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Variations – Felicja Blumenthal (piano)
Carl CZERNY (1791-1857)

Variations on a theme by (F.J.) Haydn for piano and orchestra Op 73* [27:12]
Vienna Chamber Orchestra/Helmut Froschauer
Recorded: Vienna. 1968 (Tracks 1-9)
Carl Philipp STAMITZ (1745-1801)

Piano Concerto in F major* [21:33]
Württemberg Chamber Orchestra, Heilbronn/Jörg Faerber
Recorded: Württemberg (Tracks 10-12)
Georg Joseph VOGLER (1749-1814)

Variations on the L’air de "Marlborough s'en va-t-en guerre" for piano and orchestra, (1791)* [22:16]
Prague New Chamber Orchestra/Alberto Zedda
Recorded: Teatro Angelicum, Milan. 1963 (Tracks 13-25)
* World Premier Recordings AAD
BRANA RECORDS BR0024 [71:02]

 

To quote the Brana Records website, www.branarecords.com "Our current focus is on the ... work of the Polish/Brazilian pianist Felicja Blumenthal ... from the 1960s, (she) made a specialty of music outside the regular repertory, particularly from the early 19th century ... She recorded works for piano and orchestra by (Muzio) Clementi, (John) Field, (Leopold) Kozeluch, (Carl) Czerny, (Johann Nepomuk) Hummel, (Ferdinand) Ries and (Ignacy Jan) Paderewski, among others ...".

"Polish/Brazilian?" you may ask, yes. It seems that she emigrated to Brazil in 1942 when conditions in war-torn Poland made staying impossible. She soon became involved with the rich musical life of her new country, most notably the music of Heitor Villa-Lobos whose 5th Piano Concerto is dedicated to her. She died in 1991 in Tel Aviv (on her 83rd birthday) and in 1999 the same city’s International Music Festival was named for her.

After all that, you may ask, "but how well does she play the piano?" The answer is, in a word, magnificently.

Anyone who has studied the piano and gotten to the "intermediate" stage, as I had by my late teens, is probably familiar with the fiendishly difficult études by Carl Czerny. Taught by Beethoven, at 10, and a teacher of Liszt, he was a somewhat pivotal character in the 19th century central European musical scheme of things, his opera (the plural of opus) are catalogued at over 600 and among those previously mentioned piano studies are such daunting titles as "The School of Velocity, Op. 299" which gives some idea of why he has been reviled by so many piano pupils ever since the mid-1850s.

I specifically recall the circumstances under which I acquired and first heard this, and as far as I can tell, the only, recording of the Czerny Variations, Op 73. It was the summer of 1973, I was 19 years old, working in a record store which specialized in classical music and looking for something new and interesting but inexpensive to play that evening at a soirée I was giving for three or four friends. As I searched through the "cut out" (deleted) bin, I came across a record with a hideous yellow and black design on it. The title read "Czerny: Variations on a Theme by Haydn, Op 73" and "Ries: Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, in C sharp minor, Op 55". I immediately recognized the hated Czerny but knew nothing about or by Ries. When I turned the album over and glanced at the timings I was delighted to see that the Variations ran for just over 27 minutes and the Concerto for over 30 minutes! What a bargain I mused, nearly an hour of music for $1.99 (those were the days).

I put the record on as I began serving dinner; and we ate and drank as the music clattered along in the background for nearly six minutes ("Introduction – Adagio, ma non troppo"); it all sounded rather boring. Then there was a break in the banter and it happened, we heard THE THEME; and what tune do you suppose Herr Czerny chose to write his variations on? In the store, I had thought, maybe something like the one chosen by Brahms for his "Haydn Variations", but NOOOOO. The theme is "Gott erhalte den Kaiser" (God protect our Emperor)* later known as "Deutschland über Alles" (Germany over All – the German National Anthem)+. At first, we all looked at each other, as if to say "he’s got to be kidding". One of my guests, who was Jewish, said jokingly that he’d appreciate it if I would make another music selection, but then the piano part really started to get intricate, with lots of runs up and down the keyboard (alla Liszt), as one might expect in a set of variations. By the time we arrived at the four minute plus "Finale" we were all in stitches. The album became one of my favorite "party" records from that day forward. The individual variations are tracked and beautifully re-mastered so it is now possible to program just the most amusing bits (tracks 2-4, 6, 9). To further confuse the matter, Variation 5, which should be designated as track 7 is incorrectly marked as track 2, oops! If you like this piece, Ms. Blumenthal’s performance of Czerny’s Piano Concerto, in A minor, Op 214 is available coupled with the previously mentioned Concerto by Ferdinand Ries (Pupils of Beethoven: Brana Records - BR0005 review).

Carl Stamitz’s Piano Concerto in F major is his only surviving keyboard concerto and is not often listed among his works. Stamitz favored the 3-movement A-B-A Italian pattern in his orchestral works as well as the Rondo and both are featured here.

The similarity of this work to the keyboard concertos of W.A. Mozart is astounding. Carl was eleven years older than Wolfgang, so one can hear how the younger composer was influenced by the elder. By the time Mozart was 14, however, Stamitz had left Mannheim to tour France, England and Holland for ten years. Who can tell if this fact made it easier for Wolfgang to develop his own musical identity. Listening to this concerto makes one wonder.

The first movement opens with delightfully breezy string arpeggios, a hallmark of the Mannheim school. The piano enters almost daintily, but soon establishes itself as a full partner. The conversation is as one might imagine taking place at an elegant tea party, so very polite and proper, however, there are a few unexpected twists harmonically. Surprisingly, there is a section within the cadenza that sounds as if Franz Schubert pinched it for his Impromptu No. 4 in A flat, Op. 90.

The second movement "Andante moderato" can best be described as "pastoral" and includes prominent solo passages for the woodwinds which harmonize very nicely with the piano. In the "Rondo - Allegro" finale Stamitz gives us a movement filled with spirit and verve. The horns provide a little pomp and just the right amount of froth is added by the piano at the finish.

Listed in The Oxford Companion to Music primarily as a theorist, secondarily as a keyboard player and thirdly as a composer, one can see why Georg Joseph Vogler (1749-1814) is so little known. He founded a music school in Mannheim (1776) as a proving-ground for his theories on harmony, about which he wrote several treatises.

His Variations on L’air de "Marlborough, s’en va-t-en guerre (1791)" is based on an 18th Century nursery song title, ‘Malbrouk, s’en va-t’en Guerre.’ It is assumed that ‘Malbrouk’ should have been Marlbourgh (a reference to the Duke). The melody is now more familiarly known as "For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow" and "We Won’t Go Home ‘til Morning."

I must say that as a composer, Herr Vogler left me rather cold. I found the orchestration thin to say the least (just 2 flutes, 2 horns, 2 bassoons and strings). Perhaps my aesthetic sense is not as finely tuned as it ought to be, but I could not make out "For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow" in the first track, marked "Tema (semplice e variato): Larghetto", nor on any of the eleven short variations, which followed. After the variations, a six minute "Capriccio. Fuga: Molto vivace, Larghetto, Allegro, Larghetto" that is further designated "Les Adieux" concludes the work ... and still no jolliness. Most of the variations are marked "Allegro" or "Allegretto" along with a "Minuetto grazioso" and two "Larghettos", one marked "mistico-ecclesiastico" the other "patetico" added for balance at the half way and two-thirds points. Three of them are further marked "Le Carillon" (the bell tower), "La Carrozza" (the carriage or cart or lorry ... I don’t know which) and "La Caccia" (the hunt) although I heard no tintinnabulation or squeaking wheels, just pot-holes. The staccato motifs bleated out by the piano in "La Caccia" were hardly evocative. Perhaps I was expecting a precursor of Liszt’s "La Campanella" or maybe I’m just not musically sophisticated enough to "get it". In my opinion, the piece is technically proficient, but hardly a lost masterpiece.

The Czerny was recorded in excellent, late 1960s stereo sound: warm, well balanced and with a broad dynamic range. The same may be said of the Stamitz, although you may have to boost the overall volume, because it was obviously set down at a slightly lower level than the Czerny. The Vogler, unfortunately suffers from the sparseness of the orchestration and from being recorded in a rather dry, brittle acoustic. I'm afraid the Italians of the early 1960s didn't have it as together as their German and Austrian counterparts did later in the decade.

Two out of three is not bad and as I said before, the playing is truly remarkable. Definitely recommended for fans of the genre.

Gregory W. Stouffer

 


NOTES

*With words by Lorenz Haschka, it was used as the Anthem for the Austro-Hungarian Empire from 1797 (when F.J. Haydn wrote it for the Emperor’s birthday) until 1918 when Austria became a republic. A new anthem was chosen, but it was never popular and Haydn’s music was reinstated with new words by Ottokar Kernstock. After World War II, Austria chose another anthem Land der Berge, with words by Paula von Preradovic and the melody from a Masonic Cantata, K623a by W.A. Mozart (now thought by many to be spurious).

+In 1922 Haydn’s tune became the German National Anthem Deutschland über Alles with words by August Heinrich Hoffmann von Fallersleben (1798-1874) from a poem by Walther von der Vogelweide (fl. 1200). In 1952 the words to the German Anthem were changed by substituting the 3rd verse from the same poem "Einigkeit und Recht und Freiheit" (Unity, justice and freedom) and keeping Haydn’s music.



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