Jim Westhead
MusicWeb International
June 2021

The first thing I noticed is the Gablenz concerto’s timing imbalance. The 24-minute first movement is some three minutes longer than the other two movements together. Jonathan Plowright has some forthright comments about the work, quoted in the exemplary booklet notes by Jeremy Nicholas: 'Gablenz was a flautist and not a pianist … the third movement is technically the most uncomfortable … I think Gablenz must have thought that all pianists have hands the size of Rachmaninov’s. The piano’s opening solo passage and subsequent ones have chords for the left hand that stretch to a tenth and some even to a twelfth, and all with four notes, different hand positions and at ff or fff. This is painful to play and worse to practice.'

If a pianist of Plowright’s stature and recorded accomplishments makes such a statement, the composer, a virtuoso flautist, must have given little thought to the performer. Had he lived to hear the work performed, he might well have made changes. But he was very busy as the owner of a vinegar and mustard factory, which also produced pickled gherkins. He left many compositions incomplete, and died at 49 in an air crash.

The concerto opens with short chords for the piano. The orchestra follows immediately. The memorable principal subject arrives some two minutes in, and this theme is used throughout the excessively long movement. The opening reminds me of Schumann’s concerto in form, if not thematically. Other composers spring to mind as well, for example Moszkowski. Gablenz keeps the soloist busy, as themes are repeated and decorated.

The romantic core of the concerto is the central slow movement. It features the glockenspiel, which opens the movement as a solo, and then reappears, punctuating the main theme and its divisions very effectively. The movement rises to a sustained and memorable climax, eventually leading without pause into the third movement. Jonathan Plowright remarks that this slow movement 'is beautifully written for all instruments', which suggests that the other two are not. We already know his feelings about the third movement, which begins with a rather military-sounding brass chorale. The pianist is kept at full stretch for much of the time, and has the pleasure of introducing a cinematic theme, which ends with the huge finger-twisting chords mentioned earlier. Here Gablenz quotes directly from Chopin’s G major Ballade. Moszkowski makes an appearance again, before the soloist brings the keyboard contribution to an end with yet more massive chords (ffff). The movement finishes maestoso with the brass of the orchestra holding the stage.

The more I have listened to this concerto, the more I have grown to like it, and there is no doubt that Gablenz had a winning melodic gift. The almost cruel writing for the poor soloist may prevent it from being taken up by other pianists.

It is a pity that Gablenz completed no other concerti that could have been used as fillers. His last completed work was the symphonic prelude The Enchanted Lake. I would have loved to hear it, even though it has no piano part. As it is, Hyperion have recorded Paderewski’s Fantaisie polonaise sur des thèmes originaux. This has been set down several times over the years, usually as a coupling for his lyrically delightful Piano Concerto Op 17 from 1890.

In my opinion, it is not as attractive a piece as the concerto. Its several themes are Paderewski’s original ones—he has not used folk tunes. There are no traditional polonaise rhythms either. It is in four continuously played movements, cast in a traditional symphonic structure. It is a colourful work, lacking only that last bit of thematic memorability which could have made it popular.

To summarise, this is an attractive disc, well up to Hyperion’s Romantic Piano Concerto series standard (it is volume 83). The recording is fine, and the performances of both soloist and orchestra are top-notch. The highly informative booklet is full of musical and biographical detail in English, with translations into French and German.