This collection of twenty piano miniatures has been selected by Marc-André Hamelin from a repertoire that is as far-reaching and comprehensive as that of any living pianist. All, save two, were composed in the last century. Some have never appeared on disc before; others have not been heard in public for years. The composers of most of the works will be known only to piano aficionados. However, mere obscurity is far from the main arbiter of choice for this selection; all nineteen works have two important qualities in common: each has the stamp of an unmistakable and individual voice, and each was written by a pianist-composer. Thus, though a number of the composers are undeniably ‘minor’ figures in the great scheme of things, their love, knowledge and understanding of the piano, as illustrated here, is everywhere manifested at the highest level. Mr Hamelin has been waiting to share these forgotten gems with fellow pianophiles for many years, and in the process offers an illuminating vade mecum of the piano in the twentieth century.
Edna Bentz Woods – Valse Phantastique
Edna Bentz Woods was an American composer and pianist married to an executive of the Aeolian Company, W Creary Woods. Apart from this snippet, a Duo-Art catalogue of about 1927 provides the sole source of information on the obscure composer of this charming work. From it we learn that Edna Bentz (the name under which her nine or so piano rolls were published) ‘has won success both in recitals of classical and romantic music and in the vaudeville field. She received an excellent musical training from some of the best teachers of America and Europe, among them Busoni and Egon Petri in Berlin, where she was studying when the Great War began. Her compositions number more than fifty pieces, and range from classical models to the most modern, syncopated dance music’.
The catalogue reveals that as well as several piano rolls of foxtrots for Duo-Art, Miss Bentz also recorded Busoni’s ‘All’ Italia!’ (the second of the six Elegien) for them. The Philadelphia publisher Theodore Presser issued several of her pieces, including the Valse Phantastique (1924), the score of which proclaims ‘As played by Mr Josef Hofmann’, who indeed made a piano roll of the work for Duo-Art.
Franz Behr – Polka de W.R. transcribed by Sergei Rachmaninov
Rachmaninov’s father Wassili (or Vassili) was a good amateur pianist (his paternal grandfather, Arkadi, had studied piano with John Field, inventor of the nocturne). Amongst Wassili’s repertoire was a simple polka which he frequently played to the amusement of his talented son. Clearly under the impression that it was a piece his father had written, Rachmaninov composed this deliciously knowing arrangement of the polka in 1911, entitling it Polka de W.R.—(W)assili (R)achmaninov—with a dedication to Leopold Godowsky.
In fact, the polka that Rachmaninov père et fils enjoyed was the Scherzpolka or Turtle Dove Polka, Op 303, by Franz Behr, many of whose numerous other salon works appeared under the pseudonyms of Georges Bachmann, William Cooper, Charles Morley and Francesco d’Orso. Though the middle (B flat) section of the Scherzpolka is not used by Rachmaninov, with Behr’s theme transposed from F major to A flat and an original countermelody to accompany the return of the main theme, the Polka de W.R. is as much a transcription as others by Rachmaninov (Kreisler’s Liebesfreud and Liebesleid, for instance) and, as such, should properly be designated ‘Behr-Rachmaninov’. Rachmaninov himself made one piano roll and three disc recordings of the Polka (1919, 1921 and 1928).
Josef Hofmann – Nocturne (‘Complaint’) from Mignonettes
Without doubt one of the greatest virtuosos of all time, Hofmann composed a handful of pieces, many under the pseudonym of Michel Dvorsky (a transliteration of the literal translation into Polish of his German name, meaning ‘courtyard man’). The delightful little Chopinesque Nocturne (in F sharp minor) with its yearning melody bears more resemblance to a waltz than to one of the Polish composer’s nocturnes. Subtitled ‘Complaint’, it comes from a set of five pieces called Mignonettes published in 1925, though is in fact a reworking of an earlier composition entitled ‘Lament’. Hofmann recorded the work for the Brunswick label in 1923.
Josef Hofmann – Kaleidoskop Op 40 No 4
Kaleidoskop is the dazzling final piece of Hofmann’s four Charakterskizzen (the others are Vision, Jadis and Nenien) published under his own name in 1908 and dedicated to ‘Meinem Freunde Leopold Godowsky in Verehrung zugeeignet’. Hofmann himself left a much-treasured performance of the work captured live in a recital given in April 1938 at Casimir Hall, Philadelphia (incidentally, a few blocks away from Mr Hamelin’s home today).
Marc-André Hamelin – Etude No 3 (d’après Paganini-Liszt)
Liszt was twenty when he first heard Paganini and witnessed for the first time how flawless virtuosity could be used for dramatic effect. Resolving to equip himself with a technique that could wield the same hypnotic effect over an audience, Liszt shut himself away to work assiduously at his goal. Among the earliest compositions reflecting his success are the Sechs grosse Etuden von N. Paganini, all, except No 3, transcriptions of Paganini’s Caprices for solo violin. Etude No 3, La Campanella, uses the main theme from the last movement of Paganini’s Violin Concerto No 2 in B minor, the Rondo which owes its nickname to the little bell with which Paganini presages each return of the rondo theme. Liszt’s version (in G sharp minor) is perhaps the most celebrated of the six ‘Paganini Etudes’—and the most treacherous. Mr Hamelin’s take on La Campanella (using Paganini’s original key but Liszt’s étude numbering) is as astonishing a piece of espièglerie as Liszt’s must have appeared to the audiences of his day. Composed in 1993 and dedicated to ‘arch-pianophile and friend Jay Reise’, Etude No 3 throws a mounting avalanche of devastating pianistic problems at any player brave enough to follow in Mr Hamelin’s footsteps. And yet, is there just the merest hint of tongue-in-cheek with all the unexpected shifts of tempi, dynamics and harmonies? His own nonchalant performance would seem to support this, though the score, littered as it is with punishing requests (fuocoso e velocissimo and the like), is serious enough in its musical intent.
Felix Blumenfeld – Etude pour la main gauche seule Op 36
Remembered today as the teacher of Vladimir Horowitz and Simon Barere (also of Maria Grinberg, Dmitry Tiomkin and Heinrich Neuhaus), Blumenfeld was a more distinguished figure in Russian music than his (albeit influential) pedagogical activity would suggest. As a virtuoso pianist in the grand tradition, he premiered many works by Arensky, Glazunov and Liadov, and frequently appeared as accompanist to the great bass Fyodor Chaliapin. A composition pupil of Rimsky-Korsakov, he conducted the premieres of Rimsky’s Servilia and The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh, Scriabin’s Divine Poem and Poem of Ecstasy, as well as the first Russian performances of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde.
Blumenfeld’s compositions include thirty-four songs, one symphony (‘À la mémoire des chers défunts’), an Allegro de Concert for piano and orchestra, several chamber works and many piano pieces, most of which show the influence of Chopin rather than Anton Rubinstein. Of his eighteen compositions designated ‘studies’, the first (Op 2) was composed in 1886, the last (Op 54) in 1927. The Study in A flat for the left hand alone is Blumenfeld’s best-known work, among the most ingenious and euphonious works of its kind. It is dedicated to Leopold Godowsky, whom Blumenfeld met and greatly admired when the Polish pianist first visited Russia in 1905, the year of the study’s composition.
Jakob Gimpel – Concert Paraphrase of ‘The Song of the Soldiers of the Sea’ (The Marines’ Hymn), after Jacques Offenbach (1819–1880) (ed. Hamelin)
The music was composed in 1868 by Jacques Offenbach for his opéra bouffe Geneviève de Brabant (the three-act version). A comic duet for bass and baritone, to French audiences it is known as ‘Couplets des Deux Hommes d’Armes’; to the British it is ‘The Gendarmes’ Duet’ (‘We’re public guardians, bold, yet wary, And of ourselves we take good care!’ … with its chorus ‘We run them in, we run them in, we show them we’re the bold gendarmes!’); to Americans the tune is, famously, the hymn of the United States Marine Corps. There are various claims to the authorship of the words sung by the Marines (‘From the halls of Mon-te-zu-ma, to the shores of Trip-o-li …’) which first appeared in print in August 1918. The finger-crushing jeu d’esprit heard here was composed in 1942 by the Austrian-born American virtuoso Jakob Gimpel. A rare wartime 16-inch V-disc exists of Gimpel himself playing it, but this is the first time the work has received a commercial recording. Marc-André Hamelin is grateful to the Jakob and Bronislaw Gimpel Archives for providing a copy of the manuscript.
Marc-André Hamelin – Etude No 6: Essercizio per pianoforte (Omaggio a Domenico Scarlatti)
This deft, witty take on the sonatas of Domenico Scarlatti, though only the sixth in a planned cycle of twelve studies by Mr Hamelin (Study No 3 is on track 5, while Nos 9, 10 and 12 can be heard on Hyperion CDA67050), is now, according to the composer, likely to be the last. [2011 undate: The full set is now recorded on CDA67789]. Its five predecessors present enormous technical challenges to the player. ‘The Scarlatti study’, says Hamelin, ‘is probably the easiest of the bunch but still presents some problems, especially at the tempo at which it has to go’—a typical Hamelin understatement. There are no direct quotes from Scarlatti, but the structure and many of the mannerisms from the canon of his nearly six hundred sonatas are incorporated in a whirlwind succession of rapid runs, terrifying leaps and crossed-hand passages (audiences have been known to laugh out loud in performance at the comic visual effect of these) as well as Mr Hamelin’s trademark humourous wrong-note harmonies. The Etude, composed in 1992, is dedicated to Artis Wodehouse and Joe Patrych.
Jules Massenet – Valse folle
To those who know Massenet as the composer of Manon, Werther and the ‘Méditation’ from Thaïs, his Valse folle is the aural equivalent of being hit in the face with a brick. Composed in 1898 (by which time Massenet had become wildly wealthy and famous from his success as an opera composer), the ‘Mad Waltz’ was dedicated to his friend Raoul Pugno (1852–1914). Pugno himself, one of the first internationally acclaimed lions of the keyboard to commit his art to disc, recorded the work in April 1903 for the Gramophone and Typewriter label. Its innocent main theme contrasts with abrupt changes of tempo and (for Massenet) unexpected discords and harmonies, to say nothing of the violent ending, providing a brief glimpse of an unexpected side to the elegant, urbane Massenet.
Moritz Moszkowski – Etude in A flat minor Op 72 No 13
‘After Chopin’, said Paderewski, ‘Moszkowski best understands how to write for the piano’. Turn where you will amongst Moszkowski’s oeuvre, you will find the same beautifully crafted, richly melodic, instantly recognizable voice—200 pieces amid 100 opus numbers (including his Op 74 set of four pieces entitled Kaleidoscope: is it coincidence that Josef Hofmann, see above, studied with Moszkowski for a time?). There are no fewer than 69 separate works to which he assigned the title ‘étude’ or ‘clavierstücke’. These take in single studies as part of an opus number, six studies for the left hand, Op 92, the Twenty Dexterity and Style Etudes, Op 91, and the sixteen studies of Esquisses techniques, Op 97.
The most distinguished collection, however, are the fifteen Etudes de virtuosité, Op 72. Like their companions, all are far from the production-line exercises routinely trotted out by others of the period. Moszkowski’s are more like character pieces. Perhaps the best-known of these, because of their espousal by Vladimir Horowitz, are No 6 in F and No 11 in A flat. While less immediately brilliant than its predecessors, the A flat minor is, arguably, a finer work, its main theme (molto animato and marked con molto leggierezza) in quaver runs of thirds, fourths and sixths, framing a middle section in the tonic major of touching simplicity, typical of the composer.
Francis Poulenc – Intermezzo in A flat
The third of three Intermezzi (No 1 in C was written in 1934, No 2 in D flat, the best known, from the same year) was composed in March 1943 and dedicated to Madame Mante Rostand. Some will hear the influence of Fauré in its simple melody supported by wide figurations. The A flat Intermezzo is a long-time favourite of Mr Hamelin who first heard the piece when it was used regularly on the radio in Philadelphia to introduce the commercial spot for The Steinway Hour.
Leopold Godowsky – Alt Wien (No 11 of Triakontameron)
By far the most popular of all Godowsky’s music, Alt Wien (‘Old Vienna’) comes from Triakontameron, unenticingly subtitled ‘Thirty Moods and Scenes in Triple Measure’. They were composed in 1919 while Godowsky was living in a small cottage near Seattle overlooking the nearby Olympian Mountains and Lake Washington. Just as Boccaccio had allegedly written his Decameron in ten days, so Godowsky aimed to write his collection of thirty pieces in 3/4 time in thirty days (though in truth it took him rather longer—twenty were composed in Seattle in twenty days, the remainder shortly afterwards in Los Angeles, Chicago and New York).
Each short miniature of epigrammatic conciseness conjures up a different mood, place or experience. Several of the set refer to Vienna (Terpsichorean Vindobona, The Temptress, Paradoxical Moods, Rendezvous and Sylvan Tyrol), but Alt Wien evokes most successfully the vanished city that Godowsky knew in the years prior to the First World War. The score tells us that it was composed on 8 August 1919 in Seattle (the title page bears the subscription ‘Whose yesterdays look backwards with a Smile through Tears’) but it is the revised version of 1933, with some slight additions and ossia readings, that is usually heard today. Alt Wien was a great favourite of Jascha Heifetz (he made two recordings of his own transcription) and film buffs can hear it played by the hotel orchestra in MGM’s 1932 classic Grand Hotel.
Aleksander Michalowski – Etude d’après l’Impromptu en la bémol majeur de Fr. Chopin, Op 29
A markedly more sophisticated treatment of Chopin than his brilliant and frankly shallow treatment of the D flat major (‘Minute’) Waltz, Michalowski’s Study after Chopin’s Impromptu No 1 in A flat major is Godowskyian in its delicate contrapuntal refinement. Triplets in fourths and sixths played vivace and leggiero require a discriminating technique, one which Michalowski himself clearly enjoyed if his few recordings are anything to go by. Polish-born Michalowski, who was acquainted with Chopin’s pupil Mikuli, studied with Moscheles, Reinecke and Tausig, subsequently exercising great influence on succeeding generations. Among his best-known pupils were Wanda Landowska and Mischa Levitzki. Michalowski dedicated the Etude to his fellow countryman, the great pianist Ignace Friedman.
Arthur (Vincent) Lourié – Gigue
Lourié, despite his name, was born in St Petersburg and was one of the Russian futurist school during the second decade of the last century (he ended up as an American citizen). Much influenced by Scriabin, Lourié’s early music is modernistic and forward-looking but, after the Soviet Revolution when he was appointed ‘Chief of the Music Department of the Commissariat for Public Instruction’, he left Russia for Paris in 1921. There, his style modified under the influence of Stravinsky and became more tonal. Lourié’s Gigue stretches the definition of the form to its limits, as far from its traditional place as the final movement of an eighteenth-century suite as is conceivable and written not in 6/8 but in common time. Composed in 1927 and dedicated to one Jacques Maritain, it is the last of his Quatre Pièces (the others being Toccata, Valse and Marche), a bruising essay using alternating hands and which, with its relentless drive and rhythmic impulse, bears more than a passing resemblance to some of today’s rock music.
Emile-Robert Blanchet – Au jardin du vieux sérail (Andrianople) Op 18 No 3 (from Turquie, Trois morceaux de piano)
Blanchet was a Swiss composer and pianist (a pupil of Busoni) who taught piano at the Lausanne Conservatory from 1904 to 1917. Thereafter, he retired from teaching to devote himself to his career as a pianist, composing music for his instrument and mountain climbing. Ironically, it is this last pursuit for which he is best remembered in some quarters, for he achieved fame for being the first to climb several of the more difficult Alps and published two books on mountaineering.
In his History of Pianoforte Music, Herbert Westerby describes Blanchet as ‘an advanced disciple of Debussy’ while Grove speaks of his ‘piquant harmony and unusual effects of sound and rhythm’. These are well illustrated in Au jardin du vieux sérail (‘The Garden of the Old Harem’), the third part of Blanchet’s suite Turquie, composed in 1913. The other sections are Caïques and Eïoub, though he later added three other pieces to the opus, and later still appended his Opp 50 and 51, thus making Turquie an eight-movement work. Au jardin du vieux sérail has been recorded once before (by Ervin Nyiregyházi in 1979), though the present recording is the first accurate account of the score.
Alfredo Casella – Deux Contrastes
Casella began life as a pianist (a pupil of Diémer and Fauré). As a composer, he experimented with various styles throughout his life, as a Romantic, then as an Impressionist before moving on to polytonal and later twelve-tone techniques. After Busoni’s death he was hailed as the leading Italian composer of his day and the most influential figure in his country’s musical life.
Deux Contrastes was written in Rome between 1916 and 1918. Grazioso (Hommage à Chopin) is, depending on your point of view, a harmonically distorted or humourously cheeky treatment of Chopin’s Prelude in A major, Op 28 No 7, while Antigrazioso is a brief, dissonant dance (marked ‘Allegro vivace e grottesco’), avant-garde for its day.
John Vallier – Toccatina
Mr Hamelin has loved this dazzling little gem since he was a boy. Marked ‘Presto vivace e con umore’, it was composed in 1950 and first recorded the same year by the incomparable Benno Moiseiwitsch.
Vallier, who was born and died in London, had an impeccable pianistic ancestry: his mother was Adela Verne (1877–1952), who had been taught by Paderewski whose teacher Leschetizky was a pupil of Czerny who in turn taught Liszt; his aunt and first teacher was Matilda Verne (1865–1936), regarded by Clara Schumann as her finest pupil, and who herself also taught Solomon, Moura Lympany and Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother among others. Having made his debut at the age of four at London’s Wigmore Hall, Vallier had become a well-known prodigy performer throughout Europe by the age of eleven. After the immediate post-war years and some notable first broadcasts, he turned to musicology and composition. His last commission was a piano concerto for the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra completed two days before he died.
Alexander Glazunov, trans. Marc-André Hamelin – Petit Adagio (extrait des ‘Saisons’)
A favourite melody of Mr Hamelin’s since childhood, the ‘Petit Adagio’ is the second section of ‘Autumn’, itself the fourth and final part of Glazunov’s ballet The Seasons first given in St Petersburg in 1900. ‘I thought it would lend itself particularly well to a piano setting,’ says Hamelin. ‘My transcription is based on Glazunov’s own piano reduction but is somewhat amplified. It takes more advantage of the piano’s possibilities, the exploitation of the third pedal, for example, and, as Glazunov’s reduction was probably for ballet rehearsals, I wanted to make something more suitable for concert performance.’ Mr Hamelin completed this arrangement in February 2001.
Nikolai Kapustin – Toccatina Op 36
Oscar Peterson? No, a succinct and dizzying toccata by a Russian composer. Kapustin, born in Gorlovka (Ukraine), was a piano pupil of the great Alexander Goldenweiser at the Moscow Conservatory from which he graduated in 1961. It is no surprise to learn that during the late 1950s he won a reputation as a jazz pianist, arranger and composer and made numerous appearances with his own quintet. Between 1961 and 1972 he toured throughout the Soviet Union and abroad with the Oleg Lundstrem Jazz Orchestra. Kapustin blends West European classical and post-classical art music with the modern idioms of jazz and rock. His early compositions show a predominant interest in the genre of the instrumental concerto (among them are three piano concertos, a concertino and a concert rhapsody for piano and orchestra). More recently he has directed his attention towards solo piano music. As far as playing the Toccatina is concerned, Mr Hamelin insists that a thorough knowledge of all the elements of jazz piano is a prerequisite. ‘You really have to be able to swing correctly and to negotiate all the crossed accents between hands. It’s worth the effort, because it’s a real winner with audiences.’
Jeremy Nicholas © 2001