SCHUMANN/MERTZ: Piano/Guitar Double Album Review

SCHUMANN – Davidbundlertanze, Humoreske, Blumenstück – Luca Buratto – Hyperion 68186, 64:58 ( 4/28/17) ****:

Johann Kaspar MERTZ: “The Last Viennese Virtuoso” – Frank Bungarten (ten string guitar) MDG SACD 905, 67:10, (4/14/17) ****:

Two Biedermeier recitals for solo instruments representing the intimate musical aesthetic of the domestic salon.

The recordings under review here are by composers who were exact contemporaries in the first half of the 19th century. Within the field of European Cultural History, the period from the Restoration of the old regimes after the Napoleonic disturbance to the first big wave of Revolutions in 1848 has been designated the “Biedermeier.”  This originally denoted a style in furniture design but expanded to describe a cultural sensibility, one that affixed to an emergent bourgeois identity. Essentially a conservative tendency, Biedermeier evokes many other enduring Central European traits, such as simple and elegant craftsmanship, a pious and nostalgic worship of both history and Nature, a preference for amateur and domestic productions over aristocratic ostentation. How does this apply to music?  A Biedermeier interior provides clues.

First there is the furniture: smallish chairs and low couches, which are pretty but not so comfortable, their wood local but stained to look like mahogany. Bookshelves hold works by Heine, Goethe, and the Classical authors. On the mantelpiece sits a marble bust of Ludwig van Beethoven. The well-worn scores suggest that the family members play the music themselves. There are songs by Schubert and Gluck. More surprising are the opera arias in simple arrangements for guitar. In the corner of the room sits a real puzzle, a guitar like none you have ever seen. It is double-necked, possessing ten strings with four unfretted on the upper extension, like an archlute. What kind of music was played on this long-extinct instrument and by whom? The answer is found on this elegant new release, Johann Kaspar Mertz: the Last Viennese Virtuoso.

The liner notes present a substantial and fascinating essay on the important role of the guitar in the Habsburg Empire, especially as regards the interplay of instrument design and musical evolution. In brief, we can state that a new middle class took to domestic music making on an unprecedented scale. With the guitar, a simple folk music got caught up in the heady development of an art idiom nourished by the great composer of the original Viennese high classical tradition and all the subsequent development of the early Romantics. In order to attain to a more orchestral reach, extra strings were added. New techniques, too, were required to master the polyphonic and harmonically-intricate music of the era. As a result, we end up with an amateur art form of some difficulty. Johann Mertz represents the both the high point and a final articulation of this tradition.

This recital, played with remarkable aplomb by Frank Bungarten on a 10 string guitar modeled on the original Viennese design, features a sampling of this composer’s pieces. There are a couple of simple tunes, which carry titles indicative of their light themes, Die Post and Das Fischermadchen. On the other hand, the reworking of Verdi’s Ernani is a long and involved piece. It demonstrates great arpeggio work backing a series of melodic statements which combine to produce a dramatic narrative. It is a perfect illustration of Biedermeier art: the lofty opera domesticated and made into something serviceable.

Trois Morceaux make greater use of the bass strings and stand out for their formal design and their folkloric effects, especially the Fantasie Hongroise. Of course the backward-looking tendency must be in evidence as well, and so we have an Orgelfuge, a reworking of a J.G Albrechtsberger fugue with a strict (and rather stiff sounding) counterpoint. The second longest piece, Harmonie du Soir, is the weightiest of the recital. It shows off the lower range of the instrument and then ranges in a Schubertian attitude of abandon through a number of inspired lyrical ideas with dazzling passages that shift register and mood according to what seems an improvisational whim. This piece alone is worth the price of the CD.

Artfulness narrowly wins out over sentimentality on the Sechs Schubertische Lieder. Lob der Thranen (In Praise of tears) and Liebesbotshaft (Love letter) are charming lyrics which would be great gifts to the guitar literature, but I am afraid they will require this singular 10-stringed instrument for their delivery. The sound of this instrument is overwhelming, and the idiom is refreshingly un-Spanish, shunning flourishes and speedy runs for a sturdier construction of inner voices and harmonic colors.

I might have been fully forthcoming earlier in mentioning that one of the connotations of Biedermeier is stodgy or boringly conventional, but we will reject this association in the case of this original and pleasurable guitar world. MDG has done stellar work in capturing the larger than life sound world of this splendid instrument, handsomely documented in several photos within. The CD is available on the MDG site.

It is hard to place Robert Schumann as a Biedermeier artist in quite the same way as Mertz. He was a relentless pursuer of a radically individual artistic authenticity. Yet it is impossible entirely to escape the image of the domestic framework. One can scarcely picture Robert at any period without seeing Clara at the piano, with admiring guests aplenty, such as Brahms and Wolf. Above all, the bust of Beethoven looms even larger, for it cast a shadow on Schumann’s generation. (Only Chopin managed to escape the influence.) Moreover, the piano music of Schumann was not for public but rather private delectation. Of course, the first cycle of pieces under review here, the Davidbundlertanze, have a specific connection to his love affair with his fiancee and soon to be wife, Clara, and suggests an especially intimate musical code.

Schumann’s opus 6 bursts with youthful fantasy and originality. The most typical pieces are animated with a single rhythmic idea, but are prolific in melodic invention. A dozen moods, some rather stylized, evoke moments in a life or the vicissitudes of the mind itself. The playing of Luca Buratto, the 2015 Honens Prize Laureate, is perfectly attuned to Schumann’s rhetorical and technical demands. The sound of the Steinway is warm, and there is just enough gauze over the highs to keep a prominent feature of Schumann, the occasional agitated galloping, from jarring, as it so often does with this repertoire.

“How long can Schumann sound exactly like Chopin?” is a question I was asked the other day. I initially thought perhaps twelve measures. But the first theme of Blumenstück makes me reexamine my low estimate. It only takes a nudge, and the tempestuous hurtling improvisations take off again. Blumenstück mixes the hectic and lyrical sensibilities of this mercurial composer in unpredictable ways. It was written during a stay in Vienna where Robert would have been even more keenly aware of the lofty music traditions to which he (unfavorably) compared himself. Signor Buratto plays with gusto and arrives at the end less tired than his auditors.

Humoreske in B flat major is not as harmonically stable as the title suggests, nor as light-hearted. The serene Einfach is the distillation of melody. I would prefer to think that it could only have been given to a purified soul, or an ego-less contemplator of higher things. These long pieces connect loosely to a tonal center, from which they wander at will looking for a non-existent sonata form.

Hyperion has had such a long run of perfectly turned out piano recitals that it is easy to start taking them for granted. It helps that they signed imposing artistic talent such as Angela Hewitt, Marc-Andre Hamelin, and Leslie Howard. Now Luca Buratto, an player of depth and distinction, joins the glittering constellation on what is certainly an auspicious debut.

—Fritz Balwit

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