Back in the late 1960s I attended a thrilling performance of Dvor(ák’s Eighth Symphony at the Folkestone Leas Cliff Hall by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra under Walter Süsskind. As I left, treading on air, I heard behind me a well-heeled member of the Folkestone female bon ton describing the symphony patronisingly as “something of a rarity”. Though still in my teens I had nevertheless already regaled a school concert with Stanford’s Ballade for piano. I thus had an early demonstration that one man’s - or woman’s - rarity may not be another’s.
Whether the Schloss vor Husum festival of rare piano music would leap at the present programme, if Holtham proposed it to them, remains to be seen. For some of us, “Romantic Rarities” would mean – say – Reinecke, Gade, Goetz and Raff. For Holtham it means Brahms, Schubert, Chopin and Schumann.
But hold on, perhaps he has a point after all. What gets onto CD is one thing. What you actually hear in a concert is another matter. If you haven’t heard plenty of Brahms, Schubert, Chopin and Schumann played live it means you don’t go to piano recitals. But these works? According to Holtham, “The recorded documentation of rare or unknown works from major composers of the romantic piano canon is amongst the most groundbreaking and demanding of all performance and research fields associated with the piano”. He also adds that “The contents of the CD are predicated on the semantic opposition of ‘rarity’ and ‘value’: major but unknown”. He would presumably argue, therefore, that Reinecke, Gade, Goetz and Raff are certainly – or practically – “unknown”, but not “major”. His mission, then, is to provide a programme of major works by major composers, but ones that many of his listeners will not know. All the same, I jib at the Davidsbündlertänze, which I had always believed a repertoire work.
The Brahms transcription was discovered only in 1928 and is not included in many of the standard Brahms editions, maybe because they reckon to contain only original piano works. Holtham proudly tells us that this is the first recording of it by an Australian pianist. Yes, and Alfred Brendel’s recording was the first recording of it by Alfred Brendel. Here it sounds fulsome, even gorgeous, but a bit monochrome. In reality, a lot of it is marked forte and I can’t say Holtham is actually ignoring the finer dynamic markings. Maybe the fault lies in the transcription.
Schubert’s piano corpus is fairly littered with unfinished sonatas, but two were considered complete enough for inclusion in the Universal Edition edited by Erwin Ratz. Of these, the one we hear far more often is the C major, D.840. This is because it has two completely finished – and wonderful – movements, making it a pianist’s answer to the Unfinished Symphony. The F minor is both more and less complete. It has three movements, though the absence of a slow movement as such raises the doubt that the finished product might have acquired one. Textures are left unfilled at various points, but only the first movement is really incomplete, and even this gets as far as the beginning of the recapitulation. It is easy enough, then, to reach the end of the movement by rewriting the exposition, and this was done in the Ratz edition. Practically everything we hear is therefore Schubert’s own. Maybe the composer himself would have varied it more, or added a coda, but he was often quite happy to round off his sonata form movements in “textbook” manner, as here. With respect to the Universal Edition, Holtham has made a few changes – “which have never been recorded or performed before” – though the only real divergence I noticed from Ratz was the omission of the finale repeat. Having rightly proclaimed the originality and expressive depth of this work, with its glances at Beethoven’s Appassionata, I think he might have pushed things a little more to the brink than he does in this very nice performance.
Chopin’s Rondos are among the less explored areas of his output. This can certainly not be said of the Mazurkas, so one might wonder why this “Rondo à la Mazur” is not sometimes slipped into groups of these at recitals. Perhaps there is a reason. Chopin’s shorter pieces tend to be divided between “outdoor” music, principally the Mazurkas, where his national and folk roots are strongest, and “indoor” music, such as the Waltzes. I do not mean to suggest that one type is better or more original than the other. The Rondos are decidedly in the “indoor” category, and, perhaps surprisingly, this remains true even when the Rondo is a Mazurka. So this delightful piece would sit uneasily with a group of “real” Mazurkas. All the same, I think a great Mazurka-player, such as Friedman or Horowitz, would have found the true Mazurka-rhythm in it, something that Holtham’s agreeably fluent performance just misses.
I enjoyed the Davidsbündlertänze, while recognizing that this nicely turned, idiomatic performance was too reluctant to go to the extremes. But my only actual criticism was that Holtham is unwilling to provide really light playing in a mercurial number such as no.6 or the coda to no.13. The piano main section of no.15, too, is not noticeably softer than its forte introduction, though in my comparisons I found that quite a few other pianists had been unable to tame Schumann’s surging textures here and provide the liquid piano he seems to be asking for.
“Rarity” or not, a host of great names have set down their ideas on this cycle, and it’s when the comparisons start that things get unstuck. I first tried Murray Perahia and was struck at how detailed his response to phrasing and dynamics was. There’s more range of touches and timbres in the first piece than we get from Holtham in the entire cycle. All the same, there’s ultimately a slightly reined-in feeling to it. Perahia is an infinitely poetic Eusebius, but could be a more dashing Florestan. Still, you’d certainly be better off with Perahia than with Holtham; less certainly with Vladimir Ashkenazy. Undeniably poetic in many of the gentler numbers, he is often heavy-handed in the more exuberant ones, not least in his strange decision to play the introduction to no.15 as a pompous “maestoso”. His actual piano sound, too, is curiously spongy.
If modern sound is not an essential, then Alfred Cortot’s 1937 recording is an astoundingly free-spirited effusion, absolutely lifting the notes from the page to the realms of pure imagination. And if Cortot is too free and easy with the score for modern musicological tastes, Walter Gieseking in 1942 was scarcely less untrammelled while conceding little to the Beckmesser with his head in the score. He would be my choice. All this, I fear, is in another world from Holtham’s excellent, well-schooled musicianship.
So, if you ask me to get down to brass tacks and say whether I recommend this disc or not, I really don’t know. It’s a nice compilation and as a recital programme would be highly enjoyable. If Holtham comes your way with a similar programme I should think you’d be glad to buy this souvenir of it.