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Thomas de HARTMANN (1885-1956)
Trois Morceaux Op. 4 Nos. 2 & 3 (1899) [6:03]
Three Preludes Op. 11 (1904) [3:46]
Twelve Russian Fairy Tales Op. 58 (1937) [20:24]
First Piano Sonata Op. 67 (1942) [21:01]
Two Nocturnes Op. 84 (1953) [5:36]
Six Pièces Op. 7 Nos. 1, 5 & 6 (1902) [9:12]
Divertissements from Forces of Love and Sorcery Op. 16 (1915) [7:29]
Humoresque Viennoise Op. 45 (1931) [5:14]
Lumière noire Op. 74 (1945) [7:13]
Musique pour la fête de la patronne Op. 77 (1947) [9:49]
Second Piano Sonata Op. 82 (1951) [20:24]
Elan Sicroff (piano)
rec. October 2011 and June 2015, Studio 1, Muziek Centrum van de Omroep, Hilversum, Netherlands.
NIMBUS ALLIANCE NI6409 [66:46 + 59:21]

Thomas de Hartmann’s name is one you might have come across in association with George Gurdjieff as one of his most prominent students and collaborators, de Hartmann having transcribed and co-written much of Gurdjieff’s piano music. Pianist Elan Sicroff is also director of the Thomas de Hartmann Project, and this recording is one of a series of three releases aimed at raising this composer’s profile. Sicroff’s connections with de Hartmann include studies with another Gurdjieff student, J.G. Bennett, and he has been working with this music since making the acquaintance of Mme. Olga de Hartmann in the 1970s. The history and background to de Hartmann’s life and work is fascinating, and John Mangan’s booklet notes are superb in providing a balance between content, detail and readability.

Gurdjieff’s music often has a bewitching quality of folk-music tinged profundity, but Thomas de Hartmann’s equally well-crafted pieces initially inhabit a kind of finde siècle romanticism that has a different appeal, a legacy of his studies with Arensky. Written while still a teenager, the Morceaux fall into the category of ‘salon music’ but are strikingly effective in this genre. The Three Preludes Op. 11 see him moving beyond the salon style to a certain extent, introducing impressionist colours and absorbing the influence of Scriabin. Leaping between discs to maintain chronology, the Six Pièces Op. 7 see de Hartmann still exploring pianistic technique in the styles of Schumann and Chopin, while the Divertissements Op. 16 are a transcription from a theatrical chamber music original that draws on 17th century stylistic features with here and there a hint of Prokofiev giving it an edge of modernity. It is easy to gloss over some of these earlier pieces, but there is plenty of gorgeous music to be found here, and the piano writing has a compelling brilliance and transparency.

Moving on to the 1930s, and the kind of witty jazz influence that also influenced Martinů emerges in the Humoresque Viennoise, a piece in which the composer imagines Johann Strauss descending from heaven. Strauss tries the newfangled foxtrot on a piano, turns it into a mad waltz “and sorrowfully returns to heaven.” The Twelve Russian Fairy Tales take us into an entirely different realm, with a narrative character in the music and a directness of musical language intended to be accessible to children. There is sometimes more of Bartók’s Mikrokosmos here in terms of atmosphere, and though there is clear programmatic content to each little piece in the set the imagination is set in motion through individual vignettes rather than a Peter and the Wolf sort of narrative.

The First Piano Sonata is as you might expect weightier and more wide-ranging in expression than much of what has gone before. The first movement has an exploratory feel, moving through what feel like variations on an initial thematic gesture. The central movement is an Aria that has a processional feel, with single lines that initiate counterpoint or harmonies that elude tonality for long passages. The Finale sets up a perpetuum mobile that dramatically gives way to a fugue, the movement ending up as another far reaching fantasy that ranges from Sacre du printemps ritualism to Hindemith-like counterpoint and more. This is a remarkable piece that, while arguably flawed on some objective levels, is certainly deserving of repertoire status.

Lumière noire is a set of three short pieces that tell the story of “a very poor Negro”. The music tells of his journey to Paradise “where he was given coffee with cream and a great many cakes.” Then there is a funeral, and a final scene in which his soul dances with the angels. Musique pour la fête de la patronne is another set of three pieces that “make an ironic commentary on the underbelly of French society”. Dances amidst a brothel scene end up with the appearance of “a fantastic monster… the real Patron of the Feast: Death.”

Encroaching on the 1950s there are two more works in this substantial programme. The Second Piano Sonata is described by the composer as being related to “a conception of the Fourth Dimension. This philosophical idea can be considered as a poetic thought, as a poetic feeling…” There are elements of impressionism here, but there is more content here than might be suggested by vague hints at poetic or even spiritual feelings. Gentler atmospheres contrast with tough dynamics in the first movement, which is as long as the second and third put together. The second movement is a Larghetto which opens with another of those elusive de Hartmann melodies, moving into darkly nocturnal spheres that leak into the opening of the Finale. This opens out into regions by turns more playful and dramatically urgent, and ultimately forms a mighty conclusion to this collection of works. I found myself less engaged however than with the First Piano Sonata. CD 1 finishes with Two Nocturnes, the first of which “evokes the mystery of the night sky” with enigmatic harmonies and upper lines in parallel chords or cluster-like effects. The second of these, The Dance of Life, uses a well-known tune from ‘Lullaby of Broadway’ set to dissonant chord clusters - nature in the first nocturne, and exciting but somewhat oppressive city life in the second.

I came to this collection with no expectations, not until now having been particularly aware of Thomas de Hartmann’s piano music. This is a brilliant survey, superbly played and recorded, of some tremendously worthwhile music. If your Venn diagram of musical appreciation coincides with contemporaries of de Hartmann such as Martinů, Bartók, Hindemith and others, then you will find much to appreciate here. Thomas de Hartmann didn’t have quite the thematic distinctiveness of Stravinsky or Prokofiev, but he was a supreme craftsman with his own unique musical personality, and I am truly grateful to Elan Sicroff for bringing him to our attention.

Dominy Clements

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