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

At last!

After forty-five years of waiting, a new recording of the Bronsart Piano Concerto has appeared. I myself have written to Hyperion at least twice in the last twenty years or so, asking them to record it, and I now gratefully thank the team who decide the content of their wonderful ‘Romantic Piano Concerto’ series, for finally granting my wish, in this, the 77th disc to be released.

Vox made the only other recording in 1973 (I think). I was a student at the time and came across the piece in my University’s record library. Richard Kapp, an American conductor, coaxed the Westphalian Symphony Orchestra of Recklinghausen to accompany their omnipresent Michael Ponti. Just what prompted Vox to make it and several other recordings of rare piano concertos at that time, I don’t know, but the company should be praised for its efforts, even though the recordings were far from good. Kapp managed to engage the orchestra, and they sound committed in an enthusiastic performance, but the lack of rehearsals shows in poor tuning and slack co-ordination. It may be that the one and only rehearsal-cum-performance is present in that recording! The indefatigable Ponti powers his way through the piece, and relaxes nicely in the wonderful slow movement, but his piano sounds tubby whenever ff is required, and the orchestral strings sound thin and shrill in an overall boxy acoustic.

Given Hyperion’s reputation, acquired over more than three decades, in the recording of piano and orchestra, it goes almost without saying that this new issue is infinitely preferable to its predecessor.

To give the composer his full name, Hans Bronsart von Schellendorff was born in Berlin in 1830 into a wealthy East Prussian family, whose menfolk gravitated towards military careers. Indeed, several achieved high military and political rank in the 19th and 20th centuries, both before and after German unification. Hans, however followed a musical career, visiting Liszt at Weimar in 1853 and subsequently becoming a favoured pupil. His pianism was of a high order and Liszt entrusted him with the first performance of his A major piano concerto at Weimar. Bronsart met his second wife, Ingebord Starck, there. She was also a composer; indeed, her output was rather more copious than her husband’s and both are mentioned several times in Liszt’s correspondence. Bronsart himself subsequently became a conductor in Leipzig and then theatre manager in Hanover, followed by a similar post in Weimar until 1895, when he retired.

This work, which was regularly performed by Hans von Bulow, is in three movements and begins with an orchestral declamation which is just a prelude to the entry of the piano in heroic manner. Its rather foursquare theme is extensively dealt with by both soloist and orchestra and gives way to more lyrical second and third subjects. Together, they make a satisfying whole, and the music progresses in a well-balanced manner. The composer brings everything together in the final bars, with the full orchestra and piano in heroic triumph.

The lovely slow movement has the distinction of being played every now and then on Classic FM, occurrences which are probably tributes to its gentle beauty. This is the movement that I have returned to repeatedly over the years, wishing for something better than the dish served up by Vox. It opens with muted strings, yielding to the piano, which has the graceful melody to itself for a few bars. This is taken up by the horns followed by solo piano again, rising to a soulful climax. Then the piano and orchestra, horns to the fore, present it fully, before everything slowly dies away (marked ‘smorzando’). Nothing in this movement is overstated – it achieves its effect by restrained elegance and melodic eloquence.

The final movement is a fiery affair indeed. A lengthy galloping theme is presented almost entirely by the solo piano, which the orchestra eventually takes up. These high spirits are interrupted by a brazen orchestral tutti followed by the piano and, eventually, the orchestra, playing material that reminds me of the famous Litolff ‘scherzo’. Finally, both soloist and orchestra join together in a full-fledged return to the opening subject.

Bronsart composed few works, and his two symphonies are lost. However, a sextet, a piano trio, an opera, a cantata and a symphonic poem are extant, and I do wish that the German labels CPO or MDG would record some of them.

Because of my long-held liking for this concerto, and the paucity of information about its composer, I have tried to find out about his ancestry. The ‘von’ in his name signifies an aristocratic heritage, and it means ‘of’, so his family denote themselves as being the Bronsarts of Schellendorf. Finding the location of Schellendorf itself is not easy, but a determined session on several search engines revealed that it is a village in Silesia, which prior to 1914 was part of Germany and is now in Poland. Its Polish name is Przydroże Małe, which, being so different, probably explains why its German version is difficult to find.

If Bronsart is a little-known composer of few works, then so is Anton Urspruch. Born in Frankfurt in 1850, he died aged 56 in the same city. A pupil of Lachner and Raff in Frankfurt and later, Liszt in Weimar, he was well recognised in Germany during his lifetime. His sole concerto, in this recording by Hyperion and also by CPO reviewed here, lasts 45 minutes, half as long again as the Bronsart. I have to say that I think that it is too long for its material which, to my ears, is not in the least Lisztian. Perhaps Schumann comes to mind and at its core, the best bit, is the 7 minute Andante. Would that the 38 minutes of the remainder were as effective. The work is dedicated to Raff and is almost an antithesis of the Bronsart, opening quietly and rarely breaking above forte. The soloist is kept busy, but has no bravura role, and it would seem that Beethoven is the model. In fact, at the opening it almost sounds as if it is about to break into ‘The Pastoral’ symphony. There is much musing and meandering, until at about 19 minutes, the soloist has a cadenza and then the movement ends with two sudden impactive orchestral chords.

The slow movement, an andante, begins on muted strings, but the soloist follows with an entirely different theme. The main protagonists in the movement are the woodwind, either as soloists or ensemble, with the piano accompanying. A short cadenza-like interlude follows, in turn followed by a purely orchestral tutti, and we are at the beginning of the last movement. It begins with a spirited dance by the solo piano, soon taken up by the orchestra, who introduce a more relaxed idea before the piano enters with a third subject. These items provide the composer with the material for variations which comprise the remainder of this sprightly movement.

The entire disc is well up to the sort of high standard aficionados have come to expect from Hyperion’s Concerto series. The orchestra, the near ubiquitous BBC Scottish Symphony (present in well over 50% of The Romantic Piano Concerto issues, and the ‘founding’ orchestra thereof), play at their accustomed high level under Eugene Tzigane, and Emmanuel Despax is the truly virtuoso soloist, who copes admirably with the undeniable difficulties of the Bronsart. The recording is full, vivid and well balanced, in the manner of the house. The booklet note, by Jeremy Nicholas, is as informative as could be wished.

This disc is recommended with enthusiasm, especially for the Bronsart. Indeed, had I responded to the Urspruch with the same degree of enjoyment, this would have been my Record of the Month!

Jim Westhead


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