Rarities of Piano Music at Schloss von Husum 2015

Harold CRAXTON (1885-1971)
Siciliano and Rigadon (1935) [3:38]
Federico MOMPOU (1893-1987)
Segreto (1912) [2:39]
Jonathan Plowright (piano)
Federico MOMPOU
La Rue, le Guitariste et le Vieux Cheval from ‘Suburbis.’ (1917) [4:03]
Issay DOBROWEN (1891-1953)
Poem op. 3 No. 2 (1914) [2:36]
Jonathan Powell (piano)
Karol SZYMANOWSKI (1882-1937)
Étude op. 4 No. 1 (1906) [4:00]
Charles-Valentin ALKAN (1813-1888)
40 ans – ‘Un heureux ménage’ from Grande Sonate op. 33 (1847) [10:43]
Yuri Favorin (piano)
Johann Nepomuk HUMMEL (1778-1837)
La bella capricciosa op. 55 (1815) [12:22]
Florian Uhlig (piano)
Carlos GUASTAVINO (1912-2000)
La Niña del Rio Dulce from ‘Tres Romances Nuevos’ (1955) [6:50]
Martin Jones (piano)
Cyprien KATSARIS (b.1951)
Spontaneous improvisation on various themes (‘Hommage à Liszt’) (2015) [18:00]
Cyprien Katsaris (piano)
Alexander ZFASMAN (1906-1971)
Fantasy on themes of Matvey Blanter (?) [6:28]
Alex Hassan (piano)
Jack FINA (1913-70)
Bumble Boogie (1948) [2:14]
Jonathan Plowright (piano)
rec. 21-29 August 2015, Schloss von Husum

The latest annual offering from the festival of piano music at Schloss von Husum gets off to an interesting start (see the Danacord review index for previous releases). I wonder how many recordings there are of Harold Craxton’s music? I guess precious few. Craxton is a name that is usually remembered in connection with the Associated Board (AB). Not only did he compose a number of ‘teaching pieces’ but he was the ‘assistant’ editor of the monumental three-volume AB edition of Beethoven’s piano sonatas. The editor in chief was Donald Tovey. Craxton was also interested in early music and published a number of transcriptions of this music. He was a concert pianist in his own right, as well as a teacher. His pupils included Denis Matthews, Peter Katin and Noel Mewton-Wood. The present Siciliano and Rigadon were ‘freely’ transcribed in 1935. It is difficult to know how much of this music is original - by either Craxton or ‘Anon’. Whatever the provenance, this is an attractive little work that is timeless in its sound world. It is played convincingly by Jonathan Plowright. I hope that one day some enterprising pianist will make a retrospective selection of Craxton’s ‘original’ music.

Fauré, Ravel and Debussy are often cited as being exemplars for the music of Federico Mompou. Certainly, the delicate Segreto (1912) played by Plowright is good example of his intimate and impressionistic style. Jonathan Powell also majors on Mompou’s music, this time with the La Rue, le Guitariste et le Vieux Cheval dating from 1917. The progress of the music is an impression of a street, a guitarist and an old horse. It is a lovely evocative number that may nod to Erik Satie as well as the above mentioned composers.

I have rarely heard the music of Issay Dobrowen. A composer who was taught by Sergei Taneyev and Leopold Godowsky and is clearly influenced by Rachmaninov and Scriabin surely demands to be better known. I note that there is only one other recording of his music listed in the Arkiv catalogue: The Husum 1991 Festival. There is a review of his Piano Concerto on MusicWeb International (SIMAX PSC 1246) in 2005. Dobrowen wrote much music including an opera based on A Thousand and One Nights. There are Concerti for Piano and for Violin. A large amount of his small output was dedicated to the piano: it includes two sonatas, a set of studies and numerous miniatures. The Poem op. 3 No. 2, is romantic, but unsettled, reticent and definitely nodding to Scriabin.

Karol Szymanowski needs little introduction to lovers of piano music. Over his career he explored a number of styles or periods including Scriabin, impressionism and atonality. The present Étude is early and owes its inspiration to Chopin more than to any other architype. It may be billed as a study, but it is a work of art in its own right. The technical content which includes cross rhythms and double notes of various sorts never descends to the merely pedantic, certainly as played by Yuri Favorin.

I have never really got my head around the piano music of Charles-Valentin Alkan. I guess that it is just one of those things: we cannot listen to everything. However, over the years I have heard a few pieces of his music: I have invariably been impressed. The present work is an extract from the massive Grande Sonate described by Raymond Lewenthal ‘as the longest since Beethoven’s Hammerklavier and the strangest before the Ives sonatas.’ The third movement, is subtitled ’40 years: A Happy Household. This music is restrained and reflects family life for an aging man (in 1847, 45 was knocking on), the blessing of children and the efficacy of prayer. Certainly, Alkan’s music is characterised by length, quantity and difficulty. I valued Favorin’s thoughtful interpretation of this piece.

The only classical/romantic work on this CD is Florian Uhlig’s rendition of Hummel’s’ gorgeous La bella capricciosa [The Capricious Beauty] op.55 (1815). It is a ‘polonaise’ although it opens with a long and occasionally lugubrious introduction. At about a third of the way through, the polonaise proper begins. It is an urbane tune that is followed by characteristic scalar passages. The minor mode gives a little gravitas to the proceedings before the opening theme re-appears. It ends powerfully in a fusillade of virtuosity. I am one of those people who enjoy Hummel more than Ludwig van B. (heresy!) so this was a treat and a pleasure to hear this music played with such passion, poise and technical competence.

Martin Jones plays La Niña del Rio Dulce by the Argentine composer Carlos Guastavino. The title does not translate well into English, but probably implies the ‘Girl by the Purling Stream’ (I stand to be corrected). It is a lovely little piece that, as the excellent liner notes point out, was a little ‘retro’ when it was composed in 1955. This is a little tone-poem that is satisfying and evocative. It is the first of Three New Romances. Martin Jones has recorded the complete works of Carlos Guastavino on Nimbus 5818-20 (review).

Cyprien Katsaris’ Spontaneous improvisation on various themes (Hommage à Liszt) is impressive. Improvisation is not a feature of piano recitals these days, though it still holds its own in the organ loft. Katsaris’ previous offering on the festival programme had been a piano solo version of Liszt’s Piano Concerto No.2 which apparently managed to combine the solo part and piano reduction of the orchestral part for just two hands: Sounds impossible! The ‘Spontaneous improvisation’ selects a variety of tunes from Liszt’s corpus of piano music and weaves them into a gigantic piece – thirteen minutes long. It is a kind of pot-pourri of themes and pianistic devices. Although I recognize the skill and technique here, I am not sure about the concept. My jury is out on this one.

Alexander Zfasman was a Soviet pianist and composer who looked to the West for his inspiration. The Fantasy plays around with ‘classic’ ‘stride’ piano idioms and Charleston rhythms. Although jazz was not completely banned in the USSR, it was regarded with suspicion. The irony of the Fantasy on themes of Matvey Blanter (1903-90) is that the underlying tunes were produced by a composer who once wrote jazz, then dutifully toed the party line and turned to ‘patriotic songs.’ Alex Hassan gives a wonderful performance of this piece: it surely demands to be in the piano repertoire.

Jonathan Plowright ‘gets on down’ in the final track on this CD. Bumble Boogie is a rip-roaring take-off of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Flight of the Bumble Bee devised by the band leader and composer Jack Fina. It was used in the Walt Disney Film Melody Time (Youtube) which was a sequel to the ground-breaking ‘Fantasia’. It even made it into the charts in 1961 by a group called B. Bumble and the Stingers. YouTube also has a video of Liberace playing this work (he could play well, even if he was somewhat outré! An entertainer rather than a classicist).

I really do not need to sum up. This is a fine CD that introduces a number of rare piano pieces: just as it says ‘on the tin’. A glance at the pianists will obviate the need for a glowing critique of the performances: it is taken as read. The Danacord label always guarantees a pristine recording and excellent liner notes. All I can say is that I look forward to reviewing the 2016 Festival excerpts. And finally, could next year’s offering please be a ‘doubler’?

John France

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