About this Recording
8.573254 - CZERNY, C.: Bel Canto Concertante - Virtuoso Variations for Piano and Orchestra (R. Tuck, English Chamber Orchestra, Bonynge)
English  German 

Carl Czerny (1791–1857)
Bel Canto Concertante


In his review of Carl Czerny’s The Four Seasons (or Fantasies Brillantes on Original Themes), Op. 434, Robert Schumann, one of the most perceptive music critics of his time, wrote: “A greater bankruptcy of imagination than that demonstrated in Mr Czerny’s newest creation could hardly exist. One should force the esteemed composer into retirement and give him his well-earned pension, so that he would stop writing”. Schumann’s opinion, published in the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, did much to set the tone of Czerny’s posthumous reputation as an industrious and uninspiring composer. Unfortunately, this view remains largely unchallenged today because many of his most important works are unknown to performers and audiences alike.

Czerny, the son and grandson of musicians, was a prodigiously gifted pianist whose playing as a child impressed Beethoven so much that he immediately offered to teach him. Although the teacher-pupil relationship did not last beyond 1802 owing to the demands of Beethoven’s activities as a pianist-composer, Czerny remained close to the composer and a tireless if opinionated advocate for his music for the rest of his life. Czerny possessed many of the qualities that would have equipped him for a career as a virtuoso like Johann Nepomuk Hummel or Beethoven’s other friend and pupil, Ferdinand Ries. He certainly planned a concert tour in 1805, for which Beethoven wrote him an enthusiastic testimonial, but Czerny cancelled the venture, conceding later in his autobiography that his “playing lacked the type of brilliant, calculated charlantry that is usually part of a travelling virtuoso’s equipment”. He chose instead to remain in Vienna and establish himself as a piano teacher and composer. While he was eminently successful in doing this his refusal to tour undoubtedly hindered a wider appreciation of his music in spite of the interest shown in it by foreign publishers.

For the next few decades Czerny led an uneventful life in Vienna, living with his family (he was an only child and never married) and teaching from 8am to 8pm daily. Composing occupied all his spare moments and Czerny, like many composers including his illustrious teacher, worked simultaneously on different compositions. He was not only industrious but approached his work in an industrial fashion. The Irish pianist John Field (1782–1837), who stayed with Czerny in Vienna in 1835, described his study as a “composition factory”. Czerny kept samples of every conceivable type of passage-work filed in a large cupboard which were used both for teaching purposes and in his own works. His students (or assistants) would be given instructions to transpose selected passages into the appropriate key and incorporate them into the works they were busily copying for their teacher. This formulaic approach to composition was nothing new—exercises in partimento had been fundamental to the training of musicians for a century—but Czerny’s remorseless application of it chimed well with the new industrial age. It is hardly surprising that Schumann, for whom purity in art was all, should have written so scathingly of Czerny’s artistic bankruptcy.

In Czerny’s defence we do not know what works Field witnessed on the production line. Czerny himself grouped his works into four distinct categories: 1) studies and exercises; 2) easy pieces for students; 3) brilliant pieces for concerts; and 4) serious works. The separation of the third and fourth categories reveals that Czerny had a far greater sense of artistic self-awareness than Schumann for one gave him credit. In 1824 he wrote a letter to Friedrich Wieck, Clara Schumann’s father, in which he asked him to “beg the musical world’s forgiveness… for producing such a quantity of small things and so few great ones until now”. He added that “As a man of my word, I’ll endeavour to make up for it”. Anton Kuerti draws attention to the irony of Czerny making a similar declaration thirty-three years later only to die ten days later.

In drawing for their inspiration on themes from the most popular operas of the day, the four works featured on this recording clearly belong to Czerny’s third class of composition: brilliant pieces for concerts. The composition of works for piano and orchestra based on sets of variations, dances such as the polonaise, or on the ubiquitous rondo that previously had served often as the final movement of a concerto, was pioneered by Ferdinand Ries (his Variations on Swedish National Airs, Op. 52 (1813) appears to be the first work of its kind) and also cultivated by another of Czerny’s brilliant contemporaries, Johann Nepomuk Hummel. Variations based on well-known themes, generally drawn from recently-staged operas, proved to be particularly popular. Pianist-composers mined these works relentlessly in the knowledge that the themes themselves gave the new work topicality and, within reason, virtually guaranteed its success with audiences.

But composers did not limit themselves to writing sets of variations: they based all manner of works on these operatic themes. Interestingly, in addition to the fantasy Fra Diavolo (featured on this recording), Czerny wrote a later “elegant fantasy” in which he used themes he had previously rejected. His practice of writing multiple works based on themes from a single opera understandably proved too challenging at times since he could not use exactly the same material and not every theme was equally attractive or popular.

The four works recorded here were composed between 1828 (Introduction, Variations and Polacca, Op. 160) and ca 1833 (Introduction, Variations et Presto finale, Op. 281) and thus are contemporaneous with the later works for piano and orchestra by Hummel and Ries. In each case, the work was composed within a few years of the opera upon which it is based—Il Pirata (Bellini, 1827; Czerny, 1828), Fra Diavolo (Auber, 1830; Czerny, 1830); Gli Arabi nelle Gallie (Pacini, 1827, Czerny, 1831) Norma (Bellini, 1831; Czerny, 1833)—evidence of Czerny’s (or his publishers’) commercial acuity. Czerny’s assertion (otherwise unsubstantiated) that Beethoven accused Ries of “imitating him too much” is not without irony in these particular compositions since they all adopt the basic structural model that Ries first presented in the Swedish Variations: a slow, portentous yet lyrical introduction; the presentation of the theme and variations, the last of which is extended to form a finale. Like those of Ries and Hummel, Czerny’s introductions are freely composed and the quotation of thematic material from the operas forms the basis of the main body of the work. Czerny’s choice of theme is dictated to a large extent by its recognizability with less emphasis paid perhaps to its intrinsic musical interest. The themes themselves are typically symmetrical, binary constructions to which Czerny appends a brief codetta that is played by the orchestra. The early variations hew closely to the structure of the theme but this loosens as the movement progresses. One typical device that he employs is to drop the repeat of the ‘A’ section and instead restate the material in a slightly varied form, a variation within a variation as it were. As the variations unfold they become more virtuosic and there is a tendency on Czerny’s part to accelerate the tempo of the movement as it progresses. The slow, expressive variations that are such a striking part of the musical styles of Hummel and Ries (and which trace their ancestry to the late eighteenth century) are little in evidence in these works. The themes are varied rather than developed, their variations exploring a succession of figurations that are only loosely connected with them. The longer variations, however, are tonally more adventurous as Czerny gives full reign to the pianist to traverse the keyboard at hectic pace.

The eschewing of more complex structures and expressive worlds in these works is deliberate for Czerny did not view them as “serious” compositions. He might have set out to write “third-class” works but his skill in recasting these popular melodies as vehicles for exceptional virtuosity is anything but third rate. As these works amply demonstrate, Czerny was completely conversant with the language and conventions of the great pianist-composers of his time and wrote works that made a major contribution to the growing virtuoso repertory.

Allan Badley

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