Two new CDs have been issued by Romantic Discoveries Recordings.
Piano Sonatas of Alexander MacFadyen (1879-1936) and Eduard Franck (1817-93)
with other works of MacFadyen and Adolph Bergt
John Kersey, piano
Alexander MacFadyen was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and studied there under William Borchert and the theorist Julius Klauser. MacFadyen’s compositions are mainly small-scale songs and piano works, but this Piano Sonata, a mature work dating from 1921 despite its opus number, is on the grandest of epic scales. It was performed in concert by legendary pianist Josef Hofmann. Stylistically, it shows a strong influence of MacDowell and Grieg, and an ambitious use of episodic form, with the outer movements comprising a set of interconnected sections. MacFadyen’s work must be reckoned among the more imposing of the sonatas of the American late Romantic era and its neglect is puzzling.
Eduard Franck was born in Silesia into a wealthy and cultured family that numbered Mendelssohn and Wagner among its acquaintances. He studied with Mendelssohn as a private student and then began a long career as a concert pianist and teacher. He was regarded as one of the leading pianists of his day and also as an outstanding teacher.
Franck was not forthcoming about his compositions, and failed to publish many of them until late in life. He was a perfectionist and would not release a work until he was absolutely satisfied that it met his standards. Yet what survives is extremely high in quality. Writing of his chamber music, Wilhelm Altmann said, “This excellent composer does not deserve the neglect with which he has been treated. He had a mastery of form and a lively imagination which is clearly reflected in the fine and attractive ideas one finds in his works.”
Piano Sonatas of Gustav Weber and Hugo Kaun
with works of Alkan and Loeschhorn
John Kersey, piano
We know little of Gustav Weber’s life other than that his lack of posthumous recognition is likely the result of his premature death aged forty-one. Born in Switzerland, he studied at the Leipzig Conservatoire and became a professional organist and conductor as well as a composer. Much of his career was spent as a teacher of singing in the Zurich public schools, and towards the end of his life he became editor of the Zurich journal Schweizerische Musikzeitung. Of his piano trio, op 5, Liszt, who was the dedicatee, wrote in 1882 that “I consider [it] an eminent work, worthy of recommendation and performance.”
The Piano Sonata op. 1 is in the grandest of styles, and occupies a similar coming-of-age role in Weber’s output to the early sonatas of Brahms. It is clear that Weber had absorbed elements of the “orchestral” piano style, with many passages featuring massive chords and double octave figurations. His melodic material recalls previous B flat Sonata monuments such as the opp. 106 by both Beethoven, and more particularly, Mendelssohn. Throughout the four movements a high level of invention and creativity is sustained, with the return of the opening motif at the end of the finale marking a satisfying cyclical aspect to the work. This sonata could well be revived in concert to good effect.
By the side of Weber’s monumental work, the early Sonata by Hugo Kaun is more obviously lyrical and inward in intent. Kaun was born in Berlin and studied piano there with Oscar Raif. Around 1886, he left Germany for the United States, where he settled in Milwaukee. Here he taught at the conservatory and conducted local choirs, but was prevented from following a career as a pianist by a hand injury. Perhaps feeling the pull of his homeland, he returned to Germany at the turn of the twentieth-century and remained there for the rest of his life. He was appointed to the Prussian Academy of Arts in 1912 and in 1922 joined the staff of the Berlin Conservatoire.
Kaun’s works span all the major genres, and generally occupy a neo-Wagnerian niche that opposed the modernism of the post-First World War years. His piano concerto was dedicated to his friend Godowsky. Some of his works, particularly those for male choir, have a nationalist quality. The Piano Sonata op. 2 is a reflective, expansive work that epitomises the confident late Romantic style with a notable debt to Beethoven in its formal structure and sensitive use of texture.