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Rediscovering The Piano Music of Theodor Kirchner


Kirchner: Piano Music Lowell Liebermann, piano.

Blue Griffin Records 655

Disc One: Total Time:  60:06

Disc Two: Total Time: 76:00

Recording:   ****/****

Performance: ****/****


There is a very good chance that most lovers of 19th-Century piano music may never have heard of Theodor Kirchner (1823-1903). The German-born composer’s 200th birthday was December 10 and this new collection of his piano music, recorded by composer Lowell Liebermann, is an opportunity to explore this music.  Kirchner’s life spanned the shifting styles of Romanticism inherited from Beethoven and Schubert through the rise of virtuoso pianists the likes of Liszt and Clara Schumann (which he apparently had a slight affair with in the 1860s), the harmonic innovations of Wagner and the new explorations of Debussy, Satie, and Ravel.  His life reads like a dramatic tragedy filled with missed opportunities, personal upheavals, struggles with gambling and debt, and, at the end of his life, paralysis and blindness.  Against the musical life of the time though he managed to be acknowledged by Mendelssohn, Brahms, the Schumanns, and others.  Several who at one point helped raise money to help pay off Kirchner’s debts.  Through all this, even he knew he was his own worst enemy and the recognition that was his due never really materialized.  Or when it did, it was short-lived.  All the fascinating biography aside, Kirchner’s music fits in that moment of both the virtuosi pianist, the salon, and the “amateur” player and the selections on this release help explore these aspects well across five collections of pieces arranged chronologically across two discs here.

First up is an extensive collection of 15 Sketches, Op. 11.  At one point these were divided into three books of five pieces, but published as a set.  The pieces (from 1870-1872) are a rather unusual set of ideas in different tempos with a mostly through-composed, almost improvisational feel.  They are all little “ideas” that are given their free reign to go their own direction exploring different moods both somber and playful.  The latter tend to be the more interesting in terms of their little harmonic and rhythmic playfulness which is like a Germanic Chopin in waltz (no. 7) followed by a quite beautiful slower piece.  There are no titles for these various selections, just tempo designations.  They are organized well across the three “books” all the same.  Most interesting is the harmonic writing and some of the pianistic techniques and ornaments added to the music.  One feels like any of them would make fine little encore pieces on their own.  Taken together they recall the piano sets of Schumann.  Many are brief fleeting moments and ideas.  A similar approach is also the case in the second collection of pieces on disc one, the Legends, Op. 18 (1876).  Here are nine miniatures hinting perhaps at a more Lisztian spiritualism.  They are subtitled “poems for piano” which may be a nod to the more progressive shifts in musical form and style occurring in the decade.  The pieces show Kirchner adept at incorporating the pianistic styles of Robert Schumann, Liszt, and Brahms with echoes of their styles merging into this almost hybridization of Romanticism.  One cannot deny the simple beauty, though, of many of these pieces which are in alignment with the style of the time and feature a quite stunning final movement. 

Four collections of pieces make for a full second disc here.  Ten Nachtbuilder, Op. 25 (1877) provide a potential veiled sense of what implications may lie in the music.  Many of these pieces explore new pedaling approaches and echo effects, fascinating harmonic writing, and an exploration of the new chromatic approaches of the time.  Interesting rhythmic approaches add an additional area of interest as the set plays out.  One subjective thread through these works this return to more funereal moments of darker reflection perhaps hinting at the troubled life of the composer after flashes of joy or excitement.  This particular set has some of the most engaging expressive music.  Even in the Nocturnes, Op. 28 (1877) finds the composer exploring melodramatic imaginings, (unrequited?) love, building climactic processions, and a final descent into the funereal darkness.  In the Ideale-Clavierstucke, Op. 33 (1878), Kirchner turns to little homages to the mentors and friends.  All but the last bear a date as a heading which references the birthdays of Robert Schumann and Mendelssohn in two of the five pieces.  Nods to Schubert also appear in the third piece and one can speculate whom he was thinking about in the final piece.  The somberness of many of the miniatures in these various pieces comes to a head in the final set of four Elegies, Op. 37 (1878).  Kirchner dedicated this set to Frau Hedwig von Holstein, an important wealthy music patron and singer from Leipzig who was well connected to the artists of the time.  Her husband died in 1878 and these quite beautiful pieces further build on what Kirchner had done in the previous collections with a bit more emotional thrust and poignancy that makes them quite compelling.

Kirchner’s music fits well within the style of the time.  Perhaps they bear a closer resemblance to Brahms at times, though the music still seems to hearken back a bit to earlier in the century, but with some of the progressive harmonic and rhythmic approaches of Liszt’s more experimental music.  It is all couched in engaging pieces each being fleeting moments expressed in the myriad of collected ideas.  Sometimes one feels as if the chaos of Kirchner’s own life is reflected in the brevity of these works where there is not time to think beyond this immediate fleeting moment of emotion and expressiveness.  The sense of a quickly-captured thought is how many of these pieces feel. 

Blue Griffin has given ample space for Liebermann to lay out the case for Kirchner’s music in an extensive booklet about the composer’s life and the influences and support of the musical milieu of the time.  There is a deep respect perhaps for the struggles of a fine composer whose “break” hovered at the edges of his grasp.  Liebermann’s performances are engaging here and captured in a rich sound that enhances the darker sonorities of the Steinway used in this recording.  The release is a wealth of fascinating piano music of the 1870s, that decade where music seemed to pause to catch its breath in the shadows of the early Romantics and before the explosion of new chromaticism and sounds that were on the horizon.  The somewhat reflective and improvisational feel of the pieces often feel as if we are in a concert witnessing their very unfolding as we listen.  This makes the little surprises of Kirchner’s style and approach all the more fascinating in this welcome new release.



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