Askenase Germany MC1065

Stefan Askenase (piano)
Concerts in East Germany 1967-1968
rec. live, 1967-68 various venues
MELOCLASSIC MC1065 [2 CDs: 153]

Polish pianist Stefan Askenase was born in 1896 to a lawyer father and a mother who had studied piano with Chopin pupil Karol Mikuli. His early studies in his home town of Lemberg (now Lviv) were with Ksawery Zacharyasiewicz, a pupil of Franz Xaver Mozart, and with Theodor Pollak, a Moriz Rosenthal pupil. Aged seventeen he travelled to the State Academy of Music and Performing Arts in Vienna and began lessons with the esteemed Liszt pupil Emil von Sauer; when the first world war brought a halt to the Academy’s activities Askenase played his teacher’s E minor Piano Concerto at the final concert. After the war and further studies he took up a career that was to continue to his death in 1985 in the middle of a 40 city concert tour. His recordings focus heavily on Chopin, a scattering of romantic piano solos and some Mozart Piano Concertos; his later concert programmes also concentrated on the mainstream classical and romantic repertoire but before the second world war he played much more contemporary music including works by Karol Szymanowski, Karol Rathaus, Darius Milhaud, Ignace Lilien, also Lemberg born, and the first UK performance of the Piano Sonata by Igor Stravinsky – as the booklet points out, one reviewer noted that this was the first time it had been heard in london but remarked “now that its novelty has gone – and it was played with perfect clearness – there is little else left“.

Nothing unexpected on either of these live concerts however. The first concentrates on Mozart and Chopin with three encore items, Scarlatti, Mozart and a Mendelssohn Scherzo that he recorded in the 1950s for DG while the second features two piano concertos. The recital from February 1967 appears to be complete. The Mozart selections are poised and elegant, introducing us to Askenase’s clarity of expression, beautiful sound and masterly control of dynamics. He is not a flamboyant pianist by any means and at times sounds quite restrained compared to some of the pianists I have been listening to lately – Edith Farnadi, Alexander Uninsky and Julian von Károlyi just from the Meloclassic catalogue – but he brings subtle rubato and playfulness to his Mozart; I could listen to him coming out of the last movement cadenza of K.333 over and over just for the utter sensitivity he displays. Between the two Sonatas he plays a couple of relative rarities alongside the familiar A minor rondo, the Minuet in D and the Gigue in G. The three pieces almost form another sonata with the improvisational rondo as an extended opening movement, a second movement minuet with its gentle discords paving the way for the finale, the gigue, brief but enigmatic as it skips through keys with abandon. More noticeable in his Chopin selection is that some of his tempi are on the slower side though he is never boring. I did wonder upon noting that his version of Chopin’s B flat minor Scherzo comes in at 11:15, pretty much the longest I have on record and which is almost cautious in those first low notes but it quickly settles into a grand and broad interpretation; not surprisingly Askenase brings a good deal of tenderness to the writing in the A major section as well as plenty of panache to its more virtuoso passages. The sequence opens with an understated B major Nocturne with lovely singing lines and subtle rubato and features several mazurkas and waltzes; the mazurkas are exquisite, unfussy and intimate readings, especially the hushed F minor and the same is true of his waltzes, buoyant and charming in the F major especially and with a real lilt to the A minor. It is nice to hear the Tarantelle, a relative rarity amongst Chopin’s output and if this is very occasionally a little heavy I wonder if that is gruff part of Askenase’s story telling. He offers flirtatious Scarlatti, sprightly Mendelssohn and wonderfully graceful and simple Ländler from Mozart’s six German dances as encores.

The two concertos were recorded live on 6th February, 1968; there is a nice ambient concert hall feel to the sound, sparklingly clear piano and wonderful support from the Leipzig players. Askenase again impresses with the precision of his fingerwork and the beauty of his sound and if the finales of neither concerto are taken as fast as we sometimes hear it is clear that Askenase is in control at all times, having time to mould each phrase. The second movement of the Mendelssohn is a delight, Askenase and Kegel creating an oasis of serenity and stillness in the middle of this youthful, energetic work, many of Askenase’s phrases marvellously delicate but still with the feeling of every key reaching the bed of the piano. If I had to pick a highlight of the disc this would be it but there is character in everything here and the finale of the Mozart, currently gracing my ears, oozes charm in its every phrase.

Meloclassic have managed to impress me once again with a pianist that I hadn’t heard before though I knew the name. The sound is exemplary throughout as are Michael Waiblinger’s booklet notes, packed with detail musical and biographical.

Rob Challinor

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)
Piano Sonata No.9 in D major K.311/284c (1777)
Rondo in A minor K.511
Minuet in D major K.355/576b
Gigue in G major K.574
Piano Sonata No.13 in B flat major K.333/315c (1783)
Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849)
Nocturne in B major Op.9 No.3 (1832)
Scherzo in B flat minor No.2 Op.31 (1836-37)
Mazurka in B flat minor Op.24 No.4 (1835)
Mazurka in F minor Op63 No.2 (1846)
Mazurka in C sharp minor Op.63 No.3 (1846)
Waltz in A minor Op.34 No.2 (1831)
Waltz in F major Op.34 No.3 (c.1838)
Tarantelle in A flat major Op.43 (1841)
Domenico Scarlatti (1685-1757)
Sonata in G major K.13
Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847)
Scherzo in E minor Op.16 No.2 (1829)
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Ländler in B flat major K.606 No.1 (1791)
Live recording 2 February, 1967 at Marx-Engels Auditorium, East Berlin
Piano Concerto No.17 in G major K.453 (1784)
Felix Mendelssohn
Piano Concerto No.1 in G minor Op.25 (1831)
Live recording 6 February, 1968 Konzerthalle, Leipzig
Rundfunk Sinfonieorchester Leipzig
Herbert Kegel (conductor)

Availability: Meloclassic