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George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759)
Suite no. 4 (1)
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)

Piano Sonata in c, op. 13 – "Pathétique" (2)
Piano Concerto no. 3 in c, op. 37 (3)
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)

Konzertstück, op. 92 (4)
Modest MUSSORGSKY (1839-1881)

Pictures at an Exhibition (5)
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)

Fantaisie pour piano et orchestre (6)
Eduard Erdmann (pianoforte)
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Arthur Rother (3), Orchester des Reichssenders München/Hans Rosbaud (4), Grosses Orchester Berlin/Hans Rosbaud (6)
Recorded 4th November 1948 (1), 6th January 1953 (2), 17th November 1935 (3), 1943 (4, 6), 17th March 1952 (5), from Bavarian Radio Archives
TAHRA TAH 199-200
[2 CDs: 63’ 40"+64’ 17"]


This set was originally issued as a centenary tribute to Eduard Erdmann (1896-1958) and has since been followed by two more. Volume II (TAH 218/9) is dedicated entirely to Schubert and Volume III (TAH 386/7) has works by Mozart, Schumann and Liszt as well as more Schubert and a further version of the third Beethoven concerto, this time from 1949 with Hans Müller-Kray. Erdmann as a composer can be heard on Danacord DACOCD 389, where Sontraud Speidel plays a Fox-Trot and a Fugue as part of the 1999 Husum Piano Festival. There also seems to be a recording of his Piano Concerto op. 15 (1929) by Jascha Nemtsov and the Philharmonia Hungarica under Isael Yinon but I haven’t been able to trace further details.

‘Yes, but who was he?’ you will be asking by now, and I won’t pretend the name was anything but new to me either. If you look up Erdmann in the Internet you will find more references, at least in English sites, to his great-uncle Johann Eduard, who was a philosopher well-known enough for some of his works to have been translated into English, and Eduard himself was known as the "pianist-philosopher". His cultural interests were certainly wide and he had amassed a library of some 12,000 books by the time of his death. Initially he aimed to be a composer and he continued to compose for most of his life. A short work list is to be found in the booklet, from which it can be seen that such artists as Kulenkampff, Nikisch, Abendroth and Schmidt-Isserstedt performed his music, which includes four symphonies. His compositions were banned by the Nazi regime in 1935 and he also relinquished his teaching post at the Cologne Conservatory for political reasons. However, as can be seen from the dates and locations above, his pianistic career continued to some extent during this time, to be resumed more fully after 1946. His first post-war recital was dedicated to composers who had been banned by the 3rd Reich.

The booklet speaks of Erdmann’s creative relationship with music, but also of his reverential respect for the composers’ indications. It does not really explain why he rather than, say, Schnabel or Fischer, should have been known as the "pianist-philosopher" but a booklet note, even a useful and informative one (which this is) would hardly have the space to develop this argument. The performances themselves seem to suggest not so much a "creative" approach as an intimate knowledge, undemonstratively expressed, of what the music is about.

You wouldn’t expect a 1948 performance of Handel on the piano to be entirely satisfactory to modern ears and I daresay British listeners even then would have expected something more forthright and vigorous. This is Georg Friedrich Händel rather than George Frideric Handel, serious-minded and skilled in counterpoint. We get exactly what is written: the counterpoint is clear, the tempi are sensible (with an occasional tendency to move ahead nervously), all repeats are made, ornaments are limited to the very few actually in the score. The sound is well-rounded and based on a singing legato. No dynamic variations are indicated by Handel so none are made. You will think my praise is developing a sarcastic tone by now since any college student today knows enough about baroque performance practice to tell you that this might be what Handel wrote but it is not what he meant. Well, only partly. The modern obsession with added ornaments, decorated repeats, dotted rhythms and exasperated rubato may be nominally a revival of contemporary baroque practice, but it also contains the seeds of a massively condescending attitude to these poor old composers whose work just isn’t worth hearing as it stands. So just once in a while, let us go to Erdmann for a demonstration that if you just play what Handel wrote, fluently and well, the music is intrinsically good enough to be heard unadorned.

The Beethoven Sonata reveals certain chinks in his pianistic armoury, catching Cortot-like crabs here and there. This doesn’t worry me, but the chugging nature of the accompanying figures in the slow movement does and I cannot honestly say I found much illumination here. In the concerto we can hear two honest musicians putting aside their personal egos and just concentrating on playing the score simply and well. No great illumination, perhaps, but a certain satisfaction. What I most appreciated is the way in which the unflamboyant performance of the first movement cadenza succeeds in absorbing it into the stream of the music rather than standing out as something on its own.

A certain pallor to the sound is a common feature of the first CD even if the recordings cover a period of 18 years. The 1943 recordings under Rosbaud are more strident (a bit like film soundtracks from the same period) but seem to have more life. Or is this Rosbaud’s contribution? It is still possible to appreciate today the sheer pleasure with which the two musicians take up a piece by Schumann which is often held to be less than his best and by their evident faith in it make it shine as it seldom has since. One would say the same of the Debussy, with the proviso that the orchestra is a poor one. Even so, it is a fascinating document. No one would say the piece sounds like Grieg (the charge usually made against this early work); and by painting it in strong rather than evanescent colours the performance brings it surprisingly close to the world of Zemlinsky or Schreker.

Mussorgsky’s "Pictures" are a surprising choice for a "pianist-philosopher". The piano version was still very rare indeed and I suppose he thought people ought to have the chance to hear it (these are all radio broadcasts). I almost wish he hadn’t. Catching crabs is fine if you do it with the divine flair of a Cortot but this is a heavy-fisted mess from the beginning. You can hear in the first "Promenade" his tendency to hurry when in difficulty (the presence of a conductor seems to steady him in the pieces with orchestra) and all the brilliant numbers ("Tuileries", "Ballet of the Chicks", "Limoges", "The Hut on Fowl’s Legs") are seriously under-characterised. Plainly he just wasn’t up to the task. And just to put the tin lid on it, a string breaks fairly early on and, as these things are wont to do, slithers around on top of the other strings, twanging and jangling in the heavy passages with all the musicality of a cheap alarm clock. It must have been hell for him to get through to the end and I cannot imagine why anybody thought Erdmann’s reputation would have been served by resurrecting this performance.

Before making a final judgement on this pianist I would like to hear the other volumes in this series. I have a hunch that his simple, unegotistical dedication could have made an important contribution to the cause of Schubert’s sonatas, which he championed when even Schnabel and Fischer were very selective about them. I would also like to hear some of his compositions. I have the idea that he made a considerable contribution to German cultural life, but that the present album is not enough, on its own, to make it clear to us what that contribution was.

Christopher Howell

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