Romantic Piano Concertos – Scharwenka & Anton Rubinstein

0 of 5 stars

Piano Concerto No.1 in B flat minor, Op.32
Anton Rubinstein
Piano Concerto No.4 in D minor, Op.70

Marc-André Hamelin (piano)

BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra
Michael Stern

Recorded on 18 & 19 February 2005 in Caird Hall, Dundee

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: October 2005
Duration: 60 minutes

Hyperion’s “The Romantic Piano Concerto” series has reached Volume 38. Far from scraping the bottom of the barrel, this pairing contains two contrasted piano concertos that were both highly popular in their day. By coincidence, besides their parallel careers as piano virtuosos, Scharwenka and Rubinstein both founded successful piano schools, Scharwenka his own Conservatory in Berlin (and then New York) and Rubinstein the Imperial Conservatory in St Petersburg (with his brother Nicholas also founding the Moscow Conservatory).

None of this would count for much unless the music and the performances were worth hearing. Fortunately both are splendid.

Xaver Scharwenka (1850-1924) dedicated his B flat minor Concerto, the first of four, to Liszt who returned the compliment by playing it in public in 1877, although the first performance had actually been given by Scharwenka himself two years earlier. Scharwenka’s once-popular concerto, speaks with a decidedly Lisztian accent (Mahler played the first movement in Vienna, his only documented appearance as a concerto soloist). It is, though, a conspicuously original work, assertive and melodically inventive. Above all Scharwenka never overworks his material; any tendency to Lisztian bombast is quickly offset by more lyrical passages: in the first movement Scharwenka enfolds an adagio into the body of the stormy Allegro patetico, an unusual marking. The rambunctious scherzo that follows is especially memorable.

By contrast, the altogether more introspective D minor Concerto, from 1864, by Anton Rubinstein (1829-1894) has far more in common with Chopin including an exquisite nocturne-like Andante and a folk-dance finale which is close to a Krakowiak. Unlike Chopin’s concertos though, it is quite beautifully written for both soloist and orchestra. Although not as flamboyantly original as Scharwenka, it is a work well worth resurrecting and featured in the repertoires of both Paderewski and Rachmaninov. By the most curious quirk, one passage, thirty seconds into the concerto’s opening ritornello prefigures the second movement of Vaughan Williams’s Sixth Symphony.

Both concertos were written as display pieces and both make virtuoso demands on the soloist, especially the Scharwenka. Marc-André Hamelin makes light work of the technical requirements with a facility and lightness of touch that often beggars belief. The BBC Scottish Symphony accompanies robustly under Michael Stern, although a touch more restraint in the brass and greater finesse would not have come amiss. The recording is unobtrusively excellent the very informative booklet note is by Jeremy Nicholas.

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