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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 Alexandrovich de Hartmann, scion of an aristocratic Russian family, was born in Ukraine. Like Myaskovsky he had military training but he was, at a youthful age, also a pupil of Arensky, afterwards Taneyev. He studied piano in St Petersburg and began his first compositions, winning early esteem at twenty-one with a ballet performed by Nijinsky, Pavlova and Fokine. His pre-Revolutionary move to Munich announced a radical new change of direction but the outbreak of the First World War saw a necessary return to his homeland. It was his meeting with Gurdjieff that defined the next period of his life and he was eventually to follow Gurdjieff to Constantinople in 1920. Many more wanderings followed and he eventually arrived in New York in 1950. John Mangan’s extensive biographical booklet note, originally published in Notes, the Quarterly Journal of the Music Library Association in 1996, is a must-read introduction to de Hartmann’s life.

And the piano music? The early fin de siècle pieces evince a song-without-words salon melancholy and a diet of Schumann-and-Chopin though the 1904 Preludes show a sharpening of serious-minded focus with an awareness of Scriabin audible in some of the harmonies. The Divertissements from Forces of Love and Sorcery show pure charm in the Olden Style – the music is transcribed for piano from an opera. There is also the Humoresque Viennoise, an exploration of the vogue for the Foxtrot with a wittily emerging slinky Blues.

His Twelve Russian Fairy Tales were written in 1937 and are pert and non-virtuosic character studies moving between romantic reverie and gaunt percussive drama and various expressive points in between. There are two piano sonatas, dating from 1942 and 1951. The earlier work is notable for the calm elegance of its central Aria, spare and refined, and for the contrasting perpetuum mobile in the finale where Stravinsky looms large amidst the tensile momentum of the music making. The 1951 sonata is, if anything, even more approachable, the music oscillating between the static and the dramatic before admitting a sinuous and engaging song-like figure that becomes more and more dappled. The Larghetto encodes ghostly hints of a Fugato – this is deft and allusive music-making, shadowy and withholding. The finale by contrast is arpeggiated and harp-like in places, with March themes and a multitude of episodes.

The Nocturnes are an intriguing pair, the first being subtitled The Music of the Stars. Its mysterious runs, its unresolved harmonies and its sense of the infinite inscrutability of things is conveyed with mature assurance. The second Nocturne – The Dance of Life – is inevitably more brittle with the tune The Lullaby of Broadway used and subjected to derisive dissonance, with the exception of one dreamy moment of reflection. Fascinating. Another intriguing piece is Lumière noire which investigates a funereal Blues and employs the song Shortnin’ Bread.

Elan Sicroff proves an exceptional exponent of a sometimes bewilderingly diverse range of musical influences – from the nineteenth century via the salon and thence to Scriabin, Stravinsky, and perhaps a little Bartók. These represent, at least, some of the staging posts of de Hartmann’s musical journey, the eclectic and the cosmic, as well as the demotic and the enrichment of American material, all adding up to an intriguing compositional voice.

Jonathan Woolf

Previous review: Dominy Clements

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