KALKBRENNER: Piano Concerto No. 2 in E Minor, Op. 85; Piano Concerto No. 3 in A Minor, Op. 107; Adagio ed Allegro di bravura, Op. 102 – Howard Shelley, piano and cond./ Tasmanian Sym. Orch. – Hyperion CDA67843, 68:41 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] ****:
This new installment of The Romantic Piano Concerto (No. 56) features decidedly “bravura” works by Friedrich Kalkbrenner (1785-1849), often discredited as a master of sumptuous but intellectually vapid vehicles for his own mechanical fluency. But Chopin held Kalkbrenner in high regard, having dedicated his own E Minor Concerto to him. Mendelssohn, too, admired Kalkbrenner’s work ethic, calling him “quite romantic” in his “stealing themes, ideas and similar trifles from Hiller.”
In the course of Kalkbrenner’s own E Minor Concerto (1826) we hear his use of carezzando, the stroking of keys in a scale pattern, his favorite device. The same piece exploits leggiero octaves, fast passagework in thirds, and shifting modulations to E Major in the course of brilliant filigree. The arabesque figures in the opening Allegro maestoso steal unabashedly from Hummel, and the chains of runs could well be attributed to slick Chopin. Despite a long orchestral introduction, the tutti provides only a cushion or padding for a virtuoso display in the manner of an extended improvisation. But after the last chords sound in movement one, we wonder if anything lasting has occurred. The second movement La tranquillite in C Major appears to copy Beethoven’s hymn from his Pastoral Symphony. The delicate figures, moreover, echo passages we know from Irishman John Field’s concertos spliced to aspects of Carl Maria von Weber. The last movement Rondo: Allegretto grazioso reminds us of bravura Mendelssohn but without the melodic contour that makes his tunes immortal. The constant flow of 16th notes punishes the soloist Shelley while he tries to direct the orchestra as well, but he need not fear. The Steinway packs a lovely upper register luster, and the recording (23-26 June 2010) reproduces Kalkbrenner’s florid excursions into D-flat with ringing accuracy. But “deep” it isn’t.
The A Minor Concerto (1829) opens with a martial fanfare almost reminiscent of a Paganini concerto, adding a piccolo to the mix but dropping the tympani. The piano enters with block chords and then moves effortlessly via Shelley to chains of roulades that smack of high flown gestures and glittery, digital dazzle that set out to “please the ladies.” This is vocal coloratura for the keyboard, no less. Flighty and light, even dainty, the figures eventually move to legato e cantabile in 9/8 that lulls us from A Minor to its relative major in C and later to A Major, cluttered with all sorts of grace notes and florid rhetoric evocative of Chopin and Hummel, at least superficially. Kudos to Mr. Shelley’s wrist action. The second movement, Maestoso sostenuto, bears the subtitle “Introduzione del Rondo,” and it rings with ominous, ceremonial presence, only to cede to the solo’s fioritura after Chopin or Field. The tempo picks up for a run-filled cadenza to the Rondo: Allegro vivace that requires the light hand for a kind of pseudo-polonaise in colorful innocuously- refined taste.
Kalkbrenner’s 1830 Adagio ed Allegro di bravura in A-flat Major sets the model for Chopin’s own Andante spianato e Grande Polonaise in E-flat Major. After the Adagio maestoso a horn-woodwind-tympani fanfare announces the rondo theme for the Allegro vivace. Shelley enters into this spectacular mix simplice, but he soon moves from lyrical vocal aria for a fashionable explosion of vivacious etudes, thirds, sixths, and bombastic runs through the keyboard’s octaves that must have many a handkerchief and calling-card tossed to virtuoso Kalkbrenner from an admiring public.
French Romantic and Impressionism… Ivan Ilich