Brother of the composer and teacher Philipp Scharwenka (1847–1917), Franz Xaver was the son of an architect. When the family moved to Berlin in 1865 Xaver enrolled in Theodor Kullak’s New Academy, studying piano with Kullak and composition with Richard Wüerst. Only two years later he made his public debut in Berlin at the Singakademie, playing Mendelssohn’s Piano Concerto in D minor Op. 40. After another year of study he joined the staff of Kullak’s Academy until he was called for a year’s mandatory military service in 1873; after which he began life as a touring virtuoso, taking him to Northern Europe, Russia, Austria and England. His Piano Concerto No. 1 in B flat minor Op. 32, which impressed both Liszt and Tchaikovsky, was written in 1877 (the year of his marriage) and two years later he performed it during his first appearance in England at the Crystal Palace. The work was a great success and he returned to London in 1880 to play it again, along with Beethoven’s ‘Emperor’Concerto Op. 73. The same year he was invited to Vienna to play his concerto with the great conductor Hans Richter where it was reported that ‘Without any reception and almost unnoticed, the young stranger seated himself at the piano, from which he was to rise amid a storm of applause, the like of which has perhaps never greeted any pianist since Anton Rubinstein.’ During further tours of Europe he played his own Piano Concertos Nos 2 and 3.
Although he had a successful career as both virtuoso and composer, Scharwenka was always interested in musical education and decided to open his own conservatory in Berlin. This later, in 1893, became amalgamated with that of Klindworth, becoming known as the Klindworth-Scharwenka Conservatory. The two pedagogues edited the works of Chopin (published by Augner in Britain). After touring America for the first time in 1891 Scharwenka and his family decided to emigrate to the United States where he opened a branch of the Conservatory in New York. They remained in the country for seven years, but in 1898 Xaver returned to Germany. He continued to tour America and Europe until World War I, claiming that between 1891 and 1913 he crossed the Atlantic twenty-six times. On one of these visits to New York he played his Piano Concerto No. 4 Op. 82 with the New York Philharmonic conducted by Gustav Mahler. It was at this time that he decided to relinquish his post as director of the Klindworth-Scharwenka Conservatory and create another music school of his own, again in Berlin.
Although rarely heard today, Scharwenka’s most famous composition was his Polish Dance in E flat minor Op. 3 No. 1 which was published in 1869. Liszt had heard it in 1870 and expressed a wish to meet the young composer. Scharwenka travelled to Weimar and received a warm welcome from the venerable master. Today however, his name is kept alive through renowned recordings of his Piano Concertos No. 1 Op. 32 (by Earl Wild) and No. 4 Op. 82 (by Stephen Hough).
In America during December 1910 and January 1913 Scharwenka recorded nine sides for Columbia. Seven of these were released but to date only two have been reissued on compact disc. The recordings are variable: Chopin’s Waltz Op. 34 No. 1 is inaccurate in places, and Liszt’s Liebestraum No. 3 sounds cautious. However, the best discs contain his own Polish Dance Op. 3 No. 1 and a fluid performance of Chopin’s Fantaisie-Impromptu Op. 66. In this recording and that of Mendelssohn’s Rondo capriccioso Op. 14 Scharwenka’s command of the instrument is unquestionable. These early recordings (in good sound for their age) reveal a pianist of taste and technique although the primitive recording process barely displays his renowned beauty and quality of tone. They are, however, an important document of one of the great composer-pianists of the second half of the nineteenth century.
Courtesy of Jonathan Summers