SCHELLENDORF: Piano Concerto in F-sharp minor, Op. 10; URSPRUCH: Piano Concerto in E-flat Major, Op. 9 – Emmanuel Despax, piano/ BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra/ Eugene Tzigane – Hyperion CDA68229, 75:25 (9/28/18) [Distr. by Harmonia mundi/PIAS] ****:

“The Romantic Piano Concerto” Vol. 77 features music by Hans Bronsart von Schellendorf (1830-1913) and Anton Urspruch (1850-1907), composers whose names have fallen by the wayside, unless collectors recall that pianist Michael Ponti recorded the “Bronsart” Concerto in 1973 with the Westphalian Symphony Orchestra under the direction of my former “First Hearing” colleague Richard Kapp. The Vox “Candide” recording marked the “centennial” of the Concerto, which had appeared in 1873 and which became a staple of pianist Hans von Bulow. The opening movement, Allegro maestoso, proffers a number of ideas, alternately declamatory—in the form of fanfares—and lyric, with a penchant for jeweled trills. Of the four themes two hint at aspects of Chopin and Liszt, in a course that modulates into A minor, E-flat minor, and F-sharp Major. Bronsart asks the soloist to range through various degrees of dynamics, with no shortage of scalar periods, galloping rhythms, and titanic block chords.  If the writing becomes hectic and cluttered, it no less exudes an unbuttoned passion. In one episode, the piano and cello collaborate, while the low strings urge the momentum forward. More than once, this auditor found the orchestral tuttis reminiscent of the monumental periods in Anton Rubinstein’s concertos. When the writing assumes a more ostentatious or grandiose posture, the analogy would lie close to the throbbing acrobatics of Saint-Saens.

Portrait of Hans Bronsart von Schellendorff

Hans Bronsart von Schellendorf

Bronsart’s D-flat Major slow movement—Adagio ma non troppo—gravitates in ¾ between a nocturne and a waltz. The movement becomes a study in degrees of controlled pianissimo, the lyricism adorned in flowers of muted strings and a parlando piano part ppp. Pianist Despax manages a music-box sensibility even as the strings, brass and timpani intone a quasi-chorale, moving from E Major and later into B Major. The strings lull us while the piano part plays romantic riffs in chromatic gestures. The hazy gloss moves inevitably into a pppp coda that asks for smorzando effects, dissipating into the veiled mist. A fierce tarantella suddenly breaks out in the piano for the last movement, Allegro con fuoco, set in 6/8 and rollicking with boisterous, colorful (giocoso) energy. A sudden call to arms erupts with fanfare thumps that remind me of Korngold’s music for Errol Flynn pageants. Despax seems unruffled by the interruption, since he extends the wild Italian even further, with added ornamental filigree. The comparison with the famous Litolff Scherzo proves inevitable. The pomp and ceremony of the fanfare now infects solo and orchestra, and the keyboard high jinx find sympathies in the high winds of the orchestra.  The whole has been luxuriantly self-glamorizing and supremely confident in its sheer vivacity of means.

Anton Urspruch was a Frankfurt-bred prodigy who found his way to both Raff and Liszt. The Op. 9 Concerto in E-flat Major opens Allegro ma non troppo in a 12/8 rhythms that might take its cue directly from the “Scene by the Brook” movement from Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony. The lulling pulse also has elements from Mozart opera. The scope of the movement—lasting some 24 minutes—proves broad indeed, though mostly in a bucolic, pastoral mode. The character of the music eludes easy analogy, as though Beethoven were passing through phases that signify Grieg, Schumann, and Raff.  Long strings of arpeggios cavort, trip, and bounce along without much depth but plenty of sonority. While the solo part waxes prominent, it eschews the large, bravura options. The music does assume a jaunty, martial edge, maybe in imitation of Weber and Mendelssohn. The large cadenza seems to me largely rhetorical but pretty. The idyll rarely suffers any emotional intrusion, unless one considers the two sforzando chords at the coda a decisive return to earth.

Portrait Anton Urspruch

Anton Urspruch

Urspruch’s Andante, lento e mesto in 2/4 hints much at the mood of the Bach D Minor Concerto, BWV 1052 second movement, proceeds in E-flat minor.  Muted strings alternate with the solo and woodwinds, particularly the latter who dominate. Urspruch establishes a series of pedal points over which his woodwinds may modulate, with piano obbligato. Marked “improvisando,” a flourish emerges that exploits the piano’s own pedal points and trills, the orchestra’s increasing the dynamic to a pregnant fermata. Then Despax sets on a jaunty dance tune, solo, for the last movement Allegro, tempo giusto. Once more, the effect proved rhetorical, much in the manner of Saint-Saens when he cares for brilliant display. If a theme from the Bach Cantata BWV 68 does in fact supply this dance tune, it no less provides a series of variants and even a learned fugato. The high gloss of the writing—in the upper register—along with the thumping main tune establishes a martial sensibility that no less invites syncopation. The fugue theme itself rather borrows the tune from Schwanda the Bagpiper, then follows some inflated (albeit “romantic”) development. Some of the surges of sound remind one of The Moldau. With sprightly triplets the music moves to a long-delayed coda that wants to capitalize on playful, bravura antics.

—Gary Lemco