Bülow studied piano in Leipzig with the famous teacher Louis Plaidy. During the autumn of 1850, he followed Richard Wagner to Zurich and became a student of Franz Liszt in Weimar. He became a piano teacher at Stern Conservatory as well as giving private lessons to Cosima Liszt, whom he married in 1857. Notoriously tactless, Bülow alienated many musicians with whom he worked but at the same time he was beginning to win renown for his ability to conduct new and complex works without a score.
As a pianist he was the first to perform the complete cycle of Beethoven's piano sonatas, which he did from memory. In 1857 he gave the first public performance of Liszt's great Piano Sonata in B minor, in Berlin.
In 1864, at the invitation of King Ludwig II of Bavaria, he became Hofkapellmeister at the Munich court. Despite his wife having two children by Wagner, Bülow continued to support the composer, conducting the premieres of Tristan und Isolde (10th June 1865) and Die Meistersänger von Nürnberg (21st June 1868). In 1867 he became director of the newly reopened Königliche Musikschule in Munich remaining there until 1869. Cosima eventually left him for Wagner, divorcing him in 1870.
From 1878 to 1880 Bülow was Hofkapellmeister in Hanover but was forced to leave after fighting with a tenor in a performance of Lohengrin. In 1880, he was employed as director of the Meiningen Hofkapelle, building up the orchestra to a position whereby they achieved international acclaim with tours throughout Europe. Noted for his interpretation of the works of Beethoven, he was one of the earliest European musicians to tour the United States. It was during his time with the Meiningen Hofkapelle that he met Richard Strauss in Berlin. Though he was not initially impressed by the composer he later used his influence to enable Strauss to obtain his first regular employment as a conductor.
From the 1880s Bülow developed a close collaboration and friendship with Johannes Brahms. He also championed the music of Tchaikovsky and was the soloist in the world premiere of the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1 in B flat minor in Boston in 1875, apparently having more enthusiasm for the new concerto than the original dedicatee, Nicholas Rubinstein.
In the late 1880s he settled in Hamburg, but continued to tour, both as a conductor and pianist. From around 1890 his mental and physical health began to fail causing him to seek a warmer climate in Egypt. Bülow died in in Cairo, just ten months after his last concert performance.
Nimbus Records www.wyastone.co.uk/all-labels/nimbus.html have just released volume two in their series of recordings of piano works by Hans von Bülow played by Mark Anderson www.markandersonpianist.com
With Bülow’s Mazurka – Fantasie, Op.13 and its rather gentle opening and leisurely pace, I struggled to find any clearly identifiable influences. It has a rather lightweight quality until, as it develops, it becomes more dynamic. Mark Anderson does his best to bring out every little dynamic in his fine performance but the music does tend to flag at times. Nevertheless, there is some terrific playing when, towards the coda, Bülow finally pulls out the stops.
To my ears Elfenjagd, Op.14 (Impromptu) is a far more attractive work with some lovely subtleties and a much tighter construction. There is some brilliantly fleet playing from Anderson in this piece that has hints of Schumann and Mendelssohn.
The Mazurka – Impromptu, Op.4 is another attractive piece, full of fun, with a lovely rhythmic poise. Invitation à la Polka is very much in the same mould and so obviously written by a virtuoso pianist, such is some of the writing, particularly in the bravura coda.
There is a thoughtful opening to the Chant Polonaise (alla Mazurka), Op.12 before the gentle lilt of the Mazurka appears. There are more impassioned moments and some wonderfully fluid playing from Anderson, as well as a brilliant conclusion.
I was particularly attracted to Bulow’s Trois Valse caracteristique, Op.18, with a beautifully written Valse de ‘L’Ingeru’ that wouldn’t disgrace a major composer, a more dynamic Valse du ‘Jaloux’ nicely pointed up by Anderson and Valse du ‘Glorieux’ that has a memorable theme and a lovely forward flow, beautifully developed. I very much enjoyed these waltzes that are full of invention and well worth hearing, particularly when so well played as here.
The final work on this disc is Königsmarsch, Op.28 which, after opening with bell like chords, develops in the grand manner before settling to a more moderate pace with a distinctive four note motif. There is an attractive central section before the four note motif returns, with Lisztian falling phrases and the return of the opening in the coda. Though this would probably make a good encore piece, the music is somewhat obvious at times.
Well recorded at Wyaston Leys and with excellent booklet notes by Paul Conway, this is a fascinating release that explores the byways of 19th century German music through one of the most famous conductors of the time. Though there are no undiscovered gems here, many of the pieces are most attractive and brilliantly played by Mark Anderson.