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Exciting Eclecticism at Bard

Recital review
by Kevin T. McEneaney
Tue Mar 8th, 2016

On March 8 Bard College entertained visiting artists Elan Sicroff, pianist, and Katharina Paul, violinist. They arrived from Amsterdam for a lecture/performance on the Russian composer Thomas de Hartmann. This program occurred at the László Z. Bitó Conservatory Building. Beret-clad Mr. Bitó himself attended, as well as George Quasha, the noted poet of American aphorisms, and a bevy of other interesting people.

For an ice-breaker, Sicroff played two nocturnes by de Hartmann who as a young man had studied under Anton Arensky in St. Petersburg, the city where Dubliner John Field invented the nocturne as the Romantic period’s piece-de-resistance for the salon. Field studied under Muzio Clementi (who invented the modern piano sonata and set up in London as piano manufacturer) and in 1803 settled in St. Petersburg, where he sold Clementi’s pianos. He entertained the St. Petersburg nobility with his new nocturne form, stripping longer night-music pieces of the Italian salon down to minimalist piano solos that alternated slow cantabile with sudden arpeggio flights. By employing repeating parallel thirds, sixths, and tenths, he achieved a dreamy impressionist mood with stark simplicity (anticipating Impressionist painting by half a century). Chopin perfected the form, which influenced Mendelssohn, Brahms, and Debussy, yet the form was most remembered in the city where it originated. From the age of fifteen onward, de Hartmann occasionally tossed off nocturnes; Sicroff played two delightful ones, the first from 1902 and  a more complex one from 1953.

De Hartmann led an unusually peripatetic life. As a young man in his early twenties, he was a successful ballet composer. De Hartmann scored La Fleurette Rouge, which Nijinski performed for the Tsar, who liked it so much that he exempted De Hartmann from military service. De Hartmann traveled to Munich, where he found the painters more interesting than the music and struck up a friendship with Kandinsky. De Hartmann became part of the Bauhaus movement and collaborated with Kandinsky on an avant-garde opera, Der Gelbe Klang ("The Yellow Sound"),which correlated sound to color. It was not performed until 1972, when it was presented at the Guggenheim.  

Fleeing the 1917 Russian Revolution, de Hartmann and his wife, soprano Olga de Schumacher, became students and companions of the mystic Mr. “Fourth Way” George Gurdjieff. They fled over the Caucasus Mountains before settling in Paris, where de Hartmann collaborated with Gurdjieff in creating much meditation music combining elements of the nocturne with Armenian and Georgian rhythms. After a falling out with Gurdjieff, de Hartmann, under the pseudonym Kross, composed 52 music scores in seven years while also writing a variety of other musical compositions for many different instruments, as well as symphonies. De Hartmann came to the United States in 1950. He died in 1956 on the very day he was to play a retrospective of his work at Manhattan’s prestigious Town Hall venue.

Audio clips and photo montage from a slide projector added to the lecture. After brief intermission, de Hartmann’s Violin and Piano Sonata Op. 51 (1936) was played, with Sicroff on piano and Paul on violin. The Moderato was Romantically nostalgic; the Andante, which began as a Lento, introduced Far Eastern melodies; the concluding Andante was brusquely modern and made me recall Bartók. Although fiercely eclectic, the music was invigorating, especially since Paul on violin played with an authoritative power that sometimes escapes violinists. The duo was very much in sync; Sicroff’s pleasure at Paul’s performance was as noticeable as that of the audience. The small salon responded heartily, demanding two bows.

About a thousand of Thomas de Hartmann's pieces have never been recorded. In September, Basta Recordings of Amsterdam will issue a 7-cd set selection of de Hartmann’s music including chamber music for various instruments as well as Russian lieder based upon Pushkin and other poets. De Hartmann’s popular eight-saxophone Christmas Quartets will also be included. Those involved in the Thomas de Hartmann Project hope to establish de Hartmann as important voice in the story of 20th century music that travels well beyond the salon.

Photo and additional input from Tonia Shoumatoff, de Hartmann's grand neice.