There are a number of CDs dedicated to Sergei Bortkiewicz’s music: I first came across him in the wonderful ‘heart on sleeve’ Piano Concerto No. 1 in B flat minor, op.16 played by Stephen Coombs and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra (Hyperion CDA66624) which in many ways seems to out-Rachmaninov Rachmaninov. It has a definite film music feel to it and could easily have been used as an alternative sound track to Brief Encounter . A few years later Coombs issued a retrospective of piano music also on the Hyperion label (currently CDD22054) which included the Ten Preludes for piano, op.33, the Musical Picture Book, From Anderson’s Tales, op.30, the Lamentations and Consolations, op.17 and the Piano Sonata in B major, op.9. Further important releases embrace Martyn Brabbin’s account of the two Symphonies with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra (CDA67338) and the complete music for violin and piano played by Nils Franke, piano and Cristian Persinaru, violin (Warner Apex 2564 61990-2). In April of this year Nadejda Vlaeva issued a recording of Bortkiewicz’ piano music on Hyperion (CDA68118). This included the Piano Sonata No.2 in C sharp minor, op.60 and the Lyrica Nova which are featured on this present CD, plus a number of other works such as the Jugoslavische Suite op 58 and Fantasiestücke op 61.
The most important edition of Bortkiewicz music is the cycle of piano music recorded by Jouni Somero on the Finnish label FC Records. At present, there are nine volumes in this series and this would appear to include the complete corpus of Bortkiewicz’s piano music. Until preparing this review, I was unaware of this edition, and have not heard any of it. Some of them are available on Amazon at phenomenally high prices: I am not quite sure what their availability is from the company.
Sergei Bortkiewicz was born in Kharkov, Ukraine in 1877. He studied at the St Petersburg Conservatoire under Anatol Liadov and also at Leipzig in Germany. Originally destined for a career in law he devoted himself to music. In the years before the Great War he lived in Berlin before moving back to his homeland to join the Russian Army. After the Russian Revolution of 1917 he moved to Constantinople (Istanbul), Berlin once again and then to Vienna. He suffered persecution in the lead up to the Second World War because of his Russian heritage: much of his music was destroyed and he was refused concert performances. Sergei Bortkiewicz endured many hardships in Vienna during the war years, but continued to compose. After the war, he gained some financial security from a post as head of a musical education programme as well as a pension from the Vienna city administration.
Bortkiewicz’s works include a two symphonies, the opera Acrobats, four piano concertos, (including one for left hand alone), two violin and one cello concertos. His major contribution, however, is to the literature of solo piano music with sonatas, studies, character pieces and preludes. He died in Vienna on 25 October 1952.
In many ways Sergei Bortkiewicz’s music will remind the listener of Rachmaninov, however the stimuli are much wider. Various influences include Chopin and Liszt and the music of Wagner and Scriabin, as well as native Ukrainian folk tunes. The composer described himself as a “romantic and a melodist.” He had an aversion to what he regarded as “modern, atonal and cacophonous music.” Listening to the music on this CD would suggest to the listener that his style did not develop to any great extent over a period of nearly 40 years.
The earliest work on this CD is the ‘Esquisses de Crimée’, Op. 8 which was composed in 1908: it is actually a piece of programme music in the manner of Liszt’s Années de pèlerinage . The work, which has four titled pieces is a reflection of different views of the city of Alupka and the nearby landscape on the Crimean Peninsula. The titles of the four movements are ‘The High Rocks’, ‘The Play of the Sea’, ‘An Oriental Idyll’ and ‘Chaos’. These last two are deemed to be ‘promenades’ inside the city itself. The music varies from the stormy to the impressionistic. The liner notes suggest that this work can be seen as a ‘multifaceted Symphonic poem for piano solo’.
The ‘Lyrica Nova’, op.59 dates from 1940 when the composer was living in straightened [sic] circumstances in Vienna. It is almost impossible to discover any allusion to this deprivation in these charming pieces. They are romantic, with just a tinge of impressionism. These are beautiful pieces that make an ideal introduction to Bortkiewicz’s romantic, but not overblown musical style.
The main event on this CD is the Piano Sonata No.2 in C sharp minor, op.60. It was premiered by the composer in Vienna on 29 November 1942. The liner notes suggest a biographical content to the sonata – Bortkiewicz seems to ‘summarise his life in musical language: love for this Russian homeland Russia, adversity, hope and perseverance.’ There are some suggestions that the sonata owes a hat-tip to Scriabin’s Sonata No.3 in F sharp minor. It is an impressive and powerful work.
Alfonso Soldano has included a number of Preludes extracted from collections composed over the composer’s lifetime. There is a technically demanding Etude, op.15 No.8 dating from 1911 as well as a beautiful Nocturne, op.24 that owes more to Scriabin than to Chopin or John Field.
The liner notes give detailed information about the composer, the pianist and each of the recorded works. They are written by Wouter Kalkman and the pianist on this CD.
This is a fine introduction to Sergei Bortkiewicz’s piano music. The playing is impressive, technically assured and quite simply beautiful. I look forward to hearing more from Alfonso Soldano, possibly exploring more Russian music.
Look out for information coming your way on our four April releases – all now available for pre-order: Innovations – music for two pianos & percussion Artyomov: Sola Fide Joshua Fineberg: #SonicFictions Basil Athanasiadis: Soft Light divineartrecords.com pic.twitter.com/EIwm…
“The composer is right when he says the collection shows how a great player can make an instrument speak in so many voices… [@heather_roche] is an accomplished clarinettist.” (@CongletonChron) Full Review: ow.ly/q1qJ30j5hx7 pic.twitter.com/0Uyw…