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Sergei BORTKIEWICZ (1877-1952)
Piano Concerto No 2 ‘for the left hand only’, Op 28 [29:16]
Piano Concerto No 3 in C minor, Op 32 [29:02]
Stefan Doniga (piano)
Janáček Philharmonic Orchestra/David Porcelijn
rec. 2008, Concert Hall of the Janáček Philharmonic Orchestra, Ostrava, Czech Republic

Just over two years ago I reviewed an outstanding CD of some of Sergei Bortkiewicz’s music for solo piano, and flagged up my long-term love-affair with the Ukrainian composer’s music, so when another opportunity to listen to more arose, I was at the front of the queue.

Having now listened to the two concertos on the present CD, I can say that neither of these works disappoints in any way, even if, in terms of gorgeous melodies per square inch, (or centimetre), they don’t quite reach the same dizzy heights as his First Concerto. That said, if you like good tunes which are actually developed along the way rather than simply lined up in a kind of musical fashion show, then this CD will definitely hit the spot – with Wouter Kalkman’s excellent and informative sleeve notes filling in all the necessary biographical details as well as pointing out some of the music’s features, but not in a heavy, analytical fashion. Please be aware that this is a reissue of a 2009 release on the Nederlands Muziek Instituut label.

The premiere of the Second Concerto took place in 1923 in Vienna, with Eugen Papst conducting. It might be felt that because the work then appeared to go walkabout until subsequent airings in 1952, 1953 and 1961 respectively, this says something about its musical content and appeal, but that is not the case. The concerto was commissioned by pianist Paul Wittgenstein (1887-1961), brother of philosopher Ludwig, who had lost his right arm during World War I and asked a number of leading contemporary composers, including Ravel, Hindemith, Richard Strauss, Korngold, Prokofiev, Ravel and the less well-known Bortkiewicz, to write a concerto for left hand only, which they did. Wittgenstein included a clause to the effect that the full score and orchestral parts should remain his property during his life time, which effectively meant that only he could perform the work, at least until such a time that he was no longer able to play in public. This, along with Bortkiewicz’s demise in 1951, is why it has taken so long to acquire the necessary performing rights. Apart from a final performance by Wittgenstein himself in 1961, the year of his death, this CD – which was recorded in 2008, but has appeared only this year – marks the next chapter in the work’s history.
The Concerto for the Left Hand only, like its successor, is written in the key of C minor, which brings to mind Rachmaninov’s universally-known and much-loved Second Concerto written in the same key. Indeed, there is a lot of common ground between the two composers here, as well as a good infusion of film-score writing, such as the mock concertos of Richard Addinsell’s Warsaw Concerto, and Hubert Bath’s Cornish Rhapsody, although these two works were written some twenty years later. There is a short, imposing orchestral exposition at the start of the Allegro dramatico before the soloist makes his equally commanding presence felt. As with most successful works written for one hand, Bortkiewicz makes highly-skilled use of the whole keyboard, without a hint of having only the ‘bass’ hand available. The music moves seamlessly into three-quarter-time (Allegro), where the soloist is soon given a charming cadenza before the orchestra introduces a gentle, pastoral section, making effective use of solo orchestral instruments and also doing duty as the concerto’s highly expressive and moving slow movement, producing an almost chamber-music interlude akin to the slow movement of Tchaikovsky’s Second Piano Concerto. A more dramatic cadenza ensues, then calm returns with a somewhat clichéd dialogue between piano and solo violin, which nonetheless manages to tug at the heart-strings, even though the violin might have been a shade more prominent at this point.

Then follows an abrupt return to the opening Allegro dramatico, where, for a couple of bars, we hear the left-hand figuration from Chopin’s Revolutionary Study, which happens to be in the same key. A quiet ending seems likely, but at the last minute the dance-like finale (Allegro vivo) – almost with a nod in the direction of Borodin – kicks in, in the relative major key of E flat. This joyful movement ticks all the boxes and provides a dénouement finely-contrasted to what has gone before.

The Third Concerto (1927) has a rather provocative subtitle, Per aspera ad astra – ‘Through Adversity to the Stars’ – which the composer wrote at the top of the score, and which, according to the sleeve-note, has a specific programme: effectively the progression from the murky depths of C minor to the glittering heights of C major. It is hardly an original concept, and, whether it succeeds or not, has little or no effect on the listener’s overall perception of the work.

Its deep, sinister opening (Grave) – suggestive of the start of Franck’s D Minor Symphony, or some of Liszt’s later works – soon leads into the next section (Cadenza), which again, because it is in the same key, recalls the rapid scale-work in the opening Allegro con brio ed appassionato of Beethoven’s final piano sonata. This develops into a more expressive section, with effective interplay between soloist and orchestra. A further cadenza leads into a slow movement (Andante), where the piano’s contribution is initially just a single line in octaves, before various solo instruments are heard once more against rippling arpeggios from the piano. This is the heart of the work, and its longest single section, in which soloist and orchestra share the thematic material. The darkness of the opening key begins to re-emerge, ever more grandiose as the music unfolds, before a slight increase in tempo leads to another short, accompanied cadenza, and some further sections in triple time, culminating in a reprise of the concerto’s opening motif., before finally subsiding chromatically downwards, as the movement comes to a gentle close.

The Lento – Maestoso – Solenne has a distinctly religious feel to it, due not only to the prominence of the harp part, but also the frequency of harp-like arpeggios on the piano and how the writing for wind effectively imitates the sustained chords of an organ. By subtly varying the scoring, Bortkiewicz ensures that the listener’s attention is maintained in a work which, to all intents and purposes, is conceived as a single movement, despite appearing to comprise five separate sections on disc. There is scarcely much of a transition to the last section, marked Moderato, but the ‘religious’ ambiance is swiftly replaced by one of ever-increasing passion, with figurations and rising chromaticism that wouldn’t seem out of place in a finale from one of Liszt’s works for piano and orchestra. This broadens out effectively, before the main theme returns in the closing section in a blaze of glory, as any self-respecting piano concerto should do. Adding to the final effect, and perhaps also attempting to imply that the stars have well and truly been reached, Bortkiewicz throws in some bells at the very end.

It is vital in these larger-than-life works to have a soloist who is in total empathy with the style, and Romanian pianist Stefan Doniga could hardly be a more convincing advocate. His supreme technical control, allied with eminently expressive playing, ensures that every note matters – virtuosity, yes, but with real substance, too. Superb support from the Janáček Philharmonic Orchestra, highly-sympathetic direction from Dutch conductor David Porcelijn, and the excellence of the recording further ensure that this CD should be on the shelves of every Romantic piano concerto aficionado, or indeed of anyone who simply loves melodious, well-crafted music, especially from a composer who has a great deal to offer and deserves to be more widely known.

Dutch label Piano Classics merits special thanks for making this most enjoyable and highly-entertaining CD available again. One wonders whether Hyperion was, or indeed still is, considering including it in its own Romantic Piano Concerto Series.

Philip R Buttall

Previous review (NMI): Rob Barnett



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