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Károly AGGHÁZY (1855-1918)
Works for Piano
Sławomir Dobrzański (piano)
rec. April 2021, McCain Auditorium; June 2021, All Faiths Chapel, Kansas State University, Manhattan, USA
Premiere Recordings

The highly-acclaimed Acte Préalable label has already garnered a unique reputation for introducing listeners from all around the world to unknown composers, predominantly of Polish origin. It would be fair to say that, without the driving force of Jan Jarnicki, who runs the label, virtually all these composers – and more yet to emerge – would be lost forever, and the listening public would be significantly poorer as a consequence.

The present new release marks a slight departure in that the composer – virtuoso pianist and piano pedagogue, Károly Aggházy – is Hungarian. The well-resourced and informative CD brochure, contributed by pianist, Sławomir Dobrzański, informs us that the Pest-born composer studied piano and composition at the Vienna Conservatory, where one of his teachers was Anton Bruckner, and, at the age of twenty, Aggházy enrolled at the Academy of Music in Budapest, studying piano with Franz Liszt and composition with Robert Volkmann. Indeed, Liszt had a profound influence on Aggházy’s musical development, and his future career, by way of obtaining government scholarships and employment opportunities, as well as providing encouraging letters of commendation.

In 1878, Aggházy moved to Paris, where he began collaborating with renowned fellow-Hungarian violin virtuoso, Jenő Hubay, a student of Joseph Joachim and Henri Vieuxtemps. After their illustrious Parisian debut, the duo toured the continent, (sometimes appearing as a trio, with cellist Louis Hegyesi), when they would premiere several works of contemporary composers like Lalo, Franck, Godard and Saint-Saëns. In 1880 they visited London’s original St. James’s Hall, where they performed alongside Polish coloratura Marcella Sembrich. In 1883, Aggházy moved to Berlin, to teach piano at the Stern Conservatory, and subsequently at the Kullak Institute, before permanently returning to Budapest, where he taught piano, chamber music and harmony at the National Music School. On March 7, 1891, the then ten-year-old Béla Bartók played the piano for Aggházy, who immediately recognized the little lad’s talents, which prompts an interesting comment from Dobrzański in his notes: ‘It seemed at that moment that the historic legacy of Liszt was passed on to Bartók through Aggházy’.

Dobrzański explains that Aggházy’s piano output conveniently falls into two categories: pieces that are part of the mainstream Romantic virtuoso or salon-music genres, and those that are clearly influenced by Hungarian folk-music, and then continues to investigate the contents of the CD within those two categories.

First out of the blocks is the Soirée hongroise No 1, and it is interesting to note that the composer refrained from using Liszt’s title of ‘Rhapsody’, preferring that of ‘Evening’ instead. This could possibly suggest that Aggházy’s approach was more to entertain, within the context of a salon, or more intimate venue, while Liszt’s Nineteen Rhapsodies, by dint of their title, were intended more as virtuoso warhorses, to demonstrate what could be done with an essentially humble melody in the hands of arguably one of the greatest pianist-composers ever, and something that would greatly benefit from the acoustics and general ambiance of a large concert-hall. True, similar elements are present in Aggházy’s slightly more embryonic offerings, but the fact that he still combines similar Hungarian element in one single piece, like Liszt, is what made the works of both these composers in this particular genre so very popular, especially at a time when the form was at its very peak. When you listen to the first track for the first time, you will quickly appreciate its technical difficulty and virtuosity, although, as mentioned above, the sometimes almost impossible-sounding figurations in Liszt’s piano writing are absent as such. Dobrzański is quite explicit about this, which is certainly of interest if you have tackled, or tried to tackle some of Liszt’s most challenging examples. Aggházy’s Soirées give a real insight into how Liszt’s Rhapsodies evolved, and would be excellent items in their own right, if looking for specific recital repertoire, yet that wasn’t too challenging.

Aggházy uses a number of different designs in his Soirées hongroises. No 1, for example, was a simple ABA form, where the appealingly-melodic opening section in the minor, was followed by a brisker one in the major key, but which suddenly blazes forth in octaves, very much à la Liszt. Most of the characteristic turns and figurations that have been popularly identified as ‘Hungarian’ are encountered, before the music reverts to the style of the opening, and a quiet close. No 4 is in Rondo form – ABACA – and makes some use of a technique of which Liszt was fond – playing the melody in the tenor register with the left hand, while gently embellishing this with various right-hand filigrees on top. Here there are decidedly more Hungarian turns of phrase, of the kind that Brahms and others would look to, when seeking to convey the idea of the Magyar land and its people. The final appearance of the ‘A’ episode culminates in a characteristically brisk three-chord cadence, which rounds things off with a little more élan.

The Kleine Rhapsodie is also designed as a Rondo, but opens with a much-faster-moving episode, which is reminiscent of a Liszt or Brahms variation on Paganini’s iconic twenty-fourth Caprice. Opening in the minor key, it soon moves to the major, where there is some very delicate piano writing in the right hand, which Dobrzański despatches with real panache and textural clarity. Essentially, in this so-designated ‘small’ Rhapsody, the main argument comes from the effective juxtaposition of different textures, tonalities, and tempi. The Rhapsodie facile, despite its title, opens in a far more aggressive manner in the piano’s low register, with a degree of astringency in the chording, and sounds far more like the Hungarian Rhapsodies of Liszt than anything heard thus far. The facile designation would seem to refer to the basically ‘simple’, uncomplicated construction of a rhapsody per se. As Dobrzański goes on to enlighten us, this design consists of two sections: a slow, lyrical, and often dramatic Lassan section, which can additionally assume improvisatory elements, and is usually in the minor key, followed by a Friska, which often begins from a sudden switch from minor to major. Furthermore, the Friska is generally based on a gradual accelerando, along with an increase in volume, and technical complexity. Aggházy’s piece sums up this evolving style to perfection.

Danse hongroise. Munkacsy nóta follows the traditional design above. The opening Lassan certainly points in the direction of Liszt, as does the ensuing Friska, and in Dobrzański’s assured performance, it is so good to hear a well-judged and decidedly efficient use of the sustaining pedal, so that there is always sparkling clarity and clear articulation, but without a hint of tonal dryness, something which especially suits the decidedly tricky right-hand passage work, which brings the Danse to an impressive close. Similarly Soirée hongroise No 5 continues in the same vein, and is somewhat more daring from the pianist’s standpoint even in the slow Lassan, when the guiding hand of Liszt is never very far away. There is even a quite noticeable modal flavour in this section, but all of this is swiftly dispelled by the eminently lighter-hearted nature of the Friska, where Dobrzański again shows himself more than able to cope with the bristling mordent-like figures along the way. This is the last Hungarian-inspired track on the CD, and the one that comes closest to the style and virtuosity of his erstwhile teacher. Perhaps more modest in character than Liszt, Aggházy’s endings always adequately balance what has gone before, whereas Liszt – ever the showman – would tend to go that extra mile at the end, to ensure a suitably big finish. Dobrzański informs us that Aggházy ‘must have had large hands, easily spanning more than a tenth’, so there would have been little chance of him prematurely running out of steam before the end. Before leaving the composer’s Hungarian period, suffice it to say that he did make use of popular tunes of the day, many of which resemble those which Brahms included in his ‘Hungarian Dances’. Apparently, one of the most easily-recognisable folk-melodies heard on the CD, is the Slovak folksong, Kopala studienku, which was to become the Slovak National Anthem, and features in Soirée No 5, just heard.

The Nocturne, Op 6 was composed in Berlin in 1884, and with its typical filigree passage-work certainly shows the influence of Chopin, as well as that of the form’s initial creator, Irishman John Field (1782-1837). There are the same Chopinesque impassioned emotional outpourings as the piece unfolds, and the finely-judged performance, clearly shows the pianist’s acceptance of Chopin-performance practices, by the finely-judged appliance of asynchrony – where the left hand fractionally, yet tastefully, may anticipate the right.

The strangely-titled Toquade, Op 8 – which translates into English as ‘infatuation’, or ‘crush’ – is not only the most experimental in terms of harmonic vocabulary, but was frequently played in public by the composer. Cast as a typical French salon-waltz of the time, there is a slight hint of Liszt’s Valse-Impromptu (1852), and Aggházy’s delightful little confection is no less effective overall. No sooner than the final note of Toquade is heard, as if by magic By Moonshine, Op 42 No 1, whisks the listener away from the Parisian salon, to what feels to me a much colder setting and environment. The arpeggio-figurations and harmonic palette the composer uses at the opening are uncannily like those in Sinding’s evergreen, Rustle of Spring (1896), and even though there appears nothing to link these two works physically, in purely chronological terms, they were at least contemporaries. Furthermore, there are also stylistic nuances and harmonic fingerprints that suggest another Nordic composer, fellow-Norwegian Edvard Grieg, especially the chorale-like section just before the close. Both By Moonshine, and Fairy Play, Op 42 No 3, which follows, come from a piano collection entitled In the Forest, Op 42, which won a prize at a competition organized in 1913 by the St. Louis Art Publication Society, St. Louis, Missouri. As the title would suggest, Fairy Play is in the lighter style of Mendelssohn, whenever he is seeking to create a similarly delicate and ephemeral texture.

The Trois Pièces, Op 33 begin with a gently-undulating arpeggio bass-line, over which the composer ‘sings’ his melody. There is almost something of an Impressionist feel to the writing, with distinct traits of Fauré to be heard at times. This is followed by a Nocturne which both looks back to the world of Chopin, especially in the more turbulent middle section, while also being more pan-Romantic in its overall ambitions – yet again a lovely piece to play, both for pleasure, or in a recital. The set finishes with Aggházy’s own official Valse-Impromptu, which bizarrely sounds a tad less ’impromptu’ than his Toquade heard earlier.

The Praeludium und Fuge, Op 41 are classified by Dobrzański as ‘musical examples of Historicism, a late-romantic revival of ancient forms and genres. In Europe, it was an era in which Neo-Romanesque and Neo-Gothic styles dominated in architecture, particularly in modern cities like Budapest’ – where the composer would live until his death in 1918. The effectively-written Praeludium is essentially a moto perpetuo of uninterrupted semiquavers, mainly in the right hand, with regular interjection from the left, literally to keep the ball rolling. The Fuge shows the composer an adept contrapuntalist, with the ability to turn something essentially dry and academic, into a piece that can be listened to more than once, even enjoyed as a piece of music in its own right – even if it probably isn’t the most gripping of tracks on the CD.

The last two tracks – Romance, Op 29 No 1, and Lied (d’après Heine), Op 16 No 7 – both very much display the expressive lyricism which pervades much of the composer’s Romantic, rather than Hungarian-specific output, again attractive to play and listen to, and deserving of being far more widely known.

When I first opened the CD, and had a initial glance at the sleeve notes, I must admit I felt it perhaps a tad over-enthusiastic to describe Károly Aggházy as ‘an important Hungarian composer, virtuoso pianist, and piano pedagogue of the late romantic era’.

As a virtuoso pianist, or piano pedagogue, he would most surely qualify on those grounds. But the term ‘important Hungarian composer’ would normally be considered a relative one, and measured against the overall number of ‘important’ composers a particular country might have on paper. France and Germany, for example, account for considerably more ‘important’ composers than, say, Belgium or Hungary.

But I do think a special case could be made for Aggházy. Yes, like many composers on the Acte Préalable label, he is probably unknown even in his own country, let alone the rest of Europe. But unlike some of the other ‘new finds’ each month, not only does he have something unique to say, he fills in some important gaps in the history of the Hungarian Rhapsody, which is still encountered on concert programmes from to time.

But if all that is still not enough, then the recording is excellent, Sławomir Dobrzański is an excellent player who has clearly taken time to research not only the music, but the composer’s place in musical history, and this is reflected in the erudition of the CD booklet. It’s also fun and entertaining to listen to, but it can appeal to the heart, too. You won’t be an expert on Hungarian music after you’ve listened to it – but you should know considerably more about the subject than when you started.

Over the years, I’ve come to look upon the Acte Préalable label as a Pandora’s Treasure Box rammed full of hitherto unknown composers and unfamiliar repertoire. Sometimes, though, a particular new release just seems to stand head and shoulders above the rest, and on this occasion, the world premiere of Piano Works by Károly Aggházy is, I feel, definitely one of them – entertainment, erudition, and enlightenment, all neatly rolled into one.

Philip R Buttall

Disc contents
Soirée hongroise No 1 [4:36]
Soirée hongroise No 4 [3:28]
Kleine Rhapsodie, Op 12 No 1 [3:09]
Rhapsodie facile No 4 [6:01]
Danse hongroise. Munkacsy nóta, Op 11 No 3 [5:07]
Soirée hongroise No 5 [8:35]
Nocturne, Op 6 [5:10]
Toquade, Op 8 [4:22]
By Moonshine, Op 42 No 1 [3:03]
Fairy Play, Op 42 No 3 [2:06]
Trois Pièces, Op 33 [8:23]
Praeludium und Fuge, Op 41 No 4 [4:26]
Romance, Op 29 No 1 [2:37]
Lied (d’après Heine), Op 16 No 7 [1:34]

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