Romantic Piano Favourites, Vol. 1 (Balazs Szokolay/ Janos Matyas) (Naxos: 8.550052)
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Popular Piano Pieces, Volume 1
By the time of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791), whose D major Rondo opens the present collection, the pianoforte, orfortepiano as it was then known, had begun to win enormous popularity. Therewas a growing market for piano music and for piano lessons, both of whichMozart was able to supply during his last ten years of uneasy independence inVienna.
Of the great classical composers identified with Vienna,Franz Schubert (1799 - 1828) was the only native of the city. The son of aschoolmaster, trained to follow his father's trade, for which he showed noability, he lived his short life in the company of friends, whom he entertainedwith his songs and compositions, never occupying any official position in themusical establishment. The G flat major Impromptu, published some thirty yearsafter Schubert's death, is the third of a group of four, its title probably thechoice of the publisher, who facilitated its performance by transposing it intoG major, thus avoiding the black notes that terrify the timid amateur.
Carl Maria von Weber (1786 - 1826), thehonorific "von" apparently the invention of his father, was thecousin of Mozart's wife Constanze and was brought up by his father, adilettante who for some years ran a travelling theatre-company, to emulate hisdistinguished relation by marriage. Weber was a very good pianist, but was towin still further renown as the creator of the first German Romantic opera,"Der Freischuetz", and as an adept in the new art of orchestralconducting. Invitation to the Dance is a programme piece, depicting theapproach of the dancer, the lady's initial hesitation, the man's insistence,their dancing, his thanks, her reply and their parting.
In Paris Chopin came to know the Hungarian-bornpianist Franz Liszt (1811 - 1886), although at first he disapproved heartily ofthe latter's Bohemian behaviour. Liszt, much more of a showman than Chopin evercould be, was to win a reputation as the greatest pianist of his day, areputation he retained after his virtual retirement from the concert platformto direct music in Weimar, and later to divide his time between Rome, Weimarand Budapest, where he was regarded as a national Hungarian hero. The thirdLiebestraum is a transcription for piano of a song by Liszt, a setting of apoem by the radical German banker-poet Ferdinand Freiligrath, "O liebsolang du lieben kannst", advice that Liszt was to follow until the day ofhis death.
Anton Rubinstein (1829 -1894) had hoped forpractical support from Liszt, but was never to receive it. He was to rivalLiszt as a pianist and to win a position for himself in Russia, where he wasencouraged to set up the first Conservatory of Music, in St. Petersburg.
Prolific as a composer, writing, in the words of his brother Nikolay, enoughmusic for the two of them, Rubinstein is all too well remembered by the Melodyin F.
Pyotr Il'yich Tchaikovsky (1840 - 1893) wasamong the younger generation of Russian composers to benefit from Rubinstein'sConservatory. Trained in law, he was among the first students, and oncompleting his studies joined the staff of the Moscow Conservatory, underRubinstein's brother Nikolay. Tchaikovsky may be bet1er known for hisremarkable and colourful writing for the orchestra. Nevertheless he wrote anumber of piano pieces, including a musical calendar, The Seasons, twelvepieces, one for each month of the year. The Barcarolle takes the listenerboating in June.
Antonin Dvorak (1841 - 1904), no great pianisthimself, is better known for his achievements in larger forms. The mostimportant of Bohemian nationalist composers in the later nineteenth century, hewas to spend a few years in the United States as Director of the NationalConservatory in New York. It was in America that he sketched the famousHumoresque, later written up in the tranquillity of his native Bohemia in 1894.
Zdenek Fibich (1850 - 1900) has travelled lesswell, although his name may be joined to those of Smetana and Dvorak, leadersof Bohemian nationalism in music. His Poem is taken from a set of Moods,Impressions and Reminiscences, published in 1894.
In Norway it was Edvard Grieg (1843 - 1907) whowas a pioneer of nationalism, although his early outlook was influenced by thepredominantly Danish culture of his class and by his training in Leipzig. Hewas an able pianist himself and, as a composer, a master of colourfulharmonies, shown admirably in the two Lyric Pieces here included, from ten suchsets published throughout his life.
Bela Bartok (1881 - 1945) represents anotherform of musical nationalism. Born in Hungary, he had his schooling inBratislava and his musical training at the Conservatory in Budapest, and showedimmense interest in the scientific collection of folk music, which he carriedout in Hungary and in neighbouring regions and countries. The RomanianFolk-Dances of 1915 demonstrate the astringency with which Bartok was able totreat the material he collected, his piquant harmonies setting off the melodiesin a new light.
George Gershwin (1898 - 1937) may seem an oddman out in such a European collection of composers, in spite of theRussian-Jewish origins of his immigrant parents. He wrote popular songs, stagemusicals and made occasional excursions into music that attempted a synthesisof the popular and the classical. The Three Preludes, written in 1936, the yearbefore his death, offer such a compromise, as thoroughly American as can beimagined.
Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy (1809 - 1847),privileged in his upbringing as the son of a banker, and grandson of the Jewishphilosopher and pioneer of toleration, Moses Mendelssohn, won enormouspopularity as a composer and distinction as a conductor. His Songs WithoutWords, of which he published various collections throughout his life, are shortcharacter-pieces, sometimes taking the place of an autograph album entry or acompliment to an admiring hostess. The Hunting Song was written in 1829 andpublished in London the following year.
Robert Schumann (1810 - 1856), whose love affairand subsequent marriage to the pianist Clara Wieck, daughter of his pianoteacher, had about it all the romantic interest that parental disapproval andprolonged litigation can produce, began with ambitions as a writer, proceededas a pianist until injury stopped play, and ended his career in an asylum,after a short period as director of music in Duesseldorf. The set of ninepieces that make up Waldszenen (Forest Scenes) was writ- ten in 1848 and 1849,at a time when depression threatened yet again and political circumstances inDresden, where he was living, were very uncertain. Clara Schumann found one ofthe pieces far too morbid for inclusion in her concert performances, but had noobjection to The Prophet Bird.
Schumann, as a young critic, had been among thefirst to recognize the ability of the Polish pianist and composer FryderykChopin (1810 - 1849), greeting his performance with the words "Hats off,gentlemen! A genius!" He later went on to parody Chopin's style in hispianistic parade, Carnaval, something that Chopin never forgave. Of paternalFrench origin, Chopin was Polish by birth and by persuasion, keenly involved inthe sufferings of his country under Russian domination. He was to spend most ofhis career in Paris, where he wrote the Fantasie-Impromptu in 1835, the firstof four such compositions.
The Hungarian pianist Balazs Szokolay was bornin Budapest in 1961, the son of a composer and professor at the Ferenc UsztAcademy of Musi