Franz Xaver SCHARWENKA (1850-1924)
Piano Concerto No.4 in F minor, op.82 (1908) [42:40]
Mataswintha overture (1896) [7:17]
Cello Sonata in E minor, op.46 (1877) II: Andante Religioso (arr. by the composer for harp, organ and strings, op.46a (1881)) [6:37]
Polish National Dances, op.3 (1869 onwards): No.1 in E flat major [4:01]; No. 8 in B flat minor [3:43]; No.15 in B flat major [3:09]
François Xavier Poizat (piano)
Poznań Philharmonic Orchestra/Łukasz Borowicz
rec. 14-19 September 2009, Auditorium of the Adam Mickiewicz University, Poznań, Poland
NAXOS 8.572637 [67:27]
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.
I II III IV François Xavier Poizat (Naxos) 19:25 7:02 9:22 6:52 Stephen Hough (Hyperion) 18:34 6:51 7:24 6:29
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. Theoverture 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 here).
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.
Poizat is certainly engaging and for anyone coming to Scharwenka for the first time this disc might be a sensible and economical way of dipping an exploratory toe in the water.