Howard Shelley

The Romantic Piano Concerto, Vol. 41: Friedrich Kalkbrenner: Piano Concertos Nos. 1 & 4

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German-born Frédéric Kalkbrenner was perhaps the top pianist in Paris when Chopin came on the scene. The exemplary booklet notes by Jeremy Nicholas here, which are full of information useful to anyone interested in the period, include various entertaining put-downs of Kalkbrenner and his music -- poet Heinrich Heine likened the composer's ineffective pomposity to "a bonbon fallen in the mud," and Nicholas himself calls the music "emotionally and dynamically limited." Its strong point is its elegant virtuosity. The two piano concertos recorded here are compendia of technique, with everything artfully deployed to show off Kalkbrenner's own skills over a background of rather formless material, Beethovenian in mood. As a pianist he was "polished as a billiard ball," one contemporary wrote, and the music moves episodically along, the orchestra receding as Kalkbrenner steps into the spotlight to display a run of octaves or a blaze of sixty-fourth notes. Kalkbrenner's influence as a teacher was considerable; one of his students was Louis Moreau Gottschalk. And these concertos are certainly of interest to those interested in the sources of the styles of Chopin and, especially, Liszt. Pianist Howard Shelley and the little-known (except around the antipodes) Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra present the music to its best advantage; Shelley offers a clean, well-practiced sound that one imagines Kalkbrenner, who emphasized pure technique, would have liked. A useful disc for libraries or, perhaps, for readers of Paul Kennedy's best-selling book on early modern Europe to listen to in the background as they read.

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