BORTKIEWICZ: Piano Works Vols. 1 & 5 – Jonni Somero, p. – FC Records (Finland) (2 CDs)

SERGEI BORTKIEWICZ: Piano Works Vol. 1 = Six Pensées Lyriques, Op. 11; Lamentations et Consolations, Op. 17; Quatre Morceaux, Op. 65; Preludes, Op. 66 – Jouni Somero, piano – FC Records FCRCD-9714 , 76:58 [Distr. by Albany] ****:

SERGEI BORTKIEWICZ: Piano Works Vol. 5 = Quatre Pieces pour Piano, Op. 10; Trois Morceaux Op. 24; 12 Etudes Nouvelles Op. 29 – Jouni Somero, piano – FC Records FCRCD-9736 , 72:24 [Distr. by Albany] ****:

Sergei Bortkiewicz (1877–1952) was born into a life of privilege, though two world wars left him nearly destitute; only toward the end was he able to find some economic stability through a teaching position at the Vienna Conservatory. His father belonged to a wealthy land-owning Russian family, and Sergei spent his early years at the family estate near the Ukrainian city of Kharkov. Like many other composers, he was forced into the study of law, which he pursued at the same time he attended the St. Petersburg Conservatory, studying with Liadov. Bortkiewicz abandoned his law studies before finishing them and after a brief compulsory stint in the military, travelled to Leipzig to continue his musical education with Salomon Jadassohn and Alfred Reisenauer, both pupils of Liszt. (You can sample the work of Jadassohn in Hyperion’s Romantic Piano Concerto Series, Vol. 47.)

After his studies, Bortkiewicz settled in Berlin, but with the coming of the First World War, he was expelled from the country and returned to Kharkov. Following the Russian Revolution, his ancestral estate was plundered by the occupying Red Army, and he was forced to flee Russia in 1919, settling finally in Vienna, where he remained for the rest of his life. In Vienna his finances crumbled, he and his wife suffering real privation and, because of his Russian roots, prejudicial treatment during the Second World War. On top of all his other problems, most of his compositions were destroyed when his publishing firm in Leipzig was bombed by the Allies, denying him royalties as well as a large part of his musical legacy.

My first experience of Bortkiewicz came with listening to the Hyperion recording of his two engaging symphonies, which were rescued from destruction because he’d managed to send a copy of them to the Fleisher Collection in Philadelphia for safekeeping. Both were written in the 1930s, though without knowing that, you might well conclude they were contemporary with Rachmaninoff’s first two symphonies. So it is with Bortkiewicz’s piano music. The earliest pieces here, Six Pensées Lyriques of 1909, recall early Scriabin—that is, they sound like Chopin filtered through a Russian musical consciousness. There’s also a touch of Grieg’s Lyric Pieces, especially in the wistful Sostenuto assai (No. 2). Later works evince traces of Lisztian razzle-dazzle, Tchaikovskian lyricism, Rachmaninoffian brooding, but even the latest works here, the Preludes of 1946 and Quatre Morceaux of 1947, sedulously avoid any hint of the modernism that colored even Rachmaninoff’s late compositions.

Despite the comparisons I make with other composers, these pieces have their own unique sound; Bortkiewicz may be a musical reactionary, but he’s not a mere epigone. And like all good composers, Bortkiewicz advanced, if not stylistically at least artistically. The later works on this disc leave behind the late-Romantic perfume and languor for tighter compositional logic and more memorably individualistic musical statement. While Lamentations et Consolations could almost be a committee effort involving Liszt and Rachmaninoff (Rach. assigned to the Lamentations, Franz to the Consolations), the influences in the later works are far less obvious, the original musical voice that is Sergei Bortkiewicz much more in evidence. For example, even the subtitles of the Lamentations et Consolations could be taken from Liszt’s Années de pèlerinage: Le mal du pays (No. 5) and Sorrento (No.8). The latter has an especially Lisztian discursiveness to it. On the other hand, Quatre Morceaux comprises four finely differentiated songs without words that add up to a very individualistic, very satisfying collection. In the final number, Capriccio alla Polacca, Bortkiewicz pays tribute to his Russian and West-Russian (Polish) roots in grand late-Romantic style.

While Lamentations et Consolations has been recorded before by Stephen Coombs on Hyperion, it appears the other works on the current disc aren’t currently available, making this a significant release. That’s especially true since Finnish pianist Jouni Somero, a student of György Cziffra, has Bortkiewicz’s late-Romantic pianistic lexicon at his fingertips. Somero is a fine colorist and, being a Cziffra student, can do full justice to the Lisztian strain so prominent in Bortkiewicz’s early style, including, of course, the explosive virtuosic turns here and there in this collection.

It’s very appealing that Volume 1 includes works from early and late in Bortkiewicz’s career. Presumably, future installments will follow the same course. With a varied program, superior pianism, and natural piano sound, this first volume bodes well for the rest of the series. Stay tuned!

— Lee Passarella


Well, here’s Volume 5 and generally I can say nearly everything in the above review also applies here. We seem to have missed out on the other volumes, but the entire series would probably be of great appeal to anyone with a penchant for late-Romantic Russian piano music. The biggest surprise of this volume was picking up the note booklet and finding the first pages entirely in Finnish!  It’s unfortunate that the composer had such bad luck in his life and that so much of his music is lost, but at least there was enough (the Etudes here are getting their first recording) to assemble this excellent eight-volume series of piano CDs. One can hear the influences of Chopin, Wagner, Liszt and Tchakovsky in many of these pieces, but my interest in this particular volume was strengthened by the very apparent influence of Scriabin in many of the pieces.

The Four Pieces are intended as a tribute to both Liszt and Chopin, with one in the same E Flat Major key that Chopin liked.  The Trois Morceaux were composed in Istanbul. The second is a “valse grotesque” subtitled “Satyre,” and the third is an Impromptu in E Flat Major titled “Eros.”  Boy, does that one ever conjure up late Scriabin. The 12 Etudes are extremely varied, with some only a minute-and-a-half while others are over six minutes. The fifth is for the left hand only – probably written for the one-armed pianist Paul Wittgenstein, for whom he wrote his Second Piano Concerto.  The last three are short musical portraits of three characters: Don Quichotte, Hamlet and Falstaff.

—John Sunier

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