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Dora PEJAČEVIĆ (1885-1923)
Piano Concerto in G minor Op.338 (1913) [28:51]
Symphony in F sharp minor Op.41 (1916-17 rev. 1920) [42:01]
Peter Donohoe (piano)
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Sakari Oramo
rec. 6 & 7 December 2021, Phoenix Concert Hall, Fairfield Halls Croydon, England

This is my first encounter with the music of Dora Pejačević although both works presented here have appeared on CPO discs differently coupled. That label’s recording of the symphony was made back in 2008 and CPO have proved to be stalwart supporters of Pejačević with releases of her piano music, chamber music and songs alongside the two discs of orchestral works. No matter how fine those performances are perceived – and the general run of reviews and critical opinion seems to be high – the real stature of a work will be revealed by being able to compare different versions and different approaches. So as part of that process of developing a deeper appreciation of Pejačević’s art this disc is to be welcomed. Especially so when it is performed by artists of the stature of those on this new disc and when it is given a top drawer technical recording in Chandos’ finest SACD multi-channel sound.

Perhaps a little biographical information would be helpful – all courtesy of Pamela Blevins’ fine tri-lingual liner. Pejačević was born in Budapest in 1885 not just into wealth but also social status. Her family were some of Croatia’s leading aristocrats and she lived an early life of luxury and privilege. Pejačević’s passion for music was no gentile salon pastime for a young lady but a genuine commitment to Art. She composed her first work when she was just twelve. When her parents recognised this talent they were of course able to pay for her to study both privately and in musical institutions with the finest available teacher. But a recurring thread in her biography is a strong will and sense of independence. So, dissatisfied by the teaching she was receiving she created her own intensive course of self-instruction in composition. Money allowed her the time to travel widely around Europe during which she met the leading artists, poets and intellectuals of the day. By 1913 she set herself the task of writing the Piano Concerto in G minor Op.33 recorded here which remarkably, was the first such concerto written by a Croatian composer. During World War I she worked as a nurse thereby gaining first-hand experience of the horrors of War – something the aristocracy around her sheltered themselves from. Her biographer believes these experiences coloured her later music – including the Symphony Op.41 here as well as increasing her disdain for the Society into which she was born. Having married in 1921, she died three months after giving birth to her son in 1923 with sketches for a second symphony and indeed an opera incomplete.

The disc opens with the 1913 concerto which to be blunt disappointed me. Not for a second in terms of the quality of the performance here however. Pianist Peter Donohoe is one of my all-time favourite players and the perfect musician to entrust a technically demanding yet unknown concerto to. Likewise Sakari Oramo and the excellent BBC Symphony Orchestra are as attentive and supportive in their playing as one could wish. The issue does lie with the music itself. I did not read the liner before my first listen – with unknown music I tend to follow that rule just so that I have no preconceptions or indeed expectations. The main issue is the unadventurous relationship between the orchestra and soloist with the former genuinely an accompanist throughout simply supporting the solo writing. There is so little interchange and at no point is the orchestra the protagonist. As a result, the solo part is very extended with few breaks for the player. I cannot speak as to the effectiveness or skill in the keyboard writing – suffice to say Donohoe plays it with all the (apparent) ease and bravura that I would expect. Thematically the music is perfectly competent without being particularly memorable. A noticeable feature is that the bulk of the concerto’s themes are step-wise in their melodic shape. This of course is a characteristic of many of Rachmaninov’s melodies and it is hard not to hear Pejačević aspiring to something of the senior composer’s sweep and Romantic ardour.

I do wonder, given that this was Pejačević’s first essay with orchestra that the degree of caution in the orchestral writing is simply due to the fact that she was unsure of how effective it would be. Hence while the result is perfectly good it is rather safe, almost bland. I was reminded of some of the volumes in Hyperion’s Romantic Piano Concerto series (about to reach volume 84....!) where the compositions are good without being especially memorable. Clearly artists of the stature of Donohoe and Oramo do not undertake learning a work like this lightly so my guess is that they believe that there is more musical substance here than I have perceived so far.

What a difference three years makes. If the 1913 concerto was (orchestrally) cautious then the 1916-17 symphony brims with confident and effective themes and orchestral gestures – it really is a composition of a different order of magnitude. From lists of works it appears that apart from a couple of orchestral songs, the symphony was Pejačević’s next eassay in orchestral form. I can only assume that she spent the intervening years slaving over her exercises in form and orchestration. For sure this is still a resolutely backward-looking Romantic symphony written in the standard four movement format, but Pejačević has found her own distinctive voice. Unsurprisingly given that Croatia was effectively part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire until 1918, Germanic influences are most apparent. But Pejačević manages to walk a musical tightrope whereby although influences are clear she still manages to find an original musical utterance. This is immediately apparent from the work’s opening pages where she deploys her fairly large Romantic orchestra (4 trumpets, 6 horns et al) where the music dives into an instantly dramatic gesture which compares sharply to the concerto’s almost apologetic orchestral phrase which is immediately passed onto the soloist.

I was reminded in passing of Josef Suk’s early Symphony in E in terms of manner not musical content. There again was a skilled musician whose worked reflected the benevolent influence of preceding composers – in that case Dvořák – while at the same time forging their own distinctive musical voice. Pejačević introduces a warmly Romantic and distinctly Germanic theme in the horns around the 4:30 mark that is genuinely memorable. Perhaps the way she then repeats that theme sequentially passing it around the orchestra shows relative compositional immaturity but its a great melody and worth repeating! Of course, continuing the Suk/ Pejačević comparison – the sadness is that she did not live long enough to develop into a composer capable of writing an Asrael Symphony. But this work is much more than one that shows potential. Pamela Blevins points to the “brooding drama” of this opening movement and that is a perfect succinct description.

The central pair of movements are suitably contrasting with the lyrical Andante sostenuto coming before the third movement Scherzo – molto allegro. The slow movement makes a strong and effective contrast to the first movement by focusing on pensive and song-like themes. To my ear Pejačević has made such great strides thematically since the concerto – this is not just a question of being able to write a “good tune” – which she does here – but also by writing themes that are then capable of effective symphonic development. So the lovely interchange between the cor anglais and bass clarinet evolves, albeit briefly, into a lowering funereal march before that in turn dissolves into a flowing string-led passage. If there is a criticism to be made it is that these two substantial opening movements make the work slightly lop-sided as the scherzo and finale combined run only slightly longer than the opening movement alone. The scherzo trips along quite benevolently – Pejačević’s addition of a xylophone and glockenspiel comes as a surprise. Throughout the symphony there are no themes that seem to be ‘nationalistic’ – again the influence is distinctly Germanic with the buoyantly skipping main theme acting as an effective contrast to movements around it.

The closing Allegro appassionato returns to the dramatic musical landscape of the first movement and in doing so revisits some of the thematic material of the earlier movements. Again the confident sweep of the music is striking and impressive – perhaps the very ending of the work strives a little too hard to create a ‘big finish’. But no real surprise that in the years following the first performance of the final 1920 revision it received several acclaimed performances. As ever with works of this type there is little value in focussing on the fact that it does not sit at the cutting edge of music of its time – clearly Pejačević’s aesthetic preference was for an earlier age. Again, it would be fascinating to know how her music would have developed had she lived longer. My guess is that she would not have strayed far from the path of late-Romantic tonality that this symphony embodies. Her music does not push harmonic boundaries in the way that the music of Korngold, Schrecker or Zemlinsky were at exactly this same period but perhaps she would have explored those boundaries...

The performance by Sakari Oramo and the BBC Symphony Orchestra is wholly impressive and convincing. I will seek out the CPO disc – in part because the coupling there is of Pejačević’s other concertante work – the Phantasie Concertante – which post-dates the symphony and I am intrigued to hear if the confidence gained in the symphony carries forward into that work. Chandos’ SACD engineering is very good as one would expect. The recording venue of the Fairfield Halls Croydon provides a more neutral acoustic than previous preferred locations such as the Colosseum Watford or indeed St. Augustine’s Kilburn where they currently record the acclaimed Sinfonia of London discs. The symphony shows a composer of genuine individuality producing an impressive engaging work of real stature. A genuine discovery.

Nick Barnard

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