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8.553728 - ALBERT: Piano Concertos Nos. 1 and 2 / Esther Overture
Eugen d'Albert (1864-1932)
Born in Glasgow in 1864, of remoter Italian ancestry, the German composer and pianist Eugen d'Albert was a significant figure among the virtuoso pianists of the generation after Liszt. Today, however, his name and compositions are largely forgotten. His father Charles d'Albert had studied the piano under Kalkbrenner and became ballet - master at Covent Garden, compiling an influential treatise, Ballroom Etiquette. Their ancestors included Domenico Alberti, originator of the Alberti bass, a figuration popular in classical keyboard writing, and the family had distinguished military association; François Benoit d'Albert, the composer's grandfather, a French cavalry officer, had died at Waterloo.
Seeking his fortune in England, Charles d'Albert settled in Newcastle upon Tyne, working as a dancing-master, conductor and impresario. Following his marriage in 1863 to Annie Rowell, the family moved to 9, Newton Terrace, Glasgow, where Eugen was born on 10th April 1864. The boy had his musical training from his father, displaying exceptional promise in childhood. In his twelfth year he won a scholarship to the newly established National Training School for Music, later the Royal College of Music, and the family moved to London, taking lodgings in South Kensington. One of d'Albert's fellow-students, W.G. Alcock, later recalled the young virtuoso's astonishing performance at the entrance examination. 'I remember standing at the door watching a chubby boy playing the >Concerto in A minorby Hummel. At its conclusion Ernst Pauer (one of the adjudicators and an eminent virtuoso) declared "You will study with me!", sensing future possibilities. By the time he was fifteen, d'Albert's technical command and sense of interpretation were far beyond his years'.
Wagner's London performances in 1877 had a marked influence. Much diverted by this 'music of the future', d'Albert quickly absorbed the progressive harmonic language of Wagner's music-dramas, later making use of similar techniques in his own stage-works. Of some twenty operas by d'Albert, only his Tiefland. Opus 34, with a libretto by Rudolph Lothar based on Angel Guimerá' s Tierra Baixa (The Lowlands), first performed in Prague in 1903, continues in modern repertory. Flauto solo, a musical comedy, after Hans von Wolzogen, on the life of Frederick the Great, first performed in Prague in 1905, also then considered a masterpiece, was only one of d'Albert's major achievements that has not stood the test of time.
In his final year at the Royal College of Music d'Albert performed Schumann's Piano Concerto before the Prince and Princess of Wales, to whom he was later presented by Sullivan, at the old St James' Hall in London, and was invited to visit Queen Victoria at Osborne House, where he accompanied the Duke of Edinburgh, an accomplished amateur violinist. D'Albert's most decisive meeting, however, was with the great Hans Richter, under whose direction he performed his early Piano Concerto in A minor, described by the correspondent of The Musical Times as 'uncompromising in its pretensions to rank with the chief of its kind', but 'redundant in matter'.
At Richter's invitation, d'Albert travelled to Vienna in December 1881, quickly gaining introductions to the leading figures in the musical world there, among them Hans von Bülow and Johannes Brahms, whose piano concertos he performed under the composer's direction. D'Albert also met the influential critic Eduard Hanslick, who was well disposed towards him; in d'Albert's string quartets, inspired by Beethoven's, Hanslick would find 'the stamp of his personality... the individual physiognomy'. Richter also engineered a meeting between d'Albert and Franz Liszt, who, never particularly generous in praise of fellow pianists, wrote warmly of 'an artist, an extraordinary pianist by the name of d'Albert: Hans Richter, the eminent conductor, introduced him to me in Vienna last April . Since then he has worked at Weimar under my tutelage... I know of no more gifted or dazzling talent than his'.
Widely admired as an interpreter of Beethoven, Brahms and Liszt, Eugen d'Albert also championed works by new composers, including Reger and Busoni. He also won acclaim for his performances of Bach and Baroque models informed several of his mature compositions, most notably his Piano Sonata, Opus 10,which ends with a monumental and taxing triple fugue.
After the failure in 1905 of his marriage with the Venezuelan pianist Teresa Carreno, Eugen d'Albert assumed the directorship of the Berlin Musikhochschule, succeeding Joseph Joachim in that position. Although his daughter alleged that d'Albert disliked teaching, several distinguished musicians, including Wilhelm Backhaus and Ernst von Dohnânyi, claimed to have been his students. Reliable information is scarce, but the period was certainly one of the least remarkable and probably the unhappiest of d'Albert's career. In 1914 he took Swiss citizenship, devoting himself increasingly thereafter to composition. Although he lived well into the era of sound recording, surviving recordings offer only tantalising glimpses of stunning virtuosity amid much that seems mediocre and unremarkable. He died in Riga on 3rd March 1932.
D'Albert's Piano Concerto in A minor, heard during Richter's London season on 1881, has not survived. The Piano Concerto No.1 in B minor, Opus 2, appeared three years later, with a dedication to Franz Liszt, whose innovations of thematic metamorphosis and cyclic form appealed powerfully to d'Albert. Early critics noted an understandable predisposition towards virtuosity, but, while d'Albert intended the work as a vehicle for his own bravura technique, the concerto displays remarkable creative refinement. Cast in cyclic bi-partite form, the work revolves around a poignantly reflective slow movement, a second episode, marked Langsam, mit Empfindung (Slow, with feeling), framed by substantial episodes built around the concerto's elegiac opening section. Both are developed fully, the solo part incorporating an armoury of virtuoso devices in the Lisztian manner. An ingenious fugal cadenza follows the repetition of the first episode, leading to a dazzling Scherzo in 6/8 time, in which the sombre opening motif of the concerto is subject to a Lisztian metamorphosis, emerging in brilliant primary colours. The work ends, fittingly, with spectacular and emphatic brilliance.
Eugen d' Albert's Piano Concerto No.2 in E major, Opus 12, is, by contrast, the work of a mature and accompli shed composer, now able to achieve a judicious balance between form and content, without compromising virtuoso interests. Written in 1893, the concerto is contemporaneous with the earliest of d'Albert's operas, Der Rubin (The Ruby). That it met with limited success suggests the composer's waning interest in a form to which he never returned. Again in freely adapted cyclic form, the work is more concise than its predecessor; three principal sections are again discernible within the overall structure, with a scherzo episode, marked Sehr lebhaft (very lively), between the slow movement and the finale. Whereas the first of the two concertos begins introspectively, in the second a robust, declamatory mood is instantly proclaimed. The opening section, marked Mäßig bewegt (moderato) features an expansive heroic motif, rich in pianistic possibilities. The development, with interjections from the solo cello and dialogues between soloist and wind instruments of almost Straussian radiance, affords effective contrast. The slow movement begins with a lengthy solo passage for the piano, the principal idea being taken up by the strings. A brief section interpolated before the finale, with its expected transformation of the first episode in altered metre, crotchet to dotted crotchet, fulfils the rôle of a scherzo. The mercurial piano figurations and delicate woodwind writing impart a mood of puckish, Mendelssohnian lightness, in anticipation of the triumphant finale. The concerto ends with the customary grandiloquence expected of virtuoso concertos of the period.
D'Albert's overture to Grillparzer's Esther was completed in 1888, testimony to the composer's skill as an orchestrator. This elegantly descriptive work, a symphonic poem in all but name, also betrays indebtedness to both Wagner and Liszt. Strong, authoritatively sculpted themes and assured but never bombastic orchestration reveal it as more than just the sum of combined influences. Like his piano concertos, his superb Cello Concerto in C major and many other neglected works, this fine overture suggests that widespread re-appraisal of Eugen d'Albert's music is now long overdue.
D'Albert scores& parts were lent by the Edwin A. Fleisher Collection of Orchestral Music in The Free Library of Philadelphia.
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