Notes and Editorial Reviews
This is one of six volumes that represent some of the performing virtuoso-composers of the Romantic tradition who left examples of their art. The notes tell us that each volume attempts stylistically to integrate composers who belonged to the same milieu and who enjoyed professional relationships with each other. In this they succeed.
Medtner was a Russian composer-virtuoso who is best remembered for his expertise as a gifted touring pianist. His conservative brand of neo-Romantic compositions never really caught on and he was always at the edge of musical circles. His 'retrospective' style might well have been in vogue had the clock of time been wound back three decades. His Concerto No. 3, subtitled "Ballade", is divided into three movements, the second being a very short interludium. The concerto provides an unbroken flow across the movements. The Con moto largamento provides a dark opening theme of horns and piano that soon brightens. This theme is heard throughout. The movement builds in intensity supported by virtuoso passages. There is much ebbing and flowing of dynamics during the movement and one is aware of Brahmsian characteristics. An Allegretto section introduces a new theme with an elegant and moving chromatic passage. The Finale (Allegro molto) which opens in E-Minor with a strong rhythm soon begin to echo themes of the first movement (Andante con moto tranquillo). These lead into an E-Major Coda (Maestoso, ma passionato). By the end we find that the concerto has carefully spun out a web of interlocking thematic and harmonic patterns, not altogether evident on a first hearing.
Balakirev was one of the 'Mighty Five' Russian composers (Borodin, Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, and Cesar Cui being the others), He was a lifelong friend of Tchaikovsky. Balakirev introduced 'pan-Slavic' music to Russia by presenting works of Czech composers and bringing in Berlioz to present concerts. It is not surprising, therefore, to find that he has been judged as one of the most forward-looking pianists and composers of his time. However, he started many of his compositions long before they were ever completed.
The Second Piano Concerto was started in 1861 yet by the time of his death (in 1909) only two of its three movements had been completed. Liapunov added its third movement from sketches left by Balakirev; the completed score being published in 1911. The first movement, Allegro non troppo is bright and engaging from the outset. We soon run into a lovely cooing melody, which is both haunting and memorable. There is a feeling of Tchaikovsky about the movement, and with piano flourishes reminiscent of Saint-Saëns. A zither effect from the orchestra is unusual. Well crafted, the Allegro embraces piano and orchestra with meaning. An opening from a rather nasally-inclined bassoon leads into a hymn-style section. The piano enters with rippling harp-like chords set against pulsating woodwind. This opens a dialogue with the orchestra, picked up by the horns. Colour is strengthened with first majestic and later languid passages. The movement then accelerates to a strong close supported by trumpets. The second and final movement is in two sections; an Adagio followed by an Allegro risoluto. A restful pastoral prelude from the wind is supported by echoes from piano and strings, a strong hint of Borodin perhaps. This develops into an idyll backed by shimmering strings before gathering momentum to provide a strong statement and then relaxing again to its previous idyllic theme. A series of chords then act as a bridge to the last fast-flowing section in the style of a Czech folk dance. (This will have been the part composed by Liapunov who, as we see below, has a particular interest in folk settings.)
Liapunov graduated from the Moscow Conservatorium in 1883 where Tchaikovsky had been one of his teachers. A close friend of Balakirev (who was also his mentor) Liapunov wrote his Rhapsody on Ukrainian Themes at the age of 49 when his style of composition was well established. Russian composers often turned to the Ukraine as a source of rich melodic material and Liapunov was no exception.
The work is a single movement of contrasting sections, the principal divisions being marked as Andantino pastorale, Allegretto scherzando and Allegro giocoso.
Sinding, although Norwegian, is a product of the Leipzig Conservatorium. Structurally, Sinding rejected the classical style practised by Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin and Brahms where two themes are introduced in the exposition, and instead followed a style adopted by Mendelssohn, Schumann, and Liszt. He uses thematic material introduced in the opening movement and throughout the work. During his career he found himself in competition with Grieg. This Concerto requires a large orchestra of 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba and 3 kettledrums, here provided by the Berlin Symphony Orchestra. The Allegro non troppo introduces principal themes which are transformed in the middle and closing movements of the concerto. We can hear the influence of Wagner, particularly the principal idea of the opening movement with a heroic quality that relates to a subsidiary theme and powerful conclusion. An Andante follows which to me is not particularly memorable and lacks a certain degree of focus. The closing movement, Allegro non assai restores the excitement of the opening movement and leads its themes to a strong conclusion. This is a powerful and majestic work.
Goetz (sometimes written Götz) was born in the same year as Tchaikovsky yet was over-shadowed by the more influential German composers like Liszt, Strauss and Wagner during his short life. After studying at the Stern Conservatorium, Berlin he moved to Switzerland in 1863 to take up an organ post. He became a fine pianist, organist, a conductor and critic, but from 1873 onwards devoted his time exclusively to composing. This latter period was only to last 3 years before he died prematurely from a long-standing illness of tuberculosis. His Piano Concerto is the earliest work on this set (1867) and was premièred by Goetz at Basel where it was well received. A fanfare opens the first lengthy movement [20 mins] (Mässig begwet) and is followed by a distinctive short motif which then acts as the main theme. Both the orchestra and piano play on this idea for half the work's duration. At the close of the section there is a cadenza for piano followed by a brief coda. A slow movement follows (Mässig langsam) with some haunting passages provided by woodwind and horns. A hunting call from the brass brings in additional colour, and is picked up by the piano and then other sections of the orchestra and brings the movement to a quiet close. The final movement (Langsam; Lebhaft) commences in languid fashion and leads into a scherzo of catchy rhythm and then picks up the main theme of the opening movement. A very short coda rounds off the piece.
This set (fifth in the series) contains more rarely recorded works of the lesser-known composers who provided a valuable contribution to the development of music through the 19th and 20th Century. The notes give lengthy and useful historical detail about the composers but less about the concertos themselves, and in Balakirev's case nothing until we look under the notes on Liapunov. A number of typographical errors show that this booklet was not adequately proof-read prior to printing.
Michael Ponti and Roland Keller both play with considerable skill and energy, and handle both the powerful and tranquil passages sympathetically. The orchestras play competently under knowledgeable conductors.
The analogue recordings of the '70s are clear with no extraneous noise. They are pleasantly balanced for concerto recording with the piano placed nicely forward on the soundstage. The acoustics are dry and a little reverberation could have emphasised the excellence of the performances. The dynamic range is not as wide as one would normally achieve with digital mastering, but orchestral detail is clear. There is no obvious mismatching between the different venues (their details are not stated).
-- Raymond Walker, MusicWeb International