Two lesser known piano-concertos in the Austro-German tradition provide much of interest
The Austro-German symphonic canon goes something like Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Mendelssoh, Brahms, Bruckner, Mahler. Yet if we consider the piano concerto we run out after Brahms, the later history of the piano concerto is with composers born outside this tradition and other Austro-German composers writing in the same tradition are virtually non-existent – at least that is what is implied by the repertoire performed in most concert halls.
This new disc from Hyperion’s The Romantic Piano Concerto series (volume 76!) gives us a chance to move away from the canon and explore. It pairs late-Romantic piano concertos by two lesser known composers from the Austro-German tradition, Joseph Rheinberger and Bernhard Scholz, performed by pianist Simon Callaghan with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, conductor Ben Gernon
Josef Rheinberger was something of a prodigy who went on to train in Munich and spent most of his life teaching there. Whilst he wrote music in a wide variety of genres, he is best known for his organ sonatas, though lovers of choral music hold his masses in some regard.
His piano concerto was written in 1876 (between Brahms first and second concertos) and unfortunately Bryce Morrison’s booklet note, whilst admirable on the music itself, does not let us know for whom it was written. The concerto is in some ways a surprising work, Rheinberger is known for his admiration of Bach and the solidity of his structural construction. Yet here is a concerto whose piano writing sometimes evokes Liszt and perhaps Saint Saens (whose Piano Concerto No. 4 dates from 1875). The works is in three movements, the lively opening Moderato starts with a striking call to attention before moving to strong sonata form, the slow movement Adagio patetico is surprisingly full-blooded whilst the Allegro energico is just that, with the whole written on a grand scale (it lasts something over 30 minutes).
Bernhard Scholz is a lesser known name, he was part of the musical circle which included Joachim, Clara Schumann and Brahms, and Clara Schumann championed Scholz’s piano concerto having premiered it in 1875. We can detect the influences of Brahms in the work but also Mendelssohn and Schumann. Another seriously large-scale work (it lasts almost 30 minutes), there is much to enjoy, with piano writing which moves between the Schumann-esque and the virtuosic. We are also treated to one of Scholz’s lighter pieces, the charming Capriccio for piano and orchestra.
The performances here are excellent, with Simon Callaghan making light work of the works’ technical demands. He brings a strong sense of sympathy for the style of the late Romantic concertos, allowing for some seriousness of purpose but also playing with fizz and elan where necessary. He is well supported by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and Ben Gernon, and these accounts of the works go far beyond the dutiful; Callaghan, Gernon and the BBC SSO are highly persuasive, and make us listen to these works properly.
Listening to this disc completely dismisses any idea we might have of lesser known Austro-German piano concertos to be academic and dull, here both composers combine seriousness of purpose and strong construction with an engaging way with the piano writing.
There is certainly much to enjoy and this is a lovely exploration of a forgotten corner of the repertoire.