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Sergei BORTKIEWICZ (1877-1952)
Prelude No. 1 in F sharp major and No. 3 in E flat minor from Six Preludes, Op. 66 (1946) [5:01]
Fantasiestücke, Op. 61 (1942) [16:02]
Lyrica nova, Op. 59 (1940) [10:32]
Three Mazurkas, Op. 64 (1943) [6.26]
Espaņa, Op. 63 No. 4 (1947) [2:49]
Jugoslavische Suite, Op. 58 (1940) [12:13]
Piano Sonata No. 2 in C sharp minor, Op. 60 (1942) [23:02]
Nadejda Vlaeva (piano)
rec. 23-24 November, 2014 Dekelboum Concert Hall, College Park, University of Maryland, USA
HYPERION CDA68118 [76:06]

My love affair – musically-speaking – with Sergei Bortkiewicz, began many years ago while still a music student in London. I always harboured a particular interest in romantic piano concertos, and was delighted to come across a vinyl copy of Bortkiewicz’s Piano Concerto in B flat major on an interesting coupling with Busoni’s Indian Fantasy – two works both unknown to me at the time. William Strickland conducted the Vienna State Opera Orchestra, with Marjorie Mitchell soloist, and the mono LP – AXA 4528 – appeared on the Brunswick label in 1964. Some years later, when the first CD in Hyperion’s seminal Romantic Piano Concerto series appeared in 1991 (Moszkowski and Paderewski CDA66452), I recall contacting Mike Spring at the label, as he had first come up with the idea for the series, to ask that the Bortkiewicz concerto be a definite candidate for inclusion. To my great pleasure, Mike was able to confirm that, not only was the concerto already well-known to him — in its entirety, as he pointed, given that the original Brunswick vinyl had, of necessity, been quite significantly cut — but that the Bortkiewicz would feature as Volume 4 in the series. It was released in 1993, coupling concertante works by Arensky (CDA 66624), with Stephen Coombs as the pianist.

Since the concerto release, Bortkiewicz has apparently become something of a cult composer amongst lovers of late-romantic piano music. A man after his time, Bortkiewicz became all but forgotten after the First World War. He fled Communist Russia to live first in Istanbul and then Vienna but his music remained resolutely that of pre-Revolution Moscow. Like Rachmaninov in style but with even more tunes and sentiment which drew me to him in the first place. Coombs has since issued a 2 CD set of Bortkiewicz’s works for solo piano (CDD 22054). That set presents some of the composer’s most imposing works, including his largest solo piece, the Sonata, Op 9. Hyperion has also recorded his first two symphonies on CDA 67338.

The present CD by Bulgarian-born Nadejda Vlaeva offers a new album of the composer’s works, nearly all of which have only recently been discovered, and are recorded here for the first time. Vlaeva had already recorded the Piano Sonata No. 2 from the original manuscript of the score held by the Nederlands Muziek Instituut in The Hague; the Instituut arranged premiere recordings of Bortkiewicz's Second and Third Piano Concertos with Stefan Doniga alongside much else by this composer. The excellent sleeve-notes by Wouter Kalkman provide more than enough biographical and background information on the music. Suffice it to say that Bortkiewicz described himself as a romantic and a melodist, and he had an emphatic aversion for what he called ‘modern, atonal and cacophonous music’ – another reason why he appealed to me all those years back, too. Bortkiewicz’s work reflects little innovation compared with many of his contemporaries. He covered no new ground but built on the structures and sounds of Chopin and Liszt, with the unmistakable influences of early Scriabin and Rachmaninov. Like Medtner, the essential characteristics of his style were already present in his earliest works from around 1906, although his later music seems more personal, poetic and nostalgic. For Bortkiewicz, the essential tools of his art were melody, harmony and then structure. As a result, his highly-idiomatic piano writing, and undisputed melodic gift, combine to form a style that is recognizable, attractive and appealing to many listeners, as long as they’re probably of the same romantic persuasion.

The CD opens with two Preludes, Op. 66, No. 1 in F sharp major and No. 3 in E flat minor – only these two, in fact, have so far been located, the manuscripts having been discovered as late as 2001. Bortkiewicz had written them back in 1946. Both are lovely pieces, especially so the second, with its more urgent triplet accompaniment. The Fantasiestücke is a cycle of six pieces, and it is evident from the title page of the manuscript, that the composer changed the order of the pieces, since his initial sequence ran: Sie tanztHumoreskeSerenadeWarum?Ein Traum – and ending with … und das Erwachen. Bortkiewicz’s revised order offers a very different emotional journey. The short, melancholy and decidedly questioning Warum? is now followed by Ein Traum (essentially a Schumann-like nocturne enveloped in fragrant harmonies and lovely tones), and then by … und das Erwachen, with exciting melodic episodes and a colourful accompaniment, more ā la Rachmaninov. Humoreske, then is a spirited, but light-hearted ‘Allegretto’, Sie tanzt, an elegant and graceful, yet frothy quick waltz, and the sequence is rounded off by Serenade, itself distinguished at times by a singing left-hand melody in the tenor register.

The four pieces that comprise Lyrica nova are characterized by their vivid harmonies and wistful atmosphere. The first, Con moto affetuoso, demands a clear cantabile sound, with occasional nods in the direction of Puccini, with its melody sometimes doubled at the octave below. The the second, Andantino, is darker-hued. The third piece, also an Andantino, evokes the style of early Scriabin, while the last – Con slancio – brings this dreamlike set to a much more energetic close, despite its length being just in excess of one minute. The last piano works Bortkiewicz composed during the war years were his Three Mazurkas, which, while strikingly different in character, still inhabit the composer’s distinctive sound-world. The first of the set, in A minor, certainly conjures up the world of Chopin, if not seen through Ukrainian eyes, although the result is more waltz-like than mazurka, with the latter’s strong accents and propensity for dotted notes. The second, in E major, really opens more like a salon-style waltz from Vienna. The middle section owes more to the mazurka’s Polish folk origins. Overall, though, the third, in G flat major, does seem to bring everything together purely from the stylistic standpoint. To commemorate the composer’s seventieth birthday in 1947, the Bortkiewicz Society was founded, whose objective was to encourage the performance and dissemination of the composer’s music. To celebrate this, the composer’s Four pieces for violin and piano, Op 63, were published in Vienna, and No. 4, which follows next on the CD – Espaņa – was reworked for piano solo by the composer. Its calm and evocative opening leads into a final ‘jota-like’ final section, producing an effective conclusion, and what could, in fact, provide a good encore piece in any recital.

The Jugoslavische Suite was intended for publication by Sikorski in 1941. It never appeared although an orchestral version was published. The work probably recalls the composer’s journey through former Yugoslavia in 1922, while he was escaping Russia, and was written with a more pedagogic purpose in mind. Bortkiewicz’s musical tour begins with Im Walde, recalling the sights of Rogaška Slatina – a spa town now in modern-day Slovenia – before travelling on to Serbia’s Aranđjelovac for an appropriately rustic country-dance (Dorftanz), and Novi Sad for a somewhat more sedate waltz. The clear and limpid piano-writing of Spiel der Wellen evokes the waters of the Danube, in a piece that requires the kind of pianistic control of Liszt’s ‘Un sospiro’. The fifth number – Dubrovnik – is a nocturne, with a memorable and haunting melody, picturing the quiet and melancholy aspect of the eponymous bay (now in Croatia). The suite ends in Belgrade, on the busy Piazza Terazije (Am Terasia-Platz), with a study in sheer virtuosity. The moto-perpetuo triplets build in intensity through to the festive and highly-effective conclusion.

The Piano Sonata No. 2 takes us right back to the world of Rachmaninov, even with the odd melodic similarity along the way, although some forty years separate the former’s Second Piano Concerto and Bortkiewicz’s work here. There is even a reference to one of the themes from Bortkiewicz’s own Concerto mentioned above. While the Sonata was a great success with audience and critics alike, the score, in fact, wasn’t published during or after the composer’s lifetime. The first movement (Allegro ma non troppo) opens with an impassioned theme that sets the stage for the melancholy second theme to follow, marked molto espressivo. The second movement (Allegretto) is a whimsical march with a polonaise-like central section providing effective contrast before the march returns once more. The focal point of the sonata is the beautiful third movement (Andante misericordioso), which so effectively combines music of almost chant-like quality. It's reminiscent of a Russian Orthodox Hymn, with highly-idiosyncratic melody-writing, not a million miles away from that of Chopin’s ‘Berceuse’, and which is so heavily charged with such fervent romantic emotion, although Bortkiewicz chooses to reserve the repeated solemn chords to close this slow movement in peace. The sonata’s finale is appropriately a short Agitato, which soon leads to a sudden major-key modulation as the impassioned theme of the first movement makes one more brief final appearance. It is as if to signal the composer’s ultimate triumph in showing such immense will-power in the face of all of life’s adversities.

This is a quite superb CD, and one that I simply couldn’t put down. The playing is absolutely first class, not only in terms of technique, and Vlaeva consummately brings great power to the table when called for, while still ready to produce the most delicate pianissimo when needed. Furthermore, she shows a total empathy for the style, and plays in the grand romantic tradition for which this music absolutely cries out.

If you’ve not heard any Bortkiewicz yet, then this stunning new release crystallises everything on a single generous CD. It's impeccably recorded in the best Hyperion manner, and virtually guaranteed to make you want to delve further. Perhaps it will also lead you to the Piano Concerto No. 1, in the same way that I have now made the journey, but from the other direction.

Philip R Buttall



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