BRONSART; URSPRUCH Piano Concertos
The astounding thing about Hyperion’s Romantic Piano Concerto series is that, at Vol 77, it’s still going strong and that it has, in the main, avoided musical Z-listers.
Bronsart, or Hans August Alexander Bronsart von Schellendorf, to give him his full moniker, wrote his F sharp minor Piano Concerto in 1873, when he was 43, so historically it falls between Brahms’s two piano concertos, whose own writing it emulates in terms of its symphonic approach to the genre. But it also betrays moments that are pure Liszt (sample the first movement from 13'15"), which is not surprising given that Bronsart had been a Liszt pupil and premiered his Second Piano Concerto. But this is by no means a work without a personality of its own, as witness its noble opening tutti or the dreamy second subject, introduced by the soloist and interlaced with eloquent woodwind. And it’s hard to imagine it being better played than by these forces, Emmanuel Despax displaying a wide range of colours combined with an easy virtuosity. The recording places him fairly well to the front, so he doesn’t have to fight through the orchestral textures to make himself heard.
The broad slow movement has an eloquence to it which is very affecting. If it’s not melodically the most telling of movements, Bronsart’s ear for orchestral effect provides interest and it ends in a mood of utter serenity. The finale is marked Allegro con fuoco but that gives little idea of what is in store – a bumptious tarantella that completely undermines the dignity of what has gone before. Even a call to order in the form of a loud fanfare cannot displace the mayhem for long. It requires prodigious playing from soloist and orchestral musicians to make it sound as effortless as here, and that it does is tribute as much to conductor Eugene Tzigane as to Despax.
Though Anton Urspruch’s Piano Concerto dates from nine years later, it sounds earlier than Bronsart’s, evoking Beethoven (and sometimes Brahms) in pastoral mode. It unfolds on a grand scale but alas does not have the imagination found in Bronsart’s concerto. While its gently billowing quality might initially seem attractive, nothing much else happens over the first movement’s 24 minutes. Note-writer Jeremy Nicholas sums it up well: ‘the first movement rarely departs from a bucolic evocation of Alpine meadows and streams.’ But, unlike Beethoven’s take on such a scene in his Pastoral, there’s no danger of storms ahead, and even Despax can’t disguise the triumph of infilling over melody. So it’s all the more remarkable that this is the second account to have been released in a matter of months, following a fine one from Oliver Triendl and George Fritzsh, their first movement unfolding at a slightly more flowing pace than this new account.
In the Andante, lento e mesto we momentarily seem to have dipped into the slow movement of Bach’s E major Violin Concerto – if only it had continued in such an inspired vein – but alas this does not linger in the memory. And while the finale is spirited enough (and again highly Beethovenian in some of its piano figuration), it’s a case of a triumph of duration over interest; here I marginally prefer the CPO reading for its greater sense of playfulness but neither can disguise the essential vapidity of Urspruch’s creation. The Bronsart, on the other hand, is a more than worthy addition to the series.