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Blagoje BERSA (1873-1934)
Complete Piano Music - Volume 1
Piano Sonata No. 2 in F Minor, Op. 20 (1897) [11:39]
Na žalu (At the Strand) (1921) [3:40]
Notturno, Op. 38 (1903) [4:48]
Ora triste, Op. 37 (1903) [5:12]
Fantaisie-Impromptu, Op. 27 (1899) [4:03]
Ballabile (1894) [1:35]
Bagatella, Op. 16 (1897) [6:52]
Airs de ballet "Po načinu starih" (In the Old Way) (No. 1, Fantasia breve [2:57]; No. 2, Scherzo [2:19]; No. 3, L'heure de rÍveries [3:52]) (1926)
Marcia trionfale, Op. 24 (1898) [9:04]
Goran Filipec (piano)
rec. 2016, Pordenone, Italy
GRAND PIANO GP767 [56:12]

BBC Radio 3's Through the Night programme has introduced night-owl listeners to many a name and work that might otherwise inhabit utter oblivion. If we restrict ourselves to the Balkans these include Skerjanc, Arnic, Slavenski and Odak. Krsto Odak's glittering Adriatic Symphony warrants a recording as much as the deserving Homerisch Sinfonie by Theodor Berger. Skerjanc's Violin Concerto can happily jostle for listening space with the violin concertos by Ivanovs and de Boeck. Jim Samson, who for many years has done so much for Szymanowski, also put us in his debt with his English language study Music in the Balkans (Brill, 2013) and sheds some light on a field otherwise barely touched on. Blagoje Bersa is there in the list of reputations and names he mentions.

Bersa figured large in the music art world of Croatia both as composer and as teacher. For example, he taught Boris Papandopulo (1906-1991) (review ~ review) among many others. A native of Dubrovnik, Bersa became a fixture in Zagreb having studied there and for a while at the Vienna Conservatory with Robert Fuchs. Mark Morris identified his 1911 Oganj as the first modern Croatian opera. There were to be others. His orchestral works have had to struggle from under dense shade cast by the comparative popularity of his Sunčana polja (Sunny Fields). Wiki sourcers assure us that Bersa also wrote a Sinfonia tragica (Four memories of my life), an Overture drammatica and Hamlet, a symphonic poem. Sunny Fields has figured on many a Through the Night programme alongside other short pieces including Idila - The Day of my Wedding (1902) as radio studio recordings by the Croatian Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Mladen Tarbuk.

Now to this disc. The 10-plus minute Piano Sonata No. 2 is a constantly engaging and headlong romantic effusion with a plunging Brahmsian flavour and a gentleness that is reminiscent of early Faurť. The slow sauntering and coruscating Na žalu is lovingly handled by pianist Filipec who is to some extent known for his recital of pieces by Ivo Macek, another Yugoslav composer, on Grand Piano (GP681) and for his Liszt forays on Naxos and Capriccio. There's then a carefully stepped out Notturno which would work well as a starry lullaby. From the same year there's the Ora Triste which is marginally more demonstrative but with a mood pulled towards melancholy.

The Fantaisie-Impromptu has more of the stormy immersive quality to be heard in the Second Sonata but this is married at one point with a queasy lapse into populist music-hall territory. Then come other affecting and accessible pieces with a Chopin feel to them, like the Ballabile and the folksy Bagatella. From almost a quarter century later (1926) comes a group of three Airs de Ballet - In the Old Way. Of these the Fantasia Breve has a placid retrospective quality as does the firefly swirl of the Scherzo. The final L'heure de rÍveries starts gravely but soon sinks into a pensively cooling fragility. Filipec ends this rather short-playing introduction to Bersa's piano world with a bombastic Triumphal March. It goes through all the right moves but only finds itself for a few fleeting moments at 3:00 with a trio section that is strong on charm.

The notes (English, French and German) are by the pianist. Filipec plays a Fazioli piano which is unflinchingly captured by Grand Piano's audio-technical people.

Unsurprisingly for the international market, these are all world premiere recordings. It is remarkable that they were not previously recorded in Croatia or the 'predecessor' state of Yugoslavia. There should be more to come; Grand Piano have referred to this CD as Volume 1.

Rob Barnett


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