On the CDs issued from 1993 to 2000 there are some 140 works, movements
and pieces of piano music. It is fair to say that all of them are of
interest to the piano specialist. What is even more important is that
there is so much here that would be attractive to any lover of piano
music. There is little that would be regarded as esoteric- perhaps the
'In a Landscape' by the late John Cage may fit this bill, but then again
this work is not necessarily typical. Most of the music would be classified
as romantic. All of it is approachable; some of it requires more effort
to listen to and understand than the rest. As a testament to a great
idea it is a fine recording achievement. The list of composers represented
is huge and diverse - from George Gershwin to Herman Goetz; from Scriabin
to Stephen Sondheim. Every CD is an adventure of discovery. I thought
I had a good grasp of the literature for the piano, but there are dozens
of works here that I have never heard before or were just names to me.
Composers have written music that seems to belie their normal style;
there are pianists who have composed their own arrangements and transcriptions
of other men's music. There are composers from most of Europe and America.
There are known names such as Debussy, Brahms and Chopin. There are
'cult' figures represented such as Astor Piazzolla and John Cage. There
are composers known only to the cognoscenti - Eugene d'Albert, from
the Gorbals in Glasgow, George Catoire, and Sergei Liapunov. And of
course there are names that are hardly remembered except to a very few
enthusiasts and specialists - Alfred Grunfeld and perhaps Friedrich
Hollaender. This is truly an eclectic selection of music.
And the pianists are a wide-ranging bunch to. A glance at the list
of pieces and their players shows the huge range of talent called upon
by the festival organisers. It seems disingenuous to single out any
names. What I can say is that nothing I have heard on this cycle of
discs is less than perfect - a very high accolade indeed.
The Husum Sonatas.
One of the great pleasures of this series of festival recordings is
the performance of rare piano sonatas. In fact there are some that I
have never had the pleasure of listening to before and one I never knew
existed. The Sonata in E minor by Vincent d'Indy is a case in point.
This composer is probably best know for his 'Symphony on a French Mountaineer's
Song' and perhaps his Variations on Istar. Yet d'Indy, who was born
in 1851 was a prolific composer; including a number of operas, two symphonies
and a number of chamber works in his catalogue.
The programme notes points out that the 'big' piano sonata is not a
feature of late nineteenth and twentieth century French music; it notes
Dukas' essay in Eb and Charles Alkan's Grande Sonata of 1847. So in
some ways d'Indy's work really is a rarity. It was composed in 1907
and has all the hallmarks of the composer's style that relied heavily
on Wagner's Ring Cycle and the works of the Belgian Cesar Frank. It
is not the place to do a full analysis of this fine work, save to point
out that it is in three movements, sounds extremely complex, the score
often using three staves, and having many internal cross references.
It is a highly chromatic work and often makes use of seemingly artificial
scales. Naturally Marie-Catherine Girod brings her considerable gifts
to this very attractive and long neglected work. Yet somehow I think
this sonata will always be the preserve of the enthusiast and that I
suppose is a pity.
However, in spite of the fact that few French piano sonatas have been
composed, we are given the pleasure of hearing the 'fresh and spontaneous'
Sonata in Db by Pierre de Breville. Breville was born in 1861 and studied
with both Cesar Frank and Theodore Dubois. He combined his interest
in composition with a teaching post at the Schola Cantorum and musical
criticism for the Mercure de France. His greatest work appears to have
been the opera, Eros Vainquer. However there are a number of works given
in the reference books including chamber works, church pieces and piano
and organ pieces. He died in 1949.
The present Sonata is an excellent example of de Breville's refined
style. It is not a criticism to point out the stylistic references to
Franck and perhaps Debussy. This is a single movement work lasting a
bit over quarter of an hour, yet into this relatively short time the
composer is able to present a huge variety of interesting and attractive
music. Perhaps it is possible to argue that the composer's style is
a little 'retro' for the sonata's date of 1923? However this is an enjoyable
work and such stylistic references seem hardly to matter. One again
this is a sonata for the specialist, yet it seems pity that music of
such consummate skill should be relegated to the 'hidden' category of
It is good to see the music of Sergei Lyapunov beginning to make an
appearance in the record catalogue. I recently had the pleasure of reviewing
the composer's 1st Symphony and his 2nd Piano Concerto on a Chandos
release [CHAN 9808] An earlier release of piano music recorded by Anthony
Goldstone on Olympia [OCD 688] was well received.
There is an immediate debt to Franz Liszt's Piano Sonata obvious from
even a cursory hearing of this one movement work. Apparently Lyapunov
never met the master, yet the influence and inspiration is clear. The
Russian even produced a further Twelve Transcendental Studies to add
to Liszt's dozen! Lyapunov used the keys that had been ignored by the
Once again it is fair to say that the Liszt Sonata in B minor had a
huge influence on Russian music as a whole. Lyapunov was himself inspired
by this masterpiece even thought it had been written nearly half a century
before. The whole sonata seems to be an echo of it. However, this is
not a criticism - it is lovely to have such a generous compliment to
the Hungarian available to us on disc. It is perhaps Lyapunov's most
ambitious work, if not the longest. It is a single movement work, yet
it is really composed in extended sonata form. There is the usual exposition,
development, recapitulation and coda. Yet somehow the overall effect
is that of a typical four-movement sonata. The composer certainly ties
the whole work together with constant cross-referencing of themes and
This is truly great music that deserves to stand beside the sonata
of the more famous composer. It is a fine tribute to Lyapunov's hero.
And the playing by Nicolas Walker is superb. This is a difficult work
that has great technical demands.
For information about the stupendous Sonata in F# minor by Antonie
Mariotte I am wholly indebted to the excellent sleeve notes provided
by Danacord. I have been unable to find anything about this composer
and his music in my 'usual sources.'
Mariotte was born in Avignon in 1875 and was after education was a
naval officer until 1897. After leaving the navy he studied with Vincent
d'Indy at the Schola Cantorum. He turned his mind towards conducting
and teaching rather than composition. He was conductor of the St Etienne
Orchestra, professor of music at the Lyon and Orleans conservatories
and director of the Opera-comique in Paris. There is even a whiff of
musical scandal associated with Mariotte. He wrote a number of operas,
one of which was called Salome. He was accused of having plagiarized
the more famous version of this story by Richard Strauss. However, it
later turned out that Mariotte had composed his opera before the German!
The Piano Sonata in F# minor is a fine piece of music. Although owing
much to Franck and to d'Indy it is apparently the composer's true voice.
There are echoes of a whole raft of Romantic composers in these pages
- John field, Chopin and perhaps even Ravel in the last movement. Yet
nowhere does this music become pastiche. It stands well in its own right
and like so much music on these CDs deserves to be heard and appreciated
by a wider audience. This is a beautiful work that should be precious
to all those who love the piano and the romantic piano in particular.
I am delighted that Marie Catherine Girod has added this work to her
Anatol Alexandrov is another one of those composers who are well and
truly overshadowed by Rachmaninov and Scriabin. Recently Hyperion has
issued a CD [CDA67328] of music by this long neglected composer. So
it is good that an interest is beginning to be taken in his works. Writer
of operas, film music and a number of songs, it appears that his piano
sonatas are the key to his works. There are some fourteen of them. The
Sonata No.2 Op.12 was composed in 1918. It is quite a short work lasting
some ten minutes and is very much in the style of Scriabin' later sonatas.
However it is clear to see the influence of Nicolas Medtner and Rachmaninov.
The pianist, Yuri Martinov has to cope with considerable technical difficulties
and the writing is always virtusosic. This is music that is interesting
and attractive. It deserves a good and concentrated hearing. This sonata
is not included in the recent Hyperion release.
Perhaps rather unusually there are a number of British pieces of piano
music or at least deriving from the British Commonwealth. More often
than not British music seems to be left out of piano recital programmes,
unless it is one of John Ireland's better-known works.
There are two arrangements of Delius played by Piers Lane. The Prelude
and Duet from Margot La Rouge make interesting and attractive listening.
These two movements were arranged by none other than Maurice Ravel!
The other Delius piece is the Prelude from Act 2 of Irmelin. Florent
Schmidt arranged this and once again it is a perfect fusion of original
These transcriptions contrast well with the two pieces by Stephen Reynolds
- Two Poems in Homage to Delius. These were played at the 1994 festival
by Stephen Hough. They were, according to the composer, written as a
relaxation from the dissonant and experimental music he was composing
at that time. The listener is left wondering which path the composer
would have been better following. They are certainly interesting, romantic
pieces that do justice to both the composer and to Delius.
The 1994 festival also contained the well know Sussex Mummers' Carol
by the Australian Percy Grainger. As with all this unique composer's
music it is a joy and a pleasure to listen to Hamish Milne's rendition
of it. A further gem by Grainger is played with panache in the 1996
festival - In Dahomey ("Cakewalk Smasher") It is in fact a
ragtime piece written by the composer in 1909. However it had to wait
until 1987 before it was published. By Piers Lane's rendition of the
work it was well worth the wait!
Frank Bridge, who wrote much piano music, is represented with one of
his 'Characteristic Pieces - Fragrance' Bridge wrote much 'light' or
'salon' music before the Great War. After the war his muse turned to
a more dissonant and intense style. However, this piece is a fine example
of the earlier efforts. It is well played by Piers Lane and perhaps
invites listeners to explore the Bridge corpus.
Transcriptions and Arrangements
I have never really been a big fan of piano transcription; I do not
know why. I think perhaps that it is something to do with a denial of
originality. There is something more satisfying about an original work.
However, since reviewing a number of discs over the last two years I
have begun to reconsider my thoughts about this particular art. This
is not the place to examine the aesthetics of arrangement and transcription;
suffice to say that I have come to understand that the sheer pianism
of a work, whether original or transcribed from another medium or from
another composer's pen is an end in itself. If these works are enjoyed
rather than picked over with dubious critical tools it will be seen
that there is a great pile of exciting, interesting and technically
competent music that deserves to be played, listened to and understood.
I have come to see that transcription is an art form in its own right
and not just self-indulgent cribbing.
First of all a few definitions: Transcription & Arrangements It
is the translation of a musical work or part of a musical work from
one musical medium into another. To give an example, Franz Liszt's piano
reworking of Schubert's song. Or perhaps Stowkowski's reworking of Bach
Organ music for orchestra. It has a noble lineage. Bach himself indulged
in making arrangements of his own music and that of other composers.
Brahms and Beethoven also made arrangements of their orchestral works.
We must remember however, that a good arrangement or transcription does
not copy note for note and chord for chord, but it tries to adapt the
original music to characteristics of the new instrument. But here lies
the rub. Many arrangers and transcribers have gone over the score. The
original work can disappear under a hail of scales, cascades and to
mix metaphors pianistic pyrotechnics. This perhaps is the semantic difference
between arrangement and transcription. The arrangement preserves as
much of the original effect and detail as possible for the new instrument,
whereas a transcription can be freer and more creative. A moot point
The discs from the Husum Festivals are chock full of piano arrangements
and transcriptions. All of them are well played and most of them are
attractive examples of the genre. It is only possible too consider some
of the highlight and to mention a few other examples. One of Enrique
Perez de Guzman' encores is the piano version of Manuel de Falla's Ritual
Fire Dance from El Amor Brujo. This is quite definitely a warhorse and
a well played one at that. It sounds phenomenally difficult.
Of course it is the transcriptions of Sigismund Thalberg that are almost
defining in the literature of operatic transcription In fact in his
day he was often set up beside Liszt himself as a master of this art.
The 1994 CD gives an excellent performance of his Grande Fantasie sur
des motifs de l'opera 'Don Pasquale' de Donizetti. This is a work that
the composer himself regarded as exceptionally good. It is played to
effect by Marc-Andre Hamlin. The previous year had Thalberg's Fantasy
on Rossini's 'Moses' in the programme. It is nice that these once feted
works are gradually finding their way back into the repertoire.
Of a more modern vintage are the transcriptions by Frederic Meinders
of Gershwin, Harold Arlen and Schubert. These are masterly works in
their own right. The sleeve notes relate that Meinders is a bit of a
showman; he played the Schubert pieces 'replete with tattoos and piercings'
and the Gershwin in 'leathers and studs.'
The 2000 Festival gave us the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy arranged
by Michail Pletnev. This contrast well with same dance transcribed by
Philip Fowke from 1995 that is somewhat lighter hearted.
Slightly more esoteric perhaps but equally enjoyable is the arrangement
by Eusebius Mandyczewski of Brahms organ prelude 'Herzlich tut mich
verlangen.' This piece is now for four hands and is played by Yaara
Tal and Andrea Groethuysen.
What can I say? Look at the listings of works and the pianists at the
top of this review. That seems to say it all. It is the sort of collection
that I am afraid I could not make a selection of one of two discs -
I would have to have the entire series! What we have in this record
of the Husum festival is a conspectus of piano music written over the
last 250 years, with especial emphasis on the romantic. Late nineteenth
and twentieth century composers are best represented.
There are big names and lesser-known composers. But all have composed
music that is attractive, memorable, often exciting, sometimes moving
but always interesting. It is invariably played to perfection. One could
write so much more about the pieces on these discs. But I will leave
you with the selected thought outlined above. These are CDs to be explored
and savoured. Let us hope the festival at Husum continues for many,
many more years.
Magnificent. Essential listening. A whole catalogue of lesser-known
music that deserves to be heard by the musical public. And what is more
all the artists further the cause of these little know works by their
skill and aplomb at the keyboard. Great stuff indeed. Buy the lot!