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Piano Concerto in F sharp minor Op. 10 (1873) [30:21]
Anton URSPRUCH (1850-1907)
Piano Concerto in E flat major Op. 9 (1882) [45:01]
Emmanuel Despax (piano), BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra / Eugene Tzigane
rec. City Halls, Candleriggs, Glasgow, 2017
HYPERION CDA68229 [75:25]

When I lived at home in Bootle, just north of Liverpool, in the 1970s and early 1980s, the local music shop, which specialised in instruments and sheet music, also sold LPs, all classical and a very eclectic range. After a while, the owner would reduce the prices of his back catalogue. I was lucky enough to buy wonderful records of some of the most unusual repertoire for as little as 25p. I remember buying a Vox LP which contained the Bronsart Piano Concerto, which gave me a lot of pleasure at the time. I thought it would sit well in Hyperion’s wonderful Romantic Piano Concerto series. I was happy to see this released on the Brilliant 40 CD set of Romantic Piano Concertos (95300), which I reviewed a while back.

The Bronsart Concerto, if I remember correctly, was coupled with an equally underrated piano concerto by Hermann Goetz on a Vox LP, although the Goetz has fared better on CD. It was one of the concertos which I looked forward to most in the Brilliant set, so I was surprised when I listened to the Bronsart and found it less interesting than I remembered it to be. This was one of the reasons why I wanted to hear this new recording of the work. Perhaps it was because it is out of balance, with very nearly half the work taken up with the first movement alone. Indeed, the booklet notes include an excerpt from a review of Hans von Bülow’s 1873 performance in Leipzig, which states that the Concerto is “… certainly somewhat uneven”. Perhaps, however, the Vox recording let it down; Michael Ponti and the Westphalian Symphony Orchestra under Richard Kapp are no match for the present performers.

The fifteen-minute opening movement, Allegro maestoso, seems just too long. It opens with a nice theme in the orchestra before the opening is repeated on the piano. This is further developed on the piano before it is joined firstly by the brass and then the whole orchestra. We then get a more lyrical second theme, out of which the third theme is born. This for me is a little over-developed. The changes in tempo and thematic material make it more a single-movement concerto than a concerto movement. However, here it is handled better than in the Vox recording, with the movement less likely to drag and outstay its welcome.

The second movement Adagio ma non troppo has always been my favourite movement of this work. It is quite beautiful, especially in the way it begins with the main theme announced with muted strings. This is then picked up in the piano and then shared with the strings. It is only nearly half way through that they are joined by the horns and muted timpani, before the music gradually dies away quietly, lovely. By contrast the third and final movement Allegro con fuoco begins with a fiery theme stated first on the piano and then by the orchestra. After a restatement of the main theme by the piano, a new short orchestral interlude, more like a triumphal march, is followed once again by an extended piano solo. The solo presents the original theme which is joined then joined by the strings playing a contrasting melody which develops into the triumphal theme before morphing once again into the original theme. Here the piano is joined first by the flutes before the whole orchestra joins in with the piano in a headlong dash to the work’s conclusion.

The performance by Despax and the Scottish players certainly breathes more life into this work than that of Ponti and his Westphalians. This goes some way in resurrecting my interest in this work, but I still think that the first movement is a little too long and over-developed. Those waiting for a modern recording of this work, in a better and more convincing performance, need wait no more.

If Hans Bronsart is a name all but forgotten, well, with Anton Urspruch Hyperion bring us a composer who is a mere footnote in the history of music. Jeremy Nicholas’s excellent booklet notes tell us that he was born in Frankfurt and was yet another pupil of Liszt and of Joachim Raff, whom he succeeded at the Raff-Konservatorium in Frankfurt after the more famous composer’s death. Perhaps it was because he devoted half of his life to the education of others that his reputation as a composer suffered. Even so, he has fared better on disc than Bronsart. This is the second modern recording of the Piano Concerto. Another appeared earlier this year on CPO (555 194-2), coupled with the Symphony. Stephen Greenbank gave the release a favourable review.

The Piano Concerto, Urspruch’s opus 9, was composed in 1882, the year before his marriage to Emmy Cranz, the daughter of the music publisher August Cranz – maybe that is why it was not published by the Cranz publishing house. The work is dedicated to Urspruch’s teacher and mentor Joachim Raff. Stephen states in his review of the CPO recording: “The first movement, at just over 22 minutes, I thought is a tad overlong for the material and seems to outstay its welcome.” I must agree, especially as it is even longer in this performance. It does contain some nice passages which remind me in places of Urspruch’s friend Brahms and of the music of its dedicatee Raff, but these are slightly over-developed. A little editing on the composer’s behalf would have led to a more compact and tighter opening.

I am quite taken with the slow movement of this concerto, especially in the way that its main theme is performed on muted strings before the arrival of the piano playing a theme at odds with that of the orchestra. This continues with neither theme really being reconciled with each other, but with some nice passage work, especially where the piano is joined by the woodwinds. After the short solo cadenza, the piano dies away and the opening theme returns, played almost triumphantly by the whole orchestra. This movement is the real heart and high point of the work. I feel it would have benefited from a few of the minutes dedicated to the opening movement.

The final movement begins with the piano stating the main dance-like theme before being joined by the whole orchestra making a strong statement. This is followed by a short and more relaxed theme played on the woodwinds before this is superseded by a more dominant theme on the piano. The original main theme is reasserted in the writing for both the piano and orchestra. It is this main theme which is then used in the form of a series of effective variations before the re-emergence of the main theme with the piano and orchestra rushing headlong to the conclusion of the movement and the work.

These concertos, composed some nine years apart, suffer from overindulgent first movements. Their composers overdevelop the multitude of differing themes. Both offer some particularly nice passages, but a little more self-control or some creative editing would have improved both works. The rest of the movements, I find very enjoyable. Both concertos fit well the romantic idiom and take their deserved place in Hyperion’s ever growing and enjoyable Romantic Piano Concerto series.

Emmanuel Despax proves an excellent interpreter of both these works. The BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra under Eugene Tzigane prove to be more than an able support. All the musicians seem to get to the heart of this music, especially in the slow movements of both these works. This is an excellent performance, one which is backed with the usual high standard of Hyperion’s production values, excellent recorded sound and scholarly booklet notes, a welcome addition to the catalogues.

Stuart Sillitoe

Previous review: Jim Westhead

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