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Adolf BARJANSKY (1851-1900)
Complete Piano Works - Volume 1
Fantasy Pieces, op.9 (1895) [16:26]
Piano Sonata No.1, op.7 (1893) [26:52]
Six Piano Pieces, op.10 (1896)
Julia Severus (piano)
rec. 2020, Andreaskirche, Berlin-Wannsee, Germany
GRAND PIANO GP796 [64:17]

I had never heard of Adolf Barjansky before receiving this new recording from Grand Piano. Perhaps this is hardly surprising; there are no other CDs dedicated to his music in the Arkiv Music website, the composer does not get an entry in the current version of Grove’s Dictionary, nor is he featured in Maurice Hinson’s Guide to the Pianist’s Repertoire, the bible of piano music. Even Googling comes up with little more than references to this present CD.

A good place to start is with pianist Julia Severus’s comments in the on-line advertising blurb for this disc. She explains ‘When I discovered the Barjansky scores in the library and first tried some of his pieces I was instantly moved by the beauty of the harmonies, the poetic aura of the melody. You hear the influence of Tchaikovsky and Schubert, but also of Beethoven and Brahms which effortless[ly] blend into a new original Barjansky.’

Who was Adolf Barjansky? Little is known about him. He was born into a Jewish family in Odessa (Ukraine) during 1851. After preliminary studies in his hometown with pianist and composer Ignaz Tedesco, he had further studies in Leipzig, Vienna, and Paris. His small catalogue of works was composed between 1892 and 1900 and published by August Cranz in Hamburg and Breitkopf & Härtel in Leipzig. Apart from the corpus of piano music, there is a cello sonata, a piano trio, a piano quartet and two string quartets. Most of his life was spent in Odessa, where he was active in the local community and was regarded as a ‘generous benefactor.’ His children, Melitta, Mikhail and Alexander became respected musicians. 

He died in Odessa during 1900.  If the surname seems familiar to enthusiasts of British music it is because Frederick Delius’s Cello Concerto was premiered in Vienna by Alexander Barjansky on the so-called Barjansky-Stradivarius cello; this was the instrument Alexander used throughout his career. 

The liner notes state that the Fantasy pieces, op.9 is Barjansky’s ‘first known’ piano solo work, but see the date above for the Sonata No.1. They were composed in 1895. The opening ‘Presto’ is toccata-like in its headlong rush, which is only impeded by slightly more relaxed middle section. It is succeeded by an ‘Andante sostenuto’ which is a ‘ballade’ expounding a lyrical narrative, the plot of which remains undisclosed. The third, an ‘Allegro giusto ma vivo’, is described as a ‘burlesque’ which gives a good idea of its sense of humour. The following ‘Allegretto moderato’ is a thoughtful little ‘intermezzo.’ The penultimate number, ‘Andante ma troppo’ is melancholic, with gently wrought chords and climaxes. The sixth and final piece ‘Con moto tranquillo’ is an unexpectedly restrained ‘Sicilienne’.  The listener may have expected a hugely virtuosic finale. Instead, it is a beautifully wrought theme and variations, which is restrained and introspective, perhaps even wistful.  This is certainly a diverse collection; I guess that they are best performed as a group rather than standalone pieces.

I found the Sonata No.1 (1893) good in parts. If I am honest, I did not warm to it on the first and second hearing, despite being impressed by much of the idiomatic piano writing. I cannot quite put my finger on my lack of enthusiasm; I think that maybe the entire work is just a little bit too much ‘Sturm und Drang’ for my taste. Lasting for some 26 minutes, I began to long for some repose from the intensity and drama presented on page after page of this sonata.  To be sure, there is a lovely lyrical second subject in the opening movement, but this is soon overcome by powerful and thunderous chords.  The slow movement ‘Maestoso’ is ‘festive and shiny’ in a Mussorgskian Great Gates of Kiev sense. There is little of the tenderness or warmth that would be expected here. The main theme is broad and hymn-like and is supported by dynamically diverse repeated chords. The ‘Scherzo’ is a strange movement: balancing technically demanding, and sometimes ‘sinister’ passage work with a ‘dreamlike’ trio section, it is for me the most satisfying part of this Sonata. The finale, ‘Allegro molto quasi presto ed appassionato’, has just about everything one could imagine thrown in for good measure. A toccata-like opening theme, references to the first movement, Bachian fugato passages, and a ‘sweet’ second subject which almost destroys my argument about too much ‘Sturm und Drang’. The movement and the Sonata end with a massive coda in C major.

The Six Piano Pieces, op.10 is a remarkable exploration of pianistic styles and effects. For example, the first ‘Near the Sea’ is more realistic than impressionistic, with the surge of the waves represented by ‘up and down rolling scales of semiquaver and demisemiquaver in the bass’ supporting a relatively straightforward melody played by the right hand. It is certainly the storm before the calm with which it concludes. The second, ‘Remembrance’ lives up to its title. It displays quiet melancholy and deep reflection of love lost; quite definitely the most beautiful thing on this disc.  Equally thoughtful, is the quietly stated, Brahmsian ‘Lullaby’.  The ‘Scherzo’ is a definite concert hall encore. It is happy-go-lucky and humorous, but wayward in key and rhythm. There is a danger that ‘A Happy Home’ could be mawkish or overtly sentimental: I found its meandering the least successful piece of the set. On the other hand, there are some clearly impressionistic sounding moments here. Once again, Barjansky closes the set with something introverted and intimate rather than flamboyant. ‘Devotion’ is an almost Mendelssohnian love-letter in music. Quite delightful.

Concerning the recording, Julia Severus explains that ‘since Barjansky uses the entire range of the keyboard and the spatial sound as a means of expression, I decided to record this album not in the studio, but with the natural reverberation of a church’. It makes for an inspirational sound.

Clearly, there are no other recordings of any of this music (that I am aware of) so there is nothing with which to compare this recital, but listening to these three works reveals a performance that is committed, powerful and often moving.

The liner notes are excellent. Bearing in mind that there is precious little information about Barjansky in the public domain, they are essential reading. I have relied exclusively on when whilst preparing this review. It may have been helpful if Severus had cited her sources. The notes are printed in German and English.

I was unable to find a ‘catalogue’ of Barjansky’s piano music. Looking at the dates of the works on this CD, and when the composer died, I assume that his opus numbers do not go far beyond op.12 or op.13. I do know that there are at least two more sonatas to have a go at, so I am assuming that there may be another couple of discs in this noteworthy cycle of piano music. It is certainly something to look forward to. I suggest that anyone who enjoys ‘Romantic’ piano music which looks back to Schubert, parallels Brahms and foretells Rachmaninov, will be delighted and inspired by this music.

John France

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