Fanfare

This is Volume 12 in Divine Art’s Russian Piano Music series. Each album features the music of a different Russian composer, and it appears from the
Fanfare Archive that eight of the previous volumes in this collection have been reviewed as follows:
Vol. Composer Pianist Issue Reviewed by
1 Shostakovich McLachlan 34:1 Rabinowitz
2 Rebikov Goldstone 33:5 Bayley
3 Glière Goldstone 34:1 Brenesal
5 Arensky Goldstone 34:2 Brenesal
6 Rachmaninoff Dukachev 35:2 Rabinowitz
7 Prokofiev Dukachev 35:2 Rabinowitz
9 Weinberg McLachlan 36:4 Beegle
10 Weinberg McLachlan 36:5 Clarke
11 Ustvolskaya Andreeva 39:2 Anderson

Only missing, as far as I can tell, are Volumes 4 and 8, covering, respectively, works by Sergei Lyapunov and Mussorgsky.

Unlike one or more of the earlier volumes, this one, devoted to the works of Sergei Bortkiewicz (1877-1952) is not a reissue of material previously available on other labels. Recorded in March, 2016, at the “Aldo Ciccolini” Concert Hall of the European Arts Academy in Trani, Italy, this is brand new.

Of the many Russian pianist-composers that were roughly contemporaneous with Bortkiewicz— a list that would include, in addition to the above, Alexander Gretchaninov, Scriabin, and Nikolai Medtner—he seems to be the one least recognized or remembered. Born in what is present-day Ukraine, Bortkiewicz’s surname is more Polish than it is Russian, and that’s because his family was of the Polish nobility. After completing his training under Anatoly Lyadov at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, the young Bortkiewicz decided to further his studies at the Leipzig Conservatory, where he became a pupil of Salomon Jadassohn, who, in turn, had been a pupil of Liszt. Upon returning to Ukraine in 1904, Bortkiewicz married, but didn’t settle down. He seems to have been restless and a bit rootless, traveling around Europe with his wife, and then moving temporarily to Berlin, where he taught for a year at the Klindworth-Scharwenka Conservatory. Soon thereafter, however, his relocations became forced rather than of his choosing. Caught between the Russian Revolution and two world wars, Bortkiewicz spent much of the rest of his life escaping from one advancing army after another.

Losing his estate and practically everything he owned to the Communists, Bortkiewicz landed virtually penniless in Istanbul in 1919. There he worked for two to three years, teaching and playing concerts. Next, it was off to Bulgaria, where Bortkiewicz and his wife cooled their heels waiting for entry visas to Austria. In 1925, the couple look Austrian citizenship, and from their home base in Vienna, Bortkiewicz traveled to Paris and then to Berlin, where he next decided he wanted to live. That was a mistake, for as a Russian, he was forced to flee Germany in 1933 when the Nazis look power. Not foreseeing that Germany would annex Austria, Bortkiewicz moved back again to Vienna, and though not being Jewish and in no danger of his life there, as a Russian he was suspect and as a result suffered serious financial privation, to the point where he had to impose on friends for help.

Following the war, life improved only marginally for the Bortkiewiczes. The marriage was childless, and in 1949, the composer’s wife was diagnosed with manic depression. Bortkiewicz was able to make ends meet with what he earned as director of a masterclass at the Vienna City Conservatory and, upon his retirement, the city awarded him an honorary stipend. He died in 1952, following surgery for a stomach condition. Perhaps the saddest commentary of all on the life of Sergei Bortkiewicz is that a Bortkiewicz Society, founded in Vienna in 1947 to keep the memory of the composer’s music alive, was dissolved in 1973 for lack of membership and interest.

Why Bortkiewicz’s music has fallen into such neglect is easily explained but hard to accept. Heavily influenced by Chopin and Liszt, and by his Russian compatriots Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff, Bortkiewicz was a child of the Romantic age; yet as a man of the 20th century, he remained untouched by the trends of his lime. And while he did compose two symphonies, a symphonic tone poem, a number of concertos, a handful of chamber works, and even an opera, the bulk of his output consists of pieces for solo piano, most of which, like those on this disc, are perfumed with more than a whiff of the palm court and salon sentimentality. Unfortunately, our ability to appreciate this music today is thwarted on the one hand by cynical peer attitudes that pressure us to look down on it as maudlin and insufficiently sophisticated, and on the other hand by our distance from and in-ability to relate to the cultural milieu that produced it.

l’ve listened to this program twice through now and gone back to sample individual pieces, and l’ve come away feeling that if prejudices are left at the door and Bortkiewicz is given half a chance, his music will evoke strong emotions and cast a magic spell over you that will last long after it ends. The first number of the four Esquisses de Crimée (Crimean Sketches), titled “Les rochers d’Outche-Coche” (The Rocks of Uch-Kosh) is of a breathtaking beauty, which, if it were better known, might well give Liszt’s Sospiro and Rachmaninoff’s Vocalise runs for their money. Call me an incurable romantic, a sentìmentalist, or whatever you like, but this has to be some of the most gloriously beautiful and deeply moving piano music l’ve ever heard. Nor, by any means, is it all easy listening or easy to play. Bortkiewicz had to have been an enormously powerful player possessed of a prodigious technique to compose and perform these pieces, for a number of them sound as technically formidable as anything by Liszt or Rachmaninoff. Listen to the large-scaled C-sharp-minor Piano Sonata and to the last of the Esquisses de Crimée, titled “Les promenades des d’Aloupka: Chaos,” for evidence of Bortkiewicz’s virtuosic demands. Then listen to the Prelude, op. 40/4, a piece that could be the love-child of Debussy and Scriabin.

Alfonso Soldano, who is new to this Divine Art series of Russian piano music, is a young, prize-winning Italian pianist blessed with Mediterranean good looks and a phenomenal technique, the latter of which I’m sure he worked at long and hard to achieve. This is absolutely a fantastic disc. If you’re not already acquainted with Bortkiewicz—and I wasn’t either, except for his Piano Concerto No. 1 on Volume 4 of Hyperion’s Romantic Piano Concerto series—prepare to be transported to a place of spell-binding splendor.

I notice that in addition to the concerto, Stephen Coombs has also recorded two discs’ worth of Bortkiewicz’s solo piano works which are now available in a Dyad set, but if you happen to have those CDs, rest assured that there are no duplications between them and this new Divine Art program by Soldano. If I could, l’d buy up every copy of this album and send it to every Fanfare subscriber; that’s how much I love it. If you’re as susceptible to this music as I am, you will love it too; I promise.

—Jerry Dubins