Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Shelley makes the case for Kalkbrenner

Romantic Piano Concerto Vol. 56: Kalkbrenner 
Piano Concerto No 2, Op. 85 
Piano Concerto No.3, Op. 107 
Adagio & Allegro di Bravura, Op. 102 
Howard Shelly, piano 
Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra 
Hyperion

I’m a big fan of Hyperion’s Romantic Piano Concerto series. This latest installment – Volume 56 – maintains the same high standards of recording and performance quality as the previous volumes.

Howard Shelley turns in committed performances of Friedrich Kalkbrenner's compositions. Shelley's interpretations seem to fully realize the potential of this neglected music.

 And this is music that needs a little help.

Audiences of the mid-19th century thought Friedrich Kalkbrenner one of the best pianists of his day – an opinion he shared himself. When Chopin arrived in Paris, he performed for Kalkbrenner. – who suggested that after three years of study with him, Chopin just might make a decent pianist! That inflated opinion of himself was the subject of satire during his lifetime, and part of the reason why his music fell into disrepute after his death. It's good to have it represented (especially by a sympathetic performer), so we can judge the merits of Kalkbrenner's music for ourselves.

Kalkbrenner, like many virtuosos of the day, composed music primarily for his own use. The works on this recording were all written for various concert tours, and so were created to do two things: appeal to audiences with their tunefulness, and impress audiences with their brilliant piano technique. They achieve both goals admirably.

The two concertos on this CD are written in a glittering, gallante style, The musical language is a little conservative – think Mendelssohn rather than Liszt – which keeps them from being truly great compositions. While there are plenty of grand gestures and crashing climaxes Kalkbrenner’s romanticism has a certain polite reserve.

This is music that’s meant to entertain. And on that level, it succeeds. Kalkbrenner may have thought highly of his talent, but if the piano solos in these works are any indication of what he could do, it’s an opinion not without merit. Shelley’s hands cascade down with complex arpeggiated patterns. They undulate up and down the keyboard, riding waves of scale patterns that are both pretty and pretty impressive.

Shelley performed the first and last of Kalkbrenner’s four piano concertos in volume 41 of the series (Kalkbrenner: Piano Concertos Nos. 1 & 4). With this installment, he fills out the cycle with the two middle concertos. Kalkbrenner’s music may be somewhat simple (in structure, if not in execution), but that’s part of its appeal. I, for one, thoroughly enjoyed it.

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