Rarities of Piano Music

The overlooked gems of a piano festival in a North German castle.

Schloss vor Husum, Germany, photo by Tjark (original here). Shared under the Creative Commons License.

Fran      By Frances Wilson

Next year will be the 30th annual festival of ‘Raritäten der Klaviermusik’ (Rarities of Piano Music) held at Schloss vor Husum in the remote North German seaside town of Husum in Schleswig-Holstein. It is not a festival which parades its star performers. Rather, its very remoteness and its special focus on the unknown corners and by-ways of piano repertoire make it all the more intriguing.

Established in 1987, Rarities of Piano Music is the brainchild of Berlin-born pianist and pedagogue Peter Froundjian. When he was appointed to head the music school based in the Schloss vor Husum, he saw the possibility of a festival that would celebrate non-mainstream piano repertoire. The festival champions lesser-known and rarely-performed piano music and attracts international performers, and in thirty years it has grown from an obscure niche event to a festival renowned among connoisseurs of obscure piano music, both audience and performers alike.

Every year, in the second week of August, pianists and lovers of piano music gather, not to hear the standard canon of Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert or Chopin (though there are performances of lesser-known works by these composers), but instead piano compositions of forgotten or little-known composers whose work demonstrates the huge range and variety of the piano and its literature. Concerts take place in the intimate Rittersaal (Knight’s Hall), which seats around 200 guests.

This year’s festival included performances by Jonathan Powell in music by Konstantin Eiges, Issai Dobrowen, Nikolai Medtner and Percy Grainer; Florian Uhlig (Hummel, Weber and Schumann); and Jonathan Plowright (Granville Bantock, Herbert Howells, Constant Lambert, Lord Berners and Eugene Goossens).

Previous years’ performers have included Marc-André Hamelin, Stephen Hough, Joseph Moog, Luiza Borac, Gabriela Montero, Andrew Zolinsky and Hamish Milne. With such artists as these appearing at the festival, virtuosity goes without saying, but obscurity is the overriding theme of the festival. Any pianist may apply to perform and submit repertoire choices which are then agreed based on what has been performed before and what has not. The pianists for the 30th festival have not yet been revealed, but given the organiser’s adventurous and experimental spirit, and the impressive roster of past performers, the 2016 festival should be a rich feast for the culturally curious.

I have never been to the Rarities of Piano Music Festival, though I would very much like to go one day. However, like other “armchair listeners”, I have been able to enjoy the music from the festival via a series of recordings released by Danacord. These stretch right back to 1987, the most recent release being last year’s festival – with the 2015 festival recording no doubt currently in preparation. A pianist friend of mine flagged up the recordings to me on Spotify and I have spent many hours exploring this interesting and unusual archive, and occasionally playing some of the music myself too.

With festivals such as this, the accompanying, easy-to-access recordings, and platforms such as Spotify and YouTube, there really is no excuse for discovering new or largely forgotten music. We are fed a narrow diet of the “standard canon” in concerts and on the radio, and the wealth and variety of piano literature tends to be overlooked as better known composers and works are more heavily promoted.

Because of this, the inquisitive listener or performer must dig deeper to unearth rare gems and curiosities of the repertoire. Having said this, I have not found it particularly difficult to obtain scores, much being available online via sites such as IMSLP, or through generous colleagues who have performed at the festival or who have a special interest in sharing piano rarities.

Here are just a handful of discoveries I’ve made from browsing the Rarities of Piano Music archive:

Lotusland (1905) – Cyril Scott

An atmospheric piece redolent of Satie’s Gymnopedies and Gnossiennes with its sensuous and dreamy soundworld which seems impossibly modern for 1905. Scott was a prolific composer and a pioneer of British piano music, producing more works in the period 1903-14 than any other British or international composer, with the exception of Scriabin. Lotusland is his best known work.

Astrologo (The Astrologer), No. 5 from the Machiette medioevali, Op.33– Ferrucio Busoni

A dark and brooding work from a suite of six portraits and sketches of medieval life.

Music Box and Se tu m’ami (Tribute to Pergolesi) Marc-Andre Hamelin.

Miniatures by Hamelin (from his set ‘Con intimissimo sentimento’, 1986-2000), which offers a glimpse into the extraordinary mind of one of today’s true virtuoso pianists.

Tango – Erwin Schulhoff

From Cinq Etudes de Jazz.

Preludes in E-flat minor & G-sharp minor – Boris Pasternak

I had no idea that the writer Boris Pasternak was also a composer. He was a close friend of Alexander Scriabin, whose influence is evident in these two Preludes.

This is just a tiny selection, but one which I hope reveals the breadth of the Rarities of Piano Music archive. There are 26 volumes from the festival available via Spotify and on disc, and each contains some fine performances (all recorded live). If you are looking for piano music beyond the straight and narrow, I heartily recommend this intriguing collection.

More information about the Rarities of Piano Music festival can be found here.

Frances Wilson is a pianist, writer, concert reviewer and blogger on classical music and pianism as The Cross-Eyed Pianist. She writes a monthly column on various aspects of piano playing for ‘Pianist’ magazine’s online content, and is a regular guest blogger for HelloStage, InterludeHK, and Musical Orbit. Her concert reviews appear on Bachtrack, international concert and opera listings site. Frances holds Licentiate and Associate Diplomas (both with Distinction) in Piano Performance from Trinity College of Music, London.