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Harmonious Families Volume 4

Piano Concerto No.1

"From Arild" - Piano Concerto
(BVN B29) (c.1937)
Oleg Marshev - Piano
The Danish Philharmonic Orchestra, South Jutland.
Matthias Aeschbacher, conductor
Recorded Musikhuset, Sonderborg November 1999

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The fourth volume of the Harmonious Families series of CDs is simply stunning - at least the first half of it is. I must nail my colours to the mast and state that Siegfried Langgaard's Piano Concerto No. 1 is my discovery of 2001- so far. As for his son Rued's Concerto I have some minor reservations.

I have written much about Rued Langgaard in these pages when I reviewed his symphonic cycle, also released by Danacord - so I will not dwell on his biography or his musical achievement. However Siegfried is an unknown quantity. For some reason he does not merit an entry in the current Grove, although his contribution to Danish musical life was not insignificant. I rely heavily on the programme notes for details of Siegfried's life.

In the mid nineteenth century there was a Norwegian born pianist by the name of Edmund Neupert - a sort of Scandinavian 'Liszt'. He taught piano at the Royal Danish Academy of Music. To aid his teaching he produced a series of virtuosic studies that were seminal in the development of the student pianist techniques. Furthermore, he gave the first performance of the famous Grieg Piano Concerto in A minor in 1868. So it is hardly surprising this piano teacher caused certain stylistic features to be firmly embedded in the young composer's mind. Couple this with the fact that Siegfried was taught theory and composition by Niels W Gade and J.P.E Hartman and we find a composer with a perfect technical and theoretical background for carrying out his vocation. To crown this academic foundation, Langgaard père studied with Franz Liszt himself.

It is sad to note that Siegfried's virtuosic career was never to be. He did not have the temperament for public performance and this led to a nervous disorder. Like many other people who failed to break into the concert hall he turned to teaching. In addition to teaching he produced a small opus of works. And this is the saddest thing of all. We have a wonderful concerto given on this disc - there is a second that has also been produced in a two piano version. There are a few songs and a number of piano solo pieces. Such a small output - such a tragically misplaced talent.

Even on a first listening to this concerto we feel that we are in the presence of a masterpiece. It is everything one could possibly want from a work in this form. It is romantic, virtuosic and beautifully scored. Yet the performance given on this CD is the first time it has been heard by the musical public.

The programme notes suggest that Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto in B flat-minor (1874/75) may have been an inspiration. However, I am not so sure. I accept that this music was quite obviously in the air. However, after listening to many of the concerti released on the wonderful Hyperion Romantic Piano Concerto Series, it is easier to see other sources of inspiration. In many ways this is music ahead of its time. There are Warsaw Concerto moments in here along with Rachmaninovian, 'Brief Encounters'. That, I think is what makes it so good. It is like discovering a new country. Here is a Piano Concerto (my favourite form) that I never knew existed until last week. Yet it is a work that satisfies, excites and moves. There is no doubt in my mind that this is a first rate example of the form. It is on a par with Rachmaninov, Grieg and Tchaikovsky. And that is not just reviewer's hype. I truly believe that if this concerto were to become well known it would become a favourite, in the concert hall, the radio and on CD.

It is impossible to describe the work adequately. I would need to peruse the score. However all the elements of a romantic or late romantic concerto are present. The big chords, the intimate melodies, the arpeggiated bass, the figuration, the struggle to overwhelm the orchestra, the aggression and the tenderness. It is all here and here in plenty.

What more can I say? It is a masterpiece; a work approaching genius.

The Piano Concerto by Rued is a completely different work. The genesis of this piece is convoluted to say the least. In a nutshell we can deduce that the themes are derived from Siegfried's works whilst the formal attributes and the orchestration are quite clearly Rued's. Like much of Rued's music it is actually very difficult to pin it down. The movements are given esoteric titles that in many ways only detract from the listening experience. The movements sport names such as 'Cliffs,' 'Surf' (just like one of the movements from Borresen's Second Symphony. Ed.), 'Starry Skies' and 'Harvest Time.' I think the same applies here as to most of his symphonic works - forget the programme!

Rued was incapable of just writing a piano concerto - or even of knocking a few tunes written by his father into a new concerto. It had to have deep quasi-religious and apocalyptic overtones. The programme notes write, "The piano concerto attempts - in the light of recollection - to reproduce the general feeling of a whole epoch in a musical conglomeration centred on Siegfried's Langgaard's compositions."

It is fair to say that what Rued is doing is writing a reflection of music that was current at the turn of the twentieth century and reinterpreting it in light of developments of the 1930s. Rued Langgaard regarded the turn of the century as having a certain spiritual significance.

It is not appropriate in this short review to attempt an analysis of the movements - it would simply be a crib from the sleeve notes. What we can say is that there is massiveness about this work that is somewhat akin to Busoni's great concerto, which is perhaps just a little too much. As usual, Rued mixes his styles. It is difficult to get to grips with. We are left feeling that it has got us nowhere. Unlike Siegfried's concerto it is not a romantic struggle between soloist and orchestra that is resolved in the soloists favour. It is not that it is bad music - in fact that are some gorgeous moments - however there is a sense of 'bittiness' that pervades the entire work. Yet on the whole it is pretty good stuff. Rued does seem to have a way of handling the piano and the orchestra. In a funny sort of way I like and appreciate it. It makes the ideal coupling.

The pianist, Oleg Marshev takes both of these works very seriously indeed. It would be so easy to make fun of the romantically overblown style of Siegfried's concerto. But he plays it with great feeling. Both the aggression and the tenderness are played with consummate skill. As usual the Danish Philharmonic Orchestra under Matthias Aeschbacher play well. All credit to them in giving two 'first performances' of two very complex works.

The programme notes are excellent, although little bit more information on Siegfried Langgaard would have been helpful.

This is a superb CD - two works, which should have been recorded many years ago. Siegfried's concerto must become better known. All it needs are a few performances with a good soloist and competent orchestra; a few plays of this disc on Radio 3 and Classic FM. This work would then establish itself along with Rach. 2 and Tchaik. 1.

Well-done Danacord!

John France

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