Piano music of Stephen Heller (1813-88)
Sonata no. 2, op 65; Fantasie in the form of a Sonata, op 69; other works
John Kersey, piano
Audio sample: Song without words op 105 no 3
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Total time: 76 mins 6 secs
Piano Sonata no. 2 in B minor, op 65
1. Feurig, und mit kräftigem Ausdruck (10’19”)
2. Ballade – Mässig (7’54”)
3. Intermezzo – Mässig schnell (6’57”)
4. Epilog – Ausserst lebendig, und mit characterischem Ausdruck (6’17”)
5. Aux mânes de Frédéric Chopin. Élégie et Marche funebre, op 71 (16’41”)
Three Songs without Words, op 105
6. Assai lento (3’27”)
7. Vivamente (2’23”)
8. Allegro (1’39”)
“Es ist bestimmt in Gottes Rath” – Volkslied by Mendelssohn. Fantasie in the form of a Sonata, op 69
9. Poco sostenuto – Allegro vivace (7’51”)
10. Scherzo – Presto (2’38”)
11. Lento – Poco maestoso (In the style of a folksong) (4’23”)
12. Finale – Allegro assai (5’00”)
We are grateful to Dr. Klaus Tischendorf for supplying copies of scores for use in this recording.
Notes on the music
This disc will surprise those who think of Heller only as a delicate miniaturist. Certainly, he was that, and his surprisingly experimental Songs without Words op 105 prove the point, but our other works in this selection are built on the grandest of scales and the most extreme levels of emotional expression and technical facility. Here is evidence that Heller’s ambition extended to a sonata whose relentless drive, scale and sustained tragedy are more Brucknerian than much of the work of his contemporaries, an extended paraphrase that is the antithesis of a Lisztian transcription in its philosophical and structural concentration, and one of the finest deep meditations on Chopin and his music ever committed to paper.
The young Heller was sent to Austria to study with Czerny, but could not afford the maestro’s fees and so became a pupil of Anton Halm instead. His mid-teens saw him undertake a successful tour of Western Europe, and consolidate this reputation with his arrival in Paris ten years later where he came to know all of the significant musical figures. Both a noted performer and teacher, Heller was regarded highly by his peers, some of whom considered him equal or even superior to Mendelssohn, but was eclipsed by the rise of Wagner and died in relative obscurity. Revival of Heller’s music has been patchy, concentrating mainly on the shorter works.
A long article appeared discussing both Heller and his place in contemporary composition in the Musical World of 1850, and this periodical also carried a perceptive review of his Second Sonata, quoted from The Athenaeum.
“This is a noticeable production; full of thought, full of energy – original in style, and excessively difficult: as highly-finished an example of the new manner of composition applied to the old forms as occurs to us. There are chords in it which would have made the timid hearts of our grandfathers ache, – extensions of hand (to be commanded at a moment’s warning) such as the Mozarts, Clementis and even Hummels never dreamed of, – passages of melody as richly laden with accompaniment as if every player possessed the composure, force and tone of Thalberg; but also, throughout the entire composition there is that je ne sais quoi of picturesque and romantic taste which reminds us that we are living in a time when Music runs some danger of being pushed across the boundaries which separate it from Poetry and Picture…As a whole, this sonata is too symphonic in style: and not merely so, but also, for a symphonic work, it is too little relieved by contrast and episode. This characteristic is generic to the new school of writers…In this ambitious work…so much genius and science are evidenced, such unmistakeable traces of individuality present themselves, that he well merits strict truth and plain remonstrance conjointly with high praise.”
This contrasted with the measured and less enthusiastic view taken by Barbedette in his biography of Heller, although he concedes that it is “the work of one who knows his own power. Its style is decisive and concentrated, and there is a loftiness about the whole work.” Indeed there is, and viewing this work from the perspective of hindsight allows us to see the development of its material throughout each movement in a way that foreshadows Bruckner and the Wagnerians, albeit unacknowledged by them. Heller not only understands the complexities of thematic transformation, but is also skilled at creating an atmosphere that often sounds starkly modern because of that very lack of variety that troubled the reviewers of his time. The Sonata is often aggressive, tragic and pessimistic in a way that few of Heller’s contemporaries would have attempted; its edges are hard and its emotional world uncompromising. Seldom can the accusations of sentimentality applied by some to Heller’s music have rung more hollow.
The Elegy and Funeral March on the death of Chopin is an extended meditation on some of his more familiar themes, again showing Heller’s great skill in combining these into something quite new. Heller knew Chopin personally, and perhaps in this work we gain some sense of how Chopin might improvise and develop ideas off the cuff. Certainly it is one of the most powerful and effective tributes from one composer to the spirit of another.
The Fantasy in the form of a Sonata op 69 takes as its theme a song by Mendelssohn which can be found in a piano transcription by Kirchner on RDR CD58. Heller deconstructs each aspect of this melody and creates from it the grandest of structures, the whole both the product of a virtuoso instinct and an ingenious compositional imagination. The work is as much a philosophical tract as it is a transcription; Heller’s commentary illuminates and expands the material into its farthest reaches, producing an intellectual challenge that even Liszt and Thalberg would find difficult to match in their own works. Frequent references to the Mendelssohn style are supplanted by complex figuration that prove that Heller’s outlook was determinedly progressive, even if as time went on that progression was in a different direction from the musical mainstream.