Early last September Reference Recordings released an album of the music of Moritz Moszkowski whose full title is From Foreign Lands: Rediscovered Orchestral Works. This was the result of a project proposed by Martin West, Music Director of the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra, suggesting that one could fill a CD with Moszkowski’s orchestral works. Seven compositions were recorded, four of which were released on a commercial recording for the first time. (For the record the last two selections on the album are orchestrations of Moszkowski’s better-known piano music; and none of those orchestrations are by Moszkowski himself.)
In his day (born on August 23, 1854 and died on March 4, 1925) Moszkowski had an impressive reputation; but this was primarily as a pianist and a composer of piano music. He played a two-piano arrangement of his piano concerto with Franz Liszt; and Ignacy Jan Paderewski declared:
After Chopin, Moszkowski best understands how to write for the piano, and his writing embraces the whole gamut of piano technique.
He also taught in both Berlin and Paris with students such as Joaquín Turina, Thomas Beecham, and Wanda Landowska. However, his tastes went into decline at the turn of the century. In a paper about Moszkowski’s neurological condition, Lazaros C. Triarhou observed that he stopped taking compositions students because “they wanted to write like artistic madmen such as Scriabin, Schoenberg, Debussy, Satie.”
How, then, should we regard Moszkowski today? Is he a neglected genius or a casualty of natural selection? My own experience comes from playing his Opus 12 four-hand collection of five “Spanish” dances. Whether or not Moszkowski’s sense of Spanish was authentic, those pieces are definitely fun to play; and I would happily seek out another four-hand partner to revisit them. On the other hand the orchestrations by Philipp Scharwenka and Valentin Frank on this album are disconcertingly lame, bursting all the effervescent bubbles of the original score. Sadly, on the basis of the earlier tracks on the album, it is worth hypothesizing that both Scharwenka and Frank were trying to do justice to Moszkowski’s own approach to orchestral writing. Thus, even the selections with the promise of being enticing curiosities come off as ponderous slogs.
How much of this is Moszkowski, and how much is West? That is a difficult call. Drawing upon my own past experience in covering ballet, I can acknowledge that conductors frequently have to work around the physical constraints of the dancers. In other words the well-turned ankle matters far more than the well-shaped musical phrase. Nevertheless, those who read this site regularly know that Charles Mackerras had no trouble giving a sparkling account of “Pineapple Poll” without worrying about inconveniencing the Sadler’s Wells dancers. My guess, however, is that the major problem is that the music has become too dated and that Moszkowski is better suited to a few instruments in a salon, rather than a full ensemble in a concert hall.