Hyperion’s long-standing Romantic Piano Concerto series – currently with well over 60 issues to its name – has, since 1991, unearthed some real gems. These have been not only from more-familiar composers, but also from those whose names have hitherto been of greater interest, perhaps, to musicologists.
Whether Pavel Pabst’s ‘Lost Concerto’ would subsequently have made it into that illustrious body, is now somewhat more difficult to predict, even though it has many of the right credentials. Mike Spring – the guiding mind behind Hyperion’s gargantuan Romantic Piano Concerto achievement – has just decided to stand down from the London-based company after some 25 years in the job.
Pavel Pabst was born in Königsberg, the capital of the former East Prussia, and now known as Kaliningrad, following its secession to Russia at the end of World War II. He began teaching at the Moscow Conservatory in 1878 and helped with the fingering in Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto. Sadly the publisher failed to follow the composer’s instructions to credit this on the score. In April 1885 Pabst left Moscow for St Petersburg to give the premiere of his first orchestral composition, his Piano Concerto in E flat major.
On paper, at least, the work doesn’t appear overly adventurous, cast in a fairly conservative fast-slow-fast three-movement design. There is a conventional opening orchestral tutti, which while attesting from the outset to Pabst’s assured skill in scoring, does not make use of the initial declamatory start from the solo instrument. This had become a regular fingerprint of the piano concerto form largely after Beethoven’s Emperor
If the opening is efficient though not overly spectacular, the piano’s initial cadenza-like utterance sounds as if the composer had suddenly been catapulted well into the next century, such is the spiky angularity of the writing. Having made this extremely bold opening gambit, Pabst falls back again into a more comfortable Romantic ambience.
Trochopoulos provides his own programme notes for the concerto. These are indeed helpful and informative, while slightly compromised by such phrases as: ‘We hear the beautiful theme in B-flat major… The piano enters with a most beautiful theme in G-major… There is a marvellous development of a second theme…’ or ‘The marvellous lyrical middle episode is in A-flat major…’ Clearly he is captivated by the music, and these melodies are indeed most easy on the ear, but it would not, for example, be too difficult to find some episodes of equal charm and beauty in many of the works in Hyperion’s comprehensive biopic.
The Andante Cantabile
presents a lovely melody from the soloist after a mysterious opening sixty seconds or so, followed by some gently-rippling arpeggios. Climaxes follow moments of more repose until, just before seven minutes in, piano and orchestra with brass especially prominent, sing out the main theme in triumphant mode. This is, in fact, a live recording, and only here, and once again in the finale, is the soloist clearly physically trying to pull the orchestra along with him – something that could easily have been ironed out in a multi-take studio recording. There are then some quite ethereal moments where the piano has some gentle dialogues with orchestral soloists, and the movement ends as it began.
The dance-like finale opens with a tonic/dominant ostinato, and while the tune is catchy and folk-like, it feels somewhat more Teutonic than Russian in character. Its downward semitone side-step and back up, again with some use of harmonic pedal, helps heighten the overall effect and interest. As the movement progresses, the piano’s decorations often suggest, by turns, the spirit of Saint-Saëns or Liszt. Tchaikovsky makes a brief appearance in the calmer central section, which leads to a quite charming short dialogue between piano and solo cello. After this, a return to the opening dance idea projects the music towards its conclusion. There’s an increasing proliferation of trills along the way, as the pianistic fireworks increase, effectively allowing the soloist the last word on the matter. Apart from the two occasions mentioned above, when tempi between soloist and orchestra are slightly at odds, the extended applause at the end does seem pleasantly intrusive, given just how quiet the audience has been otherwise. They clearly appeared to have enjoyed the performance.
The choice of CD fillers is somewhat academic, given that it would be extremely unlikely that anyone would be interested in this CD except for the Pabst. The playing and performance in both Tchaikovsky’s Hamlet and Rachmaninov’s Variations wouldn’t really disappoint overall, although the acoustic, as in the live-recorded concerto, too, does not appear to add any ambience. Again it suffers rather from a lack of clarity and focus, tending to come over as generally muffled overall.
Returning to Pabst and the ‘lost concerto’, the reality was that the critics in St Petersburg saw his concerto as a work by a (to them) unknown composer. He was also from the rival city of Moscow, so rather understandably it received a poor reception. Then when Pabst returned to Moscow for a second performance, even worse was to comes: even the critics in his home city branded the work ‘Not in the tradition of Russian composition’, calling the last movement ‘frivolous’.
This proved just too depressing for the 31-year-old composer, who packed up the score and sent it away to publishers in Leipzig. The result was that his concerto was indeed ‘lost’ to the musical world for over a century.
Clearly the emphasis on ‘lost’ would seem to add a slight extra mystique, rather like ‘The Lost World’ or ‘The Lost Gardens of Heligan’ as it’s certainly not the first work to be ‘lost’, only for it to be ‘rediscovered’ after the composer’s demise.
Critics sometimes get it wrong with works by far more eminent names than Pavel Pabst. Witness, for example, Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto, or Bizet’s Carmen
. However, it comes as no surprise that they would have found some of Pabst’s concerto unfamiliar territory, modern even. Similarly the somewhat light-weight finale didn’t have the same Russian feel as the finale from Tchaikovsky’s Second Piano Concerto – Pabst wasn’t Russian, and his style was thus more German-European than Russian-Slavic.
However, the only issues with this disc are the recorded sound and, to a lesser degree admittedly, the two fillers that accompany the Pabst. Yes, the concerto is certainly worthy of being born again, and could surely hold its own in Hyperion’s series. Were that to happen, the immediate bonus would be a much-improved studio recording and sound quality on the CD. No doubt a more exciting and apposite coupling, would be found too.
Until Hyperion might be persuaded to consider and record Pavel Pabst’s single concerto opus themselves, there is at least one more option in the shape of a CD on the Danacord label (DACOCD 660
), where the concerto is combined with those by Rimsky-Korsakov and Scriabin. Oleg Marshev (piano) does a fine job here – as, it must be said, does Trochopoulos on the present CD – with the South Jutland Symphony Orchestra under Vladimir Ziva. Clicking a few bars of the associated MP3 sample from the Danacord CD’s first movement shows, though, just how much clearer and more immediate their recording is.
Philip R Buttall
Previous review: David Blomenberg
Masterwork Index: Rachmaninov Paganini variations