Hyperion's landmark Romantic Piano Concerto series has been going strong for nearly thirty years, its concept, in the words of its inspirational instigator and former executive producer, Mike Spring, “born at a lunch meeting between Hyperion and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra sometime in 1990.” The first release, of Concertos by Moszkowski and Paderewski, was recorded by Piers Lane in June 1991. The second, Medtner's Second and Third Concertos with Nikolai Demidenko, garnered a Gramophone Award. Demidenko, rampantly urgent, returned for the tenth, recording the Weber Concertos and Konzertstück with Charles Mackerras in the Usher Hall, Edinburgh. Scottish Chamber Orchestra, April 1994. Music, not to say performance, of the unexpected. Yours truly producing. Heady times.
This latest release, volume 79, couples two defiantly tonal, pianistically heroic works from the twilight of German Romanticism, dating respectively from 1922 and 1933-34. Musically, stylistically and expressively looking back, lingering in the aesthetic and society of long-gone kings and emperors – forget Schoenberg, Bartók, Stravinsky, Hindemith, Prokofiev – both Hans Pfitzner (Moscow 1869-Salzburg 1949) and Walter Braunfels (Frankfurt 1882-Cologne 1954) were contemporaries of Richard Strauss.
Battling Busoni, warning in 1917 against “the danger of the futurists”, Pfitzner, a progressively morose traditionalist, enjoyed the support of the elite, from Mahler and Reiner to Bruno Walter, Furtwängler and Karajan (Thielemann since). Contemporaries concur he was one of Germany's greats. But he wasn't the easiest or most pleasant of customers. “Pfitzner”, reported Strauss, “is so prickly and idealistic. We want to do everything we can for him and for his works, but not to have him in the neighbourhood.”
Premiered by Gieseking and Fritz Busch in Dresden in March 1923, Pfitzner’s (here forty-three-minute) Piano Concerto is muscular and big-boned. Germanically, in a tradition established from Beethoven to Strauss, it views E-flat major as a spiritually epic key, an ocean for big ideas, polemics, and toughly won victory. That Pfitzner could write gloriously and affectingly is transparent from the emotion and orchestral tinting of the G-sharp minor slow movement, a poetic scena including harp, with violin and horn solos weaving moonlit vistas – an absolute gem. Less than a hundred bars, signed off with a noble brass hymn. That his humour could occasionally be heavy-handed, however, might be gleaned from the second-placed 6/8 Scherzo. Bristling and bustling, yes, yet without quite that fleetness of touch or joie de vivre you find in, say, the Saint-Saëns G-minor, its close prototype. More a case of beer before dinner than cognac after.
Braunfels – whose mother was a grand-niece of Spohr – studied with James Kwast (Pfitzner's future father-in-law) before continuing with Leschetizky in Vienna, and then Mottl and Thuille for composition in Munich. Unearthed comparatively recently in the family archives, his pre-War late-Romantic Tag- und Nachtstücke, a five-movement concertante work “for orchestra with piano obbligato”, is a revelation. Published in Berlin in 2016, the first performance was only given in July 2017.
There are many jewels here. The craftsmanship is skilled, the orchestration rich and assured, the piano-writing arrestingly imagined from deep within the instrument. Braunfels was a man soaked in the past, he spoke his musical vocabulary with culture and elegance, and he could turn the finest of memorable melodies. Mahler, Zemlinsky and Strauss dream by in the distance, but the language and personality is eminently his own – inevitable and soaring, tough, princely in debate. “It astonishes me that we can still discover such a great composer”, Manfred Honeck has championed. “I’m so impressed by the honesty of his music. He never does anything without a purpose. Everything comes from his heart but also shows such an extraordinary intelligence.”
The fantasy within the Tag- und Nachtstücke is special. The central ‘Geschwindmarsch’ – edgily, observationally, of its place and era – is a trenchantly symphonic Scherzo. The fourth movement Adagio unfolds smokily, deliriously, the world of Zweig and Zuckmayer, their yesterdays and morrows, mirrored in nuance, suspended in amber, time trembling. Baffling that such a testament has had to wait more than eighty years to be tracked down.
Marcus Becker proves an eloquent, visceral master of the notes, making for a thrilling premier recording. And in Constantin Trinks he has a dedicated partner, who takes an admirably collaborative view of events. Comfortably recorded across nearly a week, the Berlin Radio Symphony supports characterfully, with a crisp sense of attack, ensemble and solo contribution. The strings (18.104.22.168.6) come across warmly engineered, lending a lush middle-European sound to the picture.
Nigel Simeone – who's never lost that love of byway and literary device apparent from his early antiquarian book days – contributes an authoritative booklet essay, cogent facts and troublesome ghosts crowding every corner. Chronicling Nazi tensions, he quotes a young völkisch diarist in 1924. Struggling writer, sacked bank clerk, Reich Minister of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda in waiting. Joseph Goebbels. “Pfitzner is emerging as a quiet, austere, dreamlike German master [whose Piano Concerto is] entirely characteristic. Grandiose, graceful, light, sparkling, dreamily romantic, breathlessly growing to a brilliant conclusion. [A composer of] deliberate ascetic restraint [in whom the finest German values] rise again musically.” (Following the War, homeless and mentally ill, Pfitzner was de-Nazified and re-pensioned. Dismissed from official office in 1933, Braunfels, a Catholic 'half Jew', went into retirement until 1945, according to his online Archive “banned from all public music engagements by the Reichsmusikkammer.”)
Released on August 30, this is a winning addition to the catalogue.