11 Apr 2014

ALEXANDER MARKOVICH - Franz Xaver Scharwenka – Complete Piano Concertos

This is one of those albums that has really ‘got’ to me. I took my time with it, since I know nothing of Scharwenka’s compositional output and wanted to understand it properly. Each time I listen to the album it is fresh: there are things which surprise me and make me want to play one of these pieces! 

Scharwenka was a Polish composer who had a flourishing performing career, most of which has been forgotten. He was also a composer, though his output was not large. This album of two CDs brings together his four piano concertos for the first time. 

One thing noticeable throughout this album is that you will find many parallels with the ‘great’ composers. The opening Piano Concerto No. 1 in B flat minor draws many comparisons to Liszt, to whom Scharwenka dedicated this piece. The orchestra breathes life into this work, providing competition for Markovich to wrestle the spotlight away, drawing focus back to the virtuosic elements infused throughout. The final movement is mysterious, with a beautiful clarinet solo nearly managing to outshine the final moments of the piano running rings around the orchestra! 

A more muted Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor follows the brilliant opening. This one is not my favourite, but still has its merits. The Adagio is the highlight of this concerto. A beautiful opening by the strings, contemplative and serene, balance out the entry of the piano: all of a sudden it becomes less of a competition between orchestra and piano, instead having them briefly uniting to create some moments of beauty and colour. Some folk influences are heard in the final movement, with a small nod back to the first movement’s key. 

The third concerto: Piano Concerto No. 3 in C sharp minor, has strong resonances with Rachmaninov’s work. Opening with a brass fanfare, the piano becomes a force of nature barging in through the orchestra. Finishing this concerto is a dainty dance-like melody which keeps the orchestra on their toes, until the final bars which revisit and close with the opening movement’s themes. 

Piano Concerto no.4 in F minor finishes this album, and this was perhaps Scharwenka’s most famous work. Rachmaninov and Tchikovsky seem to have influenced him in this piece. It drifts dreamily in between structure and no structure at all, which is refreshing and makes the listening experience a journey through ideas. The overall finale begins in the third movement; almost melancholy in its beginning – a sad farewell. The pace gradually quickens to a rollercoaster ending: a battle between the orchestra and the piano, with the piano triumphant at the end. 

This album is more of a celebration of a composer who has been forgotten, and it manages to do this extremely well. Alexander Markovich’s performance is truly virtuosic and breathes life into pieces of music which have not had the recognition that they deserve. Listen to this if you are a fan of any of the ‘great’ composers and see how many parallels you can find.  

Words: Emma Longmuir

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