Blithe Bells [3'43]
A minor [7'08]
This fascinating recital takes us on a tour of some of the less-frequented byways of the piano world, and into a repertoire all too often missing from our concert halls as modern performers and promoters eschew the ‘frivolity’ of such works. Yet these are the very pieces which were the meat and drink of the grand masters of previous centuries. Whereas a pianist such as Rachmaninov would construct a programme like a well-planned banquet, with concern for balance, variety, size and general digestibility, most modern programmes are awesome by comparison and, though shorter than the old-style recital, often seem longer.
Greeted by the BBC on its original release a quarter of a century ago as ‘a delightful collection, beautifully played’, for this reissue of Rare Piano Encores Leslie Howard has taken advantage of the greater playing time of a CD—the original was of course on vinyl—to add two of his own compositions by way of a bonus and with thanks to kind listeners. Yuletide Pastoral was composed in response to a commission from Gramophone magazine for its Christmas number in 1997, whereas Réminiscences de l’opéra ‘La Wally’ de Catalani, firmly in the spirit of Liszt, is an old-fashioned operatic fantasy, based for the most part upon the famous aria Ebben’ ne andrò lontano—a melody recently made even more popular by its essential part in the plot of the magnificent film Diva.
Other recommended albums
The modern generation of pianists has seen fit to neglect exactly that type of music in which the great pianists of the past were such masters. The changing fashion which has all but dispensed with the character-piece, the transcription or the fantasy/paraphrase, is partly a result of the demise of the 78rpm gramophone record. The inherent time restriction of one side of a 10-inch or 12-inch ‘78’ meant that all the old masters recorded short pieces, and only occasionally recorded the whole sonatas or sets of variations which are the staple diet of the modern recital. But a great change has come over the live-performance programme too. Whereas a pianist such as Rachmaninov would construct a programme like a well-planned banquet, with concern for balance, variety, size and general digestibility, most modern programmes (and mine are usually no exception!) are awesome by comparison and, though shorter than the old-style recital, often seem longer. What a pity that when a composer has published a number of short works in a single convenient set, one rarely feels able nowadays to include just one of them in a programme instead of the whole jolly lot (often not so jolly, I’m afraid!).
Once upon a time one might see a group of pieces by many different composers in the second part of a recital, even a composition or a transcription by the pianist himself. Nowadays one rarely hears such pieces even as encores. Fashion too has had its say against all that music which might be described as light or purely entertaining. But the prejudice against a little piece by someone like Grieg just because it doesn’t bear comparison with a Beethoven sonata has had a very mischievous effect upon the modern musical diet. And, what is more, this prejudice is based upon the specious argument which refuses to admit worth in anything ‘light’. Espousers of this school of thought are equally apt to denigrate such a master of English prose as P G Wodehouse for being funny on the one hand and not being Shakespeare on the other.
Although no pianist, Gioacchino Rossini wrote a great deal for the piano, especially in his later years, and developed some fearful technical tricks including a hair-raising set of octave glissandi in this Petit caprice (Style Offenbach) which, however well-known from Respighi’s orchestration in La boutique fantasque, is much more exciting in this original version for piano, and every bit as fine a cancan as any that Offenbach wrote.
Mozart wrote his opera Don Giovanni in 1787. In the early 1920s Ferruccio Busoni produced his enormous work of piano pedagogy, the Klavierübung. In the volume dedicated to the study of staccato playing he included this splendid transcription of Don Giovanni’s Serenade ‘Deh vieni alla finestra’ which features a solo mandolin in the original and here conspires to stretch the hand so as to give the effect of two outer staccato parts with the lyrical melody taken in the middle, as if by a third hand.
George Gershwin was given to writing his orchestral pieces for piano and orchestrating them later. This Promenade was originally intended for the ‘walking the dog’ sequence in the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers film, Shall we Dance? in 1936, and is Gershwin’s last instrumental composition.
Most of Max Reger’s enormous output consists of extremely complex instrumental music but for his Opus 76 he produced sixty (!) songs which have their origin in folk poetry and song. Number 52 is the Mariä Wiegenlied (‘Mary’s Cradle Song’) which became immediately popular and was transcribed for piano by Reger himself and published in 1924.
The handful of transcriptions by Percy Grainger put him straight into the Liszt/Busoni/Rachmaninov class. Blithe Bells, dating from 1931, is one of the best, but those expecting the familiar strains of ‘Sheep may safely graze’ from Bach’s Cantata No 208 had better be prepared for an extraordinary change of shape, colour and harmony! Beginning with the notion that Bach ‘may have aimed at giving a hint of the sound of sheep bells’, and also conveying his belief that the three greatest composers were Bach, Delius and Duke Ellington, there is nothing quite like this very sincere act of homage.
Only the deafest of Wagnerians would try to make much of a case for the quite appalling quality of most of his piano music. But one or two of the late, short pieces are very attractive – and they are all dedicated to attractive titled ladies. This Album Leaf is fully titled In das Album der Fürstin M. – the Princess Metternich – and dates from 1861, two years after Tristan but much more conservative in idiom.
Although Ignacy Friedman studied composition and produced a mountain of now-forgotten music, no piano buff is unaware of his absolutely wonderful piano playing. Friedman, a pupil of Leschetitzky, left us some unique recordings. For his own use, and for his pianist friends, he produced a set of Six Viennese Dances between 1916 and 1920 ‘on motifs by Eduard Gärtner’, about which gentleman scrupulous research has revealed next to nothing! This second dance of the series is dedicated to Isidor Philipp.
It is not quite clear how much the Rachmaninov transcription is the work of the composer’s cousin, Alexander Siloti (under whose name the first edition was published but who was not credited in later editions) and how much is that of Rachmaninov himself, who at the very least approved of the arrangement and its new title. Originally, this Romance in E flat was a song, ‘Thou art like a flower’, to a Russian translation of Heine’s poem Du bist wie eine Blume. Although the transcription is quite straightforward there are some particularly beautiful rhythmic alterations to allow the melody to be heard clearly at the climax. A typical Rachmaninov gesture, these surely come from the composer’s own hand.
Bizet’s Carmen needs no introduction, but among the dozens of piano fantasies on its themes the Polish composer and pianist Moritz Moszkowski produced a notable and brilliant act of homage to the original in this noble transcription, first published in 1906.
The last of Franz Liszt’s Valses oubliées became truly forgotten – it was not discovered and published until 1954 – and, like its siblings, is a recollection of bygone splendours and ends with a wonderfully inconclusive cadence.
Anton Rubinstein was the only nineteenth-century pianist ever to be seriously compared with Liszt. Sadly, he died before the age of recording and, sadder, most of his enormous output of music in all genres disappeared with him. It seems high time to revive such a delightful trifle as his Valse-caprice of 1870 which held sway in the salons of Europe for a good half-century before the tide of fashion bore it away.
Ich liebe dich, Op 41 No 3, is Grieg’s 1884 arrangement of his most famous song, ‘Jeg elsker dig’ (‘I love you’), Op 5 No 3. Grieg published two volumes of transcriptions of his own songs, and he seems to have taken some trouble with them, for they emerge as piano works in their own right, worthy of comparison with the Lyric Pieces. This particular song is subjected to an elaborate and heroic variation, becoming a dialogue between two lovers rather than a serenade by one.
The modern revival of Schubert’s piano music would have been difficult to foresee a hundred years ago. But Liszt was a very keen Schubertian. He edited many piano works, made a version of the ‘Wanderer’ Fantasy for piano and orchestra (a really fine piece), and he conducted the opera Alfonso und Estrella. He never managed to complete the biography he projected at one time, but he did find opportunity to rescue from oblivion many of Schubert’s dances for piano, which he arranged as nine Soirées de Vienne of which the present example is the sixth (in Liszt’s first version). Several dances are alternated, developed and varied and, whilst it is true that some of Schubert’s originals are now occasionally played, Liszt’s versions are done with such good taste that it is only a result of sheer snobbery that they are rarely heard today.
It would be rash to suggest that Bruckner’s few piano works entitle him to much consideration as a composer were it not for the interesting view of the composer’s workshop that one or two of them give. Erinnerung (‘Remembrance’) is the best of them and dates from around 1868, thus falling between the first and second symphonies in chronology. The simple grandeur of this piece (the object of the title’s remembrance is unknown) suggests that it might not be impossible to make an effective transcription of the symphonies themselves!
Liszt was probably the greatest pianist of them all. He was certainly the greatest transcriber, and his free compositions on other composers’ themes are a long way removed from the cheap pot-pourri or salon improvisation. In the Valse de concert sur deux motifs de Lucia et Parisina, two innocent little tunes from two Donizetti operas are varied and combined to produce not just a virtuoso warhorse but a convincing and original character-piece which greatly elevates the basic material into a waltz-poem.
For the re-release of this disc some twenty-five years after it was first recorded for an ‘LP’, we have taken the opportunity to profit by the length of the modern compact disc and include two newly recorded pieces by way of a bonus and with thanks to our kind listeners. Yuletide Pastoral was composed in response to a commission from Gramophone magazine for its Christmas number in 1997. This little piece pays a general homage to the style of a certain English composer, contains material from a very famous Christmas-inspired composition, and weaves in themes from five well-known Christmas carols (anyone who is in doubt can find out which on page 19).
In the spirit of Liszt, but taking the music of an opera he could not have known (it was first performed in 1892), the Réminiscences de l’opéra ‘La Wally’ de Catalani is an old-fashioned operatic fantasy, based for the most part upon the famous aria Ebben’ ne andrò lontano – a melody recently made even more popular by its essential part in the plot of the magnificent film Diva. The fantasy was composed in 1988 and exploits the particular and sometimes eerie sound that the piano can make with quiet chords of wide intervals, mostly tenths and elevenths.
Leslie Howard © 2004