ALBERT: Piano Concertos Nos. 1 and 2 / Esther Overture (Dmitry Yablonsky/ Joseph Banowetz/ Moscow Symphony Orchestra) (Naxos: 8.553728)
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Eugen d'Albert (1864-1932)
Piano Concerto No.1 in B minor, Op. 2
Piano Concerto No.2 in E major, Op. 12
Overture: Esther, Op. 8
Born in Glasgow in 1864, of remoter Italian ancestry, the Germancomposer and pianist Eugen d'Albert was a significant figure among the virtuosopianists of the generation after Liszt. Today, however, his name andcompositions are largely forgotten. His father Charles d'Albert had studied thepiano under Kalkbrenner and became ballet - master at Covent Garden, compilingan influential treatise, Ballroom Etiquette.
Their ancestors included Domenico Alberti, originator of the Albertibass, a figuration popular in classical keyboard writing, and the family haddistinguished military association; Fran?ºois Benoit d'Albert, the composer'sgrandfather, a French cavalry officer, had died at Waterloo.
Seeking his fortune in England, Charles d'Albert settled in Newcastleupon Tyne, working as a dancing-master, conductor and impresario. Following hismarriage in 1863 to Annie Rowell, the family moved to 9, Newton Terrace,Glasgow, where Eugen was born on 10th April 1864. The boy had his musicaltraining from his father, displaying exceptional promise in childhood. In histwelfth year he won a scholarship to the newly established National TrainingSchool for Music, later the Royal College of Music, and the family moved toLondon, taking lodgings in South Kensington. One of d'Albert's fellow-students,W.G. Alcock, later recalled the young virtuoso's astonishing performance at theentrance examination. 'I remember standing at the door watching a chubby boyplaying the >Concerto in A minorbyHummel. At its conclusion Ernst Pauer (one of the adjudicators and an eminentvirtuoso) declared "You will study with me!", sensing futurepossibilities. By the time he was fifteen, d'Albert's technical command andsense of interpretation were far beyond his years'.
Wagner's London performances in 1877 had a marked influence. Muchdiverted by this 'music of the future', d'Albert quickly absorbed the progressiveharmonic language of Wagner's music-dramas, later making use of similartechniques in his own stage-works. Of some twenty operas by d'Albert, only his Tiefland. Opus 34, with a libretto byRudolph Lothar based on Angel Guimera' s TierraBaixa (The Lowlands), first performed in Prague in 1903, continuesin modern repertory. Flauto solo, amusical comedy, after Hans von Wolzogen, on the life of Frederick the Great,first performed in Prague in 1905, also then considered a masterpiece, was onlyone of d'Albert's major achievements that has not stood the test of time.
In his final year at the Royal College of Music d'Albert performedSchumann's Piano Concerto beforethe Prince and Princess of Wales, to whom he was later presented by Sullivan,at the old St James' Hall in London, and was invited to visit Queen Victoria atOsborne House, where he accompanied the Duke of Edinburgh, an accomplishedamateur violinist. D'Albert's most decisive meeting, however, was with thegreat Hans Richter, under whose direction he performed his early Piano Concerto in A minor, described bythe correspondent of The Musical Times as'uncompromising in its pretensions to rank with the chief of its kind', but'redundant in matter'.
At Richter's invitation, d'Albert travelled to Vienna in December 1881,quickly gaining introductions to the leading figures in the musical worldthere, among them Hans von B??low and Johannes Brahms, whose piano concertos heperformed under the composer's direction. D'Albert also met the influential criticEduard Hanslick, who was well disposed towards him; in d'Albert's stringquartets, inspired by Beethoven's, Hanslick would find 'the stamp of hispersonality... the individual physiognomy'. Richter also engineered a meetingbetween d'Albert and Franz Liszt, who, never particularly generous in praise offellow pianists, wrote warmly of 'an artist, an extraordinary pianist by thename of d'Albert: Hans Richter, the eminent conductor, introduced him to me inVienna last April . Since then he has worked at Weimar under mytutelage... I know of no more gifted or dazzling talent than his'.
Widely admired as an interpreter of Beethoven, Brahms and Liszt, Eugend'Albert also championed works by new composers, including Reger and Busoni. Healso won acclaim for his performances of Bach and Baroque models informedseveral of his mature compositions, most notably his Piano Sonata, Opus 10,which ends with a monumental andtaxing triple fugue.
After the failure in 1905 of his marriage with the Venezuelan pianistTeresa Carreno, Eugen d'Albert assumed the directorship of the BerlinMusikhochschule, succeeding Joseph Joachim in that position. Although hisdaughter alleged that d'Albert disliked teaching, several distinguishedmusicians, including Wilhelm Backhaus and Ernst von Dohn?ónyi, claimed to havebeen his students. Reliable information is scarce, but the period was certainlyone of the least remarkable and probably the unhappiest of d'Albert's career.
In 1914 he took Swiss citizenship, devoting himself increasingly thereafter tocomposition. Although he lived well into the era of sound recording, survivingrecordings offer only tantalising glimpses of stunning virtuosity amid muchthat seems mediocre and unremarkable. He died in Riga on 3rd March 1932.
D'Albert's Piano Concerto in Aminor, heard during Richter's London season on 1881, has notsurvived. The Piano Concerto No.1 in Bminor, Opus 2, appeared three years later, with a dedication toFranz Liszt, whose innovations of thematic metamorphosis and cyclic formappealed powerfully to d'Albert. Early critics noted an understandablepredisposition towards virtuosity, but, while d'Albert intended the work as avehicle for his own bravura technique, the concerto displays remarkablecreative refinement. Cast in cyclic bi-partite form, the work revolves around apoignantly reflective slow movement, a second episode, marked Langsam, mit Empfindung (Slow, withfeeling), framed by substantial episodes built around the concerto's elegiacopening section. Both are developed fully, the solo part incorporating anarmoury of virtuoso devices in the Lisztian manner. An ingenious fugal cadenzafollows the repetition of the first episode, leading to a dazzling Scherzo in 6/8 time, in which the sombreopening motif of the concerto is subject to a Lisztian metamorphosis, emergingin brilliant primary colours. The work ends, fittingly, with spectacular andemphatic brilliance.
Eugen d' Albert's Piano ConcertoNo.2 in E major, Opus 12, is, by contrast, the work of a mature andaccompli shed composer, now able to achieve a judicious balance between formand content, without compromising virtuoso interests. Written in 1893, theconcerto is contemporaneous with the earliest of d'Albert's operas, Der Rubin (The Ruby). That it met withlimited success suggests the composer's waning interest in a form to which henever returned. Again in freely adapted cyclic form, the work is more concisethan its predecessor; three principal sections are again discernible within theoverall structure, with a scherzo episode, marked Sehr lebhaft (very lively), between the slow movement andthe finale. Whereas the first of the two concertos begins introspectively, inthe second a robust, declamatory mood is instantly proclaimed. The openingsection, marked Ma?ƒig bewegt (moderato)features an expansive heroic motif, rich in pianistic possibilities. Thedevelopment, with interjections from the solo cello and dialogues betweensoloist and wi