HANS VON BÜLOW, Vol. 2 = Mazurka-Fantaisie, Op. 13; Elfenjagd, Op. 14; Mazurka-Impromptu, Op. 4; Invitation à la Polka, Op. 6; Chant Polonais (alla Mazurka), Op. 12; Trois Valses caractéristiques, Op. 18; Königsmarsch, Op. 28 – Mark Anderson, p. – Nimbus Records NI 5907, 61:16 [Distr. by Allegro] (1/14/14) ***:
A towering figure in nineteenth-century music, Hans von Bülow (1830–94) was a busy man. Besides writing a good deal of music in a number of genres, he was a virtuoso who premiered the grueling Tchaikovsky First Piano Concerto; a conductor and orchestra builder who championed Wagner, Brahms, and Richard Strauss; a teacher at the Hoch Conservatory in Frankfurt, where he numbered Strauss among his pupils. Today, von Bülow is almost exclusively remembered for his innovations as a conductor and his advocacy of some of the century’s greatest composers. If you want to learn what his original music is like, picking up the two volumes of piano music played by Mark Anderson is the best way to do so. Except for a recording or two of transcriptions, these Nimbus discs are the only ones I know of that are devoted exclusively to von Bülow.
I haven’t heard Volume 1, but the pieces on it appear to cover the same ground: a march, an impromptu or two, a ballad—no sonata-allegro forms, which would probably have seemed too eighteenth-century to von Bülow, the most famous student and follower of Liszt. What do the pieces on the current disc sound like? Sort of like Liszt with northern exposure: whereas Liszt often turned to his native Hungary for musical inspiration, von Bülow seems to have looked just as often toward Poland and his favorite piano composer, Chopin. So we have stylized treatments of the mazurka and polka, as well as another Chopin favorite, the waltz. The three Valses caractéristiques show von Bülow at his elegant best; they’re shapely, based on attractive melodies and with more restless and daring modulations than Chopin would have used, as befits a thoroughly modern composer circa 1860.
The Chant Polonaise initially has a rather melancholy and nostalgic air, though it grows much more demonstrative as it progresses before returning to the relative calm of the opening. After indulging in some of the flying scalar passages that crop up here and there throughout his compositions (shades of Liszt), the piece finishes with a confident statement of the Polonaise theme. This, too, is an attractive piece.
I also liked Elfenjagd. It does have some echoes of Mendelssohn’s fairy music but, of course, radically updated, with more harmonic and rhythmic twists and turns. It’s comparatively light and airy, but those hairpin shifts between scale passages and chords make this anything but a light matter for the performer.
I’m not as partial to the pieces that bookend this program. Mazurka-Fantaisie features fistfuls of big chords and sounds like Liszt at his most pompous. Frankly, I can do without its sound and fury. More Lisztian razzle-dazzle with Königsmarsch, but I find its harmonic waywardness appealing, and its more reposeful moments are attractive oases in the midst of all the military bluster. There seem to be echoes here of Wagner in a similar vein (say, the Kaisermarsch or American Centennial March). And like Wagner for the parade ground, Königsmarsch is really not von Bülow at his finest, even if the piece is fun to hear the first couple of times.
Which, I suppose, is to say that von Bülow is not a composer who’s likely to grow on you. The pianistic challenges are always interesting, and at his best, von Bülow can craft an elegant melody and put it through its paces. Ultimately, however, this is music lacking in individuality and character. But if you want to hear what the work of this important musical figure sounds like, Mark Anderson is most accommodating. He has superb technique and sensitivity to von Bülow’s idiom; he genuinely believes in this music. If you don’t share his conviction, well, that’s von Bülow’s fault and not Anderson’s.
The piano sound is very good though I advise dialing back on the volume at the start. The ringing chords in that first piece can sound a bit clangorous unless you do. But once you have the volume set at a listenable level, the recording will give pleasure.
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