AUGUST 2019 | Bomtempo Complete Piano Sonatas (2 CD) Luísa Tender Grand Piano GP801-02AUGUST 2019 | Bomtempo Complete Piano Sonatas (2 CD) Luísa Tender Grand Piano GP801-02
By RAY PICOT
The pianist Luísa Tender may not be familiar to many readers, but if this recording is your first encounter, like me I am sure you will be very impressed. She is a professor of piano at the Escola Superior de Artes Aplicadas in Castelo Branco, Portugal, with a wide musical interest from J S Bach to contemporary Portuguese composers. She may be a young pianist, with a formidable technique but this is never used at the expense of expression, just sample her J S Bach on Youtube. This complete survey of all the solo piano sonatas by the Portuguese composer, João Domingos Bomtempo (1775 - 1842) is Ms Tender’s second commercial recording, covering the extant sonatas in chronological order.
From the opening bars of the first piano sonata, (in two movements) published in 1802/3, I was struck by Luísa Tender’s fresh and clear eyed approach to the music, avoiding over indulgence in the delicious opening theme, moving the music on with discreet virtuosity. Afterall this was the young composer’s first sonata, which he would have played in public, determined to make an impact. At this stage in his career Bompempo was clearly learning his art, and not surprisingly the music bears the unmistakable influences of Mozart, Haydn and early Beethoven.
The next sonata (in four movements), also written in Paris was only discovered in the 1990’s, shows a surer hand at work and once more an attractive lyrical side, contrasted with moments of drama and undoubted difficulty, reflecting the composer’s technical skills as a concert pianist. There is a very brief scherzo-like movement to contrast an attractive Larghetto. It is played once more with consummate ability by Ms Tender, who’s choice of tempi, seem to suit the music so well.
But who is this composer? Bomtempo’s music was largely forgotten until Nella Maissa’s trail-blazing recordings, which are referred to the companion article in this newsletter. Looking back the two most important Portuguese composers during the late 18th and early 19th centuries were Marcos Portugal and Joao Domingos Bomtempo. Portugal was an operatic composer par excellence whilst Bomtempo, an outstanding pianist from contemporary accounts, wrote very well for his chosen instrument and focused on instrumental genres, though his Requiem is also very impressive. During the first two decades of the 19th century Bomtempo’s career as a composer was inextricably entwined his career as a pianist. Paris and London in the early 19th century were the two main musical centres of Europe, and the territorial incursions of Napoleon lead Bomtempo to spend alot of time in the latter. Infact he became friends with the virtuoso and publisher Clementi, who published much of his piano music. He later undertook more pedagogic activities and notwithstanding further upheavals in domestic politics, Bomtempo eventually returned to Lisbon, where founded a concert society and became the first Director of the city’s conservatory, upon its creation.
Bomtempo’s piano music can clearly be seen breaking out of the 18th century mould, though perhaps without the sense of drama that characterises Beethoven’s music. He uses sonata-form with skill, which he developed over the course of his 11 solo piano sonatas. However, Bomtempo clearly relishes the increased capabilities of the piano, with not inconsiderable virtuosity. To quote a translation of a review from 1809 “Mr Bomtempo exceeded the expectations of his listeners. Never have the keys of the piano sounded with such brilliance. Mr Bomtempo’s playing is noble, rapid, warm, graceful and elegant. It is a hymn of all the most accomplished parts of art”.
With his Op. 9 set of three sonatas published in London in 1811, Bomtempo settles on a preferred three movement form. These are mature works, which reflect well on the piano concertos written around this time. They are executed with great subtlety by Ms Tender and I was particularly taken by the inventive ‘Andante con variazioni’ second movement of the second sonata. The third sonata does not appear here as it was in effect a violin sonata. The first disc ends with so-called An Easy Sonata Op. 13, which is anything but easy, and perhaps as Ms Tender suggests it was written as a challenge for his students.
Another generous disc, the second, running to nearly 80 minutes covers the six remaining known sonatas. The journey through this music continues to be most enjoyable, and playing the groups of sonatas by opus number, is an excellent way of dipping into them., as they work well together, and not too long overall. The pieces dovetail together well, and its obvious the composer knew what he was doing, as I’m sure did the publishers, Leduc, Clementi and Pleyel. Once more Ms Tender’s sprightly handling of these pieces pays dividends, and whilst her tempi tend towards the faster side, the music never sounds hurried or phrases blurred. If anything compared to the few alternative recorded versions, the playing reflects historically informed attitudes, which works well in this music.
The clear debt to Beethoven is evident in Op. 15 No.1 as Ms Tender points out, quoting from the Waldstein sonata. Its companion is a two movement piece, of more modest ambitions and duration. The set of three sonatas Op. 18, are simpler and more straightforward stylistically, and given these effervescent performances it is hard to see why they do not appear in recitals particularly as each piece is no longer than 11 minutes in duration.
We end with the last published sonata Op. 20, thought to be written in 1816, and one where Bomtempo’s subtitle Grande Sonate is justified, in terms of invention, technical challenges and duration. Yes Beethoven is here, but one feels that Bomtempo has achieved the expressive potential of his writing for the solo piano in an ambitious setting. In the Nella Maissa recordings, the musicologist Filipe de Sousa notes that the composer indicates the use of the pedal is written down in detail, also the Schubertian character of some of the slower themes, and despite its size the piece he considers it has a well balance structure. Ms Tender observes that there are some strongly contrasting elements which make the piece more challenging to balance, though she does so in a resoundingly convincing performance. Creating a level of energy typical in live performances, MsTender makes a very god case for the work’s rehabilitation, ending the album on a high.
The natural balance of the piano helps make this one of the most enjoyable piano recordings I have heard in a while. There is a wide dynamic range to the recording, from the delicately nuanced passages to those moments of barnstorming virtuosity, all perfectly captured.
It would be wrong not to mention previous recordings, many of which I have heard. Whilst Nella Maissa’s LP and later CD recordings For Portugalsom are of great artistic value, and include the wonderful Fantasia Op. 14, the sound is nowhere near as good as this newcomer, and they are all deleted. In 2016, the Portuguese label MPMP (only available as downloads in the UK) started releasing discs from Philippe Marques’ traversal of Bomtempo’s solo piano music. The first three have been issued and they include the ‘Violin Sonata’ mentioned earlier but not the Op. 20 sonata so far. The recorded sound is much better than Nella Maissa’s, and whilst tempi are not the whole picture, Marques does take a more introspective approach. Choice is a matter of personal preference, but it’s a good sign that artists and record labels are willing to let a wider audience hear Bomtempo’s music. For now I can give a warm recommendation to Luísa Tender’s life-affirming performances.
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