Xaver Scharwenka maintains a fringe presence - on record, if not in the concert hall - mainly through his piano concertos, part of that batch of second-league romantic concertos that seem to be used mainly as a vehicle for the display of digitial prowess by the great piano virtuosos of the 1970s like Raymond Lewenthal (The Concert Recordings- Liszt: Totentanz / Rubinstein: Concerto No. 4 / Henselt: Concerto in F / Scharwenka: Concerto No. 2 / Alkan: Solo Works), Michael Ponti (The Romantic Piano Concerto, Vol.3), Earl Wild (Scharwenka: Piano Concerto No. 1; Paderewski: Piano Concerto; Balakirev: Reminiscences of "A Life for the Czar", Paderewski / Scharwenka Piano Concertos; there are other entries for the same) or these days Stephen Hough (Scharwenka: Piano Concerto No. 4 in F minor; Sauer: Piano Concerto No. 1 in E minor) and Marc-André Hamelin (Rubinstein: Piano Concerto No. 4; Scharwenka: Piano Concerto No. 1). Nonetheless, it is through his chamber music that I first encountered Scharwenka's music (see my review of Chamber Music Complete). Of it, I commented that, when it came to chamber music, there seemed to be no "minor" romantic composers, as opposed to the "major" ones like Brahms or Schumann or even Franck: an observation I made with Taneyev, Arensky, Zarebski, Lalo, Saint-Saens, Fauré...
So I decided to pursue my explorations of Scharwenka's music, which has been well-served by Seta Tanyel and the now defunct Collins Classics label (4 volumes of solo piano music and two with the Piano concertos - strangely Piano Concerto No. 1 is paired with Chopin's first, Piano Concerto 1, and Collins never recorded No. 4), and has now been reissued by Hyperion (except, apparently, the first Piano Concerto). The rest didn't yield the same high dividends, however. With his music for solo piano I understood what made Scharwenka, after all, a "minor" romantic composer: it all sounded very derivative - and derivative of everybody of note, Chopin, Mendelssohn, Schumann and Brahms - without the unique melodic, rhythmic or harmonic invention of any.
I'm afraid I can't be much more positive about these two concertos. I'm not sure I had ever heard any of Scharwenka's piano concertos, but, through which biased preconception I don't now, I pictured them as hollow displays of flimsy virtuosity - lots of notes, but not much music that leaves a mark in one's memory. Well, now that I've heard them, that's exactly how they sound to me.
The liner notes of the original Collins release (which is what I have) muse at why, among the hundreds of "big romantic piano concerto[s]" that were produced during the second half of the nineteenth and early part of the twentieth century, "only a mere handful, scarcely into double figures, feature with any regularity in today's concert programmes" [wait, let me count: Chopin's two and Mendelssohn's two were composed way before 1850 so they are not in the count, and those of Mendelssohn are anyway hardly staples of the repertoire. So that leaves Liszt x 2 - let's include the first, although it was completed in 1849 -, Schumann, Brahms x 2, Grieg, Tchaikovsky... who's missing? Are they counting Rachmaninoff's four, although not all four are regularly programmed? Maybe Liszt's Totentanz - completed in 1849 but revised later - and Hungarian Fantasy were thrown into the cauldron, with Franck's Symphonic Variations?], an "unjustifiable neglect" given that the music "is in many cases well written and, above all, unashamedly tuneful and appealing to the listener".
Well, independent even of the harmonic and orchestral richness in which it is enshrined, it may be difficult to describe and define what makes a certain melodic invention distinctive (Brahms, Tchaikovsky) or not (Scharwenka) - but on hearing you recognize immediately if it is or not. The orchestral introduction to the second Piano Concerto sounds to me like the hack overture to any opera written at the time - or rather, thirty years before, since the concerto dates from 1880. The piano is full of grand and loud gestures that I find long on bombast and short on substance, and overall the orchestra is mere filling - ever a problem with romantic piano concertos it seems, and that in my opinion was solved only by Brahms and Tchaikovsky.
And God knows, I tried. Not being able to fix my attention on anything on first (and repeated) hearings, I even went to the International Music Scores Library Project to download the score (incidentally, I bow in gratitude to the IMSLP for making all these scores available; in fact, I've done better than that: I've put my wallet where my heart is and donated to the IMSLP). Anyway, listening with score certainly helped me concentrate on the details and attentively follow from beginning to end, only to realize how imitative of Chopin the piano writing in the first movement is - but the early, Bellini-inspired Chopin - and how overlong the movement is: turning page after page of score, I grew ever more impatient hoping to see the final double bar, and it seemed never to show up. Finally it came after 20:30 minutes and 71 of the score's 125 total pages. The second movement is a quasi-imitation of the same slow movement from Chopin's Second, including the famous trills. Sure, I guess you can call it pretty, in a sentimental and superficial way -as in Chopin's concerto. It only proves that the music needs to have something more to it than just "prettiness" to stab an emotion in your heart and make an imprint in your memory. The slow movements of Brahms' concertos are not "pretty", they are so sublime as to make you withhold your breathing. But, OK, I've stated out clearly my biases here - I am no fan of Chopin's concertos, either. But evidently, the lovers of Chopin's 2nd Concerto - and I know there are lot of those out there - are likely to find much to love in Scharwenka's. I have to agree with Raymond Lewenthal(if his opinion as reported one of the reviewers of the disc's other entry is true) that the third movement (the finale) is better, a lively rondo based on a Polonaise theme (although acknowledging that Schwarwenka had no Jewish family connections, the liner notes find it "slightly Yiddish"; I don't, although there is a certain ingratiating little grace note that I understand one could find "slightly Yiddish"), submitted to a pianistic treatment that I find more Lisztian than Chopin-derived: it does leave an imprint, although it is interspersed with more Bellini-derived quasi-Chopin, when not adumbrations of Rachmaninoff.
The main interest of the third Piano Concerto from 1899 is that it sounds to me like Tchaikovsky at his most (alternately) bombastically and charmingly hollow. But in fact, this one is a case where following with the score has helped, not just notice the cyclical return of some themes in all three movements, but enjoy more Scharwenka's grandiloquent gestures in the first movement (and their return in the third) - and I do love Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto after all, and even Khachaturian's, so it is not that I am impervious to grandiloquence. It also helped take notice of the fine, longing (and very Russian-sounding, something like Oneguin's yearning) theme at 2:55 in the finale. And hey, wow, IMSLP has a copy with a manuscript dedication by Scharwenka to Moriz Rosenthal! Uploaded by the Sibley Library of the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, thank you people! However, even the score didn't make me enjoy more the sentimental gestures, the sub-par Tchaikovsky ballet music in the first movement, the would-be wistful-to-passionate tunes for the salon of the slow movement, the pastoral and insouciant merriment of the finale's main theme - the stuff that some of Mahler's Menuettos are made of, but there is so much more orchestral invention and science in Mahler!
The other reviewers seem to think that Tanyel and Strugala would have made these Concertos better works if they had played them 10 or 20 % faster. Quite frankly, I doubt it. It is difficult to give an informed opinion on the interpretation in the absence of alternative versions, but what I can say from following with the scores is that they play with accuracy: all that I see on the score I can hear on the recording. Also, I do have Raymond Lewenthal's version of the finale of No. 2. If, comparing the timings (8:17 against 9:10), you are under the impression that Lewenthal plays it faster - wrong: he makes a big cut at the end and re-writes the coda; the approach to tempo is very similar to Tanyel's. But there is a metallic edge to Lewenthal's piano and to the orchestra that makes it a less than entirely pleasurable experience, and frankly, Tanyel plays it with more subtlety. It somehow sounds more hollow music with Lewenthal.
Listeners fond of the concertos of Chopin or Rachmaninoff are likely to enjoy these concertos more than I did. The original Collins release is here, Piano Concertos 2 & 3. Note that it sells for very cheap on the UK sister company. For the links to the other installments of Tanyel's Scharwenka traversal, both on the original Collins Classics label and its Hyperion reissues, see in the comments hereunder.