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Carl CZERNY (1791-1857)
Concertino in C major, Op. 210/213 (manuscript Op. 197) (1829) [23:02]
Second Grand Concerto in E flat major (1812-14)* [45:38]
Rondino sur un Thème favori de l’Opéra Le Maçon d’Auber, Op. 127 (1826) [13:35]
World Première Recordings
Rosemary Tuck (piano)
Hugh Seenan (principal horn)*
English Chamber Orchestra/Richard Bonynge
rec. 2018, St Silas Church, Kentish Town, London NAXOS 8.573998 [82:19]
A few years back, I reviewed a previous Naxos release by the same Tuck / ECO / Bonynge team, again featuring works by Carl Czerny, specifically sets of variations for piano and orchestra on a number of operatic themes.
On that occasion, the extensive sleeve notes were supplied by Allan Badley, Associate Professor at the University of Auckland, NZ. The present booklet has been written by fellow-antipodean, Sydney-born Rosemary Tuck, the pianist on the CD, and looks at the works recorded, more through the eyes of a pianist, than an academic. Consequently, to avoid duplication, those seeking more extensive information about the composer should refer back to my earlier review, rather than the present one, which targets the specific works, rather than his output overall.
While most of us, especially us pianists, will no doubt have come to Czerny early on via the sheer multitude of exercises and studies he ‘churned’ out. There is no pun intended, but when the Irish composer John Field stayed with him in Vienna, he couldn’t help but notice the way Czerny put together some of his more repetitive pedagogic works, describing it as a ‘composition factory’. Be that what it may, there is indeed a great deal more to Czerny than what most of us will have encountered early on. Much of the composer’s ‘serious’ writing for piano was in fact felt to be extremely difficult to play, which, by its very nature, tended to limit performances, and thus its ability to reach the wider public. Austrian-born Canadian pianist Anton Kuerti – a renowned Czerny scholar – even pointed out that the chamber works can be more difficult to play than a Chopin concerto.
The Concertino in C, which opens the CD, was published by its dedicatee, Tobias Haslinger, who, somewhat strangely, decided to split up the three-movement work, and just publishing the last two movements as the Andante and Rondo, Op. 213. The opening Allegro moderato, which Haslinger side-lined, ticks all the boxes, otherwise. Czerny writes a full symphonic orchestral exposition, where he introduces the second subject in the dominant key. Contemporary practice at the time, taking the lead from Mozart, would tend to have kept everything in the home key first, presenting the second subject material in the dominant, only once the piano has joined in. When, in Czerny’s work, it’s time for the second subject with the soloist involved, the composer initially side-steps to the key of E major – a ‘mediant’ relationship (C major – E major), and something particularly favoured by Beethoven. Perhaps just a coincidence, but Beethoven actually composes the slow movement of his Third Concerto in the key of E major. Apart from the clear debt to the German master, there is also a lot of the same kind of effective piano writing in which Hummel frequently indulged, to be heard.
The Allegro grazioso that follows, is written in the subdominant key of F, and the first couple of orchestral chords almost sound as if Czerny is going to quote from the English National Anthem, God Save the Queen’, albeit at a slightly slower pace. This quickly leads into a Nocturne-like movement, cast very much in the style of Field, or early Chopin, with some delightfully-played filigree passages on the piano, over the lightest orchestral support. There is a slight increase in tempo, which might be preparing the way for a reprise of the opening section, but which, instead, leads directly into the Rondo finale, which, for the main part is full of ebullient high spirits, especially in the first episode, which again looks towards Hummel and then to Chopin, in their rondo finales. The second episode is particularly attractive, where the piano initially intones an elegant chorale-melody, over a pizzicato bass, before intricate arpeggio patterns prepare for a return of the rondo theme, and which then form the main point of decoration as the movement reaches its exciting close. Having listened to the Concertino in its entirety, I can definitely see where Haslinger was coming from. With the relatively short Andante grazioso leading directly in the finale, which is nearly always going to be more light-hearted and frivolous than an opening sonata-form movement, Haslinger was aiming for the same market as many similar two-movement concertante works, popular at the time, particularly works by Hummel, and later, Mendelssohn and Chopin. This more-commercial manner of presentation was essentially at odds with Czerny’s intrinsic, rather than purely commercial vision of the work.
The composer was just twenty-one when he wrote his Second Grand Concerto in E flat – just twelve days after he had given the Viennese premiere of Beethoven’s ‘Emperor’ Concerto. While it can’t be denied the two works are in the same key, Czerny’s Concerto is perhaps a little more by way of hommage to Beethoven in general, rather than specifically imitating the ‘Emperor’.
Czerny’s work opens with a Molto allegro vivace con brio, preceded by an Adagio slow introduction. If you were curious as to why the principal horn player was singled out for mention in the credits, you now realise why, when he contributes to the idyllically-pastoral hunting scene which Czerny paints at the outset. It’s almost as if here the composer is looking back at the ‘Pastoral’ Symphony, which appeared four years earlier in 1808 and to which it certainly bears a quite striking resemblance. After almost two minutes, the home key is restated, as a gently undulating accompaniment takes over, and the music, now in compound time, begins to suggest the final Ranz des Vaches from Beethoven’s ‘Pastoral’, as well as distinct shades of the Eroica Symphony, another work in the key of E flat. Czerny introduces a number of themes, and tries them out in different keys before, at around five and a half minutes into the movement, the soloist makes their first entry. Again the soloist’s scale-like opening gambit is not unlike the lead-up to the Rondo Finale in the ‘Emperor’. While the introduction afforded the soloist quite a long time to prepare, in fact it also displayed Czerny’s proven skill in orchestration, with which every composer of essentially piano-music – Chopin being the most glaring example – is not always blessed. The second subject is quite extensive, though cast in the conventional key of B flat. The development is tautly constructed and convincingly leads back to the recapitulation. As a consummate master of piano technique, there is never a dull moment in Czerny’s taxing writing for the instrument, but the orchestral accompaniment is well-considered, too, producing many attractive textures and timbres. The movement draws to its exciting close, although Czerny resists the temptation to include a cadenza.
The Adagio opens with a horn solo, that starts with an uncanny reference to Mendelssohn’s ‘On Wings of Song’, before Czerny’s own invention switches in. When the piano does enter, the opening phrase of the Mendelssohn sounds even more unmistakable, but if there was any question of plagiarism, Czerny has to be the victim here, given that Mendelssohn well-known song didn’t appear until some twenty years later. Irrespective, it’s a charming movement, based on increasingly more-intricate variations on the opening theme. Not just content with the prominent horn part, Czerny is also happy to pass melodic phrases among other solo wind instruments. This movement, perhaps more than any other on the CD, is a perfect example of what Czerny is really all about as a composer, and, as such, it’s the perfect antidote for those who still associate him with those potentially mind-numbing scale-exercises and studies from their pianistic youth.
The Rondo finale – Allegro assai – opens with a sufficiently jovial little tune in two-time. The episodes continue the high-spirits, as the piano frequently tinkles away nicely over the top with some attractive filigree figurations, visiting a fair number of different tonalities along the way. Even if the rondo theme doesn’t appear quite as catchy as some, Czerny wisely limits its appearances, while still creating a more-than-acceptable finale, with an appropriately exciting and triumphant close.
In his vast output, Czerny has also written numerous concertante works based on themes by other composers of the time, and usually with some kind of operatic association. His Rondino sur un Thème favori de l’Opéra Le Maçon, was published in 1826, the year after the first performance of Daniel Auber’s opéra-comique Le Maçon, incorrectly referred to as ‘La’ Maçon in the original English version of the sleeve-note, but nowhere else in the whole booklet. The opera, which in fact has absolutely nothing to do with Freemasonry, turned out to be Auber’s first enduring success, and Czerny bases his Rondino on Bon ouvrier, voici l’aurore… from early in Act I, and itself cast as a rondo. Czerny opens with a customary minute or so of introduction, where his use of string tremolo is especially effective. It opens in F major, but soon the key turns to A, for the piano to announce Auber’s cheery little theme – in two sections, major and minor, over a pizzicato bass. All that follows is exactly what you would expect in terms of the piano writing from any similar piece, for example, by Hummel, Field or Weber, although Czerny’s ending does seem somewhat understated, considering what has gone before.
In the sleeve-notes, Tuck makes an interesting comment about the work, when she says that Czerny’s Rondino would constitute ‘a perfect way for friends to come together in the drawing room of an evening purely for the genuine pleasure to be found in music making’. My first reaction was, even with perhaps a large Viennese drawing room, to accommodate the piano and at least a small chamber orchestra, might not work, logistically-speaking. But with closer listening, and a little more research, not mentioned here, Czerny’s Rondino Op. 127 should bear the full title of Pour le pianoforte avec accomp. de deux violons, alto et violoncelle’. In its original form, therefore, it is a piano quintet – piano, two violins, viola, and cello – rather than a concertante piece for piano and orchestra. This, of course, would make much more sense of being able to perform it in the drawing room, with a minimum of five players. As far as the present recording goes, it sounds as if the number of strings has been increased, and one, or perhaps two double-basses added, to give greater support, more than likely merely doubling the cello part at the octave below. I can’t detect any wind instruments at any time.
The recording quality is excellent, and the English Chamber Orchestra, under the highly empathetic direction of Richard Bonynge, provides a secure and well-balanced accompaniment. Once again Australian pianist, Rosemary Tuck, despatches each work with real panache and élan, making light of the often complex pianistic gyrations and fireworks, but equally never short on emotion and expression when the occasion arises.
I have now had the pleasure not only of reviewing these two discs of concertante works for piano and orchestra, but also some of the composer’s Piano Trios, and Violin Sonatas. Needless to say I have a great deal of respect for Czerny’s ‘other’ music, and this latest CD has more than enough variety on it to convince most listeners – and hopefully performers, too – that, despite the size of his output – over 800 separate opus numbers, where many contain a significant number of constituent works – there is still a lot of really worthwhile music waiting to be played, which hopefully might then accord him a higher ranking in the history of music, than he currently enjoys. This new CD could be just the very thing to help achieve this, and redress any imbalance in the process.