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Carl CZERNY (1791-1857)
Romantic Piano Fantasies on Sir Walter Scott’s Novels
Romantic Fantasy No. 1 on Sir Walter Scott’s Waverley, Op. 240 (1832) [20:17]
Romantic Fantasy No. 2 on Sir Walter Scott’s Guy Mannering, Op. 241 (1832) [19:14]
Romantic Fantasy No. 3 on Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe, Op. 242 (1832) [21:34]
Romantic Fantasy No. 4 on Sir Walter Scott’s Rob Roy, Op. 243 (1832) [18:55]
Pei-I Wang and Samuel Gingher (piano duet)
rec. December 2019, Foellinger Great Hall, Krannert Center for the Performing Arts, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, USA
Premiere Recordings
NAXOS 8.579099 [79:59]

Most piano students will surely have encountered the name of Carl Czerny as they progressed from one stage of their learning to the next. Virtually all will associate him with the myriad of scales and technical exercises which he so diligently crafted for beginners right through to advanced players, and which still have their place in modern piano pedagogy.

But his output was far more wide-ranging than this would suggest, and it is so good to see an increasing amount of this appearing on CD. He actually published some 861 opus numbers in virtually every field, except opera. He was clearly an extremely methodical and well-organised person, and had four distinct categories for his works: namely, studies and exercises, easy pieces for pupils, brilliant concert pieces, and serious music. The ‘brilliant’ and ‘serious’ categories include seven symphonies, eleven piano sonatas, piano trios, string quartets, concertos, masses, choral music, songs, numerous variations, transcriptions, and piano arrangements for two, four, six and eight hands – to name but a few.

While the exact publication date for each of Czerny’s Romantic Fantasies, Opp. 240–243 remains tenuous, the year 1832 seems a pretty safe bet, given the evidence available. The most informative programme notes provided by pianist Samuel Gingher – who plays ‘Secondo’ in the first two Fantasies, and ‘Primo’ in the last two – highlight the chronology in greater detail, for those with a special interest in this area.

Sir Walter Scott, (1771-1832), was a Scottish historical novelist, poet, playwright and historian, many of whose works remain classics of English-language and Scottish literature. These include ‘Ivanhoe’, ‘Rob Roy’, ‘Waverley’, ’The Bride of Lammermoor’, and the narrative poems, The Lady of the Lake’ and ‘Marmion’, and he also had a major impact on 19th-century European and American literature. Scott’s time-travelling ‘Waverley’ novels drew on the oral traditions of his homeland and on a variety of historical literary sources to transport readers across the centuries.

Czerny was a keen reader and a obvious fan of Scott’s writing, having already based his Op. 83 Romance for voice and piano on Scott’s poem ‘The Lady of the Lake’, and his Variations Brillantes, Op. 225 for piano four-hands on a Romance from Marschner’s opera Der Templer und die JŁdin, itself inspired by Scott’s novel ‘Ivanhoe’. For his part, Czerny ingeniously developed popular Scottish melodies, made regular and effective use of the characteristic ‘Scotch snap’ rhythm – a very short note before a longer one, and particularly prominent in the Strathspey dance. Furthermore Czerny uses some very effective modulations alongside elaborate harmonic progressions, together with a well-honed use of sequences and transitions. The musical programme and narrative retains its freshness throughout, not only because of the frequently-changing metres and tempi, but also by Czerny’s constant investigation of numerous musical forms and genres, ranging from scherzos, fugal passages, chorales, marches, adagios, and more besides. All this is vital, of course, to keep up the momentum, and ensure that the listener remains on board for virtually twenty minutes or so, each one.

From the outset, Czerny clearly realised that setting each novel as some kind of three or four movement quasi-symphonic structure wasn’t going to work – Romantic novels are rarely constructed in this way. So he opted for the ‘Fantasy’ form which can then enhance the musical and dramatic effect by imparting a programmatic quality to the music, which itself provides greater flexibility to Czerny’s compositional style. Furthermore, he readily acknowledged the long-standing link between the fantasy form, and improvisation.

Waverley, named after the first novel in the series, is typified by its compelling use of thematic development, making an effective use of ‘The Bluebells of Scotland’, originally written by Dorothea (Dora) Jordan, a late eighteenth-century English actress and writer, who published it in 1801, and which has now gone through so many versions, that it has long since passed into folk song status. In Czerny’s work, it appears under various different guises, and provides some necessary musical contrast with some of the composer’s original thematic material.

I’m not familiar with Scott’s novels themselves, but Gingher informs us that Czerny’s Guy Mannering ‘mirrors the novel’s narrow plot-line which often leaves the reader in suspense, unaware of what is to come’. He goes on to add that, at one particular climax, a rhythmic pattern is heard, that eerily brings to mind the ‘fate’ motif at the start of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.

Scott’s ‘Ivanhoe’ was a historical novel published in three volumes as one of the ‘Waverley’ novels, and it represented a shift by the writer away producing works set in Scotland in the fairly recent past, to a more fanciful depiction of twelfth-century England, with colourful depictions of a tournament, outlaws, a witch’s trial, and divisions between Jews and Christians. Czerny’s Romantic Piano Fantasy on Ivanhoe so adroitly portrays the battles and love-scenes, while the heart of the work features an original theme on King Richard the Lionheart, indicated in the score in German text.

Czerny’s final fantasy, Rob Roy, evokes Scotland once again, by using the ‘Scotch snap’, as well as traditional folk songs, such as Logie O’ Buchan. While clearly falling into the ‘brilliant’ category, mentioned above, Czerny’s ‘Fantasies’ still share many of the elements of his ‘serious’ music – formal construction, forward-looking harmonic language, and the effective juxtaposition between structural rigidity and capriciousness. While not directly intended as serious works, the Fantasies – effectively orchestral in conception – do have a serious side in terms of their often quite-complex, do remain very much orchestral in nature, and complex in their construction.

Playing piano duets is certainly great fun for the performers, but it can also be a vastly different experience from playing solo. When you have total command of the whole keyboard and are sat at the mid-point, you can move around as freely as you wish. But when you are sharing those same notes with a fellow-pianist, and are sitting left of centre (Secondo), or right (Primo), then the whole geography of the instrument changes – something, for example, that wouldn’t similarly affect two violinists playing in an orchestra, even if they were still sitting relatively close together. With piano duets, you will often find adjacent hands close together, and you have to be extremely careful in observing rests in the same area, lest you leave a finger on a note which is then immediately needed by your partner. Even stranger is when the middle two hands are required to cross over, and you get a strange feeling seeing a phantom hand move around, where your other hand would normally be. These and other crucial decisions, such as which player will assume responsibility for pedalling, have all to be carefully planned, along with the effective management of seamless page-turns, where a digital music-reader is unavailable..

But Czerny’s Fantasies present considerably more performance-challenges than your average piano-duet, including, according to Gingher, ‘virtuosic parallel passages between parts and perilous hand-crossings which lead to territory disputes and require collaborative problem solving’ – or to put it simply, you’re often getting into each other’s way. Additionally the often-rapid passage-work bristles with ornaments and repeated notes, as well as the less-commonly-encountered opportunities for either player to improvise transitional cadenzas between the frequently-changing section, which adds to the immediate spontaneity of the performance.

The piano-duet genre is essentially aimed more at the amateur music-maker in one respect. It gives people the opportunity to hear symphonic works anywhere there were two accomplished players, and instrument to match. Works like Brahms’s Hungarian, Grieg’s Norwegian, or DvořŠk’s Slavonic Dances all existed – and still do – alongside their orchestral counterparts. Two ‘accomplished’ players can certainly do them justice, perhaps at a musical soiree, or less-formal concert, which was partly their raison d'Ítre, and where the result would be deemed more than acceptable.

But on the concert-stage proper, it’s a completely different ball-game – and the more so when works like Czerny’s Fantasies have no orchestral counterparts, but are concert piano-duets, first and foremost. That’s not to say that they wouldn’t give any pair of able-fingered players immense fun and joy to perform, but unless the standard is commensurate with that heard on this CD, I feel that the performers might end up enjoying the whole experience more than their listeners – something I alluded to, earlier.

Pei-I Wang and Samuel Gingher are a formidable team who extract every ounce of humour, pathos, and sheer romance on an epic scale from Czerny’s highly-inventive imagination, and totally idiomatic writing for the medium. These are all world-premiere performances, recorded with typical Naxos care and expertise, and while their impact won’t prove massive overall, if they help raise the profile of Carl Czerny even a small amount, then the whole venture has been worthwhile. That they also provide something so eminently enjoyable and entertaining to listen to, is a real added bonus.

Philip R Buttall

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