“The Romantic Piano Concerto – Vol. 61” = THEODORE DÖHLER: Piano Concerto in A Major, Op. 7; ALEXANDER DREYSCHOCK: Morceau de concert in C Minor, Op. 27; Salut à Vienne: Rondo brilliant, Op. 32 – Howard Shelley, piano and cond. / Tasmanian Sym. Orch. – Hyperion CDA67950 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi], 56:07 [9/10/2013] ****:
“The Romantic Piano Concerto – Vol. 62 = CHARLES GOUNOD: The Complete Works for Pedal Piano and Orchestra” = Suite concertante in A Major; Concerto for Pedal Piano in E-flat Major; Fantaisie sur l’hymne national russe; Danse roumaine – Roberto Prosseda, pedal piano / Orch. della Svizzera Italiana / Howard Shelley – Hyperion CDA67975 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi], 55:56 [11/13/2013] ****:
The Romantic Piano Concerto series juggernaut barrels on apace. With this review, I may attempt to kill two musical birds with one critical stone, but the truth of the matter is these are two very different birds indeed.
First we have the mostly well-matched duo of Theodore Döhler and Alexander Dreyschock. Hyperion’s series is revisiting the latter, having featured Dreyschock’s Piano Concerto in D Minor in Volume 21. Of the two composers, the Bohemian Dreyschock is most worthy of a hearing, either a first or a second. His Morceau de concert has Beethovenian aspirations and even quotes from the older master (the Appassionata Sonata). The orchestration features some very vocal trombones that help to ratchet up the drama at the start, before the piano makes its entry, repeating the two main themes, a declamatory one in the minor and a nobly flowing on in the major, decorated with the expected fancy finger work, including scales played simultaneously by the two hands in contrary motion. There’s a third important theme that note-writer Jeremy Nicholas variously calls “dolorous” and “lachrymose,” and the three themes are memorable and malleable enough to create a satisfying extended sonata-allegro movement. The scoring is sensitive as well, that lachrymose theme appearing first in the cellos in a way that reminds Nicholas of Berlioz’s orchestration of Weber’s Invitation to the Dance. Of course, the piano part keeps the soloist busy with numerous runs—some delicate, some heaven-storming—and big chords.
I enjoy the Beethovenian Dreyschock more than the Chopinesque one featured in the Salut de Vienne, which is the typical sort of tribute to a place that virtuoso pianist-composers such as Hummel (Le Retour de Londres) and Ferdinand Ries (Farewell to England) seemed to favor as subjects for their short concerted works. Dreyschock’s Rondo is charmingly lightweight, the addition of the triangle underscoring its geniality of spirit. But as I say, the Morceau is much more my meat.
Then we have the Italian-born German pianist-composer Theodore Döhler, who studied with Czerny and had quite a career as a touring virtuoso, going as far afield as Moscow (not a journey for the faint of heart back in his day). In fact, Döhler even settled in Moscow for a while and managed to marry a Russian countess. As to his playing, Nicholas quotes the devastatingly witty assessment of poet Heinrich Heine, who wrote of Döhler that “some say [he] is among the last of the second-class pianists, others that he is the first among the third-class pianists.” Nicholas mentions that Döhler’s compositions were held in even lower regard, at least considering his entry in Grove’s Dictionary. And while it might not be fair to judge the composer by his Op. 7 Concerto, written in 1836 when the maestro was only twenty-two, there’s virtually nothing else available in recorded form to judge him by. The work has some of the early-Romantic-era feeling of Chopin’s two concerti (written in 1830), but Döhler seems more consciously to straddle the Classical and Romantic eras. The long orchestral tutti with which the work begins takes us right back to the masters of the Classical period. The pearly keyboard writing brings us a bit closer to Chopin, but in spots it also recalls Hummel and even Weber. None of which is bad—as in the music of those last two gents, the writing is fluent, often dazzling, and the concerto, while hardly a masterwork, is fun to listen to.
Howard Shelley seems to have a great deal of fun playing it and is a wonderful advocate for this early Romantic music that he understands so well. I can’t imagine anyone who could better serve a composer writing music along the Hummel-Chopin axis. The Tasmanian Symphony, with which Shelley has worked before, gives him their all and sounds impressive in Dreyschock’s more densely scored Morceau. In sum, very enjoyable even if Shelley and his band unearth no undying classics here.
With Volume 62 of the Romantic Piano Concerto, we move from the beginning of the Romantic era and of the careers of two pianist-composers to the end of the High Romantic period, as well as the end of the career of an unlikely composer of concerted works for piano. Or is he so unlikely? Actually, Like Bizet, Gounod was a fine pianist whose first teacher was his pianist mother, and Gounod performed in public in later life, often in the company of the mandolinist(!) Fernando de Cristofaro. But like Bizet, Gounod is known today almost exclusively as an opera composer. However, Gounod’s two charming symphonies of 1855 inspired Bizet to write his more famous Symphony in C, and in his later years, Gounod returned to instrumental music, as well as sacred vocal music, giving up the theater entirely. From this period, familiar works include the droll Funeral March of the Marionette (thanks to the Alfred Hitchcock Show) and the delightful Petite symphonie for winds. But music for pedal piano and orchestra? That Gounod had written such was news to me. I would have thought the pedal piano, for which Schumann wrote some pieces, had gone the way of the whale-bone corset by the late 1880s, when Gounod sat down to compose the pieces on the current program. Not so, obviously.
Gounod was inspired by a young practitioner named Luci Palicot, who besides being a virtuoso also offered quite a visual spectacle according to one observer, Paul Landormy, who recalled “the sight of this graceful and dainty person perched on a huge case containing the lower strings of the pedal-board beneath a grand piano resting on the aforementioned case; and what surprised us above all, pleasantly enough to be sure, was to see Mme Palicot wearing a short knee-length skirt (entirely necessary, but astonishing in those days), and her pretty legs darting most adroitly to reach the different pedals of the keyboard she had at her feet. . . .” Oh, those Frenchmen!
So what is the pedal piano? It is a piano with a pedal keyboard that plays a second set of strings. As Roberto Prosseda explains in his note about the instrument, since the feet actually “control a piano action with hammers and strings. . . . a more pianistic approach to pedal technique is required, using the weight of the leg and transferring this weight from one note to another in order to achieve a legato as well as to enable a rich sonority and good control of dynamics. . . .” Prosseda concludes that “the general sound is drier and more transparent than from a normal piano.” So, of course, banish from your mind any thoughts that the pedal piano is a cross between a piano and a parlor organ; the instrument, at least on the current recording, produces a sound not much heftier than a modern concert grand and is, as Prosseda hints, less resonant than a concert grand. Maybe, as he states, the Pinchi pedal-board system that Prosseda uses creates a richer “sound palette” because of some extra stops that allow for octave doubling, and even triple octaves; but I strained to hear this added richness against the backdrop of the big, late-Romantic orchestra that Gounod employs.
All that said, I enjoyed Volume 62 even more than Volume 61. First, we have a composer who, though he isn’t working in his most familiar musical form, is nonetheless a mature master at the height of his powers. I recognized the idiom immediately from my familiarity with the instrumental works I mentioned above, and it was like hearing again from an old friend. But be it said right up front that there are, again, no undiscovered masterworks here. These are highly competent, enjoyable pieces that come straight out of Gounod’s second drawer. Take the Concerto, for example. It’s a modest work whose opening movement is four minutes plus change. It includes a scherzo and an Allegretto marziale finale that is even shorter than the opening—a miniature concerto that is as light and airy as the slightly longer Suite concertante. In fact, I prefer this work since it’s more honest about its pretentions (or lack of them). The Suite has some attractive programmatic trappings as well: the first movement is entitled Entrée de fête (jolly), the second Chasse (also jolly), and the finale is a tarantella, complete with tambourine.
You’ll recognize the Hymne nationale russe from Tchaikovsky’s treatment of it in a number of his occasional pieces. It seems to lose something in the translation because the Frenchman’s fantasy on the tune, while properly majestic, isn’t all that memorable. The Danse roumaine is an enjoyable romp, though not as unbuttoned as you’d expect. I doubt Georges Enescu would find it a reasonable simulacrum of Romanian folk music.
Certainly, other entries in this series are more stimulating and/or central to an appreciation of the Romantic piano concerto, but Volume 62 has real novelty, you must admit; and it presents some enjoyable, if undemanding, music in spirited performances. Obviously, there are no rival versions to compare this to, but Roberto Prosseda seems to have full command of his unwieldy instrument and manages to make Gounod’s music sing and dance in a lively fashion. Howard Shelley, who trades his piano for the podium, is an able accompanist; he’s partnered successfully with this same orchestra in Hyperion’s fine series of Spohr symphonies. Rich, robust recorded sound as well makes this an even more attractive proposition.