About this Recording

Romantic Piano Favourites Vol. 9

The present collection of piano favourites ranges from Scarlatti to Bartók, from the 18th century to the 20th. Domenico Scarlatti was the son of a famous composer and member of a family that had been widely involved in music in southern Italy for some time. Born in 1685, the same year as J.S. Bach and Handel, he embarked on a career as a composer and performer in Naples, but spent the greater part of his life in Portugal and Spain, in the service of the Portuguese princess who became Queen Maria Barbara of Spain. For his royal patron he wrote a very large number of short sonatas or "exercises", some 555 in all, designed for the harpsichord.

By the time of Mozart the piano, or fortepiano, as it was properly known, had developed beyond the stage with which Scarlatti had been familiar in Spain. Mozart himself was a performer, depending in part on his ability as a player during the last ten years of his life, spent in uneasy independence in Vienna. Opinions vary about the date of composition of his twelve variations on the French song "Ah, vous dirai-je, Maman", better known in English-speaking countries as "Twinkle, twinkle, little star" or "Baa, baa, black sheep". It was possibly written during the composer's visit to Paris in 1778 or a few years later in Vienna.

Robert Schumann, the son of a Saxon bookseller, publisher and writer, set out to be a pianist, but eventually turned rather to composition, after a somewhat dissipated student existence, followed by marriage to Clara Wieck, the daughter of his former piano teacher, an implacable opponent of the match. Schumann excelled in the composition of smaller pieces, short works, often bearing some literary or pictorial significance. He wrote the 43 little pieces that make up his Opus 68 Album for the Young in 1848, a year of political disturbance in Dresden, where he had settled with his distinguished pianist wife, for his own four children, two of whom were of an age to make practical use of them. First Loss and Small Study are chacteristic of a work that was intended to include music by other composers, to provide, with the instructions for young musicians that Schumann published in 1850, a complete course of musical training.

Felix Mendelssohn, grandson of a distinguished Jewish thinker and son of a prosperous banker, was precocious as a child, charming, intelligent and gifted in away rare among musicians. Over a period of a dozen years he wrote a number of short piano pieces with the original title Songs Without Words, miniatures that won immediate popularity. The Gondolier's Song, not the only piece with that title, speaks for itself, as does the Andante espressivo sometimes known as May Breezes, although Mendelssohn deprecated the use of such titles.

The Russian composer Tchaikovsky is not regarded as primarily a piano composer. He played the instrument, of course, but it is above all his command of orchestral colour that continues to enchant audiences. In common with many of his contemporaries, however, he wrote music for the piano, much of it for the use of amateurs, talented or otherwise. The E minor Humoresque was written in December 1871 in Nice and includes in its middle section a local melody the composer had heard in the South of France.

The name of Grieg is inextricably associated with that of his native Norway, and he was in the late nineteenth century the most significant Norwegian composer, whose music has travelled well, often in the company of Ibsen's appalling hero Peer Gynt. Grieg wrote for the piano, his own instrument, ten albums of so-called Lyric Pieces, some of which he arranged for orchestra. The gentle Berceuse was published in 1884 and the Cradle Song, which Grieg also orchestrated, in 1898.

Franz Schubert takes us back to Vienna in the first quarter of the nineteenth century, a time when the piano was undergoing technical development, to become the most popular domestic instrument of middle class Biedermeier culture. He was a competent performer himself, if not a great virtuoso, and followed the tradition of Mozart, Beethoven and many others as a string player. Schubert died young, before he had really established himself beyond the circle of his own friends, for whose delight his many songs were written. His E flat Impromptu, its title the inspiration of his publisher rather than his own, is one of a group of four such pieces, probably written in the summer of 1827.

Every important composer has his own musical language, immediately recognisable to a listener. Fryderyk Chopin, son of a French emigre, spent his boyhood in his native Poland and his maturity in Paris, where his patriotism burned still more fiercely in association with other exiles. For the piano he created an idiosyncratic style of composition and performance, delicate, nuanced, poetic and highly characteristic. The two sets of twelve studies, Opus 10 and Opus 25, explore technical problems of performance in a completely musical way, as in the familiar >E major Etude, Opus 10 No.3.

Franz Liszt, son of a steward and amateur cellist in the employment of Joseph Haydn's patrons, the Esterhazy family, won himself immense popularity as one of the most remarkable pianists of his time, dazzling audiences with startling feats of virtuosity. He was later to turn his attention, during residence in Weimar, to the creation of the symphonic poem, a re­interpretation of poetry, drama or painting in music. As a pianist he had already attempted something of the kind in some of the piano pieces that he wrote during years spent as a travelling virtuoso. The pieces included in Liszt's so-called Years of Pilgrimage, their published title, come from the period of his life he spent as a performer, exiled from Paris, where he had made his home, partly through the scandal that attached to his liaison with a married woman, the Comtesse Marie d' Agoult, his companion on his travels. Petrarch's sonnets, set also as songs, form the basis of three of the seven pieces of the Second Year of wandering. Sonnet 104 tells of the contradictory feelings of an ardent lover – “Pace non trovo, e non ho da far Guerra”, I find no peace, yet cannot wage war.

The Polish-German pianist Moritz Moszkowski is nowadays chiefly remembered for his Spanish Dances, in which he ensured for himself a place as a musical purveyor of things Spanish. Isaac Albeniz by birth and parentage inherited a closer knowledge of the country, although, oddly enough, he spent some time setting to music libretti by a London banker on quintessentially English subjects, including an uninspired trilogy on King Arthur. The well known Tango appeared in a collection of Album Leaves published in London in 1890.

The nocturnal monastery bells of the French organist Louis James Alfred Lefebure-Wely testify to his talent in the provision of a form of music that once enjoyed considerable popularity. It is followed here by a group of pieces of a very different kind, the work of the great Hungarian composer Béla Bartók. For Children is a collection of 83 short pieces, some, as here, based on Hungarian folk-songs, and others on folk-songs from Slovakia, where he spent the formative years of adolescence. No.36 is a Drunkard's Song, No.37 a Swineherd's Song and No.40 a final Swineherd's Dance.

The present collection ends with two short pieces by Claude Debussy, a composer of the greatest importance in French music in the early years of the 20th century and in the influence he has exercised over the subsequent development of music internationally. The first of his two Arabesques, published in 1891, has all the delicacy of Chopin, translated into an idiom that is entirely Debussy's. The Danse too comes from a time when great composers could still provide music of wide popular appeal, without any sacrifice of taste.

Balázs Szokolay
The Hungarian pianist Balázs Sozkolay was born in Budapest 1961, the son of a mother who is a pianist and a father who is a composer and professor at the Ferenc Liszt Academy. He started learning the piano when he was five and in 1970 entered the preparatory class of the Budapest Music Academy, where he completed his studies with Pál Kadosa and Zoltan Kocsis in 1983 .He later spent two years at the Academy of Music in Munich, with a West German government scholarship.

Balázs Szokolay made an early international appearance with Peter Nagy at the Salzburg Interforum in 1979, and in 1983 substituted for Nikita Magaloff in Belgrade in a performance of the Piano Concerto No.1 of Brahms. He is now a soloist with the Hungarian State Orchestra and has given concerts in a number of countries abroad, including Austria, Switzerland, France, Italy, Poland, the Soviet Union, Bulgaria and Czechoslovakia. In September, 1987, he made his recital debut at the Royal Festival Hall in London. He has won a number of important prizes at home and abroad, including, most recently, in the 1987 Queen Elisabeth of the Belgians Competition.

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