Helen BUCHHOLTZ (1877-1953)
Barcarolle [8:25]
Vier Menuette [12:48]
Ballade [5:23]
Vier Tänze [11:48]
Nocturno [5:28]
Sonate cis-moll [11:21]
Marco Kraus (piano)
rec. 22-23 April 2009, Grosser Sendesaal des Saarländischen Rundfunks
CPO 777 635-2 [55:46]

There are always new names to be discovered in music, and Helen Buchholtz is unlikely to be familiar to many of even the keenest gazers on European classical music. Born in Luxembourg, her life was apparently fairly unremarkable and middle-class. She lived for a time in Germany after marrying a German physician, but was unaffected by world events such as World War I, pretty much self-taught as a composer and almost entirely isolated from the musical styles of her times. The most remarkable thing mentioned in the booklet notes is that her mostly undated scores were only just rescued by a nephew, as the family were at the point of burning the lot. They were unearthed by musicologist Danielle Roster in 1998, and are now kept at the Helen Buchholtz archive in Luxembourg.

These are almost all pieces of considerable charm, but it has to be said, they are not earth-shattering by any stretch of the imagination. Conventional harmonies and forms are lined up for our delectation, but while Buchholtz’s creative powers show a considerable facility and a natural feel for technical effect these pieces are rather unmemorable. The minuets and dances remind me of the kind of thing pianists improvise for dance classes in classical ballet on a daily basis, with an eclectic and universal style which sails now close to Vienna, now to Bohemia …

I’m intrigued by the painting on the cover of this release. Don’t you think it looks like the girl is about to throw a dart? CPO have been brave in investing in this production, but their usual clear and colourful recording is the highest scoring aspect of this disc, and I have to say the actual music doesn’t score 180 from my oche. Marco Kraus makes as good an argument for this music as can probably be made, both in his musically sensitive playing and in booklet notes which fight Buchholtz’s corner, whose music “never descends into antiquarian neo-classical posturings.... [The] avoidance of any semblance of banality are among its key features...” I agree there is no posturing here, but I’m afraid the other statements are the opposite to the way I experience these pieces. I’ve listened carefully to illustrate some highlights, but have a hard time finding any. The Sonate cis-moll is however fascinatingly mad, taking off in all kinds of almost random tonal and thematic directions. It really is stunningly awful and has to be heard to be believed – a sort of compositional Florence Foster Jenkins.

Dominy Clements

Good ‘Grade 8’ sight-reading fodder.