I did a double take when I received this CD from Danacord.
One of the composers featured was a certain Boris Pasternak.
Now, like many people, I remember going to the cinema to see
Doctor Zhivago, although not at the time of its original
release in 1965. Apart from this I know virtually nothing about
the man or his writing – except that he translated Shakespeare
into Russian. So it came a a great surprise to me to see that
he has ‘contributed ‘two fine Preludes and an excellent Piano
Sonata to this disc.
It appears that he came from a musical family; in fact his mother
was a concert pianist who had studied with Rubinstein and Leschetitzky.
Visitors to the family home included Scriabin and Rachmaninov.
The young Boris began to compose aged 13 and later entered the
Moscow Conservatoire. However, he suddenly abandoned his musical
career in favour of the study of philosophy and then became
a poet and litterateur.
The Two Preludes played here by Eldar Nebolsin were composed
in 1906 when Pasternak was 16 years old. As the programme notes
point out, they owe much to Scriabin. Both works could well
be mistaken for the elder composer and would certainly be ideal
companion pieces at any recital of Scriabin’s music.
The Sonata, which was possibly the last piece of music that
Pasternak composed, moves away from being totally derivative
of Scriabin and begins to explore a territory of greater dissolution
of tonality and structure than the Russian School. Peter Grove
suggests that the form of this short Sonata should be regarded
as ‘a stream of consciousness like Schoenberg’s Erwartung...’
There are some lovely moments in this work, nevertheless it
could be criticised as rambling just a little. However, it is
an enjoyable piece of music that is sympathetically played by
Hiroaki Takenouchi and certainly deserves to be included in
the pianist’s repertoire. One wonders what the musical world
would have been like if Boris Pasternak had not changed his
mind about his career as a composer.
The CD opens with a great performance by Marc-André Hamelin
of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach’s Sonata in E minor. This is one
of a set of six works composed between 1779 and 1784 – ‘Keyboard
Sonatas and free fantasias, together with some Rondos’. This
music, written for the ‘forte-piano’ has a sense of freedom
that borders on the improvisatory. Sudden changes of expression,
key and dynamics makes this a work that holds the listener’s
attention from the first note to the last.
Most amateur pianists have come across the music of the Hungarian
composer Stephen Heller: there are many relatively easy ‘studies’
available in albums of ‘teaching’ music and the more straight
forward repertoire. However, Heller was a composer of a wide
variety of (mainly) piano music, much of it of a highly virtuosic
nature. There are four important sonatas, reams of ‘character’
pieces, many operatic transcriptions and fantasies. Most of
this music is not heard nowadays, in spite of a one-time enthusiasm
for his music by composers as diverse as Liszt, Bizet and Massenet.
It was at one time thought that Heller was ‘greater’ (whatever
that may mean) than Chopin!
The two present pieces are taken from ‘4 Freischütz Studies’
which were written in 1871. They are based on themes and episodes
derived from Carl Maria von Weber’s great opera Der Freischütz.
Listening to these pieces easily convinces the listener that
these are no didactic ‘grade’ pieces but are major virtuosic
works that explore and develop the source material with great
skill and panache. They are admirably played by Jean-Frédéric
The older I get the more I appreciate transcriptions of music
from the opera. Perhaps it is because I am not an opera fan,
but often appreciate the ‘tunes’ as it were. In the present
case it is the lovely Flower Maiden’s Scene and Finale
from Wagner’s Parsifal played by Ian Fountain. Now this
is an opera that I never seen and have heard only once in my
life –about 40 years ago: I should add that I have always struggled
with Wagner. However this transcription by the Hungarian pianist
Zoltan Kocsis is absolutely beautiful. It is much less over
the top in its virtuosity than the Liszt transcriptions of Wagner’s
music, however there is a depth that is quite simply ravishing.
Who the ‘magic maidens’ were does not matter for this transcription:
it is sufficient that the music describes a magic garden full
of gorgeous flowers. The musical portrayal of Parsifal gaining
the office of Keeper of the Grail is superb. In fact, it has
made me think about listening to the whole opera again!
Ferruccio Busoni is represented on this disc by two works –
one from his teenage years and the other from his maturity.
The fifteen year old composer had written a complete set of
Preludes on all the major and minor keys. Michail Lifits chose
the ‘funeral march’ Prelude in E flat minor which is the fourteenth
in the series. It is a dark and lugubrious work that reveals
the youthful precocity of the composer. From the quiet ‘grave’
opening it builds up into rather frightening climax and then
quietens down to a sepulchral-like rest.
The other piece by Busoni, played by Giovanni Bellucci, is the
All’ Italia (in modo Napolitano). This was composed or
at least published in 1907 is the second of his Six Elegies
(K.249). In some ways there is continuity between this work
and the early Prelude in its dark and almost sinister mood.
Yet there an ethereal beauty about this massive piece which
moves and impresses in spite of the feeling that it describes
the Naples of nightmares rather than dreams.
It is always good to have a composer’s ‘Opus 1’ to explore.
In this case Peter Froundjian plays the Danish Jørgen Bentzon
and his Variations on a Theme of Chopin. The theme chosen
is the well-known F major Mazurka, Op.68, No.3. After the presentation
of most of the original piece the composer begins on what is
effectively a deconstruction of the work. As the liner notes
suggest, Bentzon was not adverse to shocking listeners who revered
the original! There are nine variations in all – each one being
diverse and barely related to the previous one. It is not my
favourite piece on this CD; however it is an interesting, if
a little tedious early work by a fine composer.
The CD recital concludes with a beautiful Hommage a Fauré
by the American composer Robert Helps, played by Jenny Lin.
This is the first of three ‘Hommages’ - the other two being
to Ravel and Rachmaninov. This short piece is in the form of
three variations on a very simple theme. I am not well enough
acquainted with Fauré’s music to know if this theme is a direct
quote or a ‘pastiche.’ It is a very beautiful and ‘haunting’
little number that is near perfect in its effect.
Once again Danacord have given the piano music enthusiast a
right royal feast of rare music – whether it is from unknown
or forgotten composers, or hidden corners from the catalogues
of the ‘masters.’ The playing of this music is always splendid:
each pianist is quite manifestly dedicated to this repertoire
and presents their selections with enthusiasm, sympathy and
The liner notes by Peter Grove are extremely helpful and give
a detailed study of each work and its context.
Danacord have reached Volume 22 of their ‘Rarities of Piano
Music at Schloss vor Husum’ series – plus a Volume 0 which showcases
some early festival highlights. The edition shows no sign of
becoming stale and predictable. There is quite obviously a vast
array of ‘forgotten’ works ‘out there’ that are being discovered
by enterprising pianists. Let us hope that some, if not all,
of the music presented on this CD finds its way into the standard
repertoire of concert pianists across the world. Certainly not
a few of these pieces are miniature masterpieces.
C. P. E. BACH (1714-1788)
Sonata in E minor, Wq 59 No.1, H 281 (1784) [6:51] Marc-André
Stephen HELLER (1813-1888)
4 Freischütz Studies, Op. 127 (1871)
No. 1 in A minor: Allegro molto [2:38]
No. 3 in C minor: Allegro con fuoco [5:10]
Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Flower Maidens' Scene and Finale from "Parsifal
Ferruccio BUSONI (1866-1924)
Prelude in E flat minor, Op. 37, No. 14 (K.181) (1881) [4:18]
Six Elegies, (K.249) (1907) No.2: All' Italia! (In modo
Boris PASTERNAK (1890-1960)
Two Preludes (1906)
E flat minor – Con moto [1:27]
G sharp minor – Andante [4:22]
Sonata in B minor (1909) [13:45]
Jørgen BENTZON (1897-1951)
Variations on a theme of Chopin, Op. 1 (1921) [11:23]
Robert HELPS (1928-2001)
Hommage à Fauré, from 3 Hommages, No. 1 (1972) [4:20]