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Franz Xaver SCHARWENKA (1850-1924)
Piano Concerto No. 1 in B flat minor, Op. 32 (1876) [30:13]
Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, Op. 56 (1881) [38:13]
Piano Concerto No. 3 in C sharp minor, Op. 80 (1889) [31:34]
Piano Concerto No. 4 in F minor, Op.82 (1908) [39:57]
Alexander Markovich (piano)
Estonian National Symphony Orchestra/Neeme Järvi
rec. May/June 2013, Estonia Concert Hall, Tallinn, Estonia
CHANDOS CHAN 10814(2) [68:35 + 71:35]

This Chandos release contains all four piano concertos of Franz Xaver Scharwenka brought together on the same set for the first time.

A few years ago whilst in Berlin I took time out to visit Max Bruch’s grave at the Friedenau Tempelhof-Schöneberg cemetery. Close by in the same cemetery I came across the last resting place of Franz Xaver Scharwenka. This was marked by an imposing memorial statue; at least compared to Bruch’s rather modestly sized stone memorial. Scharwenka was a composer that I knew more by reputation rather than by actual recordings and on my return to the UK I began investigating this rather enigmatic composer.

Scharwenka was born near the city of Poznan that was then in the East Prussian zone of partitioned Poland. In his lifetime Scharwenka was internationally celebrated as a concert pianist and he also conducted. In 1881 at Berlin he established his own music school. Not a prolific composer, Scharwenka did however write an opera Mataswintha, a symphony, the four piano concertos contained here, some chamber music all with piano parts plus a number of piano pieces.

The opening work here is the Piano Concerto No. 1 (1876) and bearing a dedication to Franz Liszt. Cast in three movements it was originally conceived as a two movement Fantasy for solo piano. Surprisingly there is no separate slow movement with the brooding Adagio integrated into the squally and exuberant opening movement. The central movement is a highly-spirited Scherzo in the form of a Rondo and the gloriously played closing movement inhabits varied moods complete with significant technical challenges. It concludes on a dramatic and positive note.

Completed in 1881 the Piano Concerto No. 2 in its traditional fast-slow-fast, three movement form has been likened to the style of Brahms. It’s a work requiring considerable demands of the soloist especially in the virtuosic and noble opening movement that lasts almost twenty minutes. The melancholic, yearning quality of the central Adagio is often said to resemble a Chopin nocturne. The confident and ebullient rhythmic activity of the Finale suggests Scharwenka’s Polish origins with a Jewish colouration.

After another gap of several years comes the Piano Concerto No. 3. Compared to the C minor work this three movement score gives less weight to the soloist with the piano part incorporated more with the orchestra. Opening with a dark, almost chilling character the boisterous first movement is reminiscent of Tchaikovsky. The Adagio aches with a tender, yearning quality followed without a break by the Finale. This once again contains writing suggestive of a folk-dance and linking with the composer’s Polish roots. Weightier textures quickly develop and the music switches from the folksy to highly romance and fervent longing.

Finally we meet the highly passionate Piano Concerto No. 4, an authentic virtuoso work with a bravura ending. It’s a considerable score from 1908 lasting here almost forty minutes. Dedicated to Queen Elisabeth of Romania it is rightly acknowledged as the finest of Scharwenka’s set of concertos. It attracted tremendous acclaim. The grand and substantially proportioned first movement takes approaching twenty-minutes and opens in an extremely bold fashion. Unusually an additional movement, a squally Intermezzo of a rather intrepid character, is situated between the first and the slow movement Lento. It feels dark with a sense of anxious anticipation. Heroic in feel the Finale has a dashing headstrong quality. Its mood is upbeat and positive with foot-tapping themes. I’m sure concert audiences would love its the rather snarling, bravura ending.

Playing with an abundance of zest and considerable expressive facility Russian pianist Alexander Markovich brings Scharwenka’s colourful concertos to life. His ease of execution is impressive and there is no shortage of poetic expression in the slow movements. Neeme Järvi and the Estonian National Symphony Orchestra perform supportively with a noticeably impressive scale. Recorded in 2013 at the Estonia Concert Hall, Tallinn the clear sound is kept relatively bright with a satisfying balance between soloist and orchestra. Full marks too for Adrian Thomas’s illuminating booklet notes.

Scharwenka’s set of four piano concertos couldn’t really receive better approbation than these Markovich performances on Chandos.

Michael Cookson

And another second review ...

Scharwenka was hardly a prolific composer but neither was he a negligible figure. In addition to these four piano concertos there is a symphony, some smaller orchestral oddments, chamber music and a grand three act opera from 1888-92, Mataswintha. While Mataswintha remains unrecorded — are you listening Dux? — the Symphony has been radiantly championed on Sterling by Christopher Fifield and the chamber music is on a two CD Dyad set from Hyperion. Seta Tanyel's four volumes of the solo piano music are on Hyperion Helios: Vol. 1 (CDH55131); Vol. 2 (CDH55132); Vol. 3 (CDH55133) and Vol. 4 CDH55134.

The piano concertos have been recorded before but not by a single company, pianist and orchestra/conductor. For LP era survivors the First is most prominently known from its no-holds-barred pioneering by Earl Wild and the Bostonians. That was made in 1969 by RCA but has reappeared on Elan and on Ivory Classics, the latter with Wild's Paderewski concerto.

Hyperion recorded all four of the concertos in their encyclopaedic Romantic Piano Concerto series. Two of these were made with Seta Tanyel and were licensed from the now defunct but at one time breathtakingly prolific Collins Classics. Stephen Hough and Marc-André Hamelin made up the shortfall to produce the full set of four. A variety of orchestras and conductors were there as opportunity presented. Laurence Jeaningros seemed to be planning to record all four. She celebrated the German tag "Frisch begonnien ist halb gewonnen" with a single Centaur disc which was reviewed here. There was to have been a second disc with the last two piano concertos but it never emerged. Was it ever recorded, I wonder?

Other isolated Scharwenka piano concerto CDs include No. 4 on Naxos which Rob Maynard thought would have benefited from a little more abandon. The Naxos disc is valuable quite apart from that for the seven minute overture from Mataswintha. Strangely enough No. 2 was the only one that made it into the 1960s Michael Ponti series from Vox-Candide. It can now be heard Brilliant Classics' The Golden Age of the Romantic Piano Concerto (9021), one of 20 CDs; not all from Ponti. It's a rewarding explore of a box, by the way, and pretty inexpensive at £1.50 per disc.

Neeme Järvi's recent CDs have come in for some stick recently. In the case of the present set there is no need to fear flaccid interpretations. Järvi has found his mojo and no mistake. I am not sure about his having worked with Alexander Markovich before but he knows the Estonian National Symphony Orchestra or its kindred of old; in fact back in Soviet days, as you will have gathered if you collected the six volumes of the BMG-Melodiya series of Järvi's earliest recordings. If this is what they achieve together then let's have a lot more.

These readings shout excitement - 'commitment' is not a strong enough word. The First is magnificent with its catchy finale. However if you want limpid then it's there as well among the whirling storms in the central movement of the Second Concerto. The Third is notable for a deliberate and rugged free-climbing ascent. Listen to the grand Rachmaninovian passages at 4:20 and onwards. This is glorious writing and performing and grows on you rapidly. The finale is catchy and joyously flighty. The Fourth Concerto is in four movements. The swirling clouds of the first movement give way at 6:30 to those in alt violins. However, at that point, for the first time, a razor-wire harshness sets in - just for a moment. Otherwise the orchestra sounds very respectable indeed, if not quite Philadelphia standards. The second movement is lighter and not as stormy. We return to the accustomed darker mien for the penultimate movement. There's a sort of placid kindness there rather than the relentless gales. Speaking of which these return, barking, roaring and snarling, for the finale.

The music overall has romantic high alcohol content, a little nineteenth century yet without quite the intellectual-spiritual fibre of Medtner or Dobrowen. Rachmaninov can be heard to a degree in the last two concertos but in that respect they are not to be compared with those of Bortkiewicz. Well worth hearing and getting to know.

Järvi has diced with routine and lassitude before now and it has come down against him; not this time. Must be the Markovich factor - he really is stunning.

By the way: Xaver Scharwenka is not to be confused with his brother the composer Philipp Scharwenka who himself has two orchestral CDs on Sterling: vol. 1; vol. 2. The music of the two brothers is celebrated and documented on a single website.

Rob Barnett

From a reader
Dear Mr Barnett

Although I mostly agree with your review of the recent recording of Scharwenka's 4 piano concertos by Markovich/Jaarvi on Music Web International, some aspects of it invite a few comments.

1) Some of these concertos contain passages with that over-edifying, over-inflated. bloated, largely unearned rhetoric of "power-pianism" that I suspect derives mainly from Liszt (in Chopin, the difference is that those heroic-pianistic passages are "earned"). Audiences from around 1880 must have loved such passages, modern audiences tend to find them off-putting, if not repulsive... Your review alludes to this. With Scharwenka it is probably necessary to "tune-out" somewhat during such areas and resume close listening after these stormy passages are over.(Today's pianists still seem to love such athletic passages!) There is a question here of the musical aesthetic appropriate to Scharwenka.

2) In comparing Scharwenka's Concertos to other romantic concertos your way of putting things seems to suggest that Scharwenka's concertos owe something to several concertos (in particular those of Rachmaninoff) that are in fact later than Scharwenka's. Given the dates of composition, isn't it more likely that Scharwenka (given Scharwenka's renown in those days) influenced the other composers rather than being influenced by them.

Listening to the 3rd Scharwenka Concerto (dating from 1889), I could well imagine the young Rachmaninoff becoming acquainted with that concerto and taking and developing some aspects of that work in his subsequent concertos. I do find it plausible that especially in his later concertos Scharwenka was reacting and responding to Tchaikovsky's first concerto (1874-5). Still, I rather keep hearing echoes of Chopin's e minor concerto.

3) Is Scharwenka less intellectual than other concerto composers of his time? Medtner is a much later composer and confronted a much different musical situation (the first of Medtner's concertos was written in 1914-1918).

I think the issue that Scharwenka was trying to address was "How do I extend the Chopin musical style into my present time, bringing Chopin up-to-date? If Chopin were alive today (say in 1880, when Chopin, if he had lived, would have been 70)?" I consider that Scharwenka succeeded fairly well in this regard...and I do think by then it was already something of an intellectual problem. I think that Scharwenka had a particular difficult time with being "the new Chopin" because he wanted to represent himself as a loyal German Empire composer. Nonetheless some sort of Polish-Chopin substrate keeps leaking through to the surface, perhaps despite Scharwenka's conscious intentions. I suspect that the reason this happened was a) because he had a very deep, intimate, thorough practical knowledge of Chopin's music and b) because he had a Polish mother with all that that entails.

( I have a suspicion that Scharwenka presented himself as more Polish while active in the U.S.) (I say the latter because my first acquaintance with Scharwenka came in the 1950's when I found the sheet music for his Polish dance in the piano bench for the battered instrument my parents bought for me when I was a small boy--the cover had a photo of Scharwenka that had him looking like an old Polish nobleman despite what I presume was some sort of German imperial cross around his neck

Yours sincerely

Stefan Ehrenkreutz, Ph.D.