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International Piano
July 2021
Colin Clarke

Once in a while, a project comes along which is decidedly unconventional yet yields innumerable insights. This is one such project.

Thomas Alexandravich de Hartmann (1885-1956) was born in Ukraine into an aristocratic family. Something of a prodigy, he was 11 when he started having lessons with Arensky and went on to study with Taneyev and Anna Yesipova in St Petersburg. His early period is dominated by successes, including a ballet that was performed by Nijinsky, Pavlova and Fokine. The Tsar himself allowed de Hartmann time off from military duties to study with Felix Mottl (the great Wagnerian) in Munich, where de Hartmann met and collaborated with Kandinsky.

Perhaps the greatest influence on de Hartmann was George Ivanovich Gurdjieff (1866-1949), who brought de Hartmann in contact with mysticism and the occult. Their connection was to last 12 years. After Tsarist rule fell, de Hartmann found himself in Tbilisi and thence to an itinerant existence which eventually led him to Fontainebleau until the Nazi occupation of France. In 1950, de Hartmann arrived in New York. America was to be a welcome home until his fatal heart attack on 28 March 1956.

These new recordings are led by the pianist Elan Sicroff and comprise five discs in three separate releases (two twofers -piano and chamber music – plus a single disc of songs). Sicroff is also artistic director of the Thomas de Hartmann Project.

The beautiful songs feature fluid and imaginative piano parts that create a Russian-Impressionist aura over which sopranos Nina Lejderman and Claron McFadden weave their lines. The Russian flavour of this music is undeniable, often with the feeling of early, folk-inspired Stravinsky. Some might even find shades of Stravinsky’s Les noces in de Hartmann’s Bulgarian Songs Op 46. Highlights of the chamber music album include the double-bass Fantaisie Concerto Op 65 in a terrific performance by Quirijn van Regteren Altena (with Sicroff on the piano), and the magnificent suite of Ukrainian Christmas carols for saxophone quartet (Koladky Op 60).

When it comes to the solo piano music, even short pieces of salon music are exquisitely crafted. From the innocent beginning of the Mazurka Op 4/2 and the Chopinesque Impromptu Op 4/3, de Hartmann’s compositional confidence is never in doubt. Sicroff has the absolute measure of each piece. De Hartmann’s Twelve Russian Fairy Tales Op 58 recall Mussorgsky’s Pictures, with No 10 (‘Kasstchei the Deathless’) containing amazingly modernist writing. Fairytales are clearly important to de Hartmann, their mystical aspect perhaps resonating with a Slavic outlook unfamiliar in the West.

The First Piano Sonata Op 67 sees de Hartmann operating on a much larger canvas, its lyrical second movement Aria dark and unforgiving (presaging Prokofiev’s Eighth Sonata written a couple of years later). De Hartmann’s finale is spiky and resolute, demanding fingers of steel that Sicroff clearly possesses. The first disc of the piano set closes with De Hartmann’s Two Nocturnes Op 84. Their titles are richly suggestive: “The Music of the Stars – Look into the depths of eternity’ and ‘The Dance of Life – The banality of life that cannot be conquered by man’. Surprisingly, the second of these is a dance based on Harry Warren’s ‘Lullaby of Broadway’; daringly, fabulously inventive, it is a Nocturne like no other.

It is fascinating to hear de Hartmann compose convincingly in the style of Schumann with his Prelude Op 7/1, while the ensuing Nocturne is pure Chopin/Field. The Novelette Op 7/3, a very Schumannesque term, nods to Mussorgsky. A complete change of tone characterises the Divertissements from Forces of Love and Sorcery Op 16, wherein a very Gallic breeze blows. Lumiere noire (Black Light), composed in 1945, is one of de Hartmann’s finest pieces, its spicy blend of Blues and Negro spirituals surreal in extremis and glorious in execution. The Second Piano Sonata is dedicated to the Russian philosopher Peter D Ouspensky, whom de Hartmann met through Gurdjieff. This multifaceted work boasts a superbly wrought finale in which Sicroff achieves a massive piano sound without breaking his tone. Together, these discs provide an unmissable survey of a composer whose music calls out for much wider exposure. Sicroff’s expertise is invaluable and his pianistic prowess second to none.

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