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Blagoje BERSA (1873-1934)
Complete Piano Music 2
Goran Filipec (piano)
rec., 2019, Fazioli Concert Hall, Sacile, Italy
GRAND PIANO RECORDS GP832 [67:46]

Volume one of Goran Filipec's traversal of Blagoje Bersa's piano music was reviewed on these pages in September 2018 (Grand Piano GP767 review) although I haven't heard that disc. The verdict was positive, apart from noting the relatively short running length; at nearly 68 minutes this time that is not an issue. I have been very impressed with Filipec on other releases. The two discs I have of his are Paganini-related; the early and late versions of Liszt's Paganini Études (Naxos 8.573458 review) and rare Paganini variations on Grand Piano GP769 (not reviewed), both discs displaying technically wonderful pianism, thoughtful and musically well-shaped, which is all very evident on this disc, as well.

Volume 2 contains a spread of works similar to the first volume, from the Valzer, written in 1893 as he was commencing studies with the Croatian opera composer Ivan Zajc (1832-1914) in Zagreb, to works written in the year before he took up teaching himself in the same city. The Valzer, at a shade over 10 minutes, is the longest work on the disc and following a grand introduction is a sequence of contrasting waltzes in the tradition of the Strauss brothers – there is even a vague hint of Gounod's Faust waltz. This is just one of a number of waltzes on the disc. Riso e lamento (translated here as “laugh and moaning”) is a very effective bright waltz; Filipec keeps the tempo relatively constant and though the manuscript has “slow” and “very slow” marked for the lamento section it is still a convincing performance. Others may prefer the more faithful to the score performance by Ruben Dalibaltayan on Cantus in which the mood of the piece is more accurately represented (cantus.hr 98905200782 not reviewed). The Novelette, one of my favourite pieces on the disc, is more subdued and puts me in mind of a Grieg lyric piece at times, though the figuration of the central section is like a frothy French Valse de salon. The two Barcarolles have more of the ballroom about them than a gondola but are none the worse for that. The first, a charming miniature based on a yearning syncopated rhythm, is marked Serenade? Barcarolle? on the manuscript and both titles are equally apt. The Venetian Barcarolle is a little more extended and is a more passionate affair with some rich harmonic turns. The haunting melody that opens the Valse mélancolique soon gives way to a skipping dance which is a mix of Anitra's dance (Grieg) and Don Juan's serenade Tchaikowsky) without copying either; it is a very attractive work that would make a great encore.

More imposing and perhaps individual is the Ballade that opens the recital. One of the later items here it is an extended tone poem with rhythmic complexities throughout. The tempo indication at the outset is 6/8 9/8 12/8 15/8 and the piece liberally moves between them. This is a big piece, full of grand gestures and virtuosic writing. The modal writing and constant changes of bar length make for a sense of unease at times but this is contrasted with a buoyant swaggering theme in octaves. The gentle hints of impressionist writing in the Romantic central section give way to some impressive swathes of keyboard encompassing arpeggios in a grand climax before the opening returns and a flurry of octaves brings the piece to a decisive conclusion.

The Theme and variations and first Sonata are slightly unusual items. They date from his years of study with Robert Fuchs (1847-1927) in Vienna and appear to be compositional exercises. Beethoven is the clear inspiration for the Variations – the variation movement from his Sonata op.109. The harmonic basis is the remarkably similar and individual variations are directly based on Beethoven's; it is so much of a pastiche that it is quite odd to listen to. The Sonata opens with a theme based on the opening of Mozart's Sonata K.457 but in a major key. The themes are developed in mostly a classical style but with fuller textures that belong more to Beethoven and later composers. I don't imagine Bersa expected either work to have an extended audience and though they both have their merits and are not unattractive, I can't imagine returning to either of them.

The other works are all enjoyable, attractive and well written miniatures – I certainly plan on adding the Valse mélancolique to my own repertoire. Filipec is an exciting player who errs on the side of flamboyance and I love how these works come alive under his hands. Some may prefer the more considered playing of Dalibaltayan on his 2-CD Cantus release. He is beautifully recorded and he shows that he can tackle the virtuoso elements but has a silken touch in the quieter moments. As I noted, he is more alert to Bersa's markings – where Filipec employs licence to great effect in the little scherzo section of the Valse mélancolique, Dalibaltayan sticks to the crotchet equals 104 mark that Bersa indicates. I find that the faster tempo that Filipec adopts for the Ballade suits the rhythmic changes better, enhancing that uneasiness which under Dalibaltayan's fingers sounds a little too comfortable.

This is an interesting and appealing survey of this little-known composer's output and there is a lot to enjoy. Grand Piano don't say whether this series will feature the complete piano music; there are other piano works – his Jalka iz Gruža looks interesting - so there is the potential for a third volume and I would welcome it.

Rob Challinor


Contents
Ballade in D minor Op.65 (1920) [7:14]
Rondo-polonaise Op.18 (1897) [8:07]
Valse mélancolique Op.76 (1921) [3:28]
Serenade-barcarolle (1917) [1:43]
Venetian barcarolle Op.58 (1921) [4:06]
Riso e lamento Op.63 (1908) [2:56]
Valzer Op.3 (1893) [10:25]
Tema con variazioni Op.15 (1899) [5:47]
Piano Sonata (No.1) in C major Op.19 (1897) [6:32]
Minuet Op.11 (1895-96?) [4:19]
Novelette Op.69 (1910) [3:18]
Bizarre serenade (1915) [2:14]
Fantasia Breve Op.56 (1905) [2:28]
An Old Sailor's Telling (1916) [2:05]
Mélancolie Op.76 (1921) [2:16]



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