Thursday, June 13, 2013

Bortkiewicz - Piano Concerto No. 3 'Per aspera ad astra'

Sergei Bortkiewicz began his musical education in St. Petersburg, and went on to the Leipzig Conservatory to study. He made a few trips back to Russia after his studies but remained in Germany for the most part, where he taught at the conservatory and toured as a piano recitalist until the First World War.  After the war began, he was put under house arrest and was forced to return to the town of his birth, Kharkiv in the Ukraine, where he stayed on the family estate (his parents were of the Polish nobility) until the Red Army confiscated the estate after the Russian Revolution of 1917.

He escaped under great political danger by steam ship to Turkey where he landed in Constantinople in 1919.  He gave concerts, and eventually obtained a visa, went to Yugoslavia and ended up in Austria in 1922. He obtained Austrian citizenship in 1925 while he was in Vienna, and remained in that city for five years.

It was while the composer was in Vienna that he wrote his Piano Concerto No. 3 in 1926. He had been through many hardships since the First World War, and this was a time of relative calm in his life. The concerto is subtitled per aspera ad astra, which translates from Latin to mean 'from hardship to the stars', or 'through resistance to light', which takes on deep significance due to the composer's hardships.

The concerto is in five sections, which are played without a break.

I. Grave - The concerto begins with the contra-bassoon uttering a theme in its lowest register in the key of c minor. After a short dialogue with the piano, the music transforms into the first of two themes - the first of which is dramatic while the second is more lyrical. The dramatic theme reappears and leads to the next section. The structure of this section is basically an introduction and sonata form first movement. The structure is very tight and condensed, almost to the point of being terse.

II. Cadenza - The solo piano cadenza is in the tradition of the classical first - movement concerto cadenzas, but there is no recapitulation of the themes after it. Bortkiewicz leads directly to the next section.

III. Andante - This section sees the piano take on the role of 'star' with some of the themes, and also in accompanying the orchestra. Rich keyboard figures and thick chords alternate with bare octaves as Bortkiewicz's gift of melody is shown. This is the longest single section of the concerto.

IV. Lento, Maestoso, Solenne -  The richness of the music continues as the music hearkens back to some of the other themes already heard. The piano's accompanying figures ripple and glitter up and down the keyboard as the orchestra states material that grows more familiar. The piano alternates from the background to the foreground as the music grows more majestic and solemn.

V. Moderato - What at first sounds like a solemn ending to the concerto leads to the final section where the end of the struggle is starting to shine in the light of the stars. The music grows more into the key of C major as modulations grow and swell into the light of the closing theme which is richly repeated. With strings shimmering,  the rest of the orchestra is punctuated by brilliant figures on the piano until bells are added to the already glistening orchestra and soloist, and the music ends in a brightness of light.

Bortkiewicz is compared to Rachmaninoff, and there are similarities. His melodic gift was great, his workmanship likewise. He was an unabashed late Romantic  who didn't embrace 20th century music innovations.   And the more I hear his music, the better I like it. He is one of my favorite lesser-known composers.