'Described by one respected critic as the greatest living pianist, Marc-André Hamelin soars to ever new heights of virtuosity … Hamelin is superbly partnered and recorded, and lovers of lush, romantic melody embellished with hundreds and thousands of winking sequins need look no further' (Gramophone Magazine)
'Marc-André Hamelin gives a dazzling account' (BBC Music Magazine)
'Hamelin's legendary technique thrills at every turn, and in the Rubinstein his scorching virtuosity and emotional intensity mesmerises from beginning to end. Anyone who loves Tchaikovsky or Rachmaninov should investigate this stunning disc without delay!' (Classic FM Magazine)
'Rubinstein's Fourth Concerto can hold its own against Tchaikovsky's infinitely better known First and, on the strength of this recording, deserves to regain a place in the classical repertoire. There is musical swagger, pathos, poetry and heroism in both of the works couple on this album' (Music Week)
'Hamelin, who makes out the best possible case for the music, is now the version to have. In any case, his many admirers will flock, and rightly, to acquire this excellently recorded disc of two fairly unfamiliar concertos which, whatever their virtues and failings, provide ideal vehicles for Hamelin's abundant talents' (International Record Review)
'We have been in need of a modern recording by a pianist of the stature of Hamelin who can deliver Rubinstein's passion, impetuosity, quick changes of mood, and technical demands with ease. He gives a performance of the last movement that is so rousing that it has never sounded so convincing on disc … an excellent disc that is highly recommended' (International Piano)
'This will appeal to experts as well as those who only know, say, the Rachmaninov or Tchaikovsky concertos. Another fabulous disc (and as usual excellent sleeve-notes). Rolls-Royce stuff' (HMV Choice)
'Virtuoso repertoire, virtuoso playing - there's breathtaking snap and clarity to the rhythms, imposing weight to the climaxes … surely one of the peaks of Hyperion's 'Romantic Piano Concerto' series. All in all, urgently recommended' (Fanfare, USA)
Allegro patetico [10'23]
Allegro assai [7'11]
Moderato assai [11'40]
Hyperion’s Record of the Month for October—surely the Romantic Piano Concerto recording of the decade—will have pianophiles the world over in raptures.
These two works are undoubtedly the greatest of the forgotten concertos we have not previously tackled and have been much requested. Both were written by hugely successful virtuoso pianists who were also composers, and both had a major place in the nineteenth-century repertoire, only falling from favour in the 1920s as modernism found its place in the concert hall.
There have been great recordings of each in the past so we waited until we could be sure of making superlative versions before committing them to the series. With Marc-André’s involvement this was sure to be special, and we have not been disappointed—his startling virtuosity can be taken for granted, but here there is also an adrenalin-fuelled excitement which is rarely captured in studio performances and which is guaranteed to involve even the most casual listener. Conductor Michael Stern (son of Isaac) fully enters into the spirit and does magnificent things with the BBCSSO in what is his first Hyperion recording.
Other recommended albums
These two roller-coaster romantic concertos once enjoyed a remarkable popularity. More than any single work in this series, with the possible exception of Henselt’s F minor, Scharwenka’s First Concerto and Rubinstein’s Fourth were well known and widely played for many years. Their composers have at least two things in common, apart from being hugely successful and glamorous virtuoso pianists. Each wrote a short piano piece early on in his career that took his name round the world. By coincidence, both pieces were assigned the same opus number. Scharwenka wrote his Polish Dance in E flat minor, Op 3 No 1, in 1869 – ‘my foolish dance’ was how he referred to it later in life (he recorded it himself in New York in 1911). Even more ubiquitous, if that were possible, was Rubinstein’s Melody in F, Op 3 No 1, which he composed in 1852. Despite the reputations Scharwenka and Rubinstein enjoyed during their lifetimes, it is only through the brief pages of their respective ‘hits’ that their names are remembered, if at all, by the average music lover. Very little of their vast outputs survived in the repertoire beyond the first half of the twentieth century. The other shared feature of their lives, perhaps more unexpected, is that both founded successful piano conservatories – in Rubinstein’s case the Imperial Conservatory in St Petersburg in 1862, in Scharwenka’s his own conservatory in Berlin in 1881. By 1893, the latter had become one of the largest musical institutions in the world with 42 soundproof studios, 62 teachers and 1000 pupils.
[Franz] Xaver Scharwenka was born on 6 January 1850 in Samter near Poznan (then a city in the province of Posen, Southern Prussia, now restored to Poland). Despite the photographic evidence of his aristocratic looks and bearing, Scharwenka and his elder brother [Ludwig] Philipp (1847–1917) did not come from a wealthy background. His parents could not always pay the rent on their hired piano. Xaver’s musical talent began to manifest itself at the age of three when he began to play by ear but, until the family’s move to Berlin in 1865, he was largely self-taught as a pianist. Like his brother, he was accepted into the New Academy of Music run by Theodor Kullak (whose C minor Piano Concerto can be heard on volume 21 of Hyperion’s Romantic Piano Concerto series, CDA67086). Among his contemporaries were Alfred Grünfeld and Moritz Moszkowski (see volume 1, CDA66452, for his E major Concerto).
After only two years under Kullak, Scharwenka made his debut in 1867 (some sources say 1869) in Mendelssohn’s D minor Concerto and shortly after accepted Kullak’s invitation to join the staff of the Berlin Academy. The young pianist also saw the first of his compositions in print. In his autobiography Klänge aus meinem Leben: Erinnerungen eines Musikers (Notes from my life: The reminiscences of a musician; Koehler, Leipzig, 1922, and so far not published in English), Scharwenka recalls that his Opp 4–10 had been published by Breitkopf & Härtel when a school friend asked him for some easy piano pieces. With these, he told Scharwenka, he would start his own publishing house.
So I wrote some little pieces in the requested style: ‘Tarantella’, ‘Grande valse brillante’ and ‘Polonaise’ (French titles were very popular at the time!) for him. This infidelity appears to have been taken amiss by Breitkopf & Härtel because they refused a larger work, which I offered to the publisher, in the most polite way, but without a certain justification. It was a substantial two-part Fantasy for piano in B flat minor. As it turned out later, the rejection was a great fortune for me. I modelled, filed, rasped and sliced the piece around and finally arrived at the inspired thought to add orchestra. Thus originated my Piano Concerto Op 32 in B flat minor which later was granted such great success. It is dedicated to Liszt.
The next few years were taken up with concerts, tours, teaching and composing. In the summer of 1873 we find him staying in the Schloss Carolath in Silesia as a guest of Princess Elisabeth von Carolath-Beuthen where ‘I occupied myself with the revision and instrumentation of my B flat minor Concerto’. This task was completed during his period of military service between 1873 and September 1874. Then at last we read that on 14 April 1875, under Julius Stern in the Reichshallen at Donhoffsplatz,
I played my B flat minor Concerto for the first time with orchestra. That was ‘life’s undiluted bliss’ [‘des Lebens ungemischte Freude’; Scharwenka is here quoting from a poem by Friedrich Schiller]. Here it was granted to a mortal. The joyful bliss of young motherhood cannot be greater nor more sublime than that which comes from the secret darkness of one’s own soul, is pressed to the light and now becomes audibly evident. I was completely satisfied with the instrumentation, yet the form of the Concerto still did not satisfy me. Once again, I tinkered with the piece and finally gave it the shape in which it would soon appear in print.
In the summer of 1875, Scharwenka visited Liszt in Weimar (there is a heart-warming account in Klänge aus meinem Leben of this first meeting in 1870 when Liszt’s interest in the young man had been aroused after hearing Scharwenka’s Polish Dance, then all the rage). On this occasion, he played his new Concerto for Liszt, who warmly accepted its dedication. ‘The following day, he invited me for some afternoon music, whereby the Grand Duke appeared in the court nursery. At the master’s request I once again played my Piano Concerto which he accompanied from the score on the second piano – a pianino.’ Two years later, Scharwenka recorded in his autobiography: ‘In April I played my Piano Concerto in Bremen, here for the first time in a new, three-part version. I sent the score, which appeared in the meantime, to Liszt, who had recommended the work for performance at the Composer Assembly of the Allgemeinen Deutschen Musikvereins. He sent me a letter with the following words: “F. Liszt looks forward to seeing Mr. X Scharwenka again at the Composer Assembly in Hanover and sincerely thanks him for the dedication of his Concerto. I wish this excellent work the best success and send my friendliest greetings. F Liszt.”’ The performance of the B flat minor Concerto on this occasion, Scharwenka recalled, ‘opened up doors to both me and the work to the great concert halls of the world’.
Scharwenka’s Op 32 began to be taken up by other pianists. We know that Liszt himself performed the work in 1877 at the residency of Minister von Schleinitz; on 20 October the same year Gustav Mahler made his only recorded appearance as a soloist in a piano concerto when he played the first movement of the B flat minor Concerto at a concert in Vienna. The English pianist Edward Dannreuther (1844–1905), who made something of a speciality of championing new concertos, having given the British premieres of Liszt’s A major, Grieg’s A minor and Tchaikovsky’s B flat minor concertos, introduced Scharwenka’s First Concerto in one of the famous Crystal Palace concerts, on 27 October 1877. The waspish pianist and conductor Hans von Bülow happened to be present. After voicing suspicions – ‘on account of the Pole’s unmistakable borrowings from the Russians (namely from Tchaikovsky’s Op 23 Concerto, which was dedicated to me and also in B flat minor)’ – he expresses his surprise at ‘the excellent work, which was uniformly charming, often interesting and original, flowed naturally and possessed of skilful form, almost unintentionally so. It shares the genuinely pianistic qualities of Chopin’s works, yet surpasses Chopin’s in its splendid orchestration.’ As Scharwenka retorts in Klänge: ‘I was not familiar with Tchaikovsky’s Concerto when the original design of my Piano Concerto dawned on me … [the initial sketches were made] at a time when Tchaikovsky’s work was still completely unknown in Berlin and the surrounding area.’ (Tchaikovsky, incidentally, had a high opinion of Scharwenka’s Concerto saying that ‘it stood out from the grey mediocrity’ of much that was then being written.)
Scharwenka made his first appearance in England at these same Crystal Palace concerts playing the Concerto on 1 March 1879. One English writer described his playing as ‘of great and massive grandeur, with tremendous force of will and fervent glow of imagination’. Constantin von Sternberg (1852–1924), a pupil of Moscheles, Kullak and Liszt, gave the New York premiere in 1880. It remained a favourite in Weimar, for we read in the diary of the young August Gollerich that his fellow Liszt student Emil von Sauer played it there on 20 June 1884 with Alfred Reisenauer at the second piano. Scharwenka chose his First Concerto for his American debut in January 1891 at the Metropolitan Opera House conducted by Anton Seidl. He founded a New York branch of his conservatory in 1891 and remained in the United States until 1898 when Berlin once more became his base, though he continued touring America until 1913. By then he had crossed the Atlantic twenty-six times.
For the remainder of his career, Scharwenka devoted much of his time to pedagogic pursuits, founding a second conservatory in 1914 and writing various piano methods. He died highly honoured in Berlin on 8 December 1924.
The B flat minor Concerto, though in the expected three movements, forsakes the quick–slow–quick format by dispensing with a separate slow movement. The Adagio is incorporated into the stormy first movement, providing one of many memorable themes in the work, this one allotted to the violas, clarinet and then horns. The second movement is an extended scherzo–rondo demanding a quicksilver touch from the soloist and offering a dizzying, brilliant contrast to the dominant dramatic character of the work. This mood returns in the opening bars of the final Allegro non tanto, a movement which throws down a succession of technically daunting challenges to the pianist. Yet Scharwenka soon introduces a ravishing second subject, not unrelated to the first movement’s Adagio theme, one which, after an imposing cadenza, heralds the ecstatic, lengthy coda and the Concerto’s climactic final pages.
The present performance is only the third recording of the work. Scharwenka’s piano concertos Nos 2 and 3 are on volume 33 of this series (CDA67365), while No 4 appears on volume 11 (CDA66790).
Rubinstein’s D minor Piano Concerto, once in the repertoire of both Rachmaninov and Paderewski, has been recorded by several great pianists of the past including Grigory Ginsburg, Friedrich Wührer, Oscar Levant and Raymond Lewenthal. But the most important recordings are of two live performances (1937 and 1945) by Josef Hofmann, Rubinstein’s only private pupil. Through Hofmann’s playing we hear more than mere glimpses of the style the composer would have brought to this work. Rubinstein was the first great international Russian pianist, a teacher, conductor and prolific composer in every form, who was viewed in his day as a true giant in the musical firmament. Hans von Bülow called him ‘the Michelangelo of Music’. This contemporary view is typical:
Anton Rubinstein is one of the most remarkable men ever known among musicians. Genius in the full sense of the word pervades his playing as well as his compositions, and the remark was once made that not only is it like thunder and lightning but it is also like the fire, ashes and smoke of a volcano. No one is to be compared with him in piano playing; he has immense power and is very great in producing a deep impression. (A Ehrlich: Celebrated Pianists of the Past and Present Time, H Grevel & Co., 1894.)
The first edition of Grove’s Dictionary (1889) concurs, describing him as ‘an eminent composer and one of the greatest pianists the world has ever seen’. The writer then strikes a prescient note of caution on Rubinstein’s compositions: ‘Their style may be considered as the legitimate outcome of Mendelssohn; there is a fine broad vein of melody which is supported by true and natural harmony, and a thorough technical skill. But there is also the fatal gift of fluency, and the consequent lack of that self-criticism and self-restraint which alone make a composer great.’
Anton Grigor’ievich Rubinstein was born on 28 November 1829 in Vikhvatinetz, Podolia, south-west Russia. As a man, he looked so like the young Beethoven that he was rumoured to be the composer’s illegitimate son. Liszt referred to him as ‘Van II’. Rubinstein’s family were prosperous Jewish merchants who were baptized in 1831. When Anton was five years old they moved to Moscow where he began piano studies at the age of eight with Alexander Villoing. ‘By my thirteenth year’, wrote Rubinstein in his autobiography, ‘I had no other teacher.’ He made concert tours all over Europe before going to Berlin with his younger brother Nicholas (1835–1881), also a child prodigy. On Meyerbeer’s recommendation he studied composition and counterpoint with Siegfried Dehn, whose other students had included Mikhail Glinka and Theodor Kullak. This period was a decisive influence on Anton Rubinstein: he was not only taught the craft of composition in the German tradition but was made familiar with contemporary German music, the foremost exponents of which were Schumann and Mendelssohn. In 1848 Rubinstein settled in St Petersburg, at that time the Russian capital. Here, in 1862, he founded the Imperial Conservatory. His brother Nicholas in his turn founded the Moscow Conservatory in 1866. Thus two brothers won for the first time in Russia official recognition for professional musicians and laid the foundations for the country’s instrumentalists and teachers of today.
In 1867 Rubinstein left the running of the Imperial Conservatory to others while he toured, conducted and composed. His triumphant tour of America during the 1872–3 season earned him a small fortune. After two decades, he returned to St Petersburg and the Conservatory, finally divorcing himself from its operation in 1891 when he moved to Dresden. His last concert took place in St Petersburg on 14 January 1894. He died in November the same year.
Rubinstein wrote eight works for piano and orchestra. His five piano concertos were composed between 1850 and 1874, though two earlier concertos, now lost, were written in 1849 and a third such work was revised and published as the Octet, Op 9. The present Concerto was written in 1864, though the final version we know today did not appear until 1872, by which time two other versions had already been published. In the traditional three movements, the first is in sonata form with a massive solo cadenza inserted towards the end. The lyrical Andante (3/4 in F major), with a contrasting agitated middle section, contains some of Rubinstein’s most affecting writing. The dance-like character of the fiery finale is closer to a Polish cracovienne than to any Russian folk dance, while its genial second subject recalls Schumann. The Concerto finishes in a satisfyingly blistering coda in D major. Rubinstein dedicated it to the violinist Ferdinand David, who in 1845 had given the first performance of Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto.
Jeremy Nicholas © 2005
Other albums in this series
The Romantic Piano Concerto, Vol. 24 – Vianna da Motta
Studio Master FLAC & ALAC downloads availableCDA67163
The Romantic Piano Concerto, Vol. 37 – Nápravník & Blumenfeld
Studio Master FLAC & ALAC downloads availableCDA67511
The Romantic Piano Concerto, Vol. 59 – Zarzycki & Zelenski
Studio Master FLAC & ALAC downloads availableCDA67958