Notes and Editorial Reviews
Symphony in f?. Phantasie Concertante for Piano and Orchestra
Ari Rasilainen, cond; Volker Banfield (pn); Rheinland-Pfalz St PO
CPO 777418 (62:42)
Cpo, a label noted for ferreting out obscure repertoire, has outdone itself this time by digging up not just another female composer—that alone wouldn’t be so rare—but a Croatian one to boot. Heretofore, I don’t think I could have named a single Croatian composer of any gender, but now I can. Short-lived Dora Peja?evi? (1885–1923) was actually born in
Budapest, the daughter of a Croatian father and a Hungarian mother, the Countess Lilla Vay de Vaya, an accomplished pianist and Dora’s first teacher. On her father’s side, Dora was descended from a distinguished noble family in Slavonia, the eastern region of Croatia. In composition, she was largely self-taught, but she did receive some private instruction in Zagreb, Dresden, and Munich. She died at 38 following complications of childbirth.
During her short life, she produced 58 documented works. That number isn’t particularly noteworthy compared to other composers who died even younger and wrote much more, but what is worth mentioning is that like another female composer, the French Louise Farrenc (1804–75), Peja?evi? competed with the boys in the arena of large symphonic, concerted orchestral, and chamber works. In addition to the symphony and concert fantasy on this disc, known and/or published works include a piano concerto, sonatas for piano, violin, and cello, and a piano quintet. During her life, her music was not entirely unknown in the music capitals of Europe; it was heard in Vienna, Munich, Budapest, and Prague.
The works Peja?evi? left behind, to the extent they were acknowledged at all, must have seemed hopelessly outdated by a musical intelligentsia preoccupied with the latest compositional novelties. It’s not just that she embraced a musical vocabulary practically indistinguishable from any number of late 19th-century Romantic composers, but by the time she came to begin her F?-Minor Symphony in 1916, completing it a year later, the era of the big Romantic symphony was on life support, or at least on recuperative leave. Mahler had pretty much seen to that a decade earlier. Last-stand efforts by Rachmaninoff, Sibelius, Franz Schmidt, and a number of others didn’t change the fact that the symphony, as inherited from the 19th century, was about to take on new forms and modes of expression in the 20th.
Peja?evi?’s symphony, like Rachmaninoff’s Second, may have been written in the 20th century, but it belongs to the 19th. It’s your standard-issue four-movement effusively romantic affair—a rich tapestry spun from strands of long-breathed chromatically enhanced melody, luxuriant harmony, and opulent orchestration. It doesn’t seem to be much influenced by the Mahler-Zemlinsky-Schoenberg axis, though perhaps that shouldn’t be a surprise considering the very complex cultural cross-pollination of Croatia’s history by Hungarian, Italian, and even Russian influences. In fact, isolated passages throughout Peja?evi?’s symphony remind me a bit of Glazunov. But there are so many other crosscurrents going on in the score, not least of which is a passage at 7:54 in the first movement that sounds like it escaped from Dukas’s
The Sorcerer’s Apprentice
. But it quickly morphs into something that sounds like it was lifted from Strauss’s
An Alpine Symphony.
If there’s any surprise at all in Peja?evi?’s piece it’s how upbeat and optimistic it sounds for a work ostensibly in a minor key. Her melodies have an almost Italianate character to them in their lithe and graceful manner, and if the title and notes didn’t identify the piece as being in minor, I’d bet the farm it was in major.
The piano Phantasie Concertante came two years after completion of the symphony. In a single movement lasting almost 15 minutes, the piece is a virtuoso vehicle that alternates between Gershwin-like bluesy harmonies and jazzy rhythms on the one hand and keyboard figuration right out of Rachmaninoff on the other. Just listen to the broad, lush melody beginning in the cellos at 6:12 and the florid passagework in the piano weaving around and entwining with it. It could have come from the first movement of Rachmaninoff’s Second Concerto. I hope someone from Hyperion is reading this, because Peja?evi?’s Phantasie and probably her piano concerto as well are ideal candidates for the next volume of the Romantic Piano Concerto series.
When you hear this piece you will wonder how Peja?evi? could have been forgotten. If the climax to the lengthy aforementioned passage doesn’t sweep you away, I can’t think of much else that will. The fact that Peja?evi? could develop, build, and sustain a musical paragraph of such length is evidence in itself that the woman could write circles around many of her peers, male or female.
Pianist Volker Banfield is stunning, as are conductor Ari Rasilainen and his Rheinland-Pfalz State Philharmonic forces. Cpo has done it again. I thought I’d already settled on my annual Want List selections, but this dark horse entry is just going to have to push another pick aside. Urgently recommended.
FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
Works on This Recording
Symphony in F sharp minor, Op. 41 by Dora Pejačević
Rheinland-Pfalz State Philharmonic Orchestra
Phantasie Concertante in D minor, Op. 48 by Dora Pejačević
Volker Banfield (Piano)
Rheinland-Pfalz State Philharmonic Orchestra
Symphony in F sharp minor, Op. 41: I. Andante maestoso - Allegro con moto
Symphony in F sharp minor, Op. 41: II. Andante sostenuto
Symphony in F sharp minor, Op. 41: III. Scherzo: Molto allegro
Symphony in F sharp minor, Op. 41: IV. Allegro appassionato
Phantasie concertante in D minor, Op. 48
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