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Stéphan ELMAS (1862-1937)
The Romantic Piano Concerto – Vol 82
Piano Concerto No 1 in G minor (1882) [38:53]
Piano Concerto No 2 in D minor (1887) [34:59]
Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra/Howard Shelley (piano)
rec. May 2019, Federation Concert Hall, Hobart, Australia
HYPERION CDA68319 [73:55]

Throughout the thirty years since the first volume of this enduring and beloved series was released (it paired Moszkowski and Paderewski; by coincidence Paderewski’s Polish Fantasy will feature on the next volume – to be released at the end of May), Hyperion’s programme planners (and their unparalleled roster of pianists) have each done a remarkable job in traversing the highways, byways, nooks and crannies of this seemingly inexhaustible repertoire. The concertante works selected along the way have encompassed the entire gamut from popular behemoths to the long forgotten products of obscure provincial fringe figures. The Hyperion archaeologists have unearthed a startling number of real diamonds from the most unlikely corners. There are remarkably few outright duds – in fact I genuinely struggle to recall even one disc that hasn’t provided at the very least a moment of revelation or delight. In the case of this new issue Howard Shelley and his admirable Tasmanian band take us on a journey from late nineteenth century Smyrna (the present day city of Izmir in Turkey), a rather exotic outpost of the old Ottoman Empire, to Vienna via Weimar in order to introduce the music of an Armenian prodigy, one Stéphan Elmas. In his note Jeremy Nicholas claims this gentleman’s G minor concerto was the first by an Armenian composer. I have found no evidence to challenge this assertion – indeed Elmas seems to have been the first composer from that country to adopt a language far removed from the confines of traditional Armenian music. He was evidently a most gifted pianist who pursued a career in middle Europe and produced these showpieces as original vehicles in which he could display his keyboard prowess before the public.

Perhaps the word ‘original’ is misplaced. For once I’m afraid I found both these works to be rather insipid affairs, notwithstanding Elmas’s piano writing which is unquestionably virtuosic without being interesting; the truth is each seems to take an age to get nowhere in particular. This impression is absolutely no reflection on the indefatigable Howard Shelley, who at times gets close to affording the music a stature it scarcely merits. Shelley has contributed massively to the series – in this case however I do feel that despite heroic efforts on his part (as conductor as well as soloist) he is somewhat short-changed by the quality of these concertos, both of which I regret to declare seemed irredeemably dull.

There’s certainly a good deal of maestoso in the opening bars of the first concerto but it’s a stumbling, rather anodyne tune which yields to the diluted Chopiniana of the second subject. Jeremy Nicholas’s succinct description of what follows may be technically accurate but for my money, across a span of twenty minutes (it genuinely seemed much longer) Elmas seems to take an age to say, well, not very much. He makes genuine attempts at manufacturing showstopping moments but his lofty ambitions barely conceal the tepidity of his invention. Nicholas suggests some listeners may find the central Larghetto the most individual of the three; If that turns out to be the case I would argue it says more about the utter derivativeness of the work’s outer movements. The best compliment I can pay Elmas is that his piano writing in this central movement at least strives for (and occasionally achieves) elegance; alas it is also predictable and salon slight. In my view the bombastic chords that open the finale offer momentary promise that is singularly unfulfilled by what follows, namely a sequence of formulaic patterns which are careful not to stray too far from the composer’s all-too-obvious model(s).

I wish I could say the second concerto demonstrated at least some degree of progression. The Allegro appassionato projects a little more melodic distinction than anything in its predecessor; the second subject again owes a great deal to Chopin but at least it verges on the memorable. But the whole is undermined by the stop-start nature of this movement which seems clunky and awkward compared to the better-known (better, full stop) works of Elmas’s renowned predecessors (as opposed to his contemporaries – it is hard to believe that he was born in the same year as Debussy and Delius). To my ears both his first movements in these concertos seem far too expansive for the depressingly slight material they each have to bear. The winsome theme of the Andante is a tad more appealing – Shelley’s characteristic delicacy and poise ensure its presentation in the best possible light - indeed if there is a ‘highlight’ to be enjoyed in this work it’s probably this tune. The succeeding idea seems agreeably pianistic but proves to be anti-climactic, although the panel’s final bars are almost lovely. Shelley finds grace and style from somewhere to dignify yet more watered-down Chopin in the finale’s twin waltzes (which at worst, approach plagiarism) but I must contend that if either of these concertos incorporate any substance whatsoever beyond vacuous showiness, it has completely eluded me. And whilst the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra inevitably give their all in support of Shelley I have to confess I found Elmas’s orchestration pedestrian and defiantly uninteresting.

The recording is at least in the finest traditions of Hyperion’s exceptional way with piano and orchestra repertoire. The brevity of Jeremy Nicholas’ characteristically informative note is perhaps revealing. I suspect there will be many listeners who respond more favourably to Stéphan Elmas than I did. In the context of this magnificent series I have finally found an issue which left me feeling somewhat underwhelmed. No doubt normal service will be resumed next month with Volume 83, which features a concerto by another figure whose name is completely unknown to me, Jerzy Gablenz, as a coupling for the Paderewski.

Richard Hanlon

Previous review: Jim Westhead

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