Michael Ponti was born in Germany to American parents, but as a young child he was taken back to the United States. His piano studies included time with Gilmour McDonald who himself had been a pupil of the great Polish-American pianist, composer and teacher Leopold Godowsky (1870-1938). Further study was made at Frankfurt with Eric Flinsch, onetime assistant to the pianist and romantic composer Emil von Sauer (1862-1942). During the early nineteen-sixties Ponti entered and won a raft of international piano competitions. His career was launched triumphantly with Bartók’s Second Piano Concerto performed in Vienna: it received rave reviews. Ponti has subsequently toured the world, giving recitals, playing in chamber ensembles and performing major concertos. He has also devoted much time to the promotion of neglected ‘masterpieces’ from the high-romantic era of piano playing. Unfortunately, he suffered from a stroke in the late 1990s which effectively brought his career to a close.
Over the years Michael Ponti has made many records, especially for the old Vox label. These have included concertos by Alkan, Thalberg, Clara Schumann and Moscheles. His romantic piano concerto recordings form the backbone of the 20 CD box entitled The Golden Age of the Romantic Piano Concerto
(Brilliant Classics 9021).
The three pieces presented on this disc are all splendid examples of forgotten works, which certainly deserve revival, if not an established place in the repertoire.
I have enjoyed the music of Ignaz Moscheles since coming across the piano concertos and ‘studies’ released by Hyperion on their Romantic Piano Concerto series (Volume 29
, Volume 36
& Volume 32
). Moscheles spent a great deal of time in the United Kingdom giving concert and recital tours. He is one of those happy composers who has successfully synthesised the classical and romantic traditions. His sits somewhere between Mozart and Mendelssohn but the music of Clementi was also important as were the structural principles of Beethoven. Just occasionally, there are nods to Chopin. The G minor Concerto, Op.58 was written in 1825 when the composer had just turned thirty. I enjoyed Ponti’s playing of this three movement work, however I felt that it was little hard-edged. This is especially so in the slow movement which goes a little too fast and lacks a touch of magic.
Ferdinand Hiller appears to have met everyone in the world of nineteenth century music. After study with Hummel he had been introduced to the aging Beethoven. As a young man, Hiller knew Chopin, Liszt and Berlioz in Paris. Other intimates were Cherubini, Rossini, Mendelssohn and Meyerbeer. He, in turn taught the next generation of composers including Max Bruch and Engelbert Humperdinck. His musical style is one of confidence and brilliance, matching beautifully constructed piano writing with effective orchestration.
The present concerto was written in 1843. I do not warm to this work quite so much as some other examples of the ‘romantic piano concerto’ genre. It is a little lacking in interest. The slow movement, ‘andante espressivo’ is a beautifully meditative piece that explores a wide variety of moods. The finale is rip-roaring, with its ‘Hungarian’ swagger and panache.
Henry Litolff suffers from being a Classic FM ‘one work composer’ and that fame does not even rest on an entire piece, but an extract. Everyone must know the ‘Scherzo’ from the 4th
Concerto which sounds as if it could be part of a score for some forgotten incidental music to The Midsummer’s Night Dream
. One thing I had not realised about Litolff was that he was born in London of an Alsatian father and Scottish mother. Interestingly he studied with Ignaz Moscheles.
It is good that Doron Records have chosen to present one of the composer’s rarely heard piano concertos. The Third Concerto Symphonique, Op.45 was written in 1846 and is a big, gutsy piece full of melodic and rhythmical interest. The work has been described as having ‘operatic’ overtones to its sound-world. While just a little too overblown for my taste it would make a fine alternative to some more familiar examples of the genre in the concert hall. It is played here with obvious enthusiasm and élan by Michael Ponti: even a superficial hearing reveals a technically demanding (if not near-impossible) piano part.
This is an interesting re-release of the old Vox recordings dating back to the decade between 1968 and 1978 – although they have been reissued on CD before. It is essential listening for all enthusiasts of romantic piano music. I guess that Ponti fans will be glad to replace their vinyl (but not their CDs). There are one or two sound problems with this disc: the piano, in places, does not sound quite right: balance is occasionally askew. The liner-notes are good but not extensive. All three works are available in other recordings, specifically the wonderful Hyperion Romantic Piano series.
In spite of this being an impressive offering I cannot rate this CD over and above the Hyperion releases (Hiller on CDA67655 and Litolff on CDA66889
). As an example, the above-mentioned slow movement of the Moscheles as played by Howard Shelley brings up the goose bumps – Ponti doesn’t.