September 20, 2016
Nadejda Vlaeva, Piano
Schubert – Piano Sonata in G Major, D. 894
Drozdoff – Scherzo-Waltz (NY Premiere)
Drozdoff – Bluette
Drozdoff – Sonata Lacrimosa
Drozdoff – Trepak (NY Premiere)
Drozdoff – Prelude: Sentimental Thoughts
Drozdoff – Reves (NY Premiere)
Bortkiewicz – 3 Mazurkas, Op. 64 (NY Premiere)
Bortkiewicz – Fantasiestücke, Op. 61 (NY Premiere)
Liszt – Hungarian Rhapsody No. 9 in E-flat Major, “Carnival in Pesth”
A plentiful audience at Zankel Hall last week enjoyed Nadejda Vlaeva’s program of attractive salon pieces by two forgotten Russian éxiles, Vladimir Drozdoff (Saratov 1882 -New York 1960) and Sergei Bortkiewicz (Kharkiv 1877-Vienna 1952), and a colorful Hungarian Rhapsody by Franz Liszt (a rarely played one)—all introduced by one of Schubert’s most profound sonatas, the G Major, D. 894, sometimes known as the “Fantasie,” a name given it by its first publisher because of its meditative first movement. There could be no doubt that the curtain-raiser was the most significant work on the program, but the centerpiece was nonetheless the selection of shortish rarities by the two Russians. Their music has much in common. Both are rooted in the nineteenth century, with little or nothing traceable to the musical trends that emerged after 1910, or later. Although they were younger than Rachmaninoff, who was plagued by his own conservatism, their music is even more retardataire. This is not in itself a fault, although one can understand why their music failed to reach a wider audience in the age of Stravinsky, Prokofiev, and Shostakovich. Both Drozdoff and Bortkiewicz were undoubtedly fine craftsmen and showed a deep understanding of the piano in the great Russian tradition.
Bortkiewicz is better known. His works appear on concert programs in Europe, and several recordings by major labels exist, including a couple by Ms. Vlaeva herself. There are no professional CDs of Drozdoff’s work, but he is represented by a number of video and audio recordings on You Tube. Most of his works remain unpublished, but the composer’s family and a Vladimir Drozdoff Society strive to remedy this neglect. He was born into a musical family in Saratov and studied at the Saratov Music School and the St. Petersburg Conservatory. He was appointed a professor there at an early age and became established among the composers and pianists of the city. However, the Revolution forced him to leave Russia. He eventually settled in New York City, where he eked out a living teaching piano together with his wife, son, and daughter at the Drozdoff Studio on the Upper West Side.
His music shows a leaning to the melancholic—a sadness of a refined, introverted sort, which never loses its compositional balance or bursts into strange harmonies, textures, or dynamics. This music is worlds away from Rachmaninoff’s sometimes crazed agonies.
Sergei Bortkiewicz, five years older than Drozdoff, experienced a similar journey from a provincial music school in his home town, Kharkiv, to the St. Petersburg Conservatory. He continued on to Leipzig for further study, then settled in Berlin in 1904, where he remained until the outbreak of the First World War. He returned to Russia, like Drozdoff fleeing the Revolution in 1919. After a period in Constantinople, he settled in Vienna in 1922, where he remained for the rest of his life. The founding of a Bortkiewicz Society in Vienna in 1947 failed to kindle interest in his old-fashioned music.
Nadejda Vlaeva’s selections sufficed to make an impression of their music that was positive enough, but I couldn’t help wondering if a full recital at a major New York venue was the most appropriate stage for this intimate music. The intermission created some separation between Drozdoff and Bortkiewicz, but I still had the impression that their music, rooted in Chopin with invigorating currents of Liszt, tended to sound alike. She represented them with elegance and virtuosity, although a bit more clarity in the textures, revealing what interplay there is between the voices, might have made the music still more interesting. Vlaeva’s playing, atmospheric with its generous pedaling, did not quite bring out whatever magic there was in the evenly balanced Yamaha she played. Might there have been a bit more tension and detail in the music? Probably not.
These works could serve as attractive encores or populate an informal program with more of a salon-like character, say at Subculture, with some potted palms brought in, and an open bar.1
Liszt’s Ninth Hungarian Rhapsody, “Carnival in Pest,” closed the program with a colorful panorama of festive life in Pest and a blaze of virtuosity. It struck me as an instance of musical scene-painting, not unlike Mussorgy’s Pictures at an Exhibition, as if the composer were wandering about the city on a festival day, either on foot or on horseback, observing the activities of the people, above all the music-making gypsies, their dancing, and their colorful costumes. This direct impression eventually faded into the athleticism of Liszt’s virtuoso writing. And it is a fiendishly virtuosic piece. Ms. Vlaeva conveyed the ambiance and the sensual experience of the outdoor event, and her technique was equal to the writing, but not without a fairly heavy use of the pedal. More clarity would have brought more of the fine points of Liszt’s writing across, and there were some.
I imagine Ms. Vlaeva chose the Schubert G Major Sonata to begin the program in order to establish the Romantic credentials of Bortkiewicz and Drozdoff. Chopin would have been too much like their music in a literal way, and it could well have become tedious. Its presence also prepared us to listen for the emotional undercurrents of their mood-pieces. This does however, seem like selling one of the great piano sonatas of the nineteenth century a bit short. Vlaeva’s playing of the work had many attractive qualities. She balanced the chords of the opening subject of the first movement to perfection and showed what were perhaps the best qualities of the mellow Yamaha. There were moments, especially in the first movement, when I was really ready to follow her. However, her tendency to push the tempo of the more grandiose passages, making them agitated, and to bury the details of Schubert’s writing when the dynamics got loud, put me off. She did not quite manage to capture the flow and architectural unity of the work. The last three movements also suffered from excessively urgent tempi. Vlaeva didn’t rise to the level of the work, nor did she succeed in cutting it down to a more ordinary level in any convincing way.
The enthusiasm of the audience proved to be a liability for her. They felt it appropriate to applaud loudly between each movement of the Schubert, breaking the pianist’s concentration as well as their own, such as it was. The constant applause, even between pieces in the Russian sets, was annoying enough, but it made a serious encounter with the Schubert impossible.
- I don’t say this to disparage the music, which I obviously enjoyed, but to suggest that lighter classical music of this sort offers a good opportunity to explore more relaxed presentations. Ironically, Schubert probably first played his sonata on such a relaxed occasion, a Schubertiade! ↩