Recitals at Sea with the Hartmanns

Saint-Saëns, Scarlatti, Liszt, Khachaturian, Bach, Offenbach, Mozart, Chopin, SchubertBéla & Julia Hartmann (piano),  MV Balmoral Cruise, 29.9.2013, 2.10.2013.

There is an ever-pressing danger that any piano recital given on board a cruise liner will descend to the lowest common denominator. I have heard well-qualified on-board pianists present the most hackneyed pieces in an obvious attempt to be popular. Without being too specific, it is fairly easy to cite the particular Chopin ‘Nocturne’, Rachmaninov ‘Prelude’ and Liszt ‘Liebstraum’ that will feature in many programmes. That is to say nothing about the inevitable arrangement of Andrew Lloyd Webber or Lennon and McCartney. There is no condemnation implied of popular pieces as such – only an obsession with them.

It is not my intention to second-guess the musical ‘literacy’ of any given cruise audience, however it is likely to much less-specialised than the Wigmore Hall crowd. Their range of interest will span Einaudi to Elgar and back to John Barry and Sebastian Bach. Inevitably, one of two musical ‘anoraks’ will be in the audience wondering why their particular protégé is not given wider billing.  The odd musical snob will deprecate the presence of any pot-boilers in the programme.

Béla and Julia Hartmann struck an ideal balance with their two excellent recitals given on the MV Balmoral, as the ship sailed from Southampton towards some lesser-known ports in the Mediterranean. This husband and wife team chose to present a wide range of music, mainly for piano solo, but also including a number if duets.

The first recital (29th September) began with a good account of some of Saint-Saens’ Carnival of the Animals, including the ubiquitous ‘The Swan’ and the less-commonly heard ‘Lion’s Royal March’ complete with the roar.  Although Domenico Scarlatti (1685-1757) was born in Italy, he spent much of his career in the service of the Spanish and Portuguese royal households. So this association made him highly appropriate for a cruise visiting Lisbon and Malaga.   Scarlatti wrote some 555 piano sonatas and unfortunately there was only space for Julia to play two of them. These are timeless works that defy categorisation.

Beethoven was represented by the final two movements of his Sonata in E flat, Op.27 No.1 (Quasi una fantasia). This was a bold choice and avoided the temptation to opt for the ‘Moonlight’ or the ‘Pathetic’.  The final movement of this work is particularly interesting and adopts a cyclic form with references to the opening and slow movements. Béla played this with great proficiency and enthusiasm.

The next group of works were given by Julia and included the famous C sharp minor Prelude by Rachmaninoff alluded to above. However it was good to hear the slightly less-popular G sharp minor example from Op.32.  The easiest of Liszt’s Consolations (No.1) followed before she concluded with a stunning performance of Khachaturian’s Toccata dating from 1932. Originally part of a larger piano suite including a Waltz–Capriccio and a Dance, this work utilises folk-music from Armenia as well as the then-contemporary modernist techniques with driving rhythms and a contrasting nostalgic middle section.  This first recital concluded with Dame Myra Hess’ piano duet arrangement of ‘Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring’, from Cantata BWV147.  It is an adaptation that I did not know existed, however I understand that is was published some eight years (1934) after the solo version. It is effective in both incarnations.

Whilst the MV Balmoral was steaming north along the Spanish coast towards the Costa Brava town of Palamos, Béla and Julia Hartmann gave their second recital. This time the proceedings opened with an arrangement for piano duet of Jacques Offenbach’s ‘Barcarolle’ from the Tales of Hoffmann. I was delighted to hear another work from Scarlatti, this time the well-known (certainly the most recorded) Sonata in E major, K380. It is my favourite.

I have never heard a live performance of Mozart’s improvisatory Fantasia in D minor, K397, so it was interesting to hear Julia give an inspiring account of this challenging piece. The work is characterised by a certain lack of ‘traditional’ form and has a considerable number of tempi changes.

Béla Hartman followed this with Chopin’s Nocturne in E minor (No. 19, Op.72/1 posth.) with its attractive cantabile sections balanced by a more passionate middle section. This work was composed when Chopin was only seventeen, but already reveals the hand of a master. Robert Schumann’s Kinderszenen is always popular with audiences. Béla played three of the thirteen movements including the beautiful ‘Träumerei’ (Dreaming).

The major work in the second recital was the massive Scherzo in B minor by Chopin. Béla played this work with great absorption and matched the brilliant opening and closing ‘whirl of stormy emotion’ with a much more poetic middle section which is composed in the relative minor. The recital concluded with Franz Schubert’s ‘Military March’ in D for piano duet which is always guaranteed to ‘bring the house down.’

There were a few concerns that I had about these recitals, none of which reflected on the two artists’ technical and interpretive accomplishments. Firstly, the piano was a little ‘temperamental’. At times there seemed to be an almost metallic ‘honky-tonk’ accompaniment to the proceedings. To be fair, this instrument is used for all kinds of music making, from jazz, the ‘Shows,’ the Sunday Service and ‘jazz by night.’  Secondly, the recitals took place in the Neptune Lounge. On the MV Balmoral this is the main performance space where most of the theatrical entertainment takes place. There is a bar for the patrons, and unfortunately no-one seemed to have told the bar staff that a piano recital was in progress. It is very difficult to concentrate on Chopin and Scarlatti to the accompaniment of ice buckets being filled and emptied, glasses stacked and bottles being thrown into waste bins. On this ‘note’ it was also unfortunate that the ladies ‘powder room’ was near the door of the lounge – every so often the sound of the ‘Dyson’ hand-dryer drowned the more reflective musings of the pianists.

Finally, I should have liked Béla and Julia Hartmann to have played one or two pieces that reflected the largely Spanish destination of the cruise. Scarlatti is a wee bit tentative; however a couple of pieces by Albeniz, Turina or Granados would have fitted the bill ideally. But in spite of this last criticism, these were exceptionally well-planned recitals that explored a goodly range of music. The quality of the playing was excellent throughout and the audience managed to behave reasonably well: I was only conscious of a few prolonged stage-whispers and coughing fits as events proceeded.

John France