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Carl CZERNY (1791-1857)
Grand Nocturne Brilliant, Op. 95 [18:55]
Grand Concerto in A minor, Op. 214 [31:24]
Variations de Concert sur la Marche des Grecs de l’ Opéra ‘Le Siège de Corinthe’ de Rossini, Op. 138 [15:56]
Rosemary Tuck (piano)
English Chamber Orchestra/Richard Bonynge
rec. St. Silas Church, Kentish Town, London, 16-18 December 2014
NAXOS 8.573417 [66:16]

In her understandably up-beat liner notes for this CD, soloist Rosemary Tuck describes how well regarded Carl Czerny was in his time: a virtuoso pianist and prolific composer; a student of Beethoven and teacher of Liszt. The effect of his prodigious output, however, could not escape comment, and she quotes from an early Grove dictionary that “the host of lesser works have involved the really good ones in undeserved forgetfulness”.

Let me now quote from the New Grove dictionary something plainer: “Czerny himself admitted that, apart from a few serious works such as the piano sonatas, most of his compositions are modishly trivial.” Czerny gets a longer entry than many better known composers, but the emphasis is on his contribution to the development and teaching of, mainly, piano styles and techniques. His many sets of studies and exercises for piano still torment students today. He could absorb, paraphrase and caricature the great works of his and previous times, “yet these very attributes, when pressed into service by Czerny the composer, resulted in an output that was highly fashionable but for the most part mediocre and unimaginative.”

The gramophone hasn’t been generous to Czerny, either in the number of recordings or favourable opinion. Looking back, he doesn’t rate a mention in Music on Record (1962), and in the 20-odd years of Penguin Guides I scanned through (excluding the collections), he only appears twice - an orchestral arrangement of his études is dismissed as “instantly forgettable”, while the second review is kinder, but only because it is Czerny’s arrangement of favourite Schubert songs. Even the “unjustly neglected” tag mostly eludes him; the few occurrences I could find refer to his piano sonatas which, as quoted above, he considered among his best works.

Rosemary Tuck with her fellow Australian, conductor Richard Bonynge, and the English Chamber Orchestra have collaborated before in a programme of Czerny concertante works (review). So what can they tell us this time about Czerny that we haven’t known before? Not a lot, really, but it’s as ardently presented as we can expect. This is apparent from the opening Grand Nocturne Brilliant, which Tuck extols in the liner notes and plays with equal conviction. Yes, the elements are there as she says; the influence of Clementi, Chopin and possibly John Field, and the singing style Czerny admired in Bellini and Rossini arias. It’s obvious how competent Czerny was in writing for the piano and the orchestra, and in the formal constructs of composition, counterpoint and so on. It all has a pleasant romantic glow and Gemütlichkeit to it, but is that really enough? My enduring impression was of the Chopin-esque. In style, that is, not in inspiration.

Czerny met and played duets with Chopin when he visited Vienna in 1829. The subsequent Grand Concerto of 1830, though, sounds less influenced by Chopin than the earlier Nocturne. A 30-minute, three movement work, it has a lot going on from both pianist and orchestra. Tuck uses adjectives such as ‘impressive’, ‘gladiatorial’ and ‘blistering’ in her notes, while I’m afraid ‘superficial’, ‘formulaic’ and ‘inflated’ are those that occurred to me. That’s not deprecating the performers, though - Tuck and company give their all. After an extended orchestral opening, the piano begins to take charge of the opening Allegro, certainly by note-count, anyway. The central Adagio briefly interrupts the torrent, only to provide a launching pad for the attacca into the final Rondo. Tuck is dazzlingly articulate and secure in the countless runs and fast passagework Czerny asks of her, but musically, I think I’d be just as entertained listening to her practising scales.

The final piece, extravagantly titled Variations de Concert sur la Marche des Grecs de l’ Opéra ‘Le Siège de Corinthe’ de Rossini, is Czerny in rent-a-theme mode. As the New Grove suggests, he applied his compositional skills more successfully to the work of others, but then it must be asked whether he adds sufficient value to claim our attention. We’re still not spared all the empty flourishes and note-spinning, but at least the Rossini element provides a solidly structured thread to hold this work together and give it an integrity missing in the other two. Time, however, is an increasingly precious commodity – would I prefer to listen to Czerny or to Rossini himself?

I have nothing but praise for the artists involved in this production, and the Naxos recording is excellent. I would assume that Tuck and Bonynge had some role in the choice of repertoire; the Czerny discography is quite small, and on the one hand their enterprise is to be admired, giving us another opportunity to evaluate the work of a key figure in the history of the piano and early Romantic music. On the other hand, this discography may be justifiably small, and the only fate awaiting this disc is a place on some dusty library shelf.

Des Hutchinson



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