By Dale D. Dalenberg, M.D.

February 12, 2014

I was a terrible piano student. At age 12 or 13, in the mid-1970s, when I am sure we could ill afford it, my mother plunked down something like $12.00 per half-hour lesson, and week after week I would show up at my teacher’s studio having practiced almost none of my lessons. I dreaded those lessons, because I loved my teacher, Mr. Jan Kwant of the Netherlands, and I hated to let him down. But I had some kind of block about practicing thepiano.  I was actually a good music student, having learned to read music early and achieving a certain mid-level virtuosity on the recorders (those end-blown Renaissance and Baroque flutes) and later on the concert flute. I got to where I could sight-read the piccolo or flute part of a Sousa march, which is no small feat. By the time I was a senior in high school, I played the Chaminade flute concertino with the concert band backing me. But I was never more than an advanced beginner on the piano. Perhaps that is why I idolize great pianism, because true pianism is something I could never achieve. Somewhere around 25 or 30 years ago, when I resolved to collect “classical” music in order to hear all the other stuff that wasn’t Beethoven’s 5th, I resolved to make a cornerstone of my collection the Romantic-Era piano literature.  

I started with Rachmaninoff’s Elegiac Piano Trios and Mendelssohn’s Songs Without Words, and I have been collecting ever since.  

Nowadays, I am still listening avidly to everything from Bach to modern-day piano jazz. But, the Romantic era was when pianists were truly rock stars, and those were the days (from roughly mid to late Beethoven through Scriabin and Rachmaninoff) when piano was in its prime. The British label Hyperion Records has done more than any other company to keep the legacy of Romantic era pianism alive. Their Romantic Piano Concerto series is now twenty years old, and they keep digging up forgotten piano concertos to revive, many of them once famous but fallen into obscurity, many of them never before recorded, some of them previously existing only in manuscript.  

The piano as an instrument lends itself to a million varieties of musical expression. Glenn Gould showed how Bach could be brought to life on an instrument that Bach himself barely knew by taking pieces written for the clavichord or harpsichord and giving them a whole new set of nuances and expressions made possible by interpretation on the pianoforte. The rock star pianists of the Romantic Era composed amazing showpieces to show off their prodigious talents. Ragtime was a composed music that foreshadowed jazz and was dominated by the piano. Piano jazz has gone through a thousand iterations, from boogie woogie to stride piano to Thelonious Monk and Bill Evans. There is even a piano presence in rock and roll thanks to artists like Elton John and Billy Joel. But it was during the Romantic Era that the piano reached its peak as the pre-eminent musical instrument, capable of the subtle delicacy of Chopin, the impressionism of Debussy, the sweeping big melodies of Rachmaninoff, or the bombast of the Gottschalk monster concerts.  

Hyperion set out 20 years ago to prove that Tchaikovsky’s 1st and Rachmaninoff’s 2nd were not the only Romantic era piano concertos. Along the way, they have unearthed a lot of amazing material. The latest addition to the series is Charles Gounod (1818-1893), The Complete Works for Pedal Piano & Orchestra, which is Volume 62 in the series. That there was ever even an instrument called the pedal piano is typical of the kind of piano trivia the Hyperion series teaches us. It turns out that the pedal piano had a bit of a small vogue in the 1880’s when certain companies, like the French piano maker Érard, offered an organ-like piano with pedal-notes that could be operated by the feet. These instruments were of use for organists to be able to practice at home. But aside from practicing the organ literature, certain composers wrote pieces dedicated to the pedal piano. Thus, we have four works for the pedal piano from late in the career of Gounod, who is otherwise remembered today mostly as an opera composer. Interestingly, rather than using a dedicated pedal piano, this Hyperion recording was made on two stacked Steinway piano keyboards using a pedal piano system that is operated by the feet to depress the keys on the lower piano that is on the ground under the primary keyboard. The Gounod pieces are light, accessible, and entertaining. I suspect that it is more interesting to watch a pedal piano performance that to merely listen to one, however. Gounod himself was fascinated and inspired to write for the pedal piano by a young lady named Lucie Palicot who was compelled out of necessity to wear a short knee-length skirt to prance about on the pedals while she played, much to the delight (no doubt) of the male onlookers.  

Hyperion’s back catalogue from the Romantic Piano Concerto series is replete with wonders, but two of my favorites are worth mentioning. Volume 18 (from 1998)  features a pair of late Romantic works from the 1920’s by a couple of composers who were close friends and who were very well aware that they were bucking the current trend toward modernism as typified by Schoenberg’s new atonal music. The Hyperion disc contains the First Recording of Joseph Marx’s Romantisches Klavierkonzert in E major, which is a grandly exuberant late Romantic symphony with fiendishly difficult piano part that enjoyed numerous performances in its day in Austria and Germany in the 1920’s but was totally forgotten after 1930. The other piece on this disc is Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s Piano Concerto in C sharp, Op 17, for the left hand. This piece is notable for having been the first commission ordered by famed left-handed concert pianist Paul Wittgenstein, who had lost his right arm to a gunshot wound to the elbow during World War I.  Wittgenstein had numerous works inspired by or dedicated to him during his lifetime, and he commissioned a handful of them. In fact, it could be said that Wittgenstein is responsible for the majority of the piano literature for the left hand. The most famous of these pieces is Ravel’s piano concerto for the left hand, but the Korngold piece preceded Ravel’s. In the way of fun piano trivia, Wittgenstein and Ravel never reconciled after Wittgenstein made edits to Ravel’s concerto for performance, and Ravel was unhappy with the changes.  And more fun trivia: Wittgenstein commissioned Prokofiev’s 4th piano concerto but he never got around to playing it, because he claimed not to understand the piece.  Wittgenstein did the same thing with a Hindemith concerto, which was believed lost, until it was found amongst Wittgenstein’s papers after the death of his widow in 2002 (Wittgenstein died in 1961). As for the Korngold piece, it is worth a listen, as it blends the late Romantic with the early modern and comes off not unlike a Richard Strauss work in several flashes. Nowadays, Korngold is chiefly remembered for his historic film scores.   

The other Hyperion Romantic Piano Concerto disc that I always return to is Volume 22 (from 1999), the incredible Piano Concerto in C major, Op. 39, by Ferruccio Busoni (1866-1924).  There is, quite simply, nothing else quite like this piece. It is massive (coming in at around 75 minutes), bombastic, and unclassifiable.  It is best described as a 5-movement choral symphony with piano obbligato, rather than a typical piano concerto. The Busoni Piano Concerto was composed in 1902-1904, and it stands as a summation of the Romantic era, at least as that era regards the Piano Concerto.  (It seems to me that the Gustav Mahler symphonies hold a similar place with respect to the Symphony.)  Much like we have guitar gods in the rock world today (like Eric Clapton, Pete Townshend, or Joe Bonamassa), Busoni was a piano god in his day. The championing of his solo piano works (and of this particular piano concerto) falls to a small clique of super-elite pianists who just happen to be able to play this stuff proficiently.  This Hyperion recording is by the supernaturally talented Marc André Hamelin, who can apparently play anything no matter how difficult. Prior to Hamelin, the late great John Ogden made a splash with Busoni’s piano concerto. It is no coincidence that both Hamelin and Ogden are among the few who have attempted to play and record the notoriously eccentric and difficult piano works of Kaikhosru Sorabji or that Sorabji himself worshipped Busoni, actually got to meet him once and play his 1st piano sonata for him. There is a lineage of post-Romantic pianism by composer/pianists that goes back to Franz Liszt and Ferruccio Busoni, and continues on through Sorabji, John Ogden (whose own piano concerto is astonishing), and continues today in composer-performers like Hamelin (who has recently released a disc of his own 12 Études in all the minor keys). I listen in wonder. Makes me wish I would have practiced more.