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Marcel MIHALOVICI (1898-1985)
Piano Music
Sonatine, Op. 11 (1922-23) [4:20]
Quatre Caprices, Op. 29 (1928) [6:37]
Ricercari, Op. 46 (1941) [21:57]
Quatre Pastorales, Op. 62 (1950) [6:42]
Sonate, Op. 90 (1964) [17:13]
Passacaille (pour la main gauche), Op. 105 (1975) [17:25]
Matthew Rubenstein (piano)
rec. June-July 2018. Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Berlin

Marcel Mihalovici’s piano music occupied him for fully half a century, though it’s focused in output. He was one of the central and Eastern European composers to gravitate to Paris and form ‘l’École de Paris’; the others were Martinů, Conrad Beck, Tibor Harsányi, Aleksander Tansman and Alexander Tcherepnin. Naxos’ Grand Piano marque is doing good work on behalf of the last two named and its regular series has already released Martinů’s complete piano music but there are always gaps to be filled. Into this breach steps Toccata.

The Ricercari and Sonate have been recorded before but otherwise Toccata notes that everything is heard in premiere recordings, to which we owe them and pianist Matthew Rubenstein a debt. The early Sonatine of 1922-23 is a crisp four-minute entrée to his art, composed relatively soon after the came to the city where the Romanian-born composer would live for most of the rest of his life. The second movement has a drifting sense of counterpoint, whilst the Toccata is uppermost in the finale, happily pawky and angular in effect. The Four Caprices were premiered by the Hungarian Harsányi and exude qualities of concision and precise characterisation that prove durable on repeated hearing. There is elegance as well as caprice, the crepuscular and the Bartókian; drive and drama; excitement and vitality.

As Toccata charts the music chronologically, and rightly so, we move next to the Ricercar of 1941, the most extended example here of his art. Its Theme is followed by nine variations capped by a fugue, which is by far the largest movement. The free variations are varied in effect but not in quality, which is uniformly high. Textures vary in thickness, and the composer’s fondness for taut patterns is evident, as is his penchant for rhythmic variation and crisp declamatory writing. The sixth variation is unusual for its sheer warmth and clarity, given elsewhere the music can tend to the brusque. His concluding fugue is perfectly reflective of his individuality as he traces bass against high treble and unleashes gaunt and sombre writing only to relent at one point admitting the sunshine of a glorious lyric reflection.

With the war over – during which he had to flee from the capital to the south of the country - he embarked on the Four Pastorales which show a decidedly unbuttoned side to his musical makeup. The opening is one of the most easy-going and folkloric things he ever wrote – limpid, lovely and simple. The following Allegretto is corresponding zany, animated as so often by that unmistakeable rhythmic zest. It has just a soupçon too of Gallic chic. With its lyric Lento this is a fine example of Mihalovici caught in spring-like radiance: easy-going, genial and warm-hearted.

The Sonate, composed a decade later, perhaps contains some evocations of the cimbalom in the most Romanian-sounding music to be heard in this recital. There’s also a two-voiced duet to savour, elements of bell tolling, and cleverly structured patterns to hear. The finale is a terpsichorean but acerbic one, adding spice to an already intriguing work. He returned to the theme and variations form in the Passacaille for the left hand in 1975. This time there are twice as many variations as in the Ricercari, eighteen in total. Composed for Lélia Gousseau, a notable pianist and teacher who had lost the use of her right hand, Mihalovici was inspired by Dürer’s 1514 engraving Melencolia I noting that the theme itself represents a morose-looking angel in the foreground (helpfully Toccata reprints the engraving in its customarily outstanding booklet notes; splendid notes by Lukas Näf and a fine ‘Memories of Mihalovici’ by Charles Timbrell). This sense of introspection and even malaise is certainly audible, but so too is dissonance, stern chording, slow refractive sections, and some blistering gigue-like elements. Given its daunting technical demands, it’s played with the utmost in communicative generosity by Rubenstein, who proves a formidable champion of this music throughout.

Excellently recorded, this is yet another in Toccata’s superior explorations of seldom-explored elements of the repertoire. Mihalovici’s piano music can be a slightly harder nut to crack than his friend Harsányi’s but it’s a nut very well worth cracking. Try it and see.

Jonathan Woolf

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