Please wait...

Hyperion Records

CDD22054 - Bortkiewicz: Piano Music
Illuminations at the Arsenal (1865) by V S Sadovnikov
(Originally issued on CDA66933, CDA67094)

Recording details: Various dates
All Saints' Church, East Finchley, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Various producers
Engineered by Various engineers
Release date: May 2008
Total duration: 146 minutes 19 seconds

'Abundance of melodic appeal and inventiveness. Bortkiewicz seems incapable of writing unattractive music so one is able to derive pleasure from the pieces here. I shall certainly look forward to further volumes in this series' (Gramophone)

'The hand of a master melodist and tone painter is manifest throughout this beguiling recital. A recital to delight the connoisseur of forgotten late 19th-century romantic piano music' (Classic CD)

'Stephen Coombs provides suave performances … artfully phrased and scrupulously colored. Warmly recommended' (Fanfare, USA)

'Une irrésistible joliesse pianistique qui ruisselle ici sous les doigts de Stephen Coombs' (Diapason, France)

Piano Music
No 3: D major  [1'25]
No 4: B minor  [1'15]
No 5: A major  [1'10]

Since the release of Stephen Coombs's recording of the Piano Concerto No 1 (CDA66624) Bortkiewicz has become something of a cult composer amongst lovers of late romantic piano music. A man after his time, Bortkiewicz became all but forgotten after the First World War. He fled communist Russia to live first in Istanbul and then Vienna but his music remained resolutely that of pre-Revolution Moscow; like Rachmaninov in style but with even more 'tunes' and sentiment.

These discs of solo pieces include some of Bortkiewicz's most imposing works. The Sonata Op 9 is his largest solo composition and the Ballade and Elegy are two of his finest. The Lamentations and Consolations set is among his most characteristic works: intensely melodic with a brooding romanticism often reminiscent of Liszt. The fairy-tale interpretations of Aus Andersens Märchen, subtitled 'A Musical Picture Book', come from the large corpus of pieces Bortkiewicz composed with children in mind, while the opus 33 Preludes owe much of their character to Chopin.

Other recommended albums
'Glazunov: The Complete Solo Piano Music, Vol. 1' (CDH55221)
Glazunov: The Complete Solo Piano Music, Vol. 1
Buy by post £5.50 CDH55221  Helios (Hyperion's budget label)  
'Glazunov: The Complete Solo Piano Music, Vol. 2' (CDH55222)
Glazunov: The Complete Solo Piano Music, Vol. 2
Buy by post £5.50 CDH55222  Helios (Hyperion's budget label)  
'Glazunov: The Complete Solo Piano Music, Vol. 4' (CDH55224)
Glazunov: The Complete Solo Piano Music, Vol. 4
Buy by post £5.50 CDH55224  Helios (Hyperion's budget label)  
'Nikolai Demidenko live at Wigmore Hall' (CDD22024)
Nikolai Demidenko live at Wigmore Hall
Buy by post £10.50 CDD22024  2CDs Dyad (2 for the price of 1)  
'Strauss Waltz Transcriptions' (CDH55238)
Strauss Waltz Transcriptions
Buy by post £5.50 CDH55238  Helios (Hyperion's budget label)  

Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
Sergei Eduardovich Bortkiewicz was born in the Ukrainian city of Kharkov on 28 February 1877. His background and musical training mirrors that of many of his contemporaries. His mother was an accomplished pianist (a situation so common with composers of the time that it now seems almost a cliché) and co-founder of the Kharkov Music School, affiliated to the Imperial Russian Music Society, where Bortkiewicz was to have his early training. He studied piano there with Albert Bensch and early influences included Anton Rubinstein and Tchaikovsky, both of whom visited the school and took part in concerts there.

In 1896 Bortkiewicz enrolled at the St Petersburg Conservatory. As before in Kharkov he concentrated on his studies as a pianist, studying with Karl van Ark (a pupil of Leschetizky), but also joined the theory class of Anatol Liadov. To please his father Bortkiewicz was enrolled in the faculty of law at the university. It was clearly a subject that had few charms for the composer, as he later recalled:

Being a student at the university, I had to attend the lectures now and then. I left the goddess Polyhymnia unwillingly, in order to make a formal visit to justice. However, when the time came for the semester examinations, I immersed myself in law books and passed my examinations dutifully.

Unfortunately, serious student unrest in 1899 forced the university to close and all the students had to extend their studies for a further year. This was too much for Bortkiewicz who had held out at the university for three years. He now made the decision to forego the title of ‘Doctor of Law’ and instead to undertake his one-year compulsory military service with the Alexander Nevsky Regiment whilst continuing his studies part time at the Conservatory. His military service did not last for long due to illness and by the summer of 1900 he was back on his family estate at Artiomovka near Kharkov. It was then that he decided to continue his studies in Germany.

He enrolled at the Leipzig Conservatory in the Autumn of 1900, studying composition with Salomon Jadassohn and piano with Alfred Reisenauer. Reisenauer was a pupil of Liszt and a celebrated virtuoso. Bortkiewicz had first heard him play at the Kharkov Music School and soon became a devoted disciple. Bortkiewicz himself never became the ‘great pianist’ he had hoped to be and in his memoirs he notes, with some regret:

Reisenauer was a pianistic genius. He did not need to practise much, it came to him by itself … he thought and spoke very little about technical problems. Although I must thank my master very much as regards music, I had to realize later that I would have done much better if I had gone to Vienna in order to cure myself under Theodor Leschetizky of certain technical limitations, which I tried to overcome only instinctively and with a great waste of time.

In July 1902 Bortkiewicz completed his studies at the Leipzig Conservatory and, during a brief stay with his parents on their country estate, became engaged to his sister’s school friend Elisabeth Geraklitova. He was to marry her in July 1904. In his memoirs Bortkiewicz remarks: ‘Now I was married. A new period of my life began.’ This new period was marked by his turning seriously to composition for the first time. Although his Op 1 (whatever it was) appears to be lost and his Op 2 set of songs remained unpublished, in 1906 his Quatre Morceaux for piano, Op 3, were published by the Leipzig firm of Daniel Rahter.

From 1904 until the outbreak of the First World War Bortkiewicz lived in Berlin (spending his summers with his wife in Russia). He taught briefly at the Klindworth-Scharwenka Conservatory and continued to give concerts (not only in Germany but also in Vienna, Budapest, Paris, Italy and Russia)—increasingly playing only his own compositions. When hostilities began in 1914 Bortkiewicz was placed under house arrest and finally deported back to Russia via Sweden and Finland. It was a crushing blow for him. He loved Germany and had made his home there for so many years—but worse was to follow.

Initially, settled back in Kharkov, things seemed promising. He started teaching again, drawing around him a number of promising students who had studied in Moscow and St Petersburg during peacetime and who now remained in southern Russia as the war continued. He finally met Scriabin and Taneyev in Moscow and, confident that the war would end soon, Bortkiewicz set about rebuilding his career. On 25 March 1918 the Germans finally occupied Kharkov. In his memoirs Bortkiewicz can hardly conceal his delight in having Germans as his neighbours again: ‘After three days there was complete order: we had light, water, bread, the trains ran flawlessly. The German organizational skill was astounding … I made friends with some German officers and often functioned as an interpreter.’ The Germans, however, only stayed until November and after their departure a new horror arrived—civil war.

As the Revolution gained pace, so did the atrocities. The Bortkiewicz estate at Artiomovka was plundered and in the autumn of 1919 Bortkiewicz and his wife fled to Sevastopol in the Crimea. They waited in rented rooms overlooking Yalta harbour, desperate for a ship to take them away from Russia and back to freedom. Finally they were able to push themselves on board a merchant steamer, the Konstantin, bound for Constantinople. When they arrived they were penniless.

A chance introduction to Ilen Ilegey, court pianist to the Sultan, saved the situation. The Turkish pianist was impressed by Bortkiewicz’s compositions and helped by recommending him to important dignitaries in the city. Before long, Bortkiewicz was giving piano lessons to the daughter of the Court Conductor, the daughter of the Belgian Ambassador and the wife of the Yugoslavian Ambassador. He found himself a guest at all the large receptions in the magnificent embassies. Although he now had plenty of work, he missed the music and culture of Europe—in Constantinople there were no concerts, theatre or intellectual interests. Finally, Bortkiewicz managed to re-establish his old business contacts with the publishing firm Rahter. He decided to move to Vienna and on 22 July 1922 he and his wife arrived at the Austrian capital.

The move to Vienna was to be his final one. He became an Austrian citizen in 1926 and taught piano at the Vienna Conservatory. Bortkiewicz’s memoirs, although written in 1936, cover his life only until his arrival in Vienna in 1922. We know little about his subsequent life and career, except that he seems to have been held in high esteem in his new home. On 10 April 1947, in his seventieth year, the Bortkiewicz Society in Vienna was formed. It proved to be short-lived and Bortkiewicz himself died in Vienna on 25 October 1952. A substantial proportion of his published works was lost in the destruction of the Second World War and, with his remaining works increasingly difficult to obtain, his memory soon faded. In 1977, twenty-five years after his death, the Viennese civic authorities levelled his grave in the city cemetery. In October 1936 Bortkiewicz had finished his memoirs with these words:

The one who lives along with a crescendo of culture, should be praised as being happy! Woe to him who has gone down with the wheel of history! Vae victis!—And the present? Where are we headed: up—or down?—Oh, if it would soon go up!

As one would expect, Bortkiewicz’s output contains many works for his own instrument, the piano. He wrote two piano sonatas, many sets of pieces for piano and three piano concertos (the second for the left hand). He also completed a violin concerto and a cello concerto as well as an opera, Akrobaten, two symphonies, songs and chamber music. It is sad that so many of his works are lost and it can only be hoped that in time some surviving copies of his missing opus numbers may come to light.

The Lamentations and Consolations, Op 17, were published in 1914 by Kistner and Siegel, Leipzig. The eight pieces are divided into two books, the first dedicated to Moriz Rosenthal (who was an early champion of Bortkiewicz’s music and recorded his Étude in D flat, Op 15 No 8) and the second to Mme Vera de Berens. They are among his most characteristic works: intensely melodic with a brooding romanticism often reminiscent of Liszt. They were written around the same time as the first Piano Concerto, Op 16, and there are many similarities in the piano-writing between the two works.

The Ten Preludes, Op 33, were written in 1926, the year Bortkiewicz became an Austrian citizen and when he must have enjoyed the greatest security in his life. Several of them are clearly modelled on Chopin’s piano music, although numbers 6, 7 and 8 are unmistakably in Bortkiewicz’s own musical language.

Bortkiewicz wrote several sets of pieces whose appeal is clearly aimed at children. His Aus Andersens Märchen (‘From Andersen’s Fairy Tales’), Op 30, are subtitled ‘A musical picture book’. The twelve pieces all reflect in music the narrative of one of Andersen’s fairy tales. To remind those who have forgotten (or have never read) them, the stories are here summarized:

The Princess and the Pea: A prince, desperate to marry a real princess, travels around the world seeking her without success. One night a princess arrives at his castle and, in order to test whether she is indeed a real princess, the old queen places a pea underneath twenty mattresses and twenty eiderdowns. In the morning the princess complains that she could not sleep at all because of something hard in the bed. The prince, realizing that she must indeed be a real princess, marries her.
The Bell: In the streets of a city a bell could occasionally be heard at dusk. Everyone wondered at the deep booming sound and finally the rich people of the city decided to find the bell. They went out into the woods thinking that there might be a church there but nobody could find it. One Sunday in May, all the children who had just been confirmed at the church went for a walk in the forest. The sound of the bell was particularly strong that day and all the children wanted to find it. Gradually more and more of the children gave up the search, telling themselves that it was imaginary. The last five children finally reached a small silver bell hanging by a cottage. Four of the children were convinced that they had found the bell but the fifth, a prince, disagreed and continued the search. At last the prince reached the great sea where he was joined by a peasant boy who had been unable to set out with the others because he had to return his borrowed finery after the confirmation service. Now he had caught up with the prince, and together they joined hands and listened to the great invisible holy bell as it rang out across the sea.
The Hardy Tin Soldier: Once there were twenty-five tin soldiers. They had all been made from the same old tin spoon and all were identical except one—he was the last to be cast and only had one leg because there had not been enough tin. The little tin soldier loved the toy ballerina but because he only had one leg some of the other toys disliked him and played tricks on him. After many unpleasant incidents, a little boy picked him up and threw him into the stove. As he melted he gazed at the ballerina. A door opened in the room and a breeze caught the dancer and she flew into the stove with him. The next day when the maid cleaned the stove she found a little tin heart and the metal spangle from the ballerina’s dress in the ashes.
The Angel: An angel takes a dead child in his arms and tells the child that they must pick some flowers to take up to heaven where they will bloom even more beautifully than on earth. They gather flowers but just before they fly up to heaven the angel asks the child to take along an old dried-out wild flower that had been thrown out into the street. The angel explains that the flower had once belonged to a crippled child who had died the year before and that the dead child had loved the flower. When the angel is asked how he knows this, he replies that he had been that crippled child.
Little Ida’s Flowers: Little Ida wants to know why all her flowers are wilting when they had looked so healthy the day before. A young student, who is friendly with her, tells her that they are tired from dancing all night. Ida believes him, and that night she gets up and goes downstairs where she discovers the room full of different flowers dancing as if at a grand ball. Her own flowers are there and they thank Ida for looking after them but tell her that their lives are short and that tomorrow they will be dead. When Ida wakes up the next morning she finds them dead as they had said and she buries them in the garden, so that they will come to life the next year.
The Nightingale: The Emperor of China kept a nightingale in his palace and everyone agreed that its song was the greatest treasure the emperor possessed. The emperor was so pleased with the nightingale’s song that he had a special cage made for it and treated it with great honour. One day the Emperor of Japan sent a mechanical nightingale to the Emperor of China. The mechanical bird was wound up and played again and again, never becoming tired. The original nightingale flew away and the emperor banished it for being ungrateful. One day the mechanical bird broke down because it had been used so much. The emperor grew ill and, as he lay in his bed, he wished that he could hear the nightingale’s song again. Suddenly, the real nightingale appeared and sang for the sick emperor. The nightingale agreed to sing again for him on condition that the emperor kept it a secret and the emperor made a full recovery.
It is quite certain: One day, in the henhouse, a hen was picking at her feathers when one fell out. For fun she said, ‘There it goes, the more I peck at myself, the more beautiful I will become’. Her neighbour heard her and could not resist telling the next hen that there was a hen determined to pluck off her feathers to look more attractive. The owl above the henhouse heard this and told the pigeons that there was a hen that had plucked out all her feathers for the rooster’s sake. By the time the crow had heard, the story had become that of three hens who had plucked off all their feathers because of unrequited love. By the time the story came back to the original hen (who, of course, did not realize that the story had originated from her), there were now five hens who had plucked off all their feathers because of an unhappy love for the rooster and then had pecked each other to death. And that was how it was printed in the newspaper.
The Child in the Grave: A young child has died. He was only four years old and his mother became distraught and angry with God. On the day of the funeral the mother gave herself up to despair and, that night, she secretly left her husband and hurried to her son’s grave. As she cried over his resting place, Death appeared and asked her if she wished to join her son. She nodded and found herself in a great hall. She ran to her son who pleaded with her to let him fly to God with the other dead children. He explained that it was her tears that held him back. Suddenly, the mother heard the voices of her husband and daughters calling for her and she realized that she had forgotten all about them. Praying for forgiveness, she found herself back at the grave and returned home. Her husband, amazed at the transformation, asked her where she had suddenly got the strength to comfort others. She replied, ‘From God, and from my dead child in the grave’.
The Butterfly: The butterfly decided he must marry and obviously, being a butterfly, it had to be to a flower. He flew around the garden but none of the flowers seemed quite right. Spring passed and summer passed and finally, in the autumn, he decided to propose to the little mint plant. The mint replied that it would be foolish to marry, as they were now both so old. So the butterfly remained a bachelor and one day, late in autumn, he took refuge in the warmth of a house where he was seen, admired and stuck on a pin. He consoled himself by thinking, ‘Now I sit on a stalk just like the flowers, probably just like being married: you are stuck’.
The Ugly Duckling: It was summer and the ducklings had hatched, but one of the ducklings was bigger than the others and very ugly. The other ducklings made fun of him, as did the hens and the turkey cock. Months passed and the ugly duckling found himself all alone. As the snow arrived he felt a need to fly towards the magnificent swans. He was surprised when they swam towards him and, catching his reflection in the lake, he finally realized that he was not ugly any more but a beautiful swan.
Golden Treasure: Peter is a boy with red hair. His mother calls him her ‘golden treasure’ but everyone else calls him ‘carrot-top’. He is a talented musician and quickly learns to play the violin beautifully. However, as his father is the town drummer, Peter decides to join the army as a drummer-boy. He is a good drummer and his beating on the battlefield helps to secure victory. When he returns to his town he starts to play the violin again. The true golden treasure is in his heart, not on his head and he soon becomes famous and renowned as a great artist. As his father is now dead, he plays a last roll on his father’s big drum and it cracks.
The Metal Pig: In Florence there was a fountain cast in the shape of a pig. One evening a beggar-boy drank at the fountain and, exhausted, climbed onto the pig’s back and fell asleep. At midnight the pig moved and said to the boy, ‘Hold on tight, for I am going to run’. It took the boy through the streets of Florence and into the Uffizi Palace where the boy wondered at all the works of art. When the boy thanked the pig, the pig answered that it was he who should thank the boy because it is only when an innocent child sits on his back that he comes alive. Finally the boy falls asleep, to awake the following morning back at the fountain.

It is tempting to view the Ballade in C sharp minor, Op 42, and the Élégie in C sharp major, Op 46, as a pair. Though published separately in 1931 and 1932, they are strongly reminiscent of the pairs of pieces in Bortkiewicz’s earlier Lamentations and Consolations. In the respective keys of C sharp minor and major (this major/minor pairing mirroring those in Opus 17) they both almost quote from Rachmaninov’s second Piano Concerto. Whether these echoes of Rachmaninov are intentional or not, it certainly gives ammunition to critics who see Bortkiewicz’s music as derivative. This is a pity as both pieces have that unmistakable Bortkiewicz soundscape and it is worth remembering that Rachmaninov’s now celebrated Concerto was largely unknown to concert audiences in the early 1930s.

The Quatre Morceaux, Op 3, are Bortkiewicz’s earliest published works to have survived and were probably written in 1906. The dedications of the first three pieces are a clear acknowledgement of the individuals whose influence was most important to Bortkiewicz in his early career. The first is dedicated to the pianist Alfred Reisenauer, Bortkiewicz’s teacher and mentor, and the second to the Countess d’Osten-Sacken, the wife of the Russian Ambassador in Berlin. The Countess had studied with Chopin and was an influential admirer of Bortkiewicz, though his acquaintance with such high-ranking members of Berlin society seems to have come through his wife (whose uncle, Nicolaus von Bulatzel, was the Ambassador’s advisor) rather than through his own fame. The third piece is dedicated to Madame Sophie Bortkiewicz, presumably the composer’s mother, to whom Bortkiewicz, in his memoirs, attributed his musical talent.

Bortkiewicz only started composing seriously after he married in 1904, yet all four pieces (written barely two years later) display the accomplished piano-writing so characteristic of all his works.

The Quatre Morceaux, Op 65, are the last known surviving works by Bortkiewicz and were published in 1947, five years before the composer’s death. There seems to have been a brief revival of interest in Bortkiewicz’s music in 1947 (the year of the composer’s seventieth birthday) and this publication by the Viennese publisher Ludwig Doblinger (seven years after his previous published work, Lyrica Nova, Op 59) was probably arranged to coincide with the formation, in Vienna, of the Bortkiewicz Society in the same year.

It is interesting to note the complete absence of any musical development between the early Op 3 pieces and these last surviving works. The first of the set, Chant sans paroles, could almost be a homage to Schumann—a favourite composer of Reisenauer and Bortkiewicz. The Étude is less taxing than many of his other studies, with a conclusion that threatens to turn into Chopin’s ‘Winter Wind’ Étude, Op 25 No 11. The third piece, Épithalame (for left hand alone), is however of considerably greater technical difficulty. Bortkiewicz had previously demonstrated his mastery of this specialized medium in his second Piano Concerto, Op 28, also written for the left hand. With the final Capriccio alla Polacca we are back to more familiar territory—impressive virtuoso writing with a middle section that has the unmistakable voice of Bortkiewicz.

Written in 1909 while living in Berlin, the Sonata in B major, Op 9, is Bortkiewicz’s first large-scale work. Although never a very successful concert pianist, Bortkiewicz was at this time giving concerts throughout Europe including tours in Germany, Italy and Russia and appearances in the cities of Vienna, Budapest and Paris. It would seem likely that this sonata was written with these concerts in mind.

The work has a conventional structure with the first movement providing a suitably dramatic opening full of passion, virtuosity and soaring melody—the hallmarks of Bortkiewicz’s piano-writing. The second movement is perhaps the most successful, with a haunting opening melody which is later embellished with great simplicity and elegance—proof that he was more than just a barnstormer. The last movement is a ‘no holds barred’ study of virtuosity suitable for impressing even the most jaded audience in an era of great piano virtuosos. This sonata (as with so many other works by Bortkiewicz) leaves one wondering what fame and fortune the composer might have enjoyed had fate later brought him into contact with Hollywood.

Stephen Coombs © 2000

   English   Français   Deutsch