Theodor Kullak (1818-82)
Symphonie for solo piano, op 27
Grande Sonate in F sharp minor, op 7
John Kersey, piano
Audio sample: Allegro from the Symphonie op 27 (opening)
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Total time: 63 mins 24 secs
Symphonie de piano: Grande Sonate en quatre parties in E flat major, op 27:
1. Allegro (10’01”) 2. Andante con moto (10’41”) 3. Scherzo – Allegro vivace (4’23”) 4. Finale – Allegro con fuoco (10’42”)
Grande Sonate in F sharp minor, op 7:
1. Allegro (14’21”) 2. Adagio (5’26”) 3. Finale – Allegro (7’23”)
Notes on the music
If the name of Theodor Kullak is known at all today, it is as a noted pedagogue, the teacher of Moszkowski and Scharwenka and the author of the formidable School of Octave Playing (1848). Those who open the pages of the latter will gain some idea of the massive technique that Kullak had at his command and sought to impart to others.
Born in Poznan (Posen), now part of Poland but then annexed by Prussia, Kullak’s life was spent in close proximity to the German aristocracy of the day, attracting both royal patronage as a performer and as a teacher to the sons and daughters of the court. He was appointed pianist to the court of Prussia in 1846.
This professional success together with Kullak’s activities as a teacher and founder of two conservatoires (what was to become the Stern Conservatoire with Stern and Marx, and then the Neue Akademie der Tonkunst, eventually the largest private music school in Germany) made for a long and well-rewarded career. What material is available to the public on Kullak today tends to emphasise these aspects of his life and pay less attention to his music, and indeed to his important role in the development of the “orchestral school” of piano virtuosi.
The Grande Sonate op 7 dates from around 1842-3 when Kullak was studying with Czerny in Vienna. It is an important precursor of Chopin’s sonata op 58 as well as Thalberg’s op 56. Cast in a massive mould, its first movement is of symphonic dimensions and close, at times feverish argument. These elements are balanced with a formal rhetoric that owes a certain amount to Beethoven, and in the bold harmonic clashes some influence of later composers such as Berlioz can perhaps be felt.
Kullak’s forceful piano writing would probably have made mincemeat of the pianos of just ten years earlier. Where a composer such as Mendelssohn, himself a formidable technician, would write single or double notes, Kullak’s preference is invariably for octaves and massive chords. This is not merely effect for its own sake, but a conscious attempt to expand the capabilities of the piano as a substitute for the orchestra. The emphasis on strength is also not at the expense of more subtle moods, as is shown in the fine slow movement, embellished over a chordal structure that recalls Henselt’s writing.
The finale is an innovative study in the expansion of the classic Chopinesque “ride in hell” idea to take in all manner of technical obstacles at rapid tempo. Kullak’s short-breathed main motif is the germ from which the movement takes shape, but unlike Chopin’s episodic rondo in op. 58, Kullak’s movement is subject to strict development, thereby displaying an intellect as rigorous as its challenges are cruel. Resisting the temptation for a fireworks-based ending, Kullak instead sends the movement furiously disappearing into the distance.
Was Kullak’s op. 27 the first symphony for solo piano? Apparently, Schuberth hesitated to publish a work with such a designation, and may indeed have compelled the addition of the “Sonata” subtitle. Initially it was published in parts, with the first movement headed “Allegro symphonique” and so on, and was complete before the public by 1848. Alkan’s Symphonie from op 39 was not published until 1859, but this of course says nothing about the time when it was actually composed.
Kullak must have known Liszt’s 1833 transcription of Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique in which the orchestral capacities of the piano were stretched to new dimensions, as well of course as his transcriptions of the Beethoven symphonies. His own symphony is rather different in design, and has a good deal in common with the terse neo-Classicism of Alkan’s creation, as well as sharing its four-movement structure.
The opening movement is an expansive Allegro that calls on Beethoven and Haydn as models, adding a strong element of chromatic interest. Kullak’s ideas are always clear but rarely commonplace, and he shares with Alkan a certain element of obsessiveness when it comes to the development of motifs that gives his work backbone and a sense of propulsive drive. The piano writing is on the grandest scale, again concentrating on octaves and emphatic chords, and making great demands on the pianist’s stamina in long sections that have the hand at full stretch.
The slow movement is again indebted to Classical models and features some novel balancing of the melody with accompaniments that, although difficult, sound easy (a common feature of Henselt’s writing). It is succeeded by a tough, demonic Scherzo written largely in octaves and taking as its theme a memorable rhythmic device. The simulation of timpani in the Scherzo is carried through to the muffled drumbeat of its trio, where imitative figures exchange against this sombre backdrop.
Kullak’s finale begins arrestingly and takes some time to get into its stride. Once it does, it can be seen as having almost all the pianistic features we have come to know from Alkan’s style, including melodies in the most unexpected of tessituras, elaborate crossing of hands, striking tremolandi and double-note trills and widely-spaced effects. However, Kullak’s material is perhaps the most Classical of all the four movements, belonging to the world of Haydn’s quartets, and taking time to build up the contrapuntal head of steam necessary to form a fitting conclusion to a work of such magnitude.