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

This is the 82nd issue in Hyperion’s wonderful “The Romantic Piano Concerto” series; many of these discs have given me a lot of pleasure, and this one contains melodious works from the pen of a composer who, as far as I am aware, is unknown outside his native Armenia. The notes in the booklet aver that the 1st piano concerto is the earliest ever composed by an Armenian, and Elmas was just 20 years old when he composed it.

The now defunct Stephan Elmas Foundation lists a catalogue of over 120 works for solo piano, four piano concertos, a piano trio and quartet and multiple other chamber works. The booklet gives a summary of his life, whilst pointing out that mentions of him in musical biographies of the period are spectacularly absent. This might have something to do with the fact that at the age of 35 he contracted typhoid, which led to his loss of hearing. He decided to base himself in Geneva from 1912, where he taught, but became more and more reclusive and presumably did little to promote his own works. The genocide of Armenians by Turks of the Ottoman Empire in 1915 affected him badly, leading to severe depression, and he was nursed through this by his partner, the painter Aimée Rapin, who was born with the phocomelia syndrome. In 1922 he and his family were in Smyrna when the Turkish army attacked. He managed to extricate his family to Athens and then on to Geneva.

He was a formidable pianist and the ghost of Chopin looms large in these works. The earlier concerto shows this influence to a large degree, with Chopinesque passagework often to the fore. Elmas had a strong lyrical gift, and the second subject of the first movement, whilst hardly persistent in the memory, sings along nicely and is welcome when it returns towards the end of the movement. The slow movement is pleasingly lyrical, with a charming main subject that the booklet refers to as being in the style of “the drawing room ballads of the time”. The last movement relies heavily on the sort of figuration and rhythmic patterns the appear in both Chopin concertos. It should also be pointed out that the orchestration is uninteresting, with strings being the first resource, and largely undifferentiated woodwind giving some extra body to the sound.

The second concerto was completed in 1887 but not published until 1923, and unlike its predecessor can be regarded as better filling the description of a full-blooded Romantic concerto. In the opening movement, there are storming octave passages, with notable melodic appeal and bravura writing with a strong emotional intensity. The slow movement opens with a quotation from the second movement romance from Mozart’s D minor concerto (No.20). The quotation slips into the main melodic inspiration of the entire concerto, a swooning melody that any Hollywood composer would have been delighted to employ. Presented effectively on the strings, it eventually comes to a halt and Elmas introduces the contrasting second theme, which the booklet claims owes something to the variation Chopin composed for Liszt’s Hexameron. However, Elmas knows when he has a winner on his hands, and soon reintroduces the luscious theme. The finale utilises two lilting waltz tunes, once again reminiscent of Chopin’s writing, and eventually the movement ends in effects lifted directly from the finale of Chopin’s F minor concerto.

Once again, the orchestration is hardly striking, although it cannot be denied that the main second movement theme is particularly suited to the strings in full romantic mode.

The booklet notes are detailed and informative with a touching photo of the composer and his smiling partner beside two of her paintings, done with her feet. The playing and recording are fine, and once again, virtuoso Howard Shelley directs from the keyboard. This CD makes a fine addition to the Hyperion’s series of concerto recordings.
Jim Westhead

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