In the early 1970s someone at BBC Radio 3 was evidently very
fond of Scharwenka’s music. Hardly a week seemed to go
by without the First Piano Concerto - in Earl Wild’s revelatory
and tremendously virtuosic 1968 recording, most
recently available here - being featured in the schedules.
I also recall that the programmer seemed equally enamoured of
Antal Dorati’s foot-tappingly addictive disc of Milhaud’s
Le boeuf sur le toit, another very regularly broadcast
item at the time.
The past twenty years or so have witnessed a couple of major
attempts to rehabilitate Scharwenka’s reputation which
was quite considerable a century ago. First, Seta Tanyel embarked
on an extensive series of CD releases on the now-defunct Collins
Classics label, encompassing the first, second and third piano
concertos, four volumes of pieces for solo piano and a further
two of chamber music. Then, inevitably perhaps, Hyperion’s
“Romantic Piano Concerto” series picked the composer
up: Stephen Hough performed the fourth concerto (volume 11 in
the series, reviewed
here), a reissue of one of Ms Tanyel’s Collins Classics
discs added the second and third (volume 33, here)
and Marc-André Hamelin made it a full house with the
first concerto (volume 38, here).
Now Naxos enters the lists with an account of the fourth, graphically
hyperbolised in Marlena Gnatowicz’s booklet notes as a
“forgotten musical Atlantis”. Knowing that company’s
way of doing things, I imagine that it may not be long before
the other three concertos follow.
For years, one particular phrase describing Scharwenka’s
music has stuck in my mind: “a wing ding of a romp”.
Seeking its origin, though with little confidence in turning
anything up, I Googled it and found that the catchy description
had clearly embedded itself in many other people’s memories
too. It apparently originated in a concert review where the
New York Times’s critic Harold C. Schonberg applied
it to Earl Wild’s performance of the first concerto’s
second movement. Mr Schonberg was spot-on. With all four concertos
now available on disc, I think we can conclude - pace
Ms Gnatowicz’s implication of some real musical significance
in at least the fourth - that they were written as vehicles
to display pianistic virtuosity rather than to convey any deep
musical truths. Thus, reviewing Stephen Hough’s performance
of the fourth concerto, my colleague Rob Barnett characterised
the work as “fanfares, thunderous piano entries, Brahmsian
élan and galloping figures redolent of Saint-Saëns'
Second Piano Concerto... rompety-tomping... and a whiff or ten
of the salon” - which is, I think, pretty much as accurate
an analysis as you’ll get. Indeed, it is worth noting
that neither Ms. Gnatowicz in her Naxos notes nor Steven Heliotes
in the Hyperion booklet even attempts a technical analysis of
the score, prefering instead to focus on the composer’s
personality and life story.
Given, then, that sheer virtuosity is of such importance here,
something as basic as tempo will make a disproportionate difference.
Play the music too slowly and you run the risk of losing your
listeners’ attention. Play it as if your life depended
on it - as Earl Wild did in that pioneering “wing ding”
account of the first concerto - and you will carry them with
you to a triumphal conclusion.
It is therefore of some importance to note that this new recording
is consistently slower than its Hyperion rival.
| François Xavier Poizat (Naxos)
| Stephen Hough (Hyperion)
Those comparative timings might not have been of any particular
significance in other repertoire. But where flashy, glittering
display is at a premium it does make a considerable difference.
I confess that in listening to this new account my attention
sometimes wandered - whereas Hough, keeping the pace consistently
up, held my attention throughout. Make no mistake, Poizat -
who was born as recently as 1989 and was only recently celebrated
his 20th birthday when he made this recording - is
already a very accomplished artist. But I do wish he had let
himself go just a little more with a little more of that galloping
and rompety-tomping in the way that Earl Wild did when he put
Scharwenka back on the musical map forty years ago. Given the
composer’s striking resemblance to a pre-First World War
Cossack or Austro-Hungarian general (see
here) it may not be inappropriate to use a military simile
and to say that, while the accomplished tyro Poizat may be a
first class battlefield tactician, the more experienced Hough
is a master of overall grand strategy.
Under the direction of Łukasz Borowicz, the Poznań
Philharmonic is clearly an accomplished band that plays creditably.
It is also well recorded, though it is worth pointing out that
Hyperion’s engineering team headed by Tony Faulkner was
clearly on exceptional form for Stephen Hough and the City of
Birmingham Symphony Orchestra - who were playing at least equally
as well - in December 1994. In fact, the sound on their disc
offers an outstanding example of the degree of refined clarity
and balance that can be achieved by state of the art technology
in expert hands.
With the concerto taking up nearly 43 of the CD’s 67 minutes,
the other tracks change focus and offer separate opportunities
to both the pianist as solo performer and the orchestra. The
overture to Scharwenka’s only opera Mataswintha,
is a dramatic story of sixth century Ostrogothic dynastic shenanigans
to which the remark supposedly made by an elderly Victorian
dowager about Sarah Bernhardt’s juicy stage performance
as Cleopatra might equally be applied: How different,
how very different, from the home life of our own dear Queen.
It shows a more restrained side to the composer’s output
but is of no great artistic distinction.
The Andante religioso, on the other hand, an arrangement
that Scharwenka made from the slow movement of his cello sonata,
is rather more memorable and benefits from the extra momentum
it receives as this account shaves a minute off the time it
was accorded in its previous recording by the Gävle Symphony
Orchestra under Christopher Fifield, described by MusicWeb International’s
Rob Barnett as “soothingly sedate” (see
Generally well executed accounts of three of Scharwenka’s
Polish National Dances op.3 for solo piano round out the disc.
The first is the best known and carries the instruction Con
fuoco. Quite frankly, I would have liked a little more of
that fire. Poizat smoulders - but, for a real blaze that burns
itself out in 3:20 of pyrotechnics as opposed to Poizat’s
4:01, listen to Seta Tanyel on Helios CDH55131.
Almost 250 years ago, in his Dictionnaire Philosophique,
Voltaire pointed out that the best is the enemy of the good
(Le mieux est l’ennemi du bien) and here we have
a clear illustration of that assertion. Make no mistake, Poizat’s
disc is certainly engaging and, for anyone coming to Scharwenka
for the first time, it might be a sensible and economical way
of dipping an exploratory toe in the water. But there are other
fine accounts of much of this music out there that capitalise
on Scharwenka’s strengths, minimise or conceal his weaknesses
and offer insights and - perhaps guilty - pleasures that, sadly,
are not always present on this new disc.