Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Franz Reizenstein: Piano Music on Lyrtia

My earliest introduction to Franz Reizenstein was in Harrods in Knightsbridge, London. In 1974, that iconic store had an excellent record department. Amongst the browsers, I found two Lyrita albums of piano music: one by William Wordsworth and the other by the present composer (RCS13 & RCS19). I had already begun collecting this wonderful record label, but these two discs were the first of the old ‘mono’ albums that I had come across.  Reizenstein’s piano music had been issued as far back as 1959, so I am assuming that what Harrods had was ‘old stock’.  Nevertheless, it was difficult to possess my soul with patience until I got back to Glasgow and was able to listen to these two LPs. I recall being impressed, if a little disappointed: I guess I thought that this music would sound more like Bax or Ireland. Since then, I have followed the trickle of works released on vinyl and CD from both of these composers. At present there are some 20 works by Reizenstein on 9 albums currently listed on the Arkiv Website. (Wordsworth has 5 works on 2 discs)
Around the same time, I bought a collection of ‘educational’ albums for piano – Five by Ten published by Lengnick. These were ‘modern’ pieces especially written for the collection by ten composers including William Alywn, Elizabeth Maconchy, Malcolm Arnold and Reizenstein. Unfortunately Reizenstein’s contribution to this series has not been included in the CD collection. They may not be the most profound of works, but they are neat, well written and designed to trap the unwary or over confident (as I found out).

There is a good, if brief, biography of Reizenstein on the excellent website dedicated to the composer’s life and achievement, which I recommend to all listeners of these discs. A few notes may be of interest to readers. Franz Reizenstein can be classified as an honorary English composer. Along with Hans Gal, Egon Wellesz and Mátyás Seiber, he escaped Nazi Germany before the Second World War and began a new life in Britain. All these composers surely fall into the category of ‘unjustly neglected masters.’
Reizenstein was born in Nuremberg, Germany in 1911. Following study with Paul Hindemith in Berlin (1930-4) he settled in London. During this period he was a pupil of Ralph Vaughan Williams at the Royal College of Music (1934-6). After the war, during which he was interned until RVW pleaded on his behalf, he taught piano at the Royal Academy of Music and also at the Royal Manchester College of Music (now the Royal Northern College of Music). He regularly played piano in chamber music groups.
His catalogue of compositions is not extensive, but includes a radio opera, Anna Kraus, a large-scale oratorio Genesis, concertos for piano (2), violin and cello. He wrote a deal of chamber music as well as a number of works for piano solo. He is best recalled for his two ‘important’ contributions to the Hoffnung Festivals – Let’s Fake an Opera and the ‘Concerto popolare’.
Grove’s Dictionary outlines three creative periods of Reizenstein’s music. The first, from 1936-1945 often displays vigorous energy, fugato textures counterpoised to an ‘eloquent lyricism’. The second period, 1947-1959, saw the composer reach his mature style There is a deeper ‘elegiac, expressive power’ in this music: he makes frequent use of chords of the 4th and semitones. His textures involve an exploration of modality (not in an archaic sense) and polytonality. Bartok and Hindemith are his models here. His final period included film music which was more romantic than his earlier works. He was master of pastiche as the contributions to Hoffnung suggest. Franz Reizenstein died in London in 1968, aged 57.

The recording history of Franz Reizenstein’s music is not extensive. At present the only real competition to this Lyrita release is the composer’s own album noted above. This is still available in mono in REAM2105. Philip Martin issued a fine selection of Reizenstein’ music on Continuum (Continuum CCD1007): this is now only available on download. I note that Kolja Lessing released an album (EDA Edition Abseits EDA20) including the violin and viola sonatas as well as the Sonata No.1 for piano. As a soloist playing both violin and piano she ‘double tracked’ the two former works. I have not heard this disc.

A great place to start this three disc set is with the Variations on ‘The Lambeth Walk’ (c.1958). This piece points up Reizenstein’s undoubted skill as a master of parody. The theme is the well-known tune from the revue Me and My Girl which is presented in the then-contemporary ‘Cockney’ sing-a-long style.   A number of famous composers feature in these variations: Chopin, Verdi, Beethoven, Mozart, Schubert, Wagner and Liszt. There are snatches of those composers’ music quoted as well as their ‘take’ on ‘The Lambeth Walk’.  The work was originally an improvisation made by the composer at a party. There was never a published score, only a recording (on a long deleted Parlophone record) and a few written notes – a batting list for Reizenstein’s personal use. This is definitely the case of a ‘serious’ composer letting his hair down. It would make a great encore at any recital.

The presentation of the piano music on these three discs is largely chronological which allows the listener to explore the ‘periods’ outlined above.
Reizenstein’s first published work was his Suite for piano, op.6 (1936) which written whilst he was a student at the Royal College of Music. It is dedicated to his teacher there, Vaughan Williams. Listening to this work reveals a kind of musical dichotomy. The faster, more robust movements of this suite owe much to Paul Hindemith, whereas the reflective sections nod to RVW. There is also an occasional ‘Prokofivean’ swagger. The Suite is in seven contrasting, but unified, movements. I enjoyed this work, especially the delicious ‘aria’ (2) and the final ‘tarantella’ (7).
Three years later Reizenstein issued his Impromptu, op.14. This is an easy-going piece that seems on face value to belong fairly and squarely in the English style as exemplified by Ireland. It is a beautiful work.
The Scherzo in A: Concert Piece for piano op.21 (1947) is powerful music that is largely staccato throughout with the exception of the lento section where the composer presents the two principal themes simultaneously. The work closes with a blistering coda. This Scherzo was dedicated to ‘William Montagu-Pollock in friendship.’ Pollock was a politician, an ambassador and was deeply interested in the promotion of modern music during the 1930s at the London Contemporary Music Centre.
The short Intermezzo was written in 1941: it is an attractive work that uses the minimum of musical material. The opening and closing of this piece are elusive, with a little more drama in the central section.

The Sonata in B, op.19 (1944) was dedicated to William Walton. My first hearing of this work back in 1974 in the composer’s recording on Lyrita caught my imagination.
Contemporary reviewers were quick to criticise the work for its use of ‘unassimilated styles’ -it was felt that the fingerprints of Hindemith and Rawsthorne (little Walton, though) were prominent in this work. This Sonata is neo-romantic rather than ‘modern’ in spite of some biting harmonies. The entire work covers a considerable range of emotion and displays an impressive grasp of form and exploits the piano’s technical capabilities.   The opening movement is intense, tempestuous and rhythmically diverse with syncopation and driving rhythms. The second is a huge contrast. This is typically quiet, reflective music that is lyrical and largely untroubled. Here and there an underlying passion does come to the surface. The finale is in the form of a rondo. The theme is both powerful and memorable. A number of the episodes use ‘fugato’ which was a fingerprint of Reizenstein’s style at this period. A fast, dynamic coda brings this hugely impressive sonata to a splendid conclusion.
The Legend, op.24 (1949) does not appear to have a ‘programme’ attached to it. Yet this is a delicious work that comes closer to the ‘English’ element of the composer’s style. It is a moody piece that has considerable harmonic variety without losing its innocence and freshness. The central section of the Legend is more unsettled, before the return of the main theme.
Eric Wetherall has suggested that the Scherzo Fantastique op.26 (1950) has a ‘bizarre almost diabolic atmosphere’. Certainly, this does seem to be the prevailing mood, with one or two moments of comparative relaxation. This long, complex piece makes huge demands on the pianist. In some ways the shadow of Chopin hangs over this work – not so much in the sound as in the formal construction and the pianistic figuration. Reizenstein did not use serialism in his music; the work does lean heavily towards an atonal mood rather than any obvious key.

Apart from the two sonatas, the most important work in this collection is the Twelve Preludes and Fugues, op.32 (1953/4). They were first performed on 8 December 1956 at an Arts Council concert with the composer as soloist.  The cycle was dedicated to Paul Hindemith. The key order of these 12 prelude and fugues derives from Hindemith’s ‘Series I’ which was published in his Craft of Musical Composition (1937). An interesting formal procedure is that the subject of each fugue is stated in its respective prelude. This is clearly cerebral music: not every one of the twelve numbers has an immediate impact. As a cycle (and I believe that they must be listened to as such) it is impressive and masterly. The composer displays a great understanding of counterpoint, polytonality (simultaneous combination of two or more keys) and the use of ‘transparent textures.’  For some idea as to what they ‘sound like’ I believe that Reger, Hindemith and Bach with a hint of Mendelssohn fits the bill. Paul Conway provides a detailed analysis in the liner notes of all twelve preludes and fugues.

The Sonata No.2 in A flat op.40 (1964) is a masterpiece. However, it has been criticised as being derivative, for example J.N. writing in The Gramophone (October 1960) suggested that some of Reizenstein’s music sounds as if someone ‘has been trying to warm Hindemith up with a shot of Rachmaninov.’ This can be argued for this present work but it does not alter the huge achievement of this music.  Written some 20 years after the first Sonata it can be regarded as the composer’s instrumental masterpiece. Certainly he reaches a ‘mature fulfilment’ in this work that is striking. It balances an almost blatant romanticism with a strong constructive principle utilising the tried and tested motto theme B-A-C-H.  The second movement is elegiac and commemorates the poet and librettist Christopher Hassall who had died in 1963. Hassall had provided the texts for a number of Reizenstein’s works including his opera, Anna Kraus. There are some lovely heart-rending moments in this music.  The finale is straightforward: it has been described as a ‘perpetuum mobile’ and ‘toccata-like’. Look out for a reiteration of the motto theme at the conclusion.

The Zodiac piano suite, op.47 was composed in 1965. It is made up of twelve short pieces which were published in three sets of four. Each symbolises one of the astrological signs. They would appear to be ‘graded’ pieces and become more difficult as the sequence progresses. The Suite is defined by humour, lucidity and conciseness.
In 1960 Reizenstein produced his Five Modern Pieces designed for the Associated Board examination schedules. There is nothing trivial or pedantic about these attractive little numbers. The titles of the pieces include ‘Secret Story’, ‘Victory’ and ‘Toccatina.’
There are a number of other educational works that are available in digital download from Lyrita (web address given in liner notes). These include Five Imaginative Pieces (c.1938), Seven Children’s Piano Pieces (1952), Study in Irregular Rhythms (c.1960), Three Pieces (c.1960) and Three Short Stories (c.1960). As noted above the pieces included in the albums Five by Ten are not recorded.

Finally, what can one say about Franz Reizenstein’s stunning arrangement for piano duet of Malcolm Arnold’s equally stunning English Dances Set 1 & 2? I have heard the second set performed on the quixotic Arnold CD Bright Jewels: Music from the 1940s and 1950s (MSV0214CD) so I was well-prepared to be impressed by Martin Jones’ and Adrian Farmer’s version on Lyrita. This is transcription at its very best. Every nuance and witty touch of the original orchestral score is retained in this version. Paul Conway has pointed out the allusions to the St Trinian’s music in the second and fourth Dances from Set 2. In some respects, the clarity of this music is enhanced by hearing the more focused sound of piano duet. This is great stuff. A perfect arrangement of one of my favourite Arnold scores.

This is one of the best of recent productions from Lyrita. I cannot fault anything about it. The liner notes by Paul Conway are absolutely essential reading for a good understanding of this outstanding piano music. Conway has provided a major essay on the composer as well as detailed analysis of each of the works.
Martin Jones has taken Franz Reizenstein to heart. He presents this music with deep understanding and clear enthusiasm.  The sound recording is superb as to be expected from anything produced by Lyrita.

There is no competition here. For anyone wanting the complete (nearly) piano works of Franz Reizenstein, this is the definitive edition. I do not imagine that there will be another competing version of this music in my lifetime. 

Franz REIZENSTEIN (1911-1968)
Disc One
Suite Op.6 (1936)
Impromptu Op.14 (1939)
Scherzo in A – Concert Piece for piano Op.20 (1947)
Intermezzo Op.17 (1941)
Sonata No.1 in B Op.19 (1944)
Legend Op.24 (1949)
Scherzo Fantastique Op.26 (1950)
Disc Two
Twelve Preludes & Fugues Op.32 (1953/54)
Variations on ‘The Lambeth Walk’ (c.1958)
Disc Three
Zodiac – piano suite Op.41 (1964)
Five Modern Pieces for Piano (1960)
Sonata No.2 in A flat Op.40 (1964)
Malcolm ARNOLD ‘English Dances’ Sets 1 & Set 2 (1950/1) arr. for piano duet (c. 1958)
Martin Jones (piano); Adrian Farmer (piano, Arnold Dances)
LYRITA SRCD.2342 
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published. 

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