Sergei BORTKIEWICZ (1877-1952)
Lyrica Nova, op.59 [11:08]
Etude in D flat major, op.15, no.8 [5:12]
Nocturne from Trois Morceaux, op.24 [4:52]
Esquisses de Crimée, op.8 [16:56]
Three preludes [10:06]
Piano sonata n.2 in C sharp minor, op.60 [21:24]
Alfredo Soldano (piano)
rec. Concert hall of the European Arts academy “Aldo Ciccolino”, Trani, Italy, 19 March 2016
Russian Piano Music series, Vol. 12
DIVINE ART DDA25142 [69:39]

I see that I reviewed another disc of the piano music of Sergei Bortkiewicz four years ago and am glad to have another opportunity to do so. The website devoted to the composer, whose homepage is written by one of the booklet contributors, Wouter Kalkman, reads: “Bortkiewicz described himself as a romantic and a melodist, and he had an emphatic aversion of what he called modern, atonal and cacophonous music. Bortkiewicz built his musical style on the structures and sounds of Chopin and Liszt, with the unmistakeable influences of Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov and early Scriabin”. It also notes,“A gentle melancholy also formed a basic feature of his character, which is also echoed in his music and gave it a special charm”. These two observations tell you all you need to know about a composer whose music will appeal to all those who find romantic music attractive. Such music doesn’t get much more romantic than this. It would be hard to understand anyone who did not find his music to their taste, such are the rapturously gorgeous melodies that he weaves into these delightful compositions.

The four pieces under the title Lyrica Nova are typical of the music you can expect throughout the disc. They are dreamily lovely. One could not ask for anything more calculated to help one unwind after a stressful day. The description of those whose influence can be discerned in the music could not be more accurate as any of those names would. I’m sure that they would come readily to mind if one was trying to identify the composer as it were ‘blind’. Each has such a ‘catchy’ tune at their heart that they vie with each other as to which your memory will replay to you later. Any of them would have benefitted from expansion into something longer, but as they are, they are totally satisfying and one wants to hear them again and again.

That last statement goes pretty much for each and every piece on the disc, and it is quite impossible to single any out as being more attractive than any other. There is a delightful story connected with Bortkiewicz’s Etude in D flat major, which Bortkiewicz himself tells in his autobiography Erinnerungen (Reminiscences), explaining that two of his friends credited this etude with their eventual marriages. In one case, his friend had played it to the fascination of a young Dutch woman who came to talk to the pianist afterwards. This lead, in one case, to courtship and marriage. In the second case, the reverse occurred when it was a female pianist whose playing of the same piece attracted the interest of another of Bortkiewicz’s friends, resulting in the same thing. This led to Bortkiewicz naming his etude the Betrothal Etude.
His Esquisses de Crimée (Crimean sketches) are powerfully descriptive of the area around the small town of Alupka, 10 miles west of Yalta and with their whiff of the orient are charming. The last of them subtitled Chaos brings Liszt immediately to mind.

While it is easy to come to the conclusion that this composer is a musical ‘clone’ of other well-known ‘romantic’ composers, it would be both unfair and inaccurate, such is the inventive nature that Bortkiewicz demonstrates in every bar. Neither can one merely say that this composer’s music was ‘stuck in the past’ and didn’t show any influence from the burgeoning modernism that was evident in the early years of the twentieth century. Surely it is more down to the unfortunate nature of chance that seems so often and so unfairly to single out some for greatness and others for obscurity. While it may be difficult, it is best to approach this music without any preconceived ideas because then you cannot fail to be won over by Bortkiewicz’s facility in writing the most wonderfully attractive and deliciously satisfying tunes. I challenge any music lover not be to totally charmed by his Piano sonata no. 2 in C sharp minor, with each of its four movements indescribably beautiful. The same can be said for both the Nocturne from Trois Morceaux and Three Preludes. One can only shake one’s head in disbelief that this composer is not as equally well known or indeed equally popular as Chopin, Liszt, Scriabin, Rachmaninov, and Liadov. Back in 2012, in my previous review of Bortkiewicz’s music, I said, “In the pantheon of great composers Bortkiewicz would not find a place it’s true”. Now I’m inclined to say, why not? How does one define greatness and should we even try to do so for it can get in the way of objectivity? Is it not far better that we judge music on its own merits? Does it make us feel better? Does it satisfy and give enjoyment rather than wanting to rank things? Invariably, people will come to different conclusions about what they consider ‘great’ or ‘worthy’ and often will disagree profoundly with others about who should be placed where in the lists of ‘most popular’. At the end of the day, it is an unhelpful point of view that hinders our getting to know other music that remains in the margins.

Alfonso Soldano is a pianist I hadn’t come across before, but he certainly seems at home playing this music and his obvious enthusiasm for it comes through strongly. I urge any lover of romantic music to hear this. Others who may remain unconvinced about it should try it too, for they may just change their mind about it!

Steve Arloff

Previous review: John France

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