How extraordinary that two stirring romantic piano concertos of
this calibre should have been ignored for so long.
The Ukrainian composer-pianist Bortkiewicz
wrote music rooted robustly in the late nineteenth century romantic
tradition. If you warm to the piano concertos of Scriabin, Rachmaninov
and Medtner then this is for you. You might remember Bortkiewicz
for the Hyperion CD of his two symphonies - well worth seeking
out for their Tchaikovskian drama and pathos. Then again true
disciples of this site may recall a review
of the whole sequence of CDs produced by Bhagwan Thadani.
Bortkiewicz was blown cruelly hither and
thither by fate and the great tragic sweep of mid-twentieth century
history. His Second Concerto which is for left-hand was commissioned
by Paul Wittgenstein (1887-1961) who resolutely denied others
the chance to perform or record it until his death. He had paid
for it and he owned it - end of story. Wittgenstein premiered
the work in Vienna in November 1923 and played it many times through
1924-30. However Siegfried Rapp (1915-1982) who lost his right
arm in WW2 was not, it seems, permitted to perform it until 1952-3
when he included it in concerts in Reichenhall and Dresden. This
story is comparable with Harriet Cohen's exclusive and fierce
grip on Bax's Symphonic Variations (the Wass performance
recently issued on Naxos) and Winter Legends. Strangely
enough, Bax also wrote a left-hand Concertante for piano and orchestra
but this was for Harriet after she had injured the tendons in
her right hand; no Wittgenstein connection there.
The Second Concerto is a potent
and heaving romantic brew with a mood signature close to the
Rachmaninov Second Piano Concerto on which it was surely modelled.
It's a pleasing work even if strongly indebted to Rachmaninov.
In the final Allegro Vivo we switch from superheated
romance to the silvery Russian slav nationalism of Borodin and
Rimsky just as Bortkiewicz did with his two
symphonies on Hyperion (review).
The Third Concerto is subtitled
Per aspera ad astra – through adversity to the stars.
It's about the same length as its predecessor but dates from
1925. It was premiered in 1927 just two years before he chose
to move to Germany at the time of the rise of Adolf Hitler.
His music had its supporters including Hans Anklwicz-Kleehoven
(1883-1962) who funded the publication of much of his music
and founded the Bortkiewicz Society. However unlike Medtner,
Bortkiewicz was not to find a Rajah of Mysore to fund a recording
programme. The Concerto is redolent of the Rachmaninov First
and Fourth Piano Concertos and perhaps a little of the rather
fine concerto by Arensky. Interestingly at 2.56 in the Andante
of the Third Concerto he recalls the turbulent breakers at the
start of his own Second Piano Concerto. It's glorious stuff
and will surely please you if you enjoy the Giannini piano concerto
and the Bortkiewicz's closer models: the four Rachmaninov concertos.
The Third Concerto is more closely aligned with Rachmaninov
than with Medtner. There's a peaceful benediction of a Lento
but this gives way to a fine Moderato finale, rising
to a grandiloquently Delian sunrise. In the triumphantly belling
peroration soloist and orchestra vie with each other in heroic
The First Piano Concerto can be heard
coupled with some Arensky. His music for violin and piano is
We must hope fervently for a recording
of the fine Violin Concerto and Cello Concerto.
Meantime Klaas Trapmann has recorded three
two-CD volumes of Bortkiewicz's solo piano music and these can
be had from the Nederlands Muziek Instituut.
After the privations of life in wartime
Berlin he returned to Vienna and having enjoyed one grand all-Bortkiewicz
concert he died in 1952.