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SERGEI LYAPUNOV

by

Dr David C F Wright

 

My introduction to this composer, many years ago, was his Piano Concerto no. 2 in E, op. 28, which dates from 1909, the same year as Rachmaninovís superlative Piano Concerto no. 3 in D minor. Both concertos are dedicated to the same pianist, Josef Hofmann, the Polish born pianist who was born in 1876. He made his concert debut when he was eleven years old and later studied with Moszkowski and Anton Rubinstein. He settled in America and was renowned for his playing of Chopin and Liszt. He was the director of the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia from 1925- 1938. For some obscure reason he sometimes used the pseudonym, Michel Dvorsky. He was also a composer with five piano concertos, piano sonatas and a symphony to his name.

But to return to Lyapunov. This Piano Concerto no. 2 has a main theme which is very close to the main theme of Brahms's Piano Concerto no. 1 in D minor. Incidentally the main theme of the first movement of Lalo's Symphony in G minor is very close to the Brahms's theme as well.

This piano concerto is in one movement and lasts about 18 minutes. It is very attractive and full of top of the piano Lisztian filigree. It is a strong piece but overshadowed by other and more impressive concertos. But it should be heard and it is worthy of admiration. Hamish Milne and the Ulster Orchestra under Bryden Thomson revived it some years ago.

Sergei Mikhailovich Lyapunov was born in Yaroslav on 30 November 1859, attended classes at the Imperial Music Society at Nizhny-Novgorod and studied at the Moscow Conservatory during 1878-1883, piano with Klindworth and Pabst and composition with Hubert, Tchaikovsky and Taneyev. He did not care for Tchaikovsky whose character and personality were always unpredictable. He was drawn to a greater composer and teacher, Mily Balakirev, who subscribed to the nationalistic style of music. With Balakirev and with Lyadov they worked on collecting folk songs. Lyadov was also a difficult man. He was incredibly lazy and, to some extent, this is shown in the brevity of some of his works. Some of his symphonic poems are five minutes in length whereas those by Glazunov and Rachmaninov are about 20 minutes long and more intricate. He was the original choice for the ballet Firebird but so delayed work on it that the commission was given to Stravinsky.

Lyapunov left the Conservatory in 1883 becoming the assistant director of the Imperial Choir in St Petersburg from 1884 - 1902 and, later, a professor at the St Petersburg Conservatory from 1910 - 1918. In 1883 he composed his first orchestral piece the Ballade Op. 2. Ten years later in 1893 he was appointed by the Imperial geographical Society to collect the folksongs of Volgda, Viatka and Kostroma. The result was the publication of some 300 songs, thirty of which became his opus 10. On leaving the Court choir in 1902 he became inspector of Music at St Helen's Institute until 1910 as well as being a professor at the Conservatory in St Petersburg. But he was a cultural casualty of the Russian revolution and exiled himself in Paris in 1918 where he opened a music school for Russian emigrees. He worked on editing the letters between Balakirev and Tchaikovsky making valuable insights into the damaged Tchaikovsky personality and the causes of Balakirev's breakdown in the late 1860s which forced him to retire from music when he became a railway administrator.

As Lyapunov was a concert pianist he encountered the music of Liszt and was influenced by some of his ideas notably in his own 12 Transcendental Studies Op. 11. As with Lyadov, Lyapunov wrote some short piano pieces such as Mazurkas 3 to 8 given separate opus numbers namely 17, 19, 21, 24, 31 and 36 respectively. The Liszt influence is seen in two Valse-Impromptus opus 23 and 29 respectively. There is a Piano Sonata, Op.27 and the Divertissements Op.35 all short pieces as are the Fetes de Noel Op. 41. While in Russia, Lyapunov made trips to Germany and Austria as conductor and pianist.

Chopin was also an influence. The Symphonic Poem Zhelasova Vola is named after Chopin's birthplace and there are Chopin quotes within the piece. Glinka was also important to him as shown in the Two piano pieces from Ruslan and Ludmilla , Op. 33.

I have made reference to his Piano Concerto no. 2 but his Piano Concerto no 1, Op. 4 which dates from 1890 is , by far, the better of the two concertos. It is in a single movement and in sonata form lasting 20 minutes. It has its faults though. It stops and starts and there are a few too many of them. The works begins with stirring strings with a hint of Liszt's magnificent Piano Concerto no. 1 in E flat. The plaintive woodwind follow with rich melodic lines combing a yearning and nostalgia. The music then begins to generate excitement and expectancy. About two minutes from the beginning the piano enters with typical flourishes and bravura writing which is controlled and not reckless. The main theme is slightly angular but memorable. It prefigures Rachmaninov whose own Piano Concerto no. 1 was written the following year, 1891, and revised in 1917. In fact, many of Lyapunov ideas were later to be found in Rachmaninov. The orchestral writing in this concerto is very good although the composer avoids showmanship and orchestral vulgarity one associates with Tchaikovsky. But there are moments of boldness and adrenalin rushes. Five minutes in there is a superb orchestral passage followed by a solo piano passages with keyboard clichés. The cellos soar with glorious melodic lines and the thought comes to mind that it was a pity that Chopin in his two piano concertos only has walk-on parts for the orchestral. How much better his concertos would be with more orchestral involvement and of the Lyapunov quality. Lyapunov's sound world is not superficial as is Chopin's. But now sinister elements appear in this concerto. There is a cadenza-like passage for the piano but, instead of a final coda, the music relaxes again and loses its momentum. The music picks up again and there is a sublime piano and orchestra melody with sumptuous string writing as one hears in Rachmaninov's Piano Concerto no. 2 written ten years later! Did Rachmaninov copy Lyapunov? This passage is simply sublime. But then we have an extended coda which changes gear again and again before the terrific ending.

Between the two concertos he wrote his Ukrainian Rhapsody for piano and orchestra.

His Solemn Overture on Russian Themes dates from 1886. It shows both his controlled nationalism and affinity with Balakirev and his turning away from the gush of Tchaikovsky.

In 1887 there appeared his Symphony no. 1 in B minor, Op. 12. It is in four movements lasting about 40 minutes. It opens with a brass summons imitated by the strings in a leisurely movement. There is typical Russian yearning and descending two notes figures prevail. It has a melodic framework although the melody itself is not definite until the tempo increases. But the music subsides too soon and we have a sumptuous clarinet theme. Again one calls to mind the gorgeous clarinet theme in the third movement of Rachmaninov's Symphony no. 2 written in 1906-7, some twenty years later!

The music is too leisurely but there is some exquisite woodwind work particularly form the oboe. The music increased in pace but, alas, only to subside again. This stop and start music is unsatisfactory. It is like an aircraft constantly trying to take off. If you are going to have a leisurely opening movement then the quality must be exemplary as, for example, in Brahms's Symphony no. 4. But then Lyapunov does take off twelve minutes in the movement and it was worth waiting for but it is so short lived. Within two minutes the movement is over.

The slow movement is, in the main, a glorious piece. The clarinet languishes and the warm mellow string writing is of indefinable quality as near to perfection as one could wish. A harp arpeggio and a horn figure introduces woodwind writing of quality as well and the strings soar again. The brass chordal passages are a delight as well but then the music gets bogged down. As in Shostakovich there seems to be expanses of inactivity. Nothing really happens as in a Jane Austen novel and we can therefore be bored. But the music comes to life and there is that soaring string theme punctuated by brass and woodwind and with great effect. Surely Rachmaninov heard this piece. It cannot be coincidence that so many of his great ideas are the same as Lyapunov's. But this glorious theme should have ended the movement but Lyapunov continues with two more minutes of music which is an anticlimax, although the oboe solo is a joy.

It raises the problems that composers have. When do I stop? When have I said enough? Is it too long?

The third movement is another leisurely one which is light music in the style of something one might hear in a Tchaikovsky ballet. Deft but lightweight and, as a result, inconsequential although charming in its own sort of way, I suppose. But listen out for the oboe solo! There is a middle section of broad string writing and further woodwind delights. The music builds up to return to the opening banal material but most people will like it although it a mere bonbon!

The finale opens by combining brief string aggression with feeble string pronouncements. It is leisurely again and therefore lacking in conviction and interest but there are still some glorious passages to savour.

Borodin seems to be behind this music especially this last movement which, when it is active it is excellent and, fortunately, a lot of this music is, in fact, active. Melody abounds with lovely harp punctuation. There is one blistering climax before the melody takes centre stage again. A curious change of metre heralds a move towards a stirring but brief end.

There is also his Symphony no. 2 in B flat which was published posthumously. It is in the same basic vein as the Symphony no. 1.

His music is very Russian as shown in his Polonaise op. 16 which exists in a version for orchestra and for piano solo.

There is also a symphonic poem Hashish

It would appear that he wrote no chamber music such as sonatas for two instruments or even a string quartet. I would have liked to hear what he could do in this most intimate of forms.

Apart from the 30 Russian folksongs Op. 10 there are three sets of four songs namely opus 14, 30 and 32 respectively.

He died in Paris on 8 November 1924, three weeks before his 65th birthday.

©Copyright David C F Wright 1995.

"This article, or any part or it, must not be used or produced in any form without the written consent of the author."


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