De Hartmann’s Chamber Music

DE HARTMANN: Sonata for Violin & Piano / Katharina Naomi Paul, vln / La Kobsa. Chanson Sentimentale. Deux pleuruses. Sonata for Cello & Piano / Anneke Janssen, cel / Hommage à Borodine. Feuillet d’un vieil album. Menuet fantasque. 4 Dances from “Esther” / Natalia Gabunia, vln / Fantasie: Concerto for Double Bass & Orch. / Quirijn van Regteren Altena, bs / Koladky / Amstel Sax Quartet / Trio for Flute, Violin & Piano, “Quasi Variation” / Ingrid Geerlings, fl; Joris van Rijn, vln / Elan Sicroff, pno (except for La Kobsa & Koladky) / Nimbus Alliance NI6411

Having already explored Thomas de Hartmann’s piano music and songs, we now turn our attention to his chamber music. As one can see from the above header, pianist and series producer Elan Sicroff used a veritable crazy-quilt of chamber soloists to make these recordings. I should point out that all three de Hartmann releases were actually recorded between 2011 and 2015, so this has been a series some time in the making. I heartily applaud Sicroff for his determination as well as his talent in recording and producing these sets; he and the De Hartmann Project have done the world an immense service in finally presenting a somewhat orderly and in-depth look at this talented composer whose work has been not only vastly underrated but almost wholly ignored by the rest of the classical music world.

All three releases feature cover art by Wassily Kandinsky, the synesthesiac artist whose work is still admired albeit within a more limited circle than that of many of his contemporaries. This particular release features Yellow Red Blue from 1925, The piano music album features Composition VIII from 1923 and the songs Dominant Curve from 1936. Despite his working from a different aesthetic, that of the curves and shapes he heard in his mind when painting (as well as the colors and shapes he saw when listening to music), few have noted the strong resemblance between his paintings and those of the Cubist movement—the principal difference being that the shapes themselves were never his primary inspiration, but the colors and the shapes they made.

Another difference in this release (which is, numerically speaking, Vol. 2 since the assigned CD number falls between the piano music and the songs) is that there are no early, Romantic pieces present. All of the music here comes from the years of his artistic maturity, the earliest being the Hommage à Borodine and Feuillet d’un vieil album from 1929 and the latest coming from 1950, thus in a sense it might be the best CD for a neophyte to start with. With that being said, de Hartmann’s writing for string instruments was, like his vocal writing, more lyrical than his writing for the piano alone, thus the opening Violin Sonata harks back to Debussy or Ravel more than it reflects the more contemporary (1936) music of Stravinsky, Prokofiev or Bartók, and there is nothing here to remind one of his brush with the Second Viennese School composers.

Even so, in the development section of the first movement one hears things that are seldom found in Debussy or Ravel, a way of breaking up rhythm that was entirely his own. Nonetheless, it’s quite possible that his occasional use of “retro” musical forms held de Hartmann back from more universal acceptance just as it held Nikolai Medtner back from achieving the universal success his music so richly deserved. (You could also toss some of the music of British composer York Bowen into this category as well.) Once past the astonishing breakthroughs of the 1910s and ‘20s, the arc of 20th century classical music was always a struggle—and sometimes a very bitter one—between the forces of tonality/lyricism and the forces of bitonality/atonality/asymmetrical rhythms. During the 1950s and ‘60s, especially, the academic classical world was so aggressively modern that any composer who achieved success with tonal or melodic music was looked upon as reactionary and dated, even when the music produced was astonishingly original. This was a period when musical academics seemed to be flying under the banner of the worst “modern” composer of the 20th century, Edgard Varèse, and his famous quote, “The modern-day composer refuses to die!” (A great many people wished that Varèse and his “modern-day” compositions would have died long before he did in 1965. Nowadays, just about his only piece that is occasionally played is Ionisation.)

But to return to de Hartmann and this violin sonata, I can understand why series producer Sicroff placed it first. It isn’t exactly Romantic fluff but it is written in a style that harks back to the composer’s earlier days—until you reach the third and last movement. Here, suddenly, the music is strongly in the vein of Stravinsky’s neo-Classicism albeit with a de Hartmann accent. Harmonically, this movement is also different, relying more heavily on a minor pentatonic mode than on conventional chords.

The cello solo La Kobsa is based on folk music and thus has an earthy, timeless feeling about it. The soloist is asked to bow his instrument roughly to simulate peasant music. The same is true, following two pretty but somewhat inconsequential violin pieces from 1929, with the Fantaisie-Concerto for Double Bass, here played with only piano accompaniment. The impression I received was that de Hartmann, considering the violin a more “singing” instrument, generally gave it more graceful lines to play, saving some of his more advanced ideas for other instruments…and yet, the second-movement “Romance” is again a Romantic-styled piece.

For the next two cello pieces, de Hartmann reverted again to his earlier, more Romantic style. I’m sure that a great many classical listeners will find this music comfortable and comforting, but for me it’s just a bit too sappy.

If there is one thing this chamber music sounds like, it is Russian. In fact, it’s the most consistently Russian-sounding of all his music I’ve heard so far—and this places it, depending on his mood at the time and the style used, close to that of Rachmaninov or Medtner. Of course, Russian-ness is certainly not a factor in its being ignored, as there are a great many less well written pieces by Russian composers that are in the standard repertoire today, but comparing it to the other two releases in this series I’d say that by and large it is not a representative of de Hartmann’s mature style. This even true of the nine-piece suite for unaccompanied saxophone quartet, Koladky, and this is highly unusual in itself. Where else in classical music have you ever heard an unaccompanied sax quartet playing in a strongly distinctive Russian folk style?

The Cello Sonata that opens CD 2 is halfway between his earlier, more Romantic style and his later, more modern one: the first and third movements towards the latter, the slow second movement towards the former. The Menuet Fantasque for violin & piano is also in his more progressive style. There’s a definite Debussy influence in the first of his four dances from Esther. Incidentally, violinist Natalia Gabunia, who gets the lion’s share of the violin pieces on this set, has a somewhat muffled tone that I don’t care for and she is not as emotionally committed to the music as Katharina Naomi Paul.

We end this excursion of de Hartmann’s music with the unusual trio for flute, violin & piano from 1946, and for the most part this is in his more adventurous style albeit with some Russian influences..although, at about the three-minute mark in the second movement (“Quasi Variation”) we suddenly get a slow-drag jazz feel in the piano part before suddenly switching to a waltz. It’s a very imaginative piece; you can never quite predict where the music is going, yet once it arrives there you enjoy the ride and admire his ingenuity.

Although I felt that there were a few more ups and downs in this set than in the other two, it is clearly comprised of well written music with some extraordinary moments here and there. Will there be a fourth volume of de Hartmann’s orchestral music? Only time will tell. Stay tuned.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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