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Sergei BORTKIEWICZ (1877-1952)
Piano Music
Lamentations and Consolations Op. 17 (1914) [28:00]
Aus Andersens Märchen - Ein musikalisches Bilderbuch Op. 30 (early 1920s) [26:20]
Ten Preludes Op. 33 (1926) [24:28]
Ballade in C sharp minor Op. 42 (1931) [6:41]
Élégie in C sharp major Op. 46 (1932) [4:42]
Quatre morceaux Op. 3 (1906?) [19:38]
Quatre morceaux Op. 65 (1947) [13:53]
Sonata in B major Op. 9 (1909) [22:37]
Stephen Coombs (piano)
rec. All Saints, Durham Road, Finchley, London, 30-31 October 1996, 2-4 December 1998.
HYPERION DYAD CDD22054 [79:33 + 68:39]

Ukrainian exile Bortkiewicz measures up well to Rachmaninov's compositional style. His music is, in that sense, a 'better fit' than Medtner whose name is often mentioned in the same breath as that of Rachmaninov. Bortkiewicz's works have their own innate virtues but the style is often not a hair's breadth away yet still has an eager and moving freshness. In that likeness he can be counted in the company of Alexander Alexandrov (review review review), Issay Dobrowen (review), York Bowen (review review), R.S. Coke (review review) and Greville Cooke (review review).

Speaking of Rachmaninov, he must surely have envied Bortkiewicz his choice of one title: Lamentations and Consolations. It would have fitted the older composer's musical-psychological temperament to a T. That work, alternating four Lamentations with four Consolations, makes a vigorous launch to this two CD set: 2 CDs for the price of one. This twofer was issued in 2000 but not reviewed here until now. Coombs seems unshakeably confident in the worth of the music and in its playing. This he had already proved when he recorded Bortkiewicz's Piano Concerto No. 1 for vol. 4 of Hyperion's illustrious and still growing Romantic Piano Concerto series. The pity is that he may never have had the chance to record the other two Bortkiewicz piano concertos. Coombs is not one to restrict his recordings to the accustomed trails. In his discography you can find major works by Hahn, Vierne, Glazunov, Arensky, Pierné, Massenet and Scriabin. I hope that there will be more.

The present recordings came four and six years after the disc of Piano Concerto No. 1. The eight substantial pieces comprising Lamentations and Consolations are divided into two books. They encompass moods of subdued romantic sweetness, the sorrowing tug of darkling storms and whirlpools and a nostalgic Chopin-like melancholy. In the final two pieces there's a passionate and barely containable heroic surge that would fit aptly in the context of a piano concerto. Along the way we hear some nicely judged subtle attention to dynamics (2) and a very affecting crystalline fragility (4). These are highly accomplished and deeply impressive works and the emotional arc of the sequence is very well calculated.

We shift then to the Aus Andersens Märchen - Ein musikalisches Bilderbuch which is aimed at children - for them to hear, not to play. In this case there is no resort to convolution unlike Medtner in his Skazki which also relate to folk-tales. All these 'Märchen' by Bortkiewicz are short: between 1.02 and 3.50. Everything is polished and outlined with invincible clarity of line: pellucid miniatures with an air of simplicity. Along the way there is an innocence that is yet full of character, Haydn-like Meissen miniature effects and finally a most impressive Grieg-like swirling motion. I was reminded of the solo piano music of the British composer Armstrong Gibbs.

The Ten Preludes that end CD 1 are more grown-up with more danger and more tenderness. Impressions along the way include, in the first, a subterranean river of threatening power. The other nine Preludes variously offer that Tchaikovskian flow of pearly notes at the gallop, Rachmaninov-style gusts and an irresistible sweep, a lulling and coaxing warmth and finally a summation that pummels out an emotionally romantic motto.

The second disc launches with an impressive Ballade and a Rachmaninovian Elegie both of which fit well with the occluded atmospheric romance of the Lamentations and Consolations. Then come two sets of Four Morceaux. The first begins with plunging excitement and gradually cools with a chuckling and gurgling Etude, an affably smiling Gavotte-Caprice and a light-on-the-palate Primula Veris which makes for a suitable flowery confection exuding salon charm. The second set of Morceaux - from forty years later - adheres again to salon atmosphere with a charming Chant sans parole and a Chopin-style Etude not lacking in passion. These are followed by a deft little Capriccio alla Polacca and a nicely rocking Epithalame with more than a dash of Macdowell but with the emotional power turned up a notch. The Sonata in B major is Bortkiewicz's earliest large-scale work and is in three movements. It has a lower creative temperature than the Lamentations and Consolations and a frankly Tchaikovskian Allegro ma non troppo finale.

Two and a half hours of often glorious and even torrid Bortkiewicz from Stephen Coombs. As for the Lamentations and Consolations they should be as often heard as Rachmaninov's two sets of Etudes-Tableaux. Do not forget this collection which deserves fresh and trending attention now that Hyperion has recently released Nadejda Vlaeva's complementary Bortkiewicz collection (review).

Rob Barnett



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