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Anton URSPRUCH (1850-1907)
Complete Piano works
5 Fantasiestücke, Op. 2 [46:51]
Deutsche Tänze, Heft 1 - 3, Op. 7 nos.1 – 23 (arr. for solo piano) [48:01]
Variationen über ein eigenes Thema, Op. 10 [25:55]
5 Morceaux, Op. 19 [32:39]
Cavatine und Arabeske, Op. 20 [11:06]
Präludium und Capriccio, Op. 22 [8:05]
Ana-Marija Markovina (piano)
rec. 2016, Bayerischer Rundfunk, Studio Franken.
HÄNSSLER CLASSICS HC16015 [3 CDs: 171:47]

I’ve been familiar with some of the music on this disc for a few years as it was originally released on a double CD on the Genuin label dating from 2011 (although oddly this is not mentioned in the recording details on the disc). Happily, this new 3-disc set includes the works from those discs plus some new material comprising the remainder of the music for piano. All these recordings use the same soloist as the initial release, the Croatian pianist Ana-Marija Markovina.

Urspruch’s piano music is of extreme difficulty and his small output had remained almost totally ignored since his early death at the age of 56. He did not produce copious quantities of music reaching just Op.29 and much of this had been forgotten. However, in recent years, he seems to be having something of a revival as some of his other works for other forces have now been recorded. His comic opera “Das Unmöglichste von Allem” was released on the Naxos label in 2013, his Symphony (Op.14) recently received its first recording on the CPO label (coupled with the Piano Concerto, Op.9) and there is a further CD of his lieder. Interestingly, his most recorded work is the Piano Concerto which currently has 2 recordings in the catalogue – the one on the CPO label and another released in October 2018 as part of the excellent ongoing Hyperion Romantic Piano Concerto series. I also believe that the pianist on this disc, Ana-Marija Markovina has plans to record it in the future too.

The Five Fantasiestücke, published as his Op. 2, initially strike the listener as very Schumannesque, there are definite hints of Schumann’s Arabesque (Op.18) mixed with the sort of feverish intensity found in the Kreisleriana (Op.16). However, this is mixed with the brilliance of Liszt (who was a friend and ardent supporter of Urspruch) and, especially in the final piece of the set, something approaching the virtuosity of Alkan at full stretch. This is young man’s music, full of power and passion. I must say that I’m particularly fond of the first of the set; the opening has a whimsical charm to it which is nicely contrasted with the fantastically difficult following material. This initial material returns several times during the nearly 14 minutes of the piece only to be interrupted with more impassioned sections. The work actually ends very quietly and beautifully and there is some lovely playing here and the recording quality is excellent. The second piece starts more aggressively, with a sort of offbeat march reminiscent of the 2nd movement of Schumann’s Fantasy, Op.17. There is plenty for the pianist to do here as the level of virtuosity here is ferocious. The central contrasted section is more relaxed although still not easy! This seems to act as a chorale before the music develops and acts as a return of the leaping theme from the opening to finish off the piece, albeit with modifications. Thirdly is the shortest piece of the set, in A major as the preceeding one was. This is much more leisurely affair and contains some wonderful harmonies and playing throughout without any massive outbursts of volume or technical difficulty. The 4th of the set is longer again and is again in a major key, this time in E. This is similar to the second piece with Schumannesque overtones and a powerful introductory section which quietens down before gaining in power massively about 4 minutes in. There are huge runs and octaves, leaps and tremelandos all going on here at the same time as the opening theme is amplified and augmented to something really quite remarkable. The piece consists of several sections; all linked by this theme and the whole lot is wound up into a complex restatement of this motif. The ending is suitably loud, positive and rousing. The last of this set is the unusual key of G# major and continues the virtuosity of some of the earlier pieces in the set. There is so much going on here sometimes it is hard to believe that only one pianist is playing and comparisons with Alkan are obvious to the listener. The mood of the piece becomes less difficult and more thoughtful around 3 minutes in with a charming bouncy tune which is a real earworm. This bounces around for some time before powerful repeated chords herald a return to the opening material with its phenomenal virtuosity. The bouncy theme returns again at 5’23’’ and is appealingly developed into something much more difficult. This is followed by a decidedly creepy section which mumbles along in the bass and is a sinister version of themes from earlier. There is then a delightful slow part which meanders around in a most interesting fashion with some remarkable music and evocative playing from Ms. Markovina. Then the happiness returns with a reiteration of the melodies heard earlier, gradually leading to more and more frenzied music of increasing complexity before a thoroughly incredible last few minutes of flat out Alkanesque virtuosity. This is an incredible piece and really demands to be heard, especially with a pianist as talented as this. Wow!

Disc 2 contains the 21 “Deutsche Tänze” comprising Op.7 which were published in 1882, arranged after a set for piano duet. These are similar to the Brahms’s Hungarian Dances and Dvorak’s Slavonic Dances in idea with a dash of Johann Strauss added for the waltz like ones. There doesn’t seem to be an overriding plan to these, they are just a interesting and varied set of pieces. These begin with a prelude before leading to the first dance proper. This ‘Prelude’ is a rather pretty little piece, again similar in style to Schumann and with some exquisite harmonic touches. The dances all have different tempo directions and are of varying moods; the first is gorgeous and played ‘Elegante’ as the directions indicate. We then have instructions such as ‘Con grazia leggiera’, ‘Tempo guisto’ and so on. Of special interest are numbers 3 - is very powerful and full of octaves, number 9 (sounding like Brahms on steroids in the middle part!) and 13 (also very clearly inspired by Brahms). The sixteenth of these has some very delicate and beautiful playing contrasted nicely with more vigorous material and lastly number 18 which is a terpsichorean virtuoso-fest that sounds of immense difficulty. All of them are very individual and very pleasing on the ear and, on the whole not as taxing on the pianist as much as the works on disc 1. If Schumann was the overriding inspiration in the music on disc 1 of this set, then I would say that on this group, it’s Brahms and more specifically the Waltzes from Op.39. Some of them sound like Brahms “gone wrong”. I’d certainly be interested to hear the duet version of these works and I hope this disc stimulates enough interest that some enterprising piano duet team might be persuaded to do this, along with Urspruch’s other duet pieces the Sonata, Op.1, the duet version of the Symphony Op.14 and the Three Marches published as Op.18. Anyway, next follows the Variations, Op.10 with a rather beautiful melody as the theme then followed by 24 variations. As with the German Dances, there isn’t a specific pattern so we have a very well-constructed set of variations with varying descriptions for each variation. This opening theme is touchingly played and with a slightly questing quality. The first variation acts as an amplification of the theme, more complex and varied and the second carries on in this vein, albeit marked ‘Cantabile’ so not frenetic in style. Variations 3 and 4 are about half a minute long each and both are fast with some great tranquil playing where marked. The ‘Tempo guisto’ variation 5 is very powerful but transmogrifies into a very delicate variation 6 which contains much of interest. Variations 7 to 11 all increase the virtuosity and difficulty leading to the high point of this is the last of these, variation 11 marked ‘Con bravura’ which sounds very difficult! After all this, variation 12 comes as a surprise, an amiable Brahmsian hymn, again superbly played. The following variations are different, easier but with a different atmosphere altogether, they are more reflective and thoughtful but gradually build to variation 15. This is a loud and percussive little piece with some big leaps for the left hand, further amplified in variation 16 before dissipating in variation 17. This is an ‘Andante’, full of strange harmonic touches and some gorgeous melodies especially around 0’35’’where the theme appears with some interesting left hand accompaniment. The quiet music continues with the following ‘Dolce’ which is again very touching. Variation 19 is another quiet variation with interesting interplay between the hands, all deftly handled here. This becomes more agitated before leading to the ‘Allegretto’ variation 20, a really happy jokey piece, a scherzo in all but name (it is partly marked ‘Scherzando’). Variation 21 continues the crazy happiness of the preceeding variation and builds on it with lots of complex trills and leaps. This is one of the longest of these variations and contains lots of clever writing and brilliant playing. From 2’00’’ things really gain in power and there is some joyous playing. Things settle down abruptly after this, the following 2 variations generally wind things back in preparation for the return of the main theme. The last variation is an amplified version of this with one small powerful section which leads to a reiteration of the main theme and some peaceful trills, serving as a fitting conclusion to this magnificent set of variations. Overall, these are more virtuosic in tone than the preceeding “German Dances” and are similar to the big sets of 19th century variations such as those by Brahms and Reger although minus the fugues at the end. This is a wonderful piece with some equally marvellous playing.

Disc 3 includes the remainder of Urspruch’s solo piano music which comprises of 3 sets of pieces, the last two sets of which date from later on in his life than the pieces on discs 1 or 2. The “Cinque Morceaux” which comprises Op.19 starts with an ‘Air’. This is mostly peaceful but has several louder outbursts during it’s nearly 7 minutes duration. This is one of those pieces which I feel really should be heard more often; it is gorgeous and has plenty of interesting music and is very sensitively played here. Superb stuff. The following ‘Impromptu’ is the longest of the set and is witty and charming with some terrific playing and some great music. This starts innocuously enough and bumbles along genially for roughly half of its duration before a brief powerful section around 3’50’’ which is very impassioned and restless. This gradually subsides and there is a lovely transitional section which is “sunny” in disposition before the opening music returns again. The piece ends quietly, reflectively and simply. Again playing is exemplary throughout. The third piece is a little ‘Romance’ which sounds like a song without words and is splendid. There is a hint of unease in the middle of the piece which contains some clever writing for the left hand (around 1’45’’) but this evolves into something more yearning and then to some outright virtuoso stuff before dissolving away to give more settled and happy music which concludes the piece. The end is particularly surprising as you think it will go quietly but instead ends with a powerful statement! Fourthly we have an agitated ‘Caprice’, stuffed with good tunes and some moments of considerable difficulty for the pianist. The main theme is especially memorable; it’s been a real earworm for me. There is an especially interesting part around 2’10’’ with some amazing left hand scales and an utterly delectable tune in the right hand. This is another great little piece which should be heard more often and one I shall return to often. To round off this set, we have a little piece simply entitled ‘Fantasie’. This begins with a strange passage in the left hand which works its way up the keyboard and both hands gradually join in. It then develops into a powerful main theme which gives both hands lots to do. There is lots of difficult music here and a general atmosphere of anger, with odd moments of less agitated material. The work splits into several parts, seemingly unconnected but with subtle cross references so the whole thing holds together. The ending is really quite brutal! I’m really very fond of the whole Op.19 set, there is plenty to keep the listener entertained and I thoroughly recommend it. The style is less virtuosic than the earlier works and akin to late Brahms with the virtuosity of Liszt mixed in. The ‘Cavatine and Arabeske’ (tracks 6 and 7) are later works, the writing is simpler although there are plenty of little technical problems which could trip up the pianist – but obviously don’t here. The ‘Cavatine’ is particularly delightful and whimsical and is fantastically played. It remains quiet through much of the almost 6 minutes in duration; the central section from 2’20’’ onwards is especially lovely and the trills which mark the culmination of this section are beautifully controlled. The piece is full of yearning which is a nice contrast to the much more energetic ‘Arabeske’ which sounds like a finger twister to me. I would say this has something in common with Liszt’s Valse-Impromptu (S213) in character. The overall atmosphere of the piece is laid-back but there are some more frantic sections which come as rather a surprise. Obviously, Ana-Marija Markovina is more than capable with coping with these apparently sudden changes in mood and the whole thing holds together very well. Again, this is genial and appealing music with plenty of interesting detail and I particularly like this little set. Urspruch’s final works for solo piano make up Op.22 and were published in 1891. The first of these is a little prelude, not even two minutes long which speeds along nicely and cheerfully and has hints of fugal writing in it and ends quietly. The final piece is a ‘Capriccio’ starts with a theme built on trills before becoming more capricious as it progresses. This becomes especially apparent about a minute and a half in where things get very jumpy indeed. By 3 minutes in things get more aggressive and complicated, however the trilling theme returns again before leading to an anxious headlong rush towards the virtuosic and much happier sounding closing pages of the piece. Again, this is a fascinating little creation and is a very enjoyable listen. This is an excellent disc!

Urspruch wrote some memorable and interesting music and really deserves to be heard more often and I am very glad that someone has taken up the mantle of playing his works. Ana-Marija Markovina is more than capable of dealing with the sometimes extreme technical demands which this composer makes of his performer plus she is able to play with a lovely singing tone where required. She can also cope excellently with the rapid changing moods in this music and does not overplay the sometimes amazing technical demands. The superb recorded sound helps the clarity of the notes and the beauty in the music stand out. She clearly enjoys playing these works and always seems to be aware of what the music is about. I should also point out her disc of Hugo Wolf Piano music (on the Genuin label, number 87091) is well worth seeking out – his piano transcription / fantasies on works by Wagner are fascinating! I unreservedly recommend this set to all lovers of virtuoso piano music who also have an interest in the more neglected corners of the repertoire. I really wish that Urspruch had written more solo piano music so that there would be more for Ana Marija-Markovina to record.

Jonathan Welsh

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