No 2: Scherzo: Sehr lebhaft [4'32]
Falters Flammentod [1'41]
Rose im Schnee [1'39]
Der Zirkus kommt! [0'58]
The oblivion which has overtaken d'Albert in the second half of the twentieth century would have surprised anyone who saw his prodigious rise to fame in the 1880s and '90s. He was known then as one of the world's greatest pianists, had studied with Liszt, and knew Brahms. From his teens there began to emerge a body of composition which showed a maturity well beyond his years and seemed to produce a fusion of the then-incompatible schools of the 'moderns' (Liszt and Wagner) and the 'traditionalists' (Brahms and his followers).
For the latter part of his life d'Albert devoted himself to opera so almost all his instrumental works are products of his earlier years. His piano concertos have been recorded to much acclaim by Piers Lane and it is to the solo works that he now turns. The opus 5 pieces could seem to follow on directly from Brahms's late Intermezzi, but the latter had not yet been written! The Sonata, a grand late-Romantic drama, concludes with a triple fugue modelled very much on Bach. The recital concludes with the Capriolen, Op 32, coming, unusually, from much later in d'Albert's career. These pieces are predominantly light in character and show a composer almost unrecognizable from his earlier self; there are hints of Debussy and atonality in one piece, and jazz in another. Perhaps the biggest surprise is the arrangement of 'Dixie' to be found in the oddly-named 'Missie-Massa'.
I am in a good mood for once, induced by d’Albert, who has just been playing in a way that transcends the imagination. A phenomenal fellow! Thank God, he has definitely cured me of any velleity to tinkle in public. There is indeed no one worth listening to, besides himself and occasionally Joachim … d’Albert played delightfully in Berlin the day before yesterday. It was an ideal, an intrinsically finished performance … I tell you, he’s no end of a fellow … his instinct has providentially set him early on the right road … d’Albert, who played more perfectly than ever here the other day … (Hans von Bülow)
Is this the same pianist we can today hear in the first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Piano Concerto under (not with, most of the time!) Bruno Seidler-Winkler and the Berliner Funkorchester? ‘Eugen d’Albert’ is a name we easily relegate to the past, a name listed in countless biographical indexes and reference books, but certainly not one that today’s students mention or recognize readily. Earlier in the century, though, Eugen d’Albert was a name to conjure with—a pianist whom Franz Liszt dubbed his ‘Young Lion’, ‘The Little Giant’, ‘Albertus Magnus’; whose performances of Brahms’s concertos in Leipzig (1894) and Vienna (1895) were conducted by the composer; whose Bach and Beethoven were considered definitive; whose edition of the latter’s sonatas proved, for a time, the most influential after the von Bülow, inspiring a subsequent generation of Beethoven players—the likes of Schnabel, Fischer, Steuermann and Kempff; whose mentorial guidance was claimed by Wilhelm Backhaus, Theodor Bohlmann, Ernst von Dohnányi, Otto Hegner, Evlyn Howard-Jones, Selma Jansen, Frederick Loewe, Karl Prohaska, Walter Rehberg and Édouard Risler; whose friends included Grieg, Humperdinck, Pfitzner and Reger; whose only serious rival pianistically was Busoni and whose compositional output included twenty-one operas, four concertos, orchestral and choral works, many lieder and piano pieces. His works have largely been ignored—not a unique fate, when one considers the works of German contemporaries such as Pfitzner, Franz Schmidt, Paul Graener, Walter Braunfels, Max von Schillings, Manfred Gurlitt, Artur Schnabel, Heinrich Kaminski and even, to a certain extent, Busoni.
The story of Eugène Francis Charles d’Albert goes something like this … Once upon an April day in 1864, a child was born in Glasgow to a thirty-something Geordie lass called Annie Rowell, married the previous year to a forty-eight-year-old dance luminary with the distinguished name of Charles Louis Napoléon d’Albert. The gods smiled on the baby. Inherent in him was all the music of his ancestors, including, in all probability, Domenico Alberti of bass accompaniment notoriety, a grandmother who had taught languages and music to her son and others, and a father whose musical background included piano lessons with Kalkbrenner, composition lessons with Dr Wesley, dance lessons at The King’s Theatre, London, and at the Conservatoire, Paris, and whose fame as a British Johann Strauss was assured with his Bridal Polka (1845) and ensuing effusions such as the Edinburgh Quadrille, the Sweethearts’ Waltz and the Sultan’s Polka, not to mention his publication Ballroom Etiquette (1835).
The family eventually returned to their Newcastle residence and the boy prospered under the home education of his father. Frederic Lamond, Scottish pianist and, similarly, pupil of Liszt, relates in his Memoirs how père d’Albert made the boy practise contrapuntal exercises and fugues for months on end. ‘I might have come to nothing, but for the early training of my father’, he apparently confessed to Lamond years later.
When he was still eleven, Eugène competed to be the Newcastle Scholar at the National Training School in London. His election resulted in the family moving to South Kensington where he attended what is now the Royal College of Music. W G Alcock’s memories of the 17 May examination for the allocation to the various professors have been well documented but are worth repeating:
I remember standing by the door watching a chubby boy playing (I think) the Concerto in A minor by Hummel. At its conclusion Ernst Pauer (who examined us) said, ‘Ach, you will be with me’, evidently seeing future possibilities. His playing certainly was astonishing for a boy of twelve, and by the time he was fifteen his technical command and sense of interpretation were far ahead of his years.
His other preceptors at the College were Arthur Sullivan (the Director at the time), Stainer and Prout. Despite an impressive curriculum vitae for a teenage student, d’Albert was apparently not always happy with his situation. Lamond specifies that Pauer’s son, Max, was often chosen for the Student Concerts in preference to Eugène, and that Sullivan’s drinking habits caused an unsatisfactory relationship with his student. Harold Schonberg relates that Sir Arthur would exclaim, when confronted by a bulky manuscript, ‘Good gracious, my dear boy, do you expect me ever to get through this?’ On the occasion of Eugène’s student performance of the Schumann Concerto at Old St James’s Hall on 23 June 1879, in the presence of the Prince and Princess of Wales, his Overture in C was also featured, Sullivan having rejected an earlier offering. According to Lamond, Eugène said: ‘The only friend I had was Ebenezer Prout, who stood up for me on numerous occasions when I required his help and encouragement.’ Nonetheless, it must have been through Sullivan’s good offices that he met not only the above-mentioned royalty, but also played for Queen Victoria and accompanied the Duke of Edinburgh’s fiddling while staying at Osborne.
His playing during these student years was obviously exceptional and he appeared three times at the Popular Concerts—on 22 November 1880, and on 3 and 8 January 1881. On 5 February this latter year he played the Schumann Concerto again, this time at Crystal Palace, also appearing on 10 March at the Philharmonic. Hans Richter, the eminent conductor, waved the baton for the premiere on 24 October 1881 of Eugène’s Concerto in A, now lost.
The same year he was awarded the Mendelssohn Scholarship for composition, entitling him to a year overseas. During his school years he had stunned staff and students alike with his Suite for pianoforte published in 1883 as Op 1. Alcock recalls that he played this ‘brilliantly’ in the composition class, ‘Sullivan sending me to fetch Stainer, who was teaching upstairs, to hear it … the work is an astonishing example of precocity, being distinguished by that finish and grasp of effect only to be expected from one more advanced in years and experience.’ (This work is not included on the present album purely for timing reasons.)
Hans Richter’s advice was that the promising young d’Albert should accompany him to Vienna to become a guest of the family. Soon after his arrival, he played the first movement of his own Concerto at a Philharmonic Concert. He played twice to Brahms, writing to his parents on 15 March 1882:
Are you satisfied with me or not! On Monday at 11 o’clock I went along on my own to Brahms … oh, he was so charming to me and so nice! He sat at the table and composed. He listened to my Suite and was really pleased with it. I was with him for an hour … Brahms is lovely and not at all rude, like people always say. He wanted to hear even more of my compositions, but he absolutely did not want me to play his things—he can’t bear to listen to them any longer.
Richter also introduced him to Liszt early in 1882. Young Eugène excitedly reported to his parents: ‘On Tuesday I was with Mr Richter for an hour and a half at Liszt’s. He gave me an hour on his Hungarian Rhapsody and listened to my Suite. He was very happy …’ Liszt, in turn, subsequently wrote to his soulmate, the Princess Sayn-Wittgenstein on 24 November:
There was also an artist, an extraordinary pianist, by the name of d’Albert. Richter introduced me to him in Vienna last April. Since then he has worked at Weimar, without interruption, under my tutelage. Among the young virtuosos from the time of Tausig—Bülow and Rubinstein naturally remain the Senators and Masters—I know of no more gifted as well as dazzling talent than d’Albert.
Lamond speaks of a Berlin charity concert from this period. Apparently the audience laughed when the diminutive gnome-like Eugène d’Albert took his bow after the Schumann Études symphoniques and d’Albert, mortified, burst into tears in the artists’ room—but a signal success in a Singakademie recital the following week was prophetic of an ensuing crescendo of triumphs which was to take him abroad almost immediately to such venues as St Petersburg.
His excited satisfaction with his new-found European life, indeed a spiritual identification with his new home and its towering artistic population, somewhat went to his head. At the age of twenty in 1884 he wrote to a German newspaper in order to correct a biographical error:
Dear Sir: Permit me to correct a few errors I find therein. Above all things I scorn the title ‘English pianist!’ Unfortunately, I studied for a considerable period in that land of fogs, but during that time I learned absolutely nothing; indeed, had I remained there much longer, I should have gone to utter ruin … only since I left that barbarous land have I begun to live. And I live now for the unique, true, glorious, German art.
This letter was later reprinted by The Times in England, causing some controversy, but the age and emotional state of the writer should be borne in mind when judging its validity. In September the same year, d’Albert was under-age when he managed to marry the similarly under-aged Louise Salingré on a romantic northern island, Helgoland, where the law allowed such a blessing. Lamond paints an amusing picture of d’Albert registering the birth of his son in Coburg. His insignificant appearance caused incredulity on the part of the registration officer, who required that the father of the child be summoned for official notification. When d’Albert protested his paternal status in his high-pitched voice the official burst into uncontrollable laughter.
But his creativity was now flowering in all directions! New compositions flowed from his pen—on 8 June 1885 Richter introduced his overture Hyperion, and on 24 May 1886 his Symphony in F. His First Piano Concerto was published by Bote & Bock in 1884. This same year his second set of piano pieces was published—the Acht Klavierstücke, Op 5. Hans von Bülow, writing to his daughter around this time, remarks of d’Albert:
A strange nature, curiously mature for such tender years. His overture to ‘Esther’ [Op 8] is a most refreshing piece of music, almost too irreproachable in its manufacture. I did it here with great success. His string quartet [Op 7] also impressed me when I read it.
This maturity of feeling is, perhaps, even more evident in the Acht Klavierstücke, Op 5 than in the Op 10 Sonata. The pieces are beautifully shaped, understated, passionate and tender by turns, yet they avoid sentimentality. They are conceived as one form, keys alternating between minor and major, No 1 in C sharp minor linked to No 8, likewise in C sharp minor, but ending with a minor/major oscillation to mirror the work’s structure. There are many such structural links between the pieces: the middle section of No 8 is an A major version of the opening of No 1, the coda a quaver alternative of No 1’s opening semiquaver theme. No 5 in E flat major ends in a suspended B flat, resolving, attacca, into No 6’s E flat minor. The Langsamer ending of this piece recalls the major opening of No 5—doubling the values of the opening left-hand octaves. Many emotional nuances inflect these charming offerings. However, the German influence is undoubted—Schubertian, perhaps, in No 3, Brahmsian overall. D’Albert had already worked on the Paganini Variations and the D minor Concerto. Brahms had published his Op 76 Intermezzi and Capricci in 1879, and his Op 79 Rhapsodies in 1880—these were undoubtedly known to and played by d’Albert and their influence is fairly obvious.
A new voice emerges in the Intermezzo, Op 16, published in 1898 as the third of a set of four pieces. Its affectionate and gently quirky blandishments are utterly endearing, its B major constantly slipping to explore a semitone lower, but returning to where it should be! Dedicated to Édouard Risler, sometime pupil of d’Albert, the Scherzo which precedes it was often played in its time. We can still hear d’Albert’s piano roll made around 1905, concerning which Henry Jolles wrote in 1964:
With the first measures of his own well-known Scherzo, the old magic was there again. It came over as a light lullaby despite the fact that he played neither willingly nor in complete freedom for this new invention.
As hinted at the beginning of this essay d’Albert’s recordings are, in the main, not representative of the masterly artist he undoubtedly was. Oscar Bie wrote around 1900:
The crown of piano playing in our time has been won by Eugène d’Albert … on him the mantle of Liszt has fallen in our generation … the seriousness of Brahms’s concertos, the murmuring of Chopin’s Berceuse, the titanic power of his A minor Étude, the grace of Liszt’s Soirées de Vienne, the solemnity of Bach move under his hand without one taking the least from the other. It is objectivity, but we do not cry out for subjectivity: it is personality but we do not miss the rapport with eternity.
The playing on the records may be ill-disciplined and amateurish, but one glimpses every so often the artist and the technique we hear extolled by nineteenth-century witnesses, for example the notoriously difficult double-note passage near the end of the first movement of the Beethoven ‘Emperor’ Concerto, which floats down the instrument on glistening gossamer wings.
It may be of interest to note here that d’Albert was one of the first to play cycles of Beethoven sonatas, in the 1890s. Clara Schumann, though she had years before performed those milestones of the Beethoven corpus, the Op 106 and Op 111, commented in her diary that d’Albert’s choice of four Beethoven sonatas in one evening was ‘simply too much’. Later, he and others sometimes played five.
D’Albert’s Sonata in F sharp minor, Op 10, is an intriguing, ambitious enterprise. It marries many aspects of his craft. Dedicated to Hans von Bülow, it was published in 1893, as was his Second Concerto in E, written for Teresa Carreño. While the final movement of this massive sonata may look back, Orpheus-like, the concerto is, like those of Liszt, economical and utterly contemporary. The sonata is in the unusual key of F sharp minor. Who else wrote a sonata in F sharp minor? Mentor Brahms’s Op 2, composed in 1852, clearly provided the muse for d’Albert’s mammoth effort—witness the 3/4 first movement with its energetic octaves, wide-ranging compass and its triplet figures; the second in 2/4, similar now and then in thematic shapes; and the final movement with its Introduzione sostenuto, comparable, though different in intention, with d’Albert’s Einleitung und Fuge: Sehr breit. Perhaps both works evoke the powerful spectre of Beethoven’s giant ‘Hammerklavier’ Sonata. Whereas Brahms’s Finale develops a little in the mode of Beethoven’s F sharp major, Op 78, d’Albert exerts his Bachian muscles and produces a skilful triple fugue. Here at work is the transcriber of Bach’s Passacaglia in C minor, the Prelude and Fugue in D and a further six Preludes and Fugues for organ. Do we not also recognize clearly the layout of Bach’s ‘St Anne’ Fugue, BWV552? The sostenuto pedal is a welcome friend when rendering this movement, and one would be helped by a few organ pedals as well! The contrapuntal writing, reminiscent at first of Mendelssohn, is clever and noble at the same time. Whether or not it is stylistically convincing is for the individual listener to decide. The Langsam second movement, too, shows intelligent craftsmanship at the service of emotional music-making—the combination of the two themes for the final section, previously presented individually, achieves a beautiful duet against a soulful accompaniment. One of my favourite observations of d’Albert’s playing concerns this sonata and is quoted in John Bird’s tome on Percy Grainger. In 1897 Grainger wrote:
D’Albert gave a piano recital soon after I got to Frankfurt, and I was enthralled by his slapdash English style … he played his own Piano Sonata with his feet and hands flying all over the place and wrong notes one or two to the dozen. Of course, d’Albert was full of un-English blood and un-English backgrounds, yet his overweeningness, his Cockney patter, his flirtuousness, his overpowering energy were all as truly English as his early influences and his early pianistic training. When I saw d’Albert swash around over the piano with the wrong notes flying to the left and right and the whole thing a welter of recklessness, I said to myself ‘That’s the way I must play’. I’m afraid I learnt his propensity for wrong notes all too thoroughly.
The major event in Eugy’s (pronounced Judschi—d’Albert’s lifelong nickname) life at this time was his volcanic relationship with the dedicatee of the Second Concerto. Carreño notes in her diary on 19 January 1893:
My Toto concert 1500m. The public fanatic with his wonderful playing. God bless him. Played his sonata for the first time.
The two met on d’Albert’s twenty-seventh birthday. His youthful first marriage had ended years before, adultery cited as the cause. The thirty-eight-year-old Venezuelan star was not impressed on their first meeting, but capitulated after his Beethoven G major Concerto performance ravished her. They spent three passionate years together, marrying and producing two girls. Stories and gossip abounded, of course: they were the most talked-about pianists of the day. A German newspaper review read: ‘Frau Carreño yesterday played for the first time the Second Concerto of her third husband in the fourth Philharmonic Concert.’ There is also the apocryphal story of d’Albert rushing into Carreño’s end of the castle they inhabited, screaming, ‘Teresa! Come quickly! My child and your child are fighting with our child!’ Marta Milinowski’s book on Carreño is also fascinating on d’Albert. His eccentricities and demanding qualities are enumerated: for example his insistence on certain fitness and health regimes and his requirement when they separated of religious bi-weekly reports on their children. Jealousy of Carreño’s success was also a factor in the destruction of their marriage. Claudio Arrau refers to Carreño as:
A goddess … Carreño could be said to be a mixture of Latin feeling and German training … later, she changed completely, and learned a lot from her husband Eugène d’Albert. She became a very good Beethoven player. She was a better pianist than d’Albert himself, although he was probably the greater musician … he used to have big technique. Then he started losing interest in piano playing in order to compose. And yet his performance of the Liszt Sonata was still marvellous. Full of wrong notes and missed passages. But the feeling was wonderful—co-ordinating the whole thing with each idea coming out of the one before.
D’Albert married six times in all. His third wife was the eminent singer, Hermine Finck. Lamond notes how he tended to leave wives after they had borne his children—the thirteen-year marriage to Madame Finck ended after a girl was born. The former husband of d’Albert’s fourth wife, Ida Theumann-Fulda, compared her to ‘a beautiful landscape but with an impossible climate’! Supposedly, when d’Albert introduced his fifth wife, Friederike Jauner, to a friend, he was told, ‘Congratulations! You’ve rarely had a better!’ Another friend responded to the invitation with, ‘No thanks! I’m going to skip this one’. The final wife was one Hilda Fels.
D’Albert’s late piano pieces are all small genre pieces. The seductive Serenata was published in 1906; five Bagatelles form Op 29; and then the Capriolen, Op 32, appeared in 1924. There are various other small works, an attractive Albumblatt and a Blues. D’Albert bridged a revolutionary period in musical history. He was the first pianist to present Debussy in Germany, and other programmes included English composers such as Ireland and Bax. An enduring fascination, however, was jazz. He made three trips to the United States, though Artur Schnabel notes that neither d’Albert nor Busoni was happy there, perhaps being inhibited by the glamorous triumphs of Paderewski, such a different type of pianist. D’Albert’s first trip was in 1889, accompanying Sarasate, the third in 1904/5, when he presented the American premiere of his Second Piano Concerto with the Boston Symphony Orchestra in February 1905. The above-mentioned Blues is not particularly interesting as music in itself. What is interesting is the influence of jazz and spirituals on his later work. Tiefland, published in 1903, is his only opera to have been endorsed by an enduring place in the repertoire, but in 1925/6 d’Albert conceived the idea of a jazz opera, wonderfully titled Die schwarze Orchidee (‘The Black Orchid’), which was eventually published in 1929. Krenek had brought his jazz opera Jonny spielt auf to more than a hundred German stages in 1927, so that the milieu of black jazz in a stage work had already been established with a fine feeling of the ‘modern’—quite different from the atonality which d’Albert could not accept as heartfelt either of the spirit or of the soul. The first performance of the ‘Orchid’ in Leipzig, on 1 December 1928, was a disappointment—Krenek had got there first and the public was no longer so intrigued.
The fourth of the Capriolen, ‘Missie-Massa’, written several years earlier, rather more succinctly shows his feelings about the black people. The lamenting Lento opening nostalgically leads to a dazzling Vivacissimo rendering of ‘In Dixieland I take my stand to live and die in Dixie’. The ‘five simple pieces’ of this set are delightfully contrasted—the touching depiction of the burned butterfly in No 1 about as near to Schoenberg as d’Albert was ever likely to get, the ‘cosiness’ of the waltz, No 2, slightly upset by its occasional false relations, the delicately impassioned plight of the ‘Rosebud beneath the snow’ setting a Victorian scene in No 3, and No 5 predating and very much setting the scene for Turina’s 1932 Suite Le Cirque.
D’Albert’s official posts included that of Kapellmeister at Weimar (following in Liszt’s footsteps) in 1895, and that of head of the Berlin Hochschule für Musik, succeeding Joachim. He died in Riga on 3 March 1932 but was buried in Morcote, Lugano.
The music on this album emanated from one of the truly great pianists of the past. Though his renown has proved somewhat evanescent, perhaps his compositions were infused with a little at least of the luminosity of his musical spirit. May you enjoy!
Piers Lane © 1997