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  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    





KARG-ELERT Sigfrid (1877-1933)
Piano Works Vol. 2

Walzerszenen op. 45 (1901), 4 Klavierstücke op. 23 (1903), Aus dem Norden op. 18 (1903), Patina op. 64 (1924), Reisebilder op. 7 (1895)
Ernst Breidenbach (pianoforte)
Recorded at the Akademie für Tonkunst Darmstadt, 9-13.10.2000
CPO 999 711-2
[79.56]

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"Piano tuning: Andreas Berg" it says. I've never seen the piano tuner named before, and since I noticed it (about twenty minutes in) I found myself listening to that aspect almost before all others. How satisfying to hear the big chords warm and round without the jarring trace anywhere of a string vibrating just slightly out of harmony, and what a pleasure to hear an upper register (of which Karg-Elert makes much use) where the notes sing and there is never a suspicion that some have been knocked out of tune. Those who choose their discs according to who tuned the piano can make a bee-line for the nearest shop.

Now, if you get the idea that what I'm working up to is that the piano tuning is the one good thing here, well yes and no. Ernst Breidenbach has what you might call a clean pair of hands. He puts up a splendid digital display in "Solfeggio", from "Patina", and also in the finale of the same cycle. But might the first of these not have been a little lighter? Variety of touch is what seems to be lacking here, that and a singing tone and an ability to separate the voices in the texture by tone-colour. Frankly, my reaction to the first two "Walzerszenen" pieces was of dismay, thinking that such sub-Schumannesque music stood no chance at all with an interpreter unable to evoke Schumanesque fantasy. However, the charmingly Dvorakian no.3 made me prick up my ears even if Breidenbach is sticky and doesn't make the melody sing independently of the harmony. But he does show a very alert rhythmic sense in the delightfully quirky no. 4 that follows. Thereafter the musical level falls, and Breidenbach with it. He rises to the rather nice "Erotik" which opens the op. 23 set, which is just as well since the booklet-note writer remarks that here "the highest degree of empathy and impressionistic passion is required of the interpreter". Really, I think writers should avoid this sort of comment since, if the interpreter doesn't measure up, the listener has had his attention crudely drawn to it. And what a vapid piece the following "Valse Mignonne" is!

The pattern seems to be that Breidenbach is good enough when Karg-Elert is at his best but not able to convince us when he isn't, so what of the music?

Karg-Elert is mostly known by organists for pieces in a romantic vein which sometimes go through patches of almost blues-like harmony. In a very different context, some of these pieces have similarly piquant harmonic moments - the already mentioned no. 4 of "Walzerszenen" ("mit burleskem Humor") and especially the pithy Bourrée from "Patina", which Breidenbach plays with much swing. Karg-Elert actually trained as a pianist and was not even a very good organist, so there is no suspicion of an organist trying to write for piano - even the worst pieces are pianistically effective. I don't know quite what it says about Karg-Elert's development as a composer that the most interesting pieces seem the earliest and the latest. I enjoyed most of "Patina", a quirky visitation of the baroque style written in 1924, and even more the "Reisebilder" of 1895. This is perhaps a more conventionally full-blooded romanticism, but it is well-varied and melodious and brings out the best in Breidenbach.

A mixed bag, then, and I wonder if it is really the best idea to record "complete" works as people tend to do nowadays. Of course it has documentary value, those who are curious can hear pieces of which the scores would not be easy to find even for those who can play them. But what of the musical value? Are not the organisers of this project abrogating their responsibility towards the listener? Do they not have the duty to select the best and give their public something really worthwhile instead of dumping the lot on them and saying, practically, "here it all is, make up your own minds". Another possibility, when dealing with a very uneven composer, is to mix solo pieces with chamber works and songs (Karg-Elert wrote plenty of both) to make a listener-friendly sequence. I recently reviewed a Walford Davies disc (CDLX 7108) which showed what a little imaginative programming can do.

Christopher Howell


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