By Ted AYALA
At the dawn of the 20th century, composer Xaver Scharwenka (and to a lesser extent his older brother Philipp) seemingly had it all: financial security, respect from his colleagues, official honors and widespread fame. As both composer and performing musician – he was a consummate virtuoso of the piano, a talent which a bare handful of recordings that he cut around 1910 can now only give faded testimony – he rubbed shoulders with the greats of his era, befriending and collaborating with Johannes Brahms, Ferrucio Busoni, Max Bruch, Artur Nikisch and Gustav Mahler, to name a few.
Perhaps most importantly of all, as a director of one of the most distinguished musical conservatories of his time, he occupied pride of place in the Central European musical pedagogical establishment. Countless students walked through the doors of the Klindworth-Scharwenka Conservatory in Berlin, many under the direct tutelage of Scharwenka himself. They in turn went on to have distinguished careers of their own, propagating across the world the values they learned under their teacher.
That is until World War I. With its futility, its then-unprecedented carnage, its countless acres of farmland scarred and clawed out by monstrous trenches, its ominous clouds of death-bringing gas rolling across the Somme, and the altogether new world that the Great War left in its wake brought Scharwenka’s glittering career crashing down.
In the upside-down, cynical, shattered mood that permeated Germany in the wake of its ignominious defeat, the courtliness, the civility of Scharwenka’s music – composed only a few years before, but harkening to a now completely vanished realm that in the 1920s may as well have been from classical antiquity – simply didn’t fit in, couldn’t fit in with Weimar era disillusionment and nihilism.
Scharwenka died in 1924 and the music that once carried his name the world over died alongside him.
But things began to look better for the composer’s legacy beginning in the 1990s. His scores, which had for decades lay forgotten, gathering the dust of neglect, are now increasingly being performed and recorded. Public performances of his music are still comparatively rare as last Sunday’s performance at Le Salon de Musiques proved.
Scharwenka’s “Violin Sonata” and “Cello Sonata,” each one nearly 150 years old, were only last weekend enjoying their first-ever performances in the United States. Listening to each, one can only scratch their head and wonder why this music was even tossed aside into the wastebasket of musical history in the first place.
Scharwenka’s melodic fluency, his penchant for sprightly rhythms, the neat and always crisp textures of his music, his skillful blend of Romantic ardor and Classical restraint are second to nobody.
Played with the committed musicianship of pianist Steven Vanhauwaert, violinist Guillaume Sutre, and cellist Tim Landauer, one was left with irrefutable proof that, yes, not only is this music unjustly neglected, but that it can also stand up to the best of Brahms, Grieg, Elgar, Rachmaninoff, and any one of Scharwenka’s better-known contemporaries on any day.
The magisterial G-minor “Piano Trio” of Clara Schumann, her own excellent music often languishing in the shade of her husband Robert, closed the program with Vanhauwaert, Sutre, and Landauer delivering yet another stellar performance.
It was a clutch of songs, six in all, by Franz Liszt that drew open the curtain on Sunday’s program.
Liszt’s piano music has never been in danger of neglect, but his lieder are another story. Their sheer surface beauty – the six on Sunday’s program were each soaked in sensuous, refulgent chromaticism that prefigured Richard Strauss at his most erotically charged – is enough to make one or two of them a welcome inclusion on any song recital. But Liszt can’t begin to match the word painting, the sureness of touch, the dramatic power, the depth that Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Wolf or Mahler convey with such ease and naturalness in their lieder.
His songs also lacked a crucial quality that his rivals had in spades: range. Because for all their beauty, the listener is dismayed at how alike they all sound. Be it a setting of a love sonnet by Petrarch or a macabre poem about a young man before he takes his suicidal plunge into a lake, Liszt makes them all sound, well, beautiful. Line up six of those songs back-to-back, each one of them lasting about a good five minutes, and their individual beauty blurs together into stultifying blandness.
The impression wasn’t aided by the singing of Elissa Johnston whose voice – sweet, but dry and tight – were at odds with the opulence of Liszt’s opera arias in miniature.
In the end, it was the Scharwenka sonatas that defined the program, that really gave its audience the impetus to set out on an unusually hot March afternoon and make the commute to downtown Los Angeles instead of the beach.
With a number of performances already under their belt, Le Salon has already made good on its belief in the Scharwenka brothers’ music. And just in case you missed last Sunday’s concert or you simply have a voracious appetite for anything Scharwenka, there’s good news: Le Salon will be performing two more works by Xaver in their end of season concert in June.