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Format: Audio CD
Although he maintains a fringe presence in the repertoire (on records if not in concert) mainly through his four piano concertos, I discovered the music of Xaver Scharwenka (1850-1924, not to be confused with his brother Philipp, 1847-1917) through the two discs of chamber music played by the same Seta Tanyel and partners (Chamber Music Complete), and about these I commented that, when it comes to chamber music, there seems to be no "minor" romantic composer: it is something I had remarked with similar works by composers such as Lalo, Franck, Saint-Saens, Fauré, Arensky, Zarebski and more than comes to mind as I write, and Scharwenka's Piano Trio, Piano Quartet or Cello Sonata are worthy of anything by Schumann and not inferior to the chamber music of Brahms or Dvorak by a very wide margin. So I was curious to hear his piano music, which Seta Tanyel recorded on four CDs, originally published by the now-defunct Collins label in the 1990s and fortunately now all reissued by Hyperion in their budget Helios collection (the other installments are Piano Music 1, Piano Music by Xaver Scharwenka, Vol. 3, Piano music by Xaver Scharwenka, Vol. 4).
I'm not so enthusiastic and, yes, here, this sounds like music from a "minor" romantic composer. One hears what you might call influences, or reminiscences, music that reminds you of other composers: the turbulent Brahms of the various Rhapsodies (in Romanzero No. 1 & 3 - the cycle is aptly dedicated to Brahms) or the Third Piano Sonata (in Schwarwenka's own Second Sonata), Schumann (the scherzo of the same Second Sonata), Liszt (the adagio and the finale; the 4th Romanzero may evoke some of Liszt's more showy virtuoso pieces, but also the kind of virtuosic "encores" so typical of the late 19th Century pianist-composers of the "-kis" family, Moszkowski, Godowski and the likes), Chopin (as you might have guessed, in the two Polish Dances op. 29), even Weber or the lighter Schubert of, say, the Moments Musicaux (in the lightweight Sonatine op. 52/1).
Other than an entirely individual and immediately recognizable voice, what Scharwenka is missing to make him a "major" composer has something to do, I think, with a genuine and truly ear-catching melodic gift. Hard to define what is a "great melody", and even harder to say why a melody isn't a "great one" (or anybody could write one), but you recognize it immediately in Schubert, Chopin, Schumann, Liszt even in his most superficial and bombastic pieces, and Brahms. There is nothing here that is as immediately and evidently engrossing as a Chopin Mazurka (although the second Polish Dance is strikingly derivative of Chopin's Mazurkas), a Schubert Impromptu, Brahms' Rhapsodies, or Liszt's popular hits, and Scharwenka's shortage in that area is nowhere more in evidence than in the lyrical and soft Romanzero # 2, because there he doesn't have a pile of pounding notes to hide it under. Scharwenka's music does pound a lot, which in itself is not a drawback (Brahms' Rhapsodies and Third Piano Sonata, many a Liszt piece also pound) but, although I won't be too assertive about it, the pianistic technique seems less inventive and imaginative than that of Chopin, Liszt or Brahms, and happy to remain within the bounds of a Czerny-derived tradition. The lyricism of the Sonata's adagio aims at the grand gesture but it sounds pretty hollow to me, sub-par Rachmaninoff-in-the-making.
Still, the disc and its companions offer a welcome glimpse into the now forgotten mill-run of Romantic piano music, the soil on which the great romantic geniuses did rise. Seta Tanyel must be thanked for spending the time learning and recording these over four hours of Scharwenka's piano music (TT on this volume 2 is 65:50), if only to allow us to establish on our own that we didn't miss all that much when Scharwenka's piano music was entirely forgotten. She seems entirely up to the technical and musical challenges of those compositions. But to hear Scharwenka as a "major" romantic composer, go to his chamber music. .
The original Collins releases are Scharwenka: Piano Works Vol. 1 - Piano Sonata Op. 6 / Polish National Dances Op. 3, Piano Works 2, Piano Works, Volume 3, Piano Works 4 and for the chamber music, Scharwenka: Works for Piano Violin & Cello and Piano Quartet / Piano Trio 2. They still sell relatively to very cheap at the time of writing.