This review is really an attempt to decide whether
it is worthwhile listening to César Cui's Preludes for Piano.
Are they pieces that deserve our attention, or would it have been better
that they were consigned to the pile of 'salon' music that will never
be played again except by specialists and those seeking to repristinate
a forgotten talent (or lack of talent).
The programme notes given with this CD are not very
encouraging in gaining a favourable impression of this composer. They
point out that César Cui is all but forgotten. Richard Anthony
is quoted at length, "… as a composer, he was the weakest member of
the Five, and by so wide a margin that we wonder at the respect and
even deference which he commanded from the group…the poorest composer…the
loudest talker." Not a very good advert!
Just who was César Cui?
In the mid 1850's there was a group of composers in
Russia known as the 'Mighty Handful', 'The Kouchka' or 'The Five'. In
actual fact there were six, although Stasov was their spokesman rather
than a composer. The others were, Balakirev, Borodin, Moussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov
and, of course, our present concern, César Cui.
César Cui was no child prodigy who dedicated
himself to music from an early age. In fact he was a career soldier.
He graduated from St Petersburg Engineering School and the Academy of
Military Engineering and held the rank of Lieutenant-General. He was
an authority on fortifications and wrote a number of treatises and articles
on this subject. His personal interest was music. Much of his life was
dedicated to the Imperial Russian Musical Society and to the writing
Perhaps the biggest enigma of Cui's life is that he
was not a Russian at all. He was the son of a Lithuanian mother and
a French officer who had been wounded during Napoleon's ill-fated campaign.
He was born in 1835. He studied music initially with
his sister and then with a local violinist. Finally he completed his
education with lessons from the Polish composer Moniuszko. His army
training interrupted his musical education. It was at St Petersburg
that he met Balakirev and the other members of the Mighty Handful.
Nearly a third of Cui's published repertoire are works
for piano. There is no major orchestral work; apart from the four Orchestral
Suites and the Suite Concertante Op. 25. His chamber music
appears to comprise a collection of lesser pieces for violin or cello
and piano. However, there are three string quartets of which I have
never heard any reports. The Internet catalogue gives the titles of
some nineteen operas, none of which seem to have survived into the current
repertoire. Many of his later stage works were written for children
- as performers and as audiences.
However, it is with the piano works that we find a
constant thread through Cui's creative life. The titles of these works
exemplify all that was common in the nineteenth century. There are reams
of Impromptus, Waltzes, Morceaux, Polonaises and Mazurkas. The programme
notes describe much of this piano music in the following terms: "… it
is a gentle utterance, looking back nostalgically to the past, intimate
rather than public, favouring silken boudoir over panelled concert room.
Technically undemanding, romantically clichéed, harmonically
conventional, tonally unsurprising, more diatonic than chromatic …"
And this description fits well with the odd pieces
of César Cui's music that I have come across in music stool and
second-hand music shops. The first of Cui's pieces I ever heard was
played to me by an elderly pianist from a volume of the one-time famous
'Star Folio' books. Nothing fundamentally wrong with it - but not breaking
horizons. Fortunately, or perhaps unfortunately, there are mountains
of similar music. Worth a hearing, but not vital enough to be systematically
revived and recorded.
But what can we say about the Preludes? It is
perhaps interesting to look at what else was being composed at this
time by other Russian composers. The programme note gives us a convenient
list. Dating from around this time are Rachmaninov's Preludes Op.
23, the Piano Sonata in f minor Op.5 from the pen of Nicolai
Medtner and a large number of Scriabin's works including the Preludes
Opp. 31, 33, 35, 37. 39 and the Fourth Sonata. So perhaps
we can deduce that it was the time of the Prelude. The most famous set
of this form was, of course, Chopin's (if we discount Bach for the time
being) and this must have been in Cui's mind as he set pen to paper.
However Cui does not use the same key relationships as Scriabin or Chopin.
These two composers liked to use successive relative minor relationships,
whereas Cui pairs each major key with its mediant minor. So for example,
C major is followed by E minor, G major by b minor.
I feel that this arrangement does lend a sense of unity
and tonal satisfaction. And of course the work comes a full circle or
key cycle; the last prelude is in C major. But less of technicalities
- is this music good bad or indifferent?
The stylistic content of the preludes varies considerably.
There are waltzes, studies, marches and, quoting the programme notes,
'whispered dreams and bouquets melancholic remembrance.'
If we have to situate this music by stylistic comparison
we would find names such as Rubinstein and Balakirev or Chopin and Schumann
surfacing. It is not to be compared to Scriabin or Rachmaninov. However
this is not a criticism. It would be a poorer world if everyone wrote
a pastiche of the C minor Piano Concerto or the redoubtable C#
Most of these Preludes by Cui deserve to be
played; some seem to be within the gift of a talented amateur.
This is a re-release of an old Marco Polo disc from
1993. I must confess that although the playing is quite superb, the
piano does sometime sound as if it is in a telephone box. There is a
certain brittle, hard quality to some of the passage-work. However the
quieter preludes do seem to come across better than the more boisterous
ones. It is extremely sensitive playing with a definite sense of magic
being created once again with the more restrained preludes.
So what of the original question - are these Preludes
worthy of our attention? The answer is a resounding 'yes' - with one
caveat. Please do not expect an 'undiscovered' set of Rachmaninov or
Scriabin preludes. They are much nearer to Schumann and Chopin than
the two Russian masters. But as a series of miniatures related to each
other by a subtle key relationship they are second to none. They deserve
to be heard as a cycle. However if this is asking too much there are
any number of possibilities for an interesting and effective selection.
I do not suppose that César Cui is ever going
to reach the heights of musical popularity - although there are some
signs that a few of his operas are making a minor comeback. However,
it is unfair to write off his work simply because he was perhaps the
least of the Mighty Handful. He was a miniaturist and as such deserves
recognition. If all he ever wrote was the ninth prelude in E major he
would claim our attention and respect.