Volume 79 in Hyperion's remarkable Romantic Piano Concerto series contains two works that were written well into the 20th century. Both works betray something of the ever-changing musical world into which they were born, with ‘an amalgam of late-romantic writing spiced with more modern harmonies’, as the booklet notes say, but though the spice of the harmony is of a darker hue in the Pfitzner, both works are tonally romantic concertos with all the necessary gestures, drama, pathos and devilry.
Hans Pfitzner is known less for his concertante works than his vocal works and it is with the musical legend Palestrina and his songs that he tends to be remembered. The Piano Concerto in E flat was his first major work for soloist and orchestra; it was completed in the autumn of 1922 and premièred in March of the following year by Walter Gieseking who kept the work in his repertoire and played it for at least the next 20 years. (I first heard the piece on an old LP of Gieseking's broadcast performance from December 1943; it is now on the Music and Arts label.)
This is a four-movement work opening with a sprawling first movement marked pomphaft, mit Kraft und Schwung (Grandiose, with strength and impetus/verve). This is certainly the case for the angular opening theme announced in grand chords and octaves from the soloist. A cadenza-like passage leads into a section that develops this theme in dialogue between the soloist and orchestra. After this grandiloquent opening section we encounter more reflective, sombre music; a slow and highly chromatic theme that is extensively developed and only begins to move into a more extrovert mood over half way through the movement. The opening theme returns to even more development and the movement ends with an extended orchestral passage based around the second theme.
The lively scherzo that follows is like day to night to what has gone before—sprightly, energetic, wildly virtusoic and quite frankly huge fun; a perpetuum mobile in which the soloist and orchestra throw the music from one to the other like a big game of catch that gradually winds down to lead into the meditative slow third movement. Over a third of the calm third movement is a simple dialogue between horn and clarinets answering an ethereal string and harp theme. The movement ends with a marvellous brass chorale that introduces the theme of the final movement.
If this movement ‘never escapes a certain severity’, as we read in the booklet notes, it is still exciting, from the opening theme, just as angular as the first movement's, to the little tripping quaver motifs that follow it. As in the opening movements there are plenty of piano fireworks but Pfitzner so often wraps them up in full orchestral discourse that they are not obvious.
I find that Pfitzner's dramatic changes of mood in the first movement and his propensity for extensive development of thematic material upsets the flow of the music, making it seem overlong. The rest of the work suffers less in this respect and this, coupled with the many beauties that are found in the music, has allowed this concerto to grow on me.
Walter Braunfels was a new name to me until relatively recently. His works are now appearing more on disc (though I doubt this is reflected in the concert hall). He was born in Frankfurt am Main and studied with the same piano teacher as Pfitzner, James Kwast. He went on to study piano with Theodore Leschetizky and composition with Felix Mottl and Ludwig Thuille. Some of his piano concertante works have already appeared on other labels: the Piano Concerto Op 21 appears on Dutton Epoch and the Hexensabbat Op 8, Konzertstück Op 64 and the Hebridentänze Op 70 are on a Capriccio disc. The present work was composed in 1933-34 but was not performed until 2017 (with Michael Korstick as the soloist). It is in five movements and is described as being for ‘orchestra with piano obbligato’, though the pianist has a huge part to play in the drama.
The work opens with mildly dissonant piano arpeggios over sustained bass notes. The feeling is one of unease and bleakness with short, fragmentary themes from various solo instruments. The tempo picks up and there is a more animated section but even here there is very little sense of resolution. The calm second movement opens with some delicate writing for winds before a pastorale mood is suggested with rippling and skipping piano figurations over repeated string textures. These drive the movement forward towards its uplifting conclusion, the sense of disquiet of the opening of the work forgotten. The brief, fantastical Scherzo that follows is reminiscent of Dukas' The Sorcerer's Apprentice or Pick-Mangiagalli's Sortileggi in mood and writing. There is some beautiful instrumental writing over rich piano arpeggios in the fourth movement, a beautifully expressive adagio that reaches a passionate climax and the work closes with a bracing and colourfully scored Toccata, full of drive and vigour.
These Tag- und Nachtstücke (Day and night pieces) are a feast of orchestral colour and idiomatic piano writing; it is a real winner that I will listen to often. Even more so than with the Pfitzner the tonality is sumptuously late-romantic and both works richly deserve their place in Hyperion's series. Markus Becker brings both works to life with vital, virtuosic playing and Constantin Trinks and the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra capture all the depth and richness of orchestration that is such a large part of these two works.