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Sergei BORTKIEWICZ (1877-1952)
Six Preludes, Op. 66: No. 1 in F sharp major, No. 3 in E flat minor (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. November 2014, Dekelboum Concert Hall, College Park, University of Maryland, USA
HYPERION CDA68118 [76:04]

Here is a composer whose later life in exile took him to St Petersburg, Berlin, Kharkov, Yalta, Constantinople, Yugoslavia, Berlin and finally, in 1933, to Vienna. Many of his later years were spent in penury. He was driven, among other drudgery, to translating the letters between Tchaikovsky and Nadezhda von Meck. These were published in 1938.

Hyperion can lay claim to being the 'home' of the Ukrainian composer Bortkiewicz. Hyperion have Martyn Brabbins' disc of the two symphonies as well as Stephen Coombs' recording of Piano Concerto No. 1 and Coombs' set (Hyperion Dyad CDD22054) of a generous sampling of the solo piano music. Their coverage has been broad and this disc further develops the picture. It also prompts me, in a separate review to consider, for the first time, Hyperion's two-disc Coombs album. It's way past time that we had recordings of the Violin Concerto and the Cello Concerto although I understand that the ever-adventurous Dutton may have made a start. Two other Bortkiewicz discs are well worth mention: The Piano Concertos 2 and 3 can be heard on Nederlands Muziek Instituut who have also recorded large swathes of the solo piano music. Warner Apex have given listeners the music for violin and piano.

We have otherwise heard little of Bortkiewicz. Quite apart from the vagaries of fashion - less of an issue now - his scores became entangled in politics and publishing house contracts. It was only in 2012 that many of the later works became accessible. Nadejda Vlaeva has been at the forefront in exploring and presenting these previously closed aspects. She had already recorded the Op. 60 Sonata once before for Music and Arts. Here she presents works otherwise not recorded. As we know from Stephen Coombs' collection, issued in 2000, Bortkiewicz's music is the epitome of late-romantic Slav ardour. Vlaeva's generously timed recital only affirms that.

All the works here are late; the Coombs collection — which includes the First Piano Sonata — drew on the earlier years. The four-movement Second Sonata plunges in with brio and romantic conviction — more passionate Rachmaninov than poetic Medtner. This music makes an easy transition if you are looking for something close to the Rachmaninov melos and perhaps reflects experience of a far from kindly fate. The middle movement is playful and sits between two more animated movements with occasional hints of a severe Eastern church processional. Not that the kindly and even caressing ways of the finale should be overlooked. The music becomes more philosophical - more Medtnerian - towards the end.

The Yugoslavian Suite is in six movements. These are more a series of appealing postcards although the music has its torrid moments especially in last two movements. That said you will not find here the superheated steam of the Preludes. The whirling Dorftanz points eastward while An der donau is more of a waltz and less of a portrait of the great river's tireless strength. Spiel der wellen sweeps along in a Chopin-like swirl. The Nocturne - Dubrovnik depicts mysterious alleys and warm sunshine. Belgrad has the grandeur and sweep of the Rachmaninov preludes: bells toll and resound. There is also an orchestral version of this Suite.

Espaņa comfortably joins the literature of Spanish music by those who are not from the peninsula. It can be heard in its original version on Warner Apex. Almost incredibly the Three Mazurkas date from 1943. The measured dignity of the A Minor is memorable as is the sunlit confident strolling of the second. The nicely titled Lyrica Nova (1940) reflects a cooling although along the way Vlaeva and Bortkiewicz treat us to smiling eddies, winning ways and pensive Macdowell-style sentiments. The Con Slancio final piece is grand stuff. The only thing is that this runs to only 1:06. It is as if the endurance of that mood can only be fitfully recaptured. The 1942 Fantasiestücke are strong on atmosphere with Warum, Ein Traum and Sie tanzt hauntingly grand and laden with cobwebs and tendrils. These pieces share the empty ballroom mood with An Der Donau. Humoreske is a light-on-its-feet charmer; as for … Und Das Erwachen it carries echoes of the Rachmaninov Preludes. The Serenade intriguingly juxtaposes cut glass ppp in the right hand with the stutter of bass shadows in the left. Of the Six Preludes, to date, only numbers 1 and 3 have turned up. The former explores grown-up emotions but often succumbs to gentle reflection while the latter plays with melancholy excitement.

The complementary and interesting programme notes are by Wouter Kalkman.

A fascinating addition to the Bortkiewicz literature. I hope that there will be at least a second disc from Vlaeva and Hyperion.

Rob Barnett
Previous review: Philip Buttall (Recording of the Month)



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