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Carl LOEWE (1796-1869)
Piano Music - Volume One
Gypsy Sonata, Op.107 (1847) [28:27]
Mazeppa: A Tone Poem after Byron, Op.27 (1828) [8:21]
Grande Sonate in E major, Op.16 (1829) [24:41]
Alpine Fantasy, Op.53 (1835) [8:59]
Linda Nicholson (pianoforte)
rec. 2012, WDR Funkhaus, Cologne
TOCCATA TOCC0278 [70:28]

Carl Loewe’s greatest legacy is his series of narrative or ballad songs, a number of which remain in the repertoire of leading German singers to this day. What is less remembered is the body of piano music that Loewe wrote. He was largely autodidact as a keyboard player, though was taught singing and composition by Daniel Gottlob Türk in Halle.

The first volume of a series devoted to his piano music allows the listener to gauge just how idiomatic, or not, are the works on which he laboured. He considered the sonata the high water mark of solo piano writing, a feeling largely based on his admiration for the precedent of Beethoven’s sonatas. There are two such examples here though one of them is a piquant example indeed. This is the 1847 Gypsy Sonata, Op.107, which has some very personal, not to say strange features that speak more of eclecticism than incompetence. The very opening is a real puzzle, its skittish quasi-improvised, quasi-impressionist nature hinting at nothing so much as a complete breakdown of sonata form. Yet that proves illusory as Loewe, having grabbed one by the buttonhole, proceeds to unfold a classic but folklorically-infused strict sonata form. It’s full of good cheer with a dotted theme in the second movement, optimistically called ‘Indian Fairy Tale’, that suggests a supernatural attender at the otherwise genial party. The Weber-like rondo is of a balletic cast – Loewe can certainly generate fun – before a resonant and rather hymnal slow movemet called ‘Evening Devotions’ which later enshrines some cimbalom-like sonorities that further the folklore implicit in this programmatic piece. The finale is an ebullient ‘Daybreak’.

Mazeppa was composed in 1828, many years before Liszt’s piece of the same name. Loewe called his work a ‘tone poem after Byron’ and it has legendary qualities with interesting use of harmonies, and a galloping, whirlwind ride full of drama. Tere is also a refined sense of lyricism, and Loewe is careful to incarnate it within the greater torrid schema of his eight-minute piece. The rich chromaticism in the Cossack maiden scene is especially vivid.

The Grande Sonate of 1829 is, unlike the Gypsy piece, cast in four conventional-sounding movements. Indeed it is a far more decorous work – though not prim – and one that doesn’t rattle the door of sonata form. The influence here is surely Schubert, with whom Loewe was good friends, and whilst elements of the work are slightly four-square – the Romance is a lovely song without words but it can sound just a touch static – there is, for Loewe, something of a virtuosic Scherzo. He was himself no virtuoso pianist, a fact he freely admitted. Linda Nicholson plays, as throughout, with great character and it’s splendid how she brings such assurance to the upper and lower voicings in this movement. In fact the registral changes are a most impressive component: both her playing and the piano’s particular sound. She plays incidentally on an 1849-50 Collard and Collard with a compass of six and a half octaves and two pedals. Loewe’s finale is very vocalised and one hears the song composer strongly at work.

The final piece in this recital is the 1835 Alpine Fantasy, a chic piece of mountain painting that doesn’t go in for overmuch detail. Droll, if somewhat generic, it doesn’t take itself too seriously, even if one accepts the fatal detour toward an academic fugue. It’s only fair to point out that Linda Nicholson hears prefiguring of Mussorgsky’s Night on a Bare Mountain here and considers it far more adventurous than my summary would indicate. Maybe you should trust the performer-annotator, whose booklet notes are extensive and valuable. Both this piece and the Gypsy Sonata are apparently making their first appearance on disc.

This splendidly realised project has got off to an ebullient start. The WDR studio acoustic is very clear, a touch wanting in warmth, but allowing for a great amount of detail to be savoured.

Jonathan Woolf



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