New CD

A new recording has been released by Romantic Discoveries Recordings.

Victor Bendix (1851-1926): Piano Sonata. Frederic Chopin (1810-49): Nocturne oubliée
John Kersey, piano

Victor Bendix (1851-1926): Piano Sonata in G minor op. 26 (1900)

Frederic Chopin (1810-49): Nocturne oubliée in C sharp minor, A.1/6 (7’08”)

Victor Emmanuel Bendix was born to a Jewish family of music-lovers in Copenhagen in 1851. He was one of the first to study at the Royal Danish Conservatoire in Copenhagen and developed his style under the tutelage of Niels Gade, August Winding and J.P.E. Hartmann. A virtuoso pianist with a long and active career, he studied piano with Liszt in Weimar in 1881. In the last years of the nineteenth-century he toured Europe playing his piano concerto (1884), which his wife Dagmar performed in London.

Bendix belongs to the late Romantic school that stands between Brahms and Nielsen, and even to some extent Sibelius. He is concerned with the evocation of mood and atmosphere but within a formal structure that takes precedence. At times his music is rhetorical and rhapsodic; at others he presents epic drama and music of deep emotion (such as in the slow movement of his Sonata). Although well-regarded in his day (a street in Copenhagen is named after him today), Bendix’ demanding and complex works fell out of fashion in his later years and his major output, such as the four symphonies, is only just beginning to be revived.

The single piano sonata in Bendix’s output is a giant of the repertoire. The performance on this recording occupies nearly fifty-eight minutes, and it would be quite possible to imagine another interpretation that would take a broader view of some passages. However, Bendix manages this extended structure well, creating ample contrast, interest and thematic continuity. It is difficult, indeed, to imagine a work more typical of the piano sonata in the last years of Romanticism, with an enduring sense of fantasy reflected in mature musical language of great power.

The epic sweep of the first movement is indicative of Bendix’s ambitions for the work. The surging first theme is bardic and suggests a grand orchestral texture; its chordal counterpart balances not only its character but also acts as a foil to its chromaticism. The presentation is in some respects reminiscent of Chopin’s op 58 sonata, in which the structure unfolds seamlessly and gradually rather than with obvious divisions and landmarks. This long exposition is performed here with the optional repeat, before giving way to the unsettled and extensive development, which resembles an exotic and enchanted forest in its ability to create strange beauties from material that is by now familiar. Throughout, the use of chordal and octave writing maximises the expressive potential of the piano.

The second movement is seemingly lighter in tone; a gruff, rustic Intermezzo rather like a proto-Mahlerian Ländler. The humour is always somewhat on edge here, and even the comic bass section in the trio leads to chromatic filigrees that recall the uncertain atmosphere of earlier moments.

The slow movement is perhaps the emotive heart of the work, consisting of an extensive transformation of a folk-like theme in the dominant. Variations of an active, martial and scherzando character give way to an eerie, suspended Adagio. This begins a long transition to the glowing presentation of the theme in the major, though the coda reverts any sense of triumph or resolution to end disconsolately.

The finale again inhabits the sphere of action, and represents a pageant of contrasting ideas that are often reached by complex dramatic transitions. The music develops great virtuosic power and tests the performer in many strenuous passages of double-notes. Towards the end the second theme of the first movement returns accompanied by triumphant figurations; this is indicative of the increasingly confident and positive mood that dominates the coda as the sonata ends with a fanfare of massive chords.

The Nocturne oubliée is a good example of the many manuscripts discovered after Chopin’s death and (here) brought to light in the former Soviet Union; most such pieces are brief and insubstantial, but here we have a complete Nocturne that – for all that some have suggested that it is not authentic – certainly to this interpreter’s ear has many of the unmistakeable characteristics of Chopin’s early style, suggesting that it is either Chopin’s own work or that of a remarkably slavish imitator. Certain figurations are of a type that Chopin would later work out more pianistically, and we can also imagine that a certain amount of ornamentation would distinguish the otherwise-literal recapitulation. For all that it has its shortcomings, this is nevertheless an intriguing glimpse into Chopin’s compositional processes.