BRAHMS: Variations on a Theme by Paganini, Op. 35, Books I-II; Variations on an Original Theme, Op. 21, No. 1; Capriccio in B Minor, Op. 76, No. 2; J. STRAUSS, II (arr. Schulz-Evler): On the Beautiful, Blue Danube, Op. 314 – Jan Smeterlin, piano – Forgotten Records FR 2036, 42:46 [www.forgottenrecords.com] ****:
I knew the name of Polish pianist Jan Smeterlin (1892-1967) only by way of one RCA LP, that on the Bluebird label of music by Johannes Brahms, here restored by Alain Deguernel and his invaluable Forgotten Records label. Smeterlin (nee Schmetterling) began giving concerts at the age of seven; but despite his prodigious gifts, his parents insisted he study law, which may remind some of Robert Schumann’s fate. Smeterlin did win a scholarship to study with Leopold Godowsky (1870-1938) in Vienna, and Godowsky oversaw Smeterlin’s development up to his professional debut in 1920. Smeterlin officially changed the spelling of his name in 1924. He maintained a working relationship with composer Karol Szymanowski, and Smeterlin gained fame for his performances of Szymanowski mazurkas, a volume of which is dedicated to Smeterlin. Smeterlin’s recordings are both rare and elusive, although some Chopin survives; and now, with the restoration of the Bluebird LP onto CD format, we have some significant Brahms pieces.
Of two sets of variations, that in D Major, Op. 21/1 dates from the late 1850s and represents a solo excursion by Brahms on a tune of his own. Brahms resists his own penchant for Classicism by linking nine-bar phrases, richly harmonized. The metrics follow 3/8 virtually throughout, with an occasional use of hemiola to extend the flow into ¾. Smeterlin keeps the lines of evolution fluid, moving from the descending, two-chord phrases of Variation 4 to the canon in contrary motion of Variation 5 as the kind of “baroque” impulse that often resides in the Brahms ethos. Smeterlin makes the triolets of Variation 6, with a light hand in the upper register’s pearly play. At Variation 7 the metrics become a heavy 2/4, almost martial in dotted-rhythm character, already anticipating figures in the soon-to-be-created Handel Variations. Variations 9 and 10, both in D Minor, accentuate Smeterlin’s bass chords and deep-hued trill. The final variant, No. 11 modulates into D Major, marked by throbbing pulsations that achieve a kind of bustling apotheosis, an epilogue that employs figures from the first variation, rife with octave Ds.
The little B Minor Capriccio from Op. 76, the late-stage Brahms a common encore for Artur Rubinstein, finds its wit and restless energy well captured by Smeterlin. The various inversions of the main theme add a poignancy to the development of such a relatively brief piece, and its middle section, in F# Minor, becomes quite decorative, the competing rhythmic impulses and modal rivalries of major and minor keeping our ears (and tapping feet) alert. The coda, in the major mode, smiles at the antics by which Brahms has toyed with our definitions of mirth and sadness.
Despite the fact that Brahms generally disapproved of Franz Liszt and his musical means, the two composers found a common ground in their admiration for the Italian violin prodigy Nicolo Paganini (1782-1840), whose Op. 1 Caprices set an uncanny standard of virtuosity for violin players. Another point of common ground for Liszt and Brahms lay in their mutual admiration for Liszt’s gifted pupil Carl Tausig (1841-1871), whom Liszt called “the infallible, with fingers of steel.” Tausig and Brahms played the premiere of the Brahms, Op. 34b in 2-Piano Sonata Vienna 1864. Brahms dedicated his Op. 35 Variations to Tausig, having based his work on the same A Minor Caprice, Op. 1, No. 24 that Liszt utilized for his sixth Paganini Etude.
In the course of the two books of 14 variants and coda, Brahms makes every sort of demand on the performer – including studies in double sixths, double thirds, huge leaps between the hands or with one hand, along with trills at the top of wide-spread chords, polyrhythms between the parts, octave studies, and octave tremolos. Book I celebrates pure bravura, while Book II combines academic learnedness with a stunning knowledge of the keyboard’s capacity for color and singing tone. Smeterlin’s Brahms may sound like “old-world” Brahms, cut in the European tradition of rubato and a delicious savoring of slides and swooping arpeggios. The inexorable logic and dramatic continuity of the set as a whole never diminish, and we feel that Smeterlin inhabits the same, refined aether where we find Wilhelm Backhaus and Wilhelm Kempff, but here with a stylish flair that Godowsky may well have ingrained into the Smeterlin style.
The last offering, from a 1929 Polyphon shellac, does nod to the art of transcription as Godowsky and other artists, like Benno Moiseiwitsch, embodied it. Adolf Schulz-Evler (1852-1905), coincidentally, studied with Carl Tausig. Polish composer of impressive miniatures Schulz-Evler transcribed the popular Blue Danube Waltz as an introduction and five waltzes. The intended effect – to dazzle us with a combination of melodic verve and technical showmanship – Smeterlin accomplishes with a suave allure easily competitive with what we like from Earl Wild and Gyorgy Cziffa. The Forgotten Records remastering of these long-neglected discs proves first rate and immensely captivating.