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Sergei BORTKIEWICZ (1877-1952)
Piano Concerto No. 2 ‘for the left hand only’ Op.28 (1923) [29:16]
Piano Concerto No. 3 ‘Per aspera ad astra’ Op.32 (1926) [29:02]
Stefan Doniga (piano), Janáček Philharmonic Orchestra/David Porcelijn
rec. 2008, Concert Hall of the Janáček Philharmonic Orchestra, Ostrava, Czech Republic.

The output of Sergei Bortkiewicz is slowly being recorded, but it is not, I suspect often, if at all, performed. The comments of my Music Web colleagues on those recordings have almost always been highly appreciative. Thanks must go to Hyperion for their recordings of his solo piano music reviewed here and here, and the first piano concerto and symphonies reviewed here and here. Praise to Dutton for recording his Violin Concerto and the symphonic poem Othello, and to Divine Art for some of his piano music, reviewed here. Finnconcert FC-Records have also produced a splendid complete cycle of his piano music, but the CDs are now expensive and largely unavailable. His music for violin and piano has been released by Warner Apex, reviewed here.

I really wish that some enterprising company would record his Cello Concerto and his ballet Arabian Nights. There are also several suites for orchestra which would reward investigation. It is probably too much to ask for a recording of excerpts from his one opera, The Acrobats.

This CD is a reissue by Piano Classics of a recordings previously released in 2009 by the Netherlands Music Institute, which was enthusiastically reviewed by Rob Barnett. However, this incarnation is the first time I have encountered these pieces, and so I would like to add my comments to the lists.

Of all the composers affected by, in sequence, the First World War, the Russian Revolution, the hyperinflation of the Weimar Republic, the rise of Nazism in Germany, the Second World War and the expansion of the Soviet Union, Bortkiewicz takes the lead. His European wanderings, listed in detail in the booklet, can only make one wonder at his tenacity - there must have been many occasions when he felt like giving up his musical career. It is interesting to note that at one point his survival was due to the intercession of the Ottoman Sultan!

The influence of Rachmaninov, his great idol, both as a pianist and composer, can be detected in these concertos. Bortkiewicz hated atonal music, and remained faithful to his Romantic roots throughout his compositions. The second concerto, for the left hand alone, was a commission by Paul Wittgenstein who kept it for his own use and played it several times.

It begins with a grandiose falling theme, first on the strings, then passed to various orchestral groups, eventually descending into the cavernous depths of the brass, before the piano enters, presenting a Romantic tune in the grand manner, taken up and extended by the strings, whilst the pianist hurtles up and down the keyboard. Eventually, a new idea appears which is much less hyper-Romantic than what has gone before, although the lower strings interject an opening phrase. To a degree, momentum is lost here, and the music wanders a bit, with the piano indulging in chamber-like conversations with other solo instruments, but there is no denying its melodic appeal. Finally, the big tune reappears and the movement concludes in an appropriately crowd-pleasing manner before winding down into the short second and final movement. This has a dance-like character, in complete contrast to its preceding movement, and once again Bortkiewicz’ melodic powers are on display. The piece scampers to its jaunty final pages, finishing in light-hearted piano and orchestral indulgence.

Throughout the work, the composer and pianist succeed triumphantly in making the listener forget that only one hand is being used.

The third concerto has the subtitle ‘Through Hardships to the Stars’, and one can sympathise with Bortkiewicz’ struggles throughout his adult life. In comparison with the second concerto, I think that it benefits from not having a movement that is so very different from its predecessor; the second movement of the second concerto doesn’t really gel with the first, whereas here we have a more unified thematic and stylistic structure. The piece begins gloomily with a short theme that reappears throughout the concerto in different instrumentations, keys or variants; in fact, the whole work revolves around it. This doesn’t mean that Bortkiewicz was short of inspiration; his linking of ideas, forward momentum and luxuriant orchestration surely hold my attention. By the time the finale arrives, the listener is carried forward on a wave of thematic repetition, with the key changing to achieve a brighter more triumphant sound. At the end, I sat up in astonishment because the final peroration is capped by the clanging of tubular bells, an extraordinary effect that I don’t think that I have ever heard in a piano concerto before.

This is a super CD, and I hope that lovers of late Romantic piano concertos will rush out and buy it. The recording is very good, the playing of the orchestra under David Porecelijn is enthusiastic, and the pianist gives his considerable all.

Jim Westhead

Previous reviews: Rob Barnett (original release) ~ Philip Buttall



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