About this Recording

Popular Piano Pieces, Volume 1

By the time of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 -1791), whose D major Rondo opens the present collection, the pianoforte, or fortepiano as it was then known, had begun to win enormous popularity. There was a growing market for piano music and for piano lessons, both of which Mozart was able to supply during his last ten years of uneasy independence in Vienna.

Of the great classical composers identified with Vienna, Franz Schubert (1799 - 1828) was the only native of the city. The son of a schoolmaster, trained to follow his father's trade, for which he showed no ability, he lived his short life in the company of friends, whom he entertained with his songs and compositions, never occupying any official position in the musical establishment. The G flat major Impromptu, published some thirty years after Schubert's death, is the third of a group of four, its title probably the choice of the publisher, who facilitated its performance by transposing it into G major, thus avoiding the black notes that terrify the timid amateur.

Carl Maria von Weber (1786 - 1826), the honorific "von" apparently the invention of his father, was the cousin of Mozart's wife Constanze and was brought up by his father, a dilettante who for some years ran a travelling theatre-company, to emulate his distinguished relation by marriage. Weber was a very good pianist, but was to win still further renown as the creator of the first German Romantic opera, "Der Freischuetz", and as an adept in the new art of orchestral conducting. Invitation to the Dance is a programme piece, depicting the approach of the dancer, the lady's initial hesitation, the man's insistence, their dancing, his thanks, her reply and their parting.

In Paris Chopin came to know the Hungarian-born pianist Franz Liszt (1811 - 1886), although at first he disapproved heartily of the latter's Bohemian behaviour. Liszt, much more of a showman than Chopin ever could be, was to win a reputation as the greatest pianist of his day, a reputation he retained after his virtual retirement from the concert platform to direct music in Weimar, and later to divide his time between Rome, Weimar and Budapest, where he was regarded as a national Hungarian hero. The third Liebestraum is a transcription for piano of a song by Liszt, a setting of a poem by the radical German banker-poet Ferdinand Freiligrath, "O lieb solang du lieben kannst", advice that Liszt was to follow until the day of his death.

Anton Rubinstein (1829 -1894) had hoped for practical support from Liszt, but was never to receive it. He was to rival Liszt as a pianist and to win a position for himself in Russia, where he was encouraged to set up the first Conservatory of Music, in St. Petersburg. Prolific as a composer, writing, in the words of his brother Nikolay, enough music for the two of them, Rubinstein is all too well remembered by the Melody in F.

Pyotr Il'yich Tchaikovsky (1840 - 1893) was among the younger generation of Russian composers to benefit from Rubinstein's Conservatory. Trained in law, he was among the first students, and on completing his studies joined the staff of the Moscow Conservatory, under Rubinstein's brother Nikolay. Tchaikovsky may be bet1er known for his remarkable and colourful writing for the orchestra. Nevertheless he wrote a number of piano pieces, including a musical calendar, The Seasons, twelve pieces, one for each month of the year. The Barcarolle takes the listener boating in June.

Antonin Dvorak (1841 - 1904), no great pianist himself, is better known for his achievements in larger forms. The most important of Bohemian nationalist composers in the later nineteenth century, he was to spend a few years in the United States as Director of the National Conservatory in New York. It was in America that he sketched the famous Humoresque, later written up in the tranquillity of his native Bohemia in 1894.

Zdenek Fibich (1850 - 1900) has travelled less well, although his name may be joined to those of Smetana and Dvorak, leaders of Bohemian nationalism in music. His Poem is taken from a set of Moods, Impressions and Reminiscences, published in 1894.

In Norway it was Edvard Grieg (1843 - 1907) who was a pioneer of nationalism, although his early outlook was influenced by the predominantly Danish culture of his class and by his training in Leipzig. He was an able pianist himself and, as a composer, a master of colourful harmonies, shown admirably in the two Lyric Pieces here included, from ten such sets published throughout his life.

Bela Bartok (1881 - 1945) represents another form of musical nationalism. Born in Hungary, he had his schooling in Bratislava and his musical training at the Conservatory in Budapest, and showed immense interest in the scientific collection of folk music, which he carried out in Hungary and in neighbouring regions and countries. The Romanian Folk-Dances of 1915 demonstrate the astringency with which Bartok was able to treat the material he collected, his piquant harmonies setting off the melodies in a new light.

George Gershwin (1898 - 1937) may seem an odd man out in such a European collection of composers, in spite of the Russian-Jewish origins of his immigrant parents. He wrote popular songs, stage musicals and made occasional excursions into music that attempted a synthesis of the popular and the classical. The Three Preludes, written in 1936, the year before his death, offer such a compromise, as thoroughly American as can be imagined.

Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy (1809 - 1847), privileged in his upbringing as the son of a banker, and grandson of the Jewish philosopher and pioneer of toleration, Moses Mendelssohn, won enormous popularity as a composer and distinction as a conductor. His Songs Without Words, of which he published various collections throughout his life, are short character-pieces, sometimes taking the place of an autograph album entry or a compliment to an admiring hostess. The Hunting Song was written in 1829 and published in London the following year.

Robert Schumann (1810 - 1856), whose love affair and subsequent marriage to the pianist Clara Wieck, daughter of his piano teacher, had about it all the romantic interest that parental disapproval and prolonged litigation can produce, began with ambitions as a writer, proceeded as a pianist until injury stopped play, and ended his career in an asylum, after a short period as director of music in Duesseldorf. The set of nine pieces that make up Waldszenen (Forest Scenes) was writ- ten in 1848 and 1849, at a time when depression threatened yet again and political circumstances in Dresden, where he was living, were very uncertain. Clara Schumann found one of the pieces far too morbid for inclusion in her concert performances, but had no objection to The Prophet Bird.

Schumann, as a young critic, had been among the first to recognize the ability of the Polish pianist and composer Fryderyk Chopin (1810 - 1849), greeting his performance with the words "Hats off, gentlemen! A genius!" He later went on to parody Chopin's style in his pianistic parade, Carnaval, something that Chopin never forgave. Of paternal French origin, Chopin was Polish by birth and by persuasion, keenly involved in the sufferings of his country under Russian domination. He was to spend most of his career in Paris, where he wrote the Fantasie-Impromptu in 1835, the first of four such compositions.

Balazs Szokolay
The Hungarian pianist Balazs Szokolay was born in Budapest in 1961, the son of a composer and professor at the Ferenc Uszt Academy of Music and of a mother who is also a pianist. After study in Budapest he took up a West German Government scholarship in Munich, where he spent eighteen months, before becoming a soloist with the Hungarian State Orchestra.

Szokolay has given concerts throughout Western and Eastern Europe since his first appearance at Interforum in 1978 and his 1979 debut at the Salzburg Festival. He has won a number of important prizes in Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Italy and Germany.

Close the window