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ClassicsOnline Home » SCHARWENKA, X.: Piano Concerto No. 4 / Polish Dances (Poizat, Poznan Philharmonic, Borowicz)
Polish pianist and composer Franz Xaver Scharwenka was raised in the spirit of European Romanticism, championing the music of Chopin, Schumann, Mendelssohn and Liszt, and gaining enormous popularity for his own compositions, which Liszt greatly admired. Scharwenka’s fourth and final Piano Concerto (which the composer performed under the direction of Mahler and Stokowski) is a work of genius which stands at the apex of his achievement. The shorter pieces on this album have recently enjoyed renewed popularity, proving the value of Scharwenka’s legacy for modern listeners though much of his music remains to be rediscovered.
Franz Xaver Scharwenka (1850–1924)
Piano Concerto No. 4 in F minor, Op. 82 • Andante religioso, Op. 46a Polish National Dances, Op. 3, Nos. 3, 8 and 15 • Overture to Mataswintha
The appearance of a nobleman with a bushy moustache revealed his Polish background, just as the rhythms and melodies of his compositions disclosed the source of inspiration and his Slavonic soul. Today, it is difficult to believe that between 1880 and the early-1900s Franz Xaver Scharwenka was a prominent pianist and composer whose works were widely performed. At the beginning of the twentieth century, neither the tonal experiments of the time nor the radical rejection of neo romanticism detracted from the splendour and popularity of his compositions. Active both as pianist and composer, he shunned the musical avant-garde, as well as Parisian and Viennese novelties, and remained true to Romantic ideas and nineteenth-century aesthetics. His contemporaries praised his performance highly, while the greatest celebrities of the musical world, such as Liszt or Hanslick, applauded his compositions, in particular his concertos and piano miniatures. History, however, moves in mysterious ways, and for some strange reason his work was forgotten for many years. His compositions may have proved too difficult for many a performer, and audiences expected musical novelties. For these reasons Scharwenka’s works fell into neglect. Although in recent years there has been something of a renaissance of his music, it still enters concert halls (and attracts music lovers’ attention) rather slowly and timidly. We hope that this recording will prove Scharwenka’s work a valuable element of our Polish musical heritage, worthy of reintroduction to concert life. The pieces that make up the present collection, particularly the piano compositions, enjoyed considerable popularity and were frequently performed at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (including the overture to the opera Mataswintha, even though the main body of the work has never been officially recorded).
Franz Xaver Scharwenka, pianist and composer, was born on 6 January 1850 in Samster (the modern Szamotu1y near Poznań, Poland) in the heart of the then Prussian region of Wielkopolska. His father, August Wilhelm Scharwenka, an architect by profession, moved to Samster from Prague. His mother, Apolonia Emilia Golisch, came from a typical Polish Catholic family, which held a small landed estate in Ruxmühle near Samster. As Scharwenka remembered many years later, his mother’s family were exceptionally musical, and there were frequent childhood visits to her relatives that familiarised him with Polish folk-music which was later to become such a vital source of inspiration in his career as a composer.
In 1858 the Scharwenkas moved to Poznań. There both sons, Philipp and Franz Xaver, began their education at the King’s Secondary School. Philipp took piano lessons, which prompted Franz Xaver’s attempts to play by ear. Five years later the Scharwenka family settled in Berlin, where Franz Xaver began piano studies with Theodor Kullak at the Neue Akademie der Tonkunst. At the same time he started composition classes with Richard Wüerst. As a pianist, he made his début in 1867 with Mendelssohn’s Concerto in D minor, and two years later had his own composition, Orchesterouvertüre (Orchestral Overture) performed publicly for the first time. Initially Scharwenka made a name for himself as a pianist, performing concertos by Schumann, Mendelssohn, Chopin and Liszt. Success as a composer soon followed. In 1869, Breitkopf and Härtel published three of his compositions, including Polish National Dance, Op. 3, No. 1, which quickly found recognition throughout the musical world. This piece has continued to be Scharwenka’s most famous and most frequently performed composition. Its melodic pattern, which draws on Polish folk-music, as well as the rhythm of the mazurka, had for long been the hallmark of Scharwenka’s work. It was somewhat paradoxical, though, for he never flaunted his Polish roots. In his autobiography, Klänge aus meinem Leben: Erinnerungen eines Musikers (Sounds from my Life: Reminiscences of a Musician), he revealed that all his life he felt “completely German, a Protestant Christian”, brought up in the spirit of German Romanticism and the great piano tradition of Schumann, Mendelssohn and Brahms. Surprisingly, however, it was mazurkas, obereks, cracoviennes and polonaises, the rhythms of which almost organically blended into his pieces and pointed to Polish folk tradition and a passion for Chopin, which were his sources of inspiration. Probably it is also the reason why his composing style—very changeable in different forms and genres—is so difficult to define, for the only common feature that dominates both his piano and symphonic music is the rhythmical trait of Polish dances.
As a pianist, Scharwenka promoted his compositions himself; these were, in particular his piano concertos, with which he made several concert tours in Europe, the United States and Canada, playing under such celebrity conductors, as Richter, Joachim, Mahler and Stokowski. Scharwenka was active not only as pianist, conductor and composer; he found pedagogical work and the organization of musical life both in Berlin and in New York equally important. Still in the 1880s, he initiated a series of chamber music concerts and recitals at the Berlin Singakademie. In 1881 he opened his own school of music in Berlin, and in the 1890s a branch in New York. In all probability it was there that the opera Mataswintha, based on Felix Dahn’s historical story Ein Kampf um Rom (A Struggle for Rome) originated. We learn from Scharwenka’s autobiography that in New York he met Berhard Savenhagen, who was so captivated by the work that he decided to open the season at the Weimar Hoftheater with it. The success of the première was immense, and brought a subsequent production at the Metropolitan Opera. Despite certain difficulties arising from a sudden change of the cast and the necessary shortening of the libretto, the opera was received well, and its production pleased the composer. Mataswintha is Scharwenka’s only operatic work, and its overture is one of few symphonic pieces written by the composer. Besides the above-mentioned youthful Orchesterouvertüre, he also wrote Symphony in C minor, Op. 60, as well as Andante religioso, Op. 46a, a short orchestral transcription of the second movement of his Sonata in E minor, Op. 46, for cello and piano, a piece characterized by simple texture and a lyrical theme carried by particular groups of strings.
Except for the already mentioned Polish National Dances Scharwenka’s most outstanding and most popular compositions are four piano concertos, works which made him famous as a composer and pianist on both sides of the Atlantic. The Concerto in F minor, is Scharwenka’s last piano concerto. It crowns his experience of the form, and appears to be his final “coming to terms” with piano music, for the technical demands of the solo part reach the apex of performance skills, particularly in the outermost movements. The massive texture of the piano part based on octave repetitions and bravura passages, as well as sequences of broken chords in octaves, and virtuoso cadenzas covering the entire sound range of the instrument create an impression that the composer wanted to embrace the entire history of the form, as well as summarise achievements of the pianism of the time in a single composition. From the stylistic point of view, the concerto is an eclectic piece, which combines elements typical of brillante concertos with those typical of Mendelssohn’s, Liszt’s and Tchaikovsky’s works. Thematic material is presented mainly by the orchestra, with the piano part instantly transforming it. Orchestra tutti are also intended to counterpoint bravura fragments of the solo part, or to provide chordal accompaniment. Although the concerto consists of three movements, it lacks the usual classical structure, and proportions of particular elements are distorted. Instead of a typical slow fragment, the second movement is an Allegretto molto tranquillo of dance-like quality, which—as noted by the composer in the score—is the intermezzo between the first movement, and the beginning of the third movement, the Lento. An Allegro con fuoco, whose melodic pattern brings to mind Polish folk-dances, forms the second part of the third movement, and, simultaneously, the finale proper. The formal integrating factor is the main theme of the Allegro patetico, which, at the same time, constitutes the core of the whole concerto. Reminiscences appear in the second and third movements. The theme is also present in the wind parts (bassoon, clarinet) of the third movement (following the Lento), announcing the following part of the movement, the final Allegro. Formally speaking, it is a very interesting example of a piano concerto whose virtuoso quality influences its structure.
Composed in 1908, the Piano Concerto in F minor, Op. 82, had its première in Berlin in October of the same year, with Scharwenka’s pupil and later assistant, Martha Siebold, as soloist. The first page of the score contains a dedication: To Her Highness, Queen Elisabeth of Romania. Two years later the composer played the concerto himself in New York. Scharwenka, who appeared with the New York Symphony Orchestra under Gustav Mahler, described the evening in a rather laconic way: He conducted my work in an accomplished manner. It is a well-known fact that Scharwenka and Mahler did not get on particularly well. Following the New York première, Scharwenka played the concerto in America a number of times, both under Mahler and Leopold Stokowski. Though a work of genius, its incredible technical and interpretational difficulty resulted in the Concerto in F minor being rejected by most pianists even in Scharwenka’s lifetime. Too demanding, too laborious, too many possible pitfalls. And yet surely the prospect of an exceptional experience and rediscovery of this forgotten musical Atlantis is worth taking the risk?
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