BORTKIEWICZ: Lyrica Nova; Etude in D-flat Major; Nocturne; Esquisses de Crimee; Three Preludes; Piano Sonata No. 2
 – A. Soldano, p. – Divine Art

The music of Bortkiewicz receives ardent and luxurious realization from pianist Soldano.

BORTKIEWICZ: Lyrica Nova, Op. 59; Etude in D-flat Major; Nocturne from Op. 24; Esquisses de Crimee, Op. 8; Three Preludes; Piano Sonata No. 2 in c-sharp, Op. 60 – Alfonso Soldano, p. – Divine Art dda 25142, 69:31 (10/14/16) [Distr. by Naxos] ****:

The Ukrainian composer Sergei Bortkiewicz (1877-1952) had been unknown to me until his name arose in a conversation in Atlanta with Rudolf Firkusny, who stated that he had worked with Vaclav Talich on one of this composer’s concerted pieces. Bortkiewicz had studied with Liadov and Karel van Ark at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, but also with Liszt pupil Alfred Reisenauer. A life of almost perpetual migration for Bortkiewicz followed the events after the Russian Revolution, the rise of Nazism, and the outbreak of WW II. Finally, in 1945 Bortkiewicz received from Vienna a pension that could supplement his teaching at the Vienna City Conservatory. A self-admitted Romantic composer, Bortkiewicz held melody in esteem, sporting a distinct aversion to developments in atonal, serial, aleatory, and cacophonous music.  His tonal syntax takes its diverse cues from Chopin, Liszt, Rachmaninov, Scriabin, and Medtner. From the groups assembled by pianist Soldano (b. 1986), the music enjoys liquid, modal, and bravura effects, marked by dynamic flexibility and occasionally dreamy evocations of mood.

Soldano opens (rec. 19 March 2016) with the 1940 (four) pieces Bortkiewicz calls Lyrica nova.  The first, Con moto affetuoso, strikes a cantabile, liquid series of chords, immediate in their hypnotism. Andantino sounds a darker sensibility, more in the spirit of Rachmaninov or Scriabin. So, too, does a second, exotic Andantino extend the composer’s affinity to early Scriabin. The fourth, brief piece, Con slancio, assumes a more resolute tone, although the spirit of reverie remains. Bortkiewicz wrote Dix Etudes, Op. 15 (1911) as dedication pieces to Alfred Reisenauer. Soldano excercises his Steinway instrument on the D-flat Major, Op. 15, No. 8, a work recorded by no less than Moritz Rosenthal. It seems that, at least twice, a pianist’s performance of this work led an attractive woman to inquire after it, and the relationships blossomed into marriage proposals: hence, Bortkiewicz dubbed it the “betrothal etude.”  The Nocturne, Op. 24, No. 1 (1922) has a nickname “Diana,” and perhaps its crystalline trills capture something of the moon goddess. The first of the Trois Morceaux, the work exploits a decidedly Chopinesque bass line fused to the Scriabin delicacy of texture. If Bortkiewicz had entitled the piece “Berceuse,” I would believe it.

The 1908 set of four pieces, Esquisses de Crimee, Op. 8, resounds with Liszt’s influence, courtesy of Reisenauer’s tutelage. The first of the “sketch” pieces, Les roches d’outche-coche, means to capture the high rocks of the Crimean Mountains. The music sounds like Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata spliced to one of Liszt’s dreams of love. The writing becomes quite passionate later in the score, especially as the rocks dominate our view of the city of Alupka. Caprices de la mer imitates the motions of the waves upon the Black Sea, and the harmonic affinities with Debussy – especially his first Arabesque in E – may not be accidental. The last two pieces address the city of Alupka – some 17 kilometers west of Yalta – directly. The first, Idylle orientale, transposes aspects of Balakirev and Borodin upon series of ostinato and ornamental figures that might accompany Valentino’s incarnation of The Sheik. The second piece, Chaos, rivals Liszt’s Orage for voluptuous arpeggios in the form of storm that turns to the fugue as a natural expression of its singular, dramatic power. Its affinity with Bach’s brief Fantasia in c minor seems obvious. Soldano then dutifully, and passionately, turns to three preludes created at varying points in Bortkiewicz’s career.  Composed in 1910, the Prelude in A-flat Major, Op. 13, No. 5, belongs to a set of six, meant to celebrate influences Liszt and Anton Rubinstein. Marked Andantino placido, the piece lulls us melodically in a manner of Liszt and some of his gifted Spanish acolytes, like Granados. The sheer panoply of keyboard color attests to a refined, keyboard sensibility. The Prelude, Op. 40, No. 4 (1931) occupies the central spot in a set of seven.  The immediate nostalgia in the work suggests both Scriabin and liquid Rachmaninov. Marked Sostenuto, the work maintains a unity of effect that totally suits the temperament of our young firebrand Soldano. The Prelude, Op. 66, No. 3 serves as one of only two of the original Six Preludes bequeathed us by a fickle posterity.  Originally composed in 1946 and mailed to a publisher in New York, the two that survive at present were discovered in 2001 as part of the estate of Dutch pianist Helene Mulholland. This prelude exudes a sense of calm resignation.

The Piano Sonata No. 2, Op. 60 (1942) continues Bortkiewiecz’s tormented publishing history.  Although performed in 1942 and 1944, and once more in the years 1949-52, it was in 2013 that a proof of the printed score emerged in the Saxon State Archive in Leipzig. In four movements, the Sonata could claim to embrace Medtner as well as Rachmaninov and Scriabin. The first movement, Allegro ma non troppo, clearly announces a theme close to Rachmaninov his c minor Concerto, but the modal harmonies take an individual turn.  The florid writing then imitates aspects of Chopin’s e minor Concerto, even as the bass chords bear the Russian stamp. Another melodic theme arises, molto espessivo, one almost note-for-note from Kalinnikov’s g minor Symphony. The last pages, in fact, assume a grandiose, symphonic effect, bold and lyrical, at once. The Allegretto second movement offers a flighty march, with a second theme almost “stolen” from a Brahms rhapsody (in b minor). The music assumes the rhythm of a polonaise in the Chopin or Liszt style. The harmonic route by which Bortkiewicz returns to the da capo is worth the price of admission. The heart of the work lies in the Andante misericordioso, a penitential progression rife with Chopin and Mussorgsky. Suddenly, its mood shifts to one of nocturnal meditation and consolation, with soft religioso chords that convey the composer’s idiosyncratic doxology. The last pages, dark and funereal, resound with tragic doom. The last movement Agitato begins in the manner of a Chopin or Liszt etude, offset by a jagged motif in resonant staccato.  The fiendish tempo strikes back up, ardent in the manner of inflamed Scriabin. A sudden shift into the major modality brightens the atmosphere, perhaps resolving the Manichean conflict that defines the Bortkiewicz sensibility.  Fine piano sound, engineered by Christian Ugenti.

—Gary Lemco

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