First Austrian period (1922-1928)

On the 22nd July 1922 Bortkiewicz and his wife arrived in Austria. Initially Bortkiewicz chose Baden, near Vienna, as his residence, where he remained until 1923. On 15 December 1922 the violonist Franta (or Frank) Smit premiered Bortkiewicz’s violin concerto opus 22 in Prague with the Czech Philharmonic conducted by Bortkiewicz. Together with Franta (or Frank) Smit he gave concerts in The Hague (The Netherlands) on 29 January 1923 and on 6 February 1923. He also completed his Douze études opus 29 which he dedicated to his friend Hugo van Dalen. His cello concerto opus 20 was premiered by the cellist Paul Grümmer (1879-1965) in Budapest with the Budapest Philharmonic Orchestra (Budapesti Filharmóniai Társaság Zenekara) conducted by Ernő Dohnányi (1877-1960).
In the course of 1923 Sergei and Elisabeth Bortkiewicz settled in Vienna and remained here five years, supported in a friendly manner by Paul de Conne, their countryman and previous colleague of Sergei Bortkiewicz at the St. Petersburg Conservatory. Not only did Paul de Conne introduce Sergei Bortkiewicz to the Viennese music circle and to Viennese publishers, but also helped the Bortkiewicz couple through his connections with the Ministery of Education in obtaining their Austrian citizenship, which they finally obtained on 27 April 1945 (since 1925 they were Bundesbürger mit Heimatrecht in Baden. As a result of the Anschluss on 13 March 1938, they were treated as German nationals as from 3 July 1938. On 27 April 1945 they became Österreichische Staatsbürger). It was through Paul de Conne that Hans Ankwicz-Kleehoven, the founder of the Bortkiewicz Gemeinde, first became aware of Bortkiewicz, because Paul de Conne, who appeared very often in sunday concerts in the years 1925-1931, played the beautiful D flat major prelude (opus 33 no. 8) with great success. “We all liked it so much that he had to perform it every time and awoke the keen desire in all listeners to learn more about this composer unknown in Vienna till now”, according to Hans Ankwicz-Kleehoven.
Between December 1922 and Easter 1923 Paul Wittgenstein (1887-1961), pianist and brother of the famous philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, who had lost his right arm during World War I, approached Sergei Bortkiewicz to commission a piano concerto for the left hand only. During the same period Wittgenstein approached Paul Hindemith, Erich Wolfgang Korngold and Franz Schmidt with similar requests. Later also Richard Strauss, Sergei Prokofiev and Maurice Ravel amongst others were asked to write concertos which Paul could play in public. As part of the deal each composer had to ensure that the full score and orchestral parts became exclusively owned by Paul Wittgenstein and that he had the exclusive performing rights of the works during his life. Because of this stipulation, Paul Wittgenstein refused other pianists to perform the works he had commissioned. This happened to Siegfried Rapp (1915-1982), who had lost his right arm during World War II. Wittgenstein wrote to him on June 5, 1950: ‘You don’t build a house just so that someone else can live in it. I commissioned and paid for the works, the whole idea was mine […]. But those works to which I still have the exclusive performance rights are to remain mine as long as I still perform in public; that’s only right and fair. Once I am dead or no longer give concerts, then the works will be available to everyone because I have no wish for them to gather dust in libraries to the detriment of the composer’. Even today it is almost impossible to obtain non-published works commissioned by Wittgenstein from the archive of Paul Wittgenstein, which is nowadays in private ownership in Hong Kong. Here we have the primary factor why the score of Bortkiewicz’ second piano concerto for the left hand only, opus 28 was never published in print and why it fell into oblivion after the deaths of Bortkiewicz in 1952 and Wittgenstein in 1961. Nevertheless we know that Siegfried Rapp finally succeeded in obtaining a copy of the score of Bortkiewicz’ second piano concerto held by the Bortkiewicz Gemeinde and played it in public in Reichenhall (1952). He also played it in Dresden (1953) with the Dresdener Staatskappelle under the baton of Kurt Striegler.

The premiere of Bortkiewicz’ second piano concerto took place on November 29, 1923 in Vienna. Paul Wittgenstein played the piano and Eugen Pabst conducted the orchestra. Essentially, the work has two movements. The first section is an Allegro Dramatico in C minor, with two themes. It begins with a long-spun dramatic melody that is presented first by tge soloist and then by the orchestra. The contrasting second theme is reminiscent of a sarabande. An interesting formal aspect is that the traditional, slow second movement of a concerto is included here within the first movement, being the heart of it. In this central section, with its own new themes, Bortkiewicz creates an intense, chamber-music atmosphere by bringing the piano into dialogue with solo instruments from the orchestra, which include flute, cello and the viola. The listener almost forgets the orchestra during these intimate conversations, until they burst out in the recapitulation of the first movement. The second movement is an uncomplicated dance in three-four time with an attractive folkloristic touch. This uplifting finale in Eb major is a welcome contrast to the heady mixture of drama and contemplation that precedes it.

Wittgenstein seemed to like the concerto very much and played it frequently in public before World War II. We know he performed it on a number of occaisions including Hamburg (1924), Teschen (1926), Vienna (1928, 1929 and 1932), Munich (1929), Budapest (1929), Berlin (1930), Zagreb (1930), Baku (1930) and Kiev (1930). In 1930 Wittgenstein again approached Bortkiewicz to write a concert piece. For this purpose Bortkiewicz wrote his Russian Rhapsody for piano and orchestra opus 45 (for the left hand only). The full score and orchestral parts are still in the archive of Paul Wittgenstein and waiting to be revealed to the general public. Later on, Bortkiewicz re-wrote his Russian Rhapsody in a two hand version. The full score and orchestral parts of this two hand version are available in the archive of The Netherlands Music Institute (

In Vienna he also composed his Pianoconcerto no. 3 opus 32 “Per aspera ad astra”, which he dedicated to Paul de Conne. The première of this concerto was on April 30, 1927 in Vienna, during a concert, conducted by Bortkiewicz himself, that started with the symphonic poem Othello (opus 19) followed by the violin concert (opus 22) performed by Christa Richter-Steiner (1899-1962), after which the Russian pianist Maria Neuscheller gave the première of the third piano concerto (opus 32). The concert was concluded with a performance of the ballet-suite Tausend und eine Nacht, opus 37.

Per aspera ad astra -‘through resistance into light’- wrote Bortkiewicz at the top of the score of his third piano concerto. This path, this programme, is represented in the gradual unfolding of a high and radiant C major from a dark and deep C minor. All this is attained with essentially the same motif. The large-scale concerto is an uninterrupted stream. The piano has many roles: as a harp with broken chords, as a simple melodic instrument, a staccato commentator and as a device for both fast ornamentation and large block chords from the Slavonic tradition. The melodic gifts, the instrumentation and the different functions of the piano reflect the solid workmanship of Bortkiewicz. There is a richness of ideas, from long-spun melodies to hammered-out motifs, but never is the sense of unity disturbed. This concerto, which embodies that same pathos as the concertos of Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov, Scriabin and Medtner, can stand proudly among them.

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