Rathaus’ Piano Music Recorded

TOCC0511 - cover

WP 2019 - 2RATHAUS: 5 Klavierstücke. Piano Sonata No. 2. 3 Mazurkas. 3 Stücke aus dem ballet “Der letzte Pierrot.” 3 Excerpts from the Film Music for “The Murderer Dimitri Karamazov” / Daniel Wnukowski, pno / Toccata Classics TOCC 0451

To paraphrase the old Smuckers ad, if your name is Rathaus your product has better be good, but as it turns out Karl Rathaus, largely ignored for decades, was an awfully good composer. I’ve come to look for his works when they’re presented for review, and thus this CD was a priority of mine to review. Of course, like so many Jewish composers banned by the Nazis for writing “entrarte musik,” he has become a cause célèbre for many in the Social Justice crowd, but I’m the kind of person who judges composers by their output, not by their political erasure by the Nazis. Hanns Eisler was also banned, but his music is essentially rubbish. Rathaus’, on the other hand, is generally brilliant.

All of the pieces on this CD were written between 1924 and 1931, beginning when Rathaus was 29 years old. As in the case of all his music, his harmonic language is modern but more bitonal than atonal. More importantly, he had a superb grasp of structure and, more importantly, was often an inspired composer whose music is full of surprises. You can think of him as a sort of a Jewish, Austro-Hungarian Bartók except for the fact that none of his music was consciously modeled on local Hungarian folk music.

Even in the Klavierstücke, the kind of pieces that many a composer would consider “light,” Rathaus’ mind is always thinking, always evolving something interesting and deep to a certain degree. Even the fast-paced second piece, marked simply “Allegro,” Rathaus moves in unusual ways. Though he used far less notes, his music bears a certain resemblance to the much earlier Charles-Valentin Alkan. Despite its serious vein and brilliant construction, it is somehow entertaining at the same time, leading the attentive listener down unusual paths and alleys of the mind, and pianist Daniel Wnukowski clearly has the full measure of his intent and meaning under full control of his fingers. These are no shallow performances, but highly nuanced in a subtle manner. The fourth piece, “Durchaus gemächlich,” is clearly the most complex and highly developed of this group.

As good as the Klavierstücke are, however, the second piano sonata is even better: more concise ideas, tighter structure and better development. The music tends towards the minor but has episodes in the major, yet for most of its length one constantly feels the pull of bitonality. Yet, oddly, it doesn’t feel like a piano sonata, but more like a suite, largely due to its proclivity towards quick tempi except for a rubato episode in the second movement.

Rathaus’ 3 Mazurkas are about as lightweight as his music ever got, which is to say lively rhythms, but still fairly dense harmonically. They may be compared, favorably, to the contemporary mazurkas written by the brilliant Karol Szymanowski, which actually have less of a definite mazurka beat than Rathaus’. The composer’s serious mein also shows in the three excerpts from the ballet Der letzte Pierrot as well as in his film music for The Murderer Dimitri Karamazov. In the latter, however, Rathaus shows a surprising tendency towards a more consonant use of harmony and melodies that sound distinctly Russian.

This is truly an outstanding CD. Rathaus continues to amaze me.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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