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Open Document
Music Web International
October 28, 2022
Lee Denham

Thomas de Hartmann (1884-1956)
Concerto for piano and orchestra, Op. 61 (1939)
Symphonie-Poème No. 3, Op. 85 (1953)
Scherzo-fantastique, Op. 25 (1929)
Elan Sicroff (piano)
Lviv National Philharmonic Orchestra of Ukraine/Tian Hui Ng
rec. 2021, National Philharmonic Hall, Lviv, Ukraine

If the name Thomas de Hartmann is unknown to you, that is quite forgivable – but perhaps it should not be. After all, we are considering a composer from old Russia at the beginning of the twentieth century when the competition would have been quite formidable: Rachmaninov, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Stravinsky, Scriabin, Khachaturian, Glazunov - to name but another mighty handful from a different era - all spring to mind, so if de Hartmann’s music isn’t quite as good or well known as theirs, that is perhaps understandable. However, since it is most definitely almost as good, then perhaps it is still worthy of our attention.

This is the second disc of de Hartmann’s orchestral music to have been released in 2022 (a third is due in the Autumn) and I must say I was hugely impressed by the previous release in this series earlier this year (on Toccata Classics – review) and this one, too, is almost as good. The very detailed essay on the life of the composer by John R. Mangan has been repeated, with additional notes on the music provided by Evan MacCarthy and Elan Sicroff (who is also the piano soloist and one of the driving forces behind the resurgence of interest in Thomas de Hartmann). I auditioned the compact disc release, but it is also available on FLAC and mp3 downloads and the sound is very fine, even if – curiously - I felt it had marginally more bloom on the Toccata issue in spite of both releases being taped in the same hall and with the same recording engineers. The playing of the Lviv National Philharmonic is wonderful and hugely committed under Tian Hui Ng and once more helps to contribute to the overall success of the release.

To say that Thomas de Hartmann had a colourful and eventful life would be something of an understatement. In my previous review, I valiantly attempted to condense Mr Mangan’s six-page biography from the booklet into something readable over a couple of paragraphs, so I would direct you there, should you need that information.

If previously on Toccata we were treated to potpourri of a ballet suite, plus a concerto, a symphonic poem, as well as some Christmas miniatures, in the second release of the series Nimbus instead presents us with the time-honoured, overture-concerto-symphony concert instead, opening with de Hartman’s Piano Concerto from 1939. To describe this twenty-seven-minute work as a Rachmaninov-Addinsell hybrid, with a dash of Ibéria courtesy of Manuel de Falla’s Night in the Gardens of Spain, may be being slightly unkind (not least since Addinsell’s famous work was written after it), but that is how it all sounds to my ears – and, I have to say, I enjoyed it immensely. It opens with declamatory fanfares and flourishes from keyboard, pure Addinsell of the Warsaw Concerto, with the main subject following shortly after, which is as glorious as any Rachmaninov himself wrote and is clothed in the kind of orchestration he would have recognised. My only criticism is that the composer could perhaps have used and developed this theme a little more than he does, but for those who revel in those Romantic piano concertos of the first half of the twentieth century, this will be both a revelation and a joyful discovery.

If the concerto seems to be cut from the cloth of Rachmaninov, then the Symphony (or rather Symphonie-Poème, to use its official title) from 1953 that follows it on this disc is very much under the influence of Prokofiev, even if the very opening of two solo clarinets and answering strings initially reminded me of the beginning of Sibelius’s First Symphony. Actually, the opening measures are all very misleading, sounding for all the world as if they are from the world of the late nineteenth century Russian school, before switching to something very different. When this change arrived, barely two minutes into the symphony, I had a vision in my mind’s eye of a spaceship landing In the Steppes of Central Asia, such was the startling transition over only a couple of bars, from the high Russian Romanticism of Borodin to the startling modern, mystical chords of late Scriabin. Evan MacCarthy’s admirably informative notes explain that Russian mythology was the influence over de Hartmann’s score, specifically three ancient legends from the Volga region, with the first movement depicting Bolotnitsa (The Swamp Girl), a mermaid-type of figure who lured heroic, if perhaps inevitably also rather dim-witted, young men to their deaths in her swamp in their attempts to ‘save’ her. This would maybe explain why the musical textures glower and growl as menacingly as any self-respecting swamp would throughout the sixteen-minute opening movement of this thirty-six-minute symphony, after such a winsome opening.

The six-minute second movement is subtitled Stroka (the Wicked Fly) and has the much-expected buzzing of tremolo strings plus extended work for piano (which may explain the pairing with the Piano Concerto on this release). It evolves into a dance motive that continues in a much more upbeat fashion into the third movement that depicts the legend of Radoniza (the Feast of Spring). To my ears, the music once again betrays a certain Spanish influence, this time sounding like the Ibéria of Debussy from his Images pour Orchestre, colourful and exuberant, until suddenly it ends and you think the symphony has finished; instead, it resumes, this time with colours that have turned black and with musical textures that have turned malevolent and threatening, until it all melts away with bells chiming in the distance on the musical horizon. From de Hartmann’s own notes that he wrote on the score, I think the change in mood is supposed to depict the festivities continuing into the night until the morning church bells ring out. Either way, this is enjoyable music, if not, perhaps, as special as the Piano Concerto.

The final work on the disc is the seven-and-a-half-minute Scherzo-Fantastique from 1929 – think of Dukas’ Sorcerer’s Apprentice, or Uranus from Holst’s Planets Suite and you will know exactly what this music sounds like – again enjoyable, if rather in the shadows of the many broomsticks and magic spells of those aforementioned masterpieces.

This is another hugely enjoyable disc of the music of an unaccountably neglected, early twentieth century composer; those who enjoy the piano concertos of Rachmaninov or the symphonies of Prokofiev will derive much pleasure from it and I recommend it highly.

Lee Denham

Previous review: Dominy Clements (June 2022)

Published: October 28, 2022

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