers, Part 1 : John Field

I recently stumbled across a wonderful Brilliant classics compilation of Field's complete piano concertos--all 7 for only $7.99.  John Field, the Irish composer/pianist, is perhaps best known for inventing the Romantic form of the "nocturne," which Chopin took to greater heights, and of settling in Russia, where he influenced the emerging composer/pianist Mily Balakirev.  But what of his music?  Sadly, he remains more or less a musical footnote; I've heard his music referred to as verbose Chopin--or worse, Chopin without the melodies.  Many critics also cite the truism that, quite often, those who invent forms are not the ones who make them 'stick'--as with Walpole's The Castle of Otranto, perhaps; as the first Gothic novel, it created a new genre out of thin air (almost), but was certainly no match for Mary Shelley or even Ann Radcliffe's novels.  Reflecting on this, it dawned on me that I didn't own a single piece by Field, and certainly couldn't hum--or name--a single one of his melodies.  

For that reason alone, I bought the compilation.  Seven piano concertos is quite an investment; the same cycle runs to 4 cds on the rival Chandos version. So I plunged in with No.1 and listened straight through, not all at once, but over a few evenings.  The result was not at all what I expected.  I assumed I would hear all the quasi-Romantic piano concertos that preceded Chopin and Schumann, with by-the-numbers orchestration and obvious embellishments by the piano.  By the time I finished No.1, I realized that we've all got Field wrong. He's a Romantic by way of Mozart, full of beautiful, heart-on-sleeve melodies without engaging in hair-raising Romantic rhetoric, and indeed, very little drama at all.  Perhaps I should clarify: these concertos are modeled on late Mozart, perhaps the 27th piano concerto, with its grace and nostalgia, or the martial, tuneful 22nd.  There's also a bit of opera in the mix (again, a connection with Mozart), as Field spins out aria after aria for the piano, while the orchestral accompanies with aplomb.  Above all, these concertos are witty--and in this sense, very eighteenth century.  They charm, delight, beguile, but never astonish.  They are works of sensibility--not Romanticism.  Full of beauty, it is beauty reigned in by sense, but less to be civil than to let the more humorous qualities of the music take center stage.  

If you love the Chopin concertos (which owe something to Mozart as well), you will strongly respond to these, since they share Chopin's ethos--but do him one better by masterful orchestration and a real dialogue between piano and orchestra.  Field's melodies pale besides Chopin's, but the melodies are not really the point; the entire composition is the point--he never spins out a melody like a diva belting out an embellished aria.  It all goes together, and it all makes sense.  The movements are quite long as well, with the first movement of each concerto (save the First) clocking in at around 20 minutes.  There may be a bit of similarity between them, but they're all very enjoyable--like a conversation with two witty, young, beautiful friends, who gravitate around the same ideas but express them beautifully.  The slow movements are often nocturne inspired, many of them very brief (No.4's chaste little nocturne is barely 4 minutes), but full of poised introspection.  No romantic fireworks here; just a well-expressed meditation on love, but a love that is destined to be fulfilled (quite unlike the haunting, heart-breaking lament of Chopin's Piano Concerto No.2). The finales are particularly dashing, full of driving rhythms hearkening back to his native Ireland.  No.1's is particularly irresistible. 

The pianist, Paolo Restani, does a wonderful job projecting a 'classical' persona, never too Romantic, but not dry and 'period' either.  He is backed up by a provincial orchestra from Nice that plays beautifully under the reigns of Marco Guidarini.  It's an ideal disc to complement someone who loves both Mozart and Chopin's concertos, and perhaps reveals the missing link between the two. Field is a capable and enjoyable composer, never capable (or aspiring to) great depths, but not all music needs to be Mahler.  You can find the MP3 album on Amazon at this link--I think it's a wonderful bargain and a great introduction to works you will never hear in the concert halls: