Tellefsen & Kalkbrenner Piano Concertos Hyperion

Thomas Tellefsen (1823-1874)
Piano Concerto No.1 in G minor Op.8 (1847-48)
Piano Concerto No.2 in F minor Op.15 (1853)
Friedrich Kalkbrenner (1785-1849)
Grande Marche interrompue par Un Orage et suivie d’un Polonaise op.93 (pub.1828)
Nuremberg Symphony Orchestra/Howard Shelley (piano)
rec. 2022, Kongresshalle, Nürnberg, Germany
The Romantic Piano Concerto 86
Hyperion CDA68345 [76]

The latest volume in this long-running series – and long may it continue – takes us northwards, or at least partly. Thomas Dyke Acland Tellefsen was born in Trondheim, Norway, the son of the organist of Trondheim Cathedral, Johan Christian Tellefsen and it was his father who gave him his first lessons. He gave his debut in his home town at the age of eighteen but it is his time in Paris with Chopin that brings about the connection with the other composer featured here, Friedrich Kalkbrenner. Tellefsen had moved to Paris in 1841 and was forced to wait over two years to take lessons with Chopin; in the interim he studied with Charlotte Thygeson, an acclaimed Norwegian pupil of Kalkbrenner as well as Kalkbrenner himself. The older pianist had offered to teach Chopin when he first moved to Paris, an offer Chopin considered but ultimately declined; Tellefsen appreciated the fact that the lessons were free but was concerned, as perhaps Chopin expected, that the lessons concentrated on technique over interpretation; a chance meeting with George Sand and an introduction to Chopin probably couldn’t have come quickly enough. 

His first piano concerto was written during his years with Chopin. We can only surmise that Chopin would have offered guidance on the work but it seems likely as the two composers became friends and worked together closely in the final years of the Polish composer’s life. Certainly there is a lot of writing characteristic of Chopin in all movements; in the first movement after a long tutti the piano enters with grand octaves and chords before the first theme enters, a long lyrical melody over repeated chords in the left hand which itself leads to some flowing semiquaver figuration. Tellefsen does not copy Chopin but the similarities are clear for all to hear; the melodies are attractive, the writing is technically brilliant and the orchestration is richer and more varied than Chopin ever achieved, probably the influence of Henri Reber from whom Tellefsen was taking composition lessons. Tellefsen brings a bit of Norway to centre stage in the allegro finale with his lively folk dance theme just as Chopin brought in Mazurkas and Krakowiaks into his finales. One element of Tellefsen’s opening figuration is exactly like the distinctive descending notes of Grieg’s piano concerto; did Grieg know this concerto or was it just a phrase characteristic of Norwegian folk music? Certainly the minor theme here is taken from a collection of Norwegian folk music. Tellefsen played the work in Sweden and Norway up till about 1855 and it was unheard until Einar Steen-Nøkleberg played it with the Trondheim Symphony Orchestra in 1972. On that occasion the critic of the newspaper Aftenposten praised its personal character saying Tellefsen was by no means a lesser composer than his teacher and whilst I agree it is a work that deserves more attention I would hardly place Tellfesen in such lofty company. Steen-Nøkleberg recorded both concertos in 2003 with the Trondheim Symphony Orchestra under Terje Mikelsen (Simax PSC1232 review); I prefer the slightly beefier sound of the Trondheim players but there is little to choose in terms of tempi. Shelley’s recording has a little more clarity in the passagework; I find Steen-Nøkleberg’s right hand doesn’t always carry as easily over the left as I would like.

The second concerto in F minor was composed five years later and it is evident that the spirit of Chopin still hovers; his F minor concerto is reflected in much of the orchestral tutti and the strings at the beginning of the rather beautiful adagio seem to be playing the romance of the E minor concerto, right down to the key – there is even a senza tempodelicate, chromatic cadenza. For the finale Tellefsen heads to sunnier climes with an energetic tarantella and Shelley easily scores here over Steen-Nøkleberg’s rather sedate performance.

We travel back to the mid 1820s for Kalkbrenner’s contribution to this disc, the Grand March interrupted by a Storm and followed by a Polonaise which he scored for piano and strings. The grand title fails to mention the introduction which is nearly five minutes long  and whose operatic melody is soon adorned with a garland of octaves, runs, thirds and sixths – all the standard paraphernalia essential to the concert pianist of the time. This doesn’t mean to say that this is just a virtuoso show-piece, far from it; Kalkbrenner was enough of an artist to recognise that if he wanted to keep up with the emerging young virtuosi he needed more than a fancy box of tricks at his disposal. The march is almost Mendelssohn-like and creeps in gently with two bars from the double bass. The storm is a development of the march with plenty of octaves, arpeggios and general thunderous drama that gradually subsides into a few final droplets and a rumbling bass that announces the sparkling polonaise. This accounts for nearly half the work and with its Weber-like main section and almost ländler like interlude it demands poise and elegance even in the most strenuous of fingerwork; Shelley certainly delivers that, bringing admirable agility. It is an exciting and engaging piece, a little extended perhaps but would appeal to those who enjoy something like Chopin’s Andante spianato and grande polonaise and if you enjoy the Chopin Piano Concertos I would say that the Tellefsen would appeal as an attractive alternative every now and than. A fine addition to this series which definitely still has legs.

Rob Challinor

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