The New Listener

In the series “Russian Piano Music” the label “divine art” now publishes an album with music by the composer Sergei Bortkievicz. That Bortkievicz was a Ukrainian by birth and also a very untypical representative of the music scene during the Soviet period, confuses me in connection with the appearance in this series. Interpretatively, the album has a lot to offer for this not unproblematic music thanks to the courageous commitment of the pianist Alfonso Soldano.

The ridge between “Oh, I like that but good” and “Ui, but I do not like it” is often narrower than one thinks. This is the case with me as regards the music of the composer Sergei Bortkiewicz, little known here, who lived from 1877 to 1952. Although he spent most of his creative life in the twentieth century, he wrote music that could best be compared with composers like Frédéric Chopin, John Field, or Mili Balakirev.

Bortkievicz studied with Anatoli Liadov, who was a composer who was also a conservative (with all respect for Liadov’s music, which I greatly appreciate). In spite of this, Bortkievicz, who composed mainly piano music, was hardly a continuation of Liadov’s style, but the pupil went a step further than the teacher, and so Bortkievicz, for example, took off almost all the “Impressionisms”, which Liadov, who was born 20 years earlier) still employed abundantly all of his career.

Bortkievicz’s music is, therefore, quite tricky: playing it like Chopin would be just wrong, for Bortkievicz is, despite all his retroversion, a composer who had a different view of the history of music. As far as the means of composing for the piano is concerned, he is undoubtedly at the height of his time and always uses effects, which can also be heard in Rachmaninov or Prokofiev. But if you play him like Rachmaninov, the remarkable historicity of Bortkievicz’s music would be underscored, because even if many people do not approach him so, Rachmaninov was a modern composer, much more modern in his approaches than might first appear.

Now a CD has appeared, which finds an ideal middle road and presents an interpretation in which Bortkievicz’s music comes in an optimal way. This is thanks to the pianist Alfonso Soldano, who plays this music with so much devotion and heart blood that one can not be but charmed. Soldano is also a pianist, who plays a completely sovereign role in the performance and has no problems at all with the execution of these highly virtuoso pieces over long durations. The almost heart-warming emotionality that Soldano puts into his interpretation is simply disarming. Moreover, Soldano represents Bortkievicz exactly what he is: as a composer of the twentieth century, who might have been born 80 years earlier. A remarkably beautiful piano sound in a marvellous recording also makes this CD a reference recording Bortkievicz. I’d say this beats pretty much anything else I’ve heard of this composer from other pianists on other labels (because Bortkievicz’s music is practically not heard at all).

A sentence to the end: It is slightly irritating that this CD appears in the series “Russian Piano Music” of the label “divine art”. Is not Bortkievicz born in Ukraine? If you listen to your music, the influence of Liadov is noticeable, but otherwise there are hardly any reminders of the great Russian school. In part, the composer takes a clear and clear reference to the German tradition: Bach, Beethoven, Schumann, Brahms. Above all, he seems to have been a Chopin and Field admirer. That is why it is at least misleading to bring him into this series, especially since he is not even particularly typical of Soviet music. His style, on the other hand, seems more like an escapism from the Soviet-Russian musical compulsion. Bortkievicz’s music is sweltering, dreamy, utterly superficial, and not at all true to life. [note: the reviewer is wrong on two counts, as regards this CD being in the Russian Piano Music series; first, though Bortkiewicz was born in Ukraine it was then part of the Russian empire and the composer personally regarded himself as totally Russian – this is well documented. Second, this series is for Russian piano music – not only Soviet…!]

—Grete Catus