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Russian Album
Piotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)

Variations in F, op. 19/6
Alexander SCRIABIN (1871-1915)

2 Poèmes op. 32, Album Leaf op. 45/1, Etude in d sharp op. 8/12, Etude op. 65/3, Vers la Flamme op. 72
Sergei RACHMANINOV (1872-1943)

Preludes op. 32/5 in G, 12 in g sharp, Etude-Tableau op. 39/3, Moment Musical op. 16/4
Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)

Sonata no. 5 op. 38/135
Samuel DOLIN (b. 1917)

Toccata – Vivace
Alexander Tselyakov (pianoforte)
Locations: Regentenbau Hall, Bad Kissingen, Germany (except Dolin), George Weston Recital Hall, the Ford Centre for the Performing Arts, Toronto, Canada (Dolin)
Dates: 18th May 2000 (except Dolin), 17th January 1999 (Dolin, live)
GOLOMB RECORDS GLDC 5701-3 [60’ 04"]


What an extraordinarily difficult piece to bring off the Rachmaninov G major Prelude is. If you just play it as it is, it can seem dry and unfeeling. Once you start introducing expressive nudges it starts to fall apart. And a tempo that respects Rachmaninov’s "Moderato" marking risks throwing the whole thing out of the window.

Tselyakov is more "Andante" than "Moderato" and there is a slight suspicion in the early stages that he is going to stop at every lamp-post. But by the recapitulation the performance has settled down remarkably, the bell-motif tolling inexorably, the melody singing sweetly and sadly. Better still in the G sharp minor prelude where, in place of the usual mercurial approach, he opens up vistas of sadness as far-reaching as the steppes themselves. A comparison with Richter’s 1960 Carnegie Hall performance (Richter Rediscovered 09026-63844-2) confirmed that as something altogether out of the ordinary, with a myriad of special insights crammed into every bar; but I value Tselyakov too. And I recently had occasion to remark that Richter threw away the 3rd Etude-Tableau with little more than nonchalant technical aplomb at Aldeburgh in 1966 (BBCL 4082-6); Craig Sheppard uncovered a wealth of detail here (AT 00-00118; see review for ordering details). Anyone who found Sheppard too gentle might feel that Tselyakov’s more emphatic but not frenetic performance is the ideal compromise.

I have started this review in the middle of the record, but I began here late at night, intended just to sample a couple of pieces, and I wish to share with my readers the process by which I discovered a remarkable interpreter of Russian music (maybe of other music too; a second disc including Beethoven op. 110 is awaiting me. As I write I am ignorant as to its merits, so watch this space).

Prokofiev’s 5th Sonata is a favourite competition piece. Perhaps for this very reason it has acquired a reputation for superficiality, as an easy product of the composer’s bottom drawer. Here it is played with a calm luminosity of texture; every note shines and glistens. The work is revealed to be second-string Prokofiev rather as Mozart’s piano sonatas are second-string Mozart; it is pretty marvellous even so.

No great revelations emerge from Samuel Dolin’s Toccata Vivace, heard here in its world première performance some years after its composition. But Tselyakov’s willingness, after settling in Canada, to take up the cudgels on behalf of a countryman of his who had been teaching at Toronto Conservatory for more than half a century, says much for him as a man and as an artist.

The disc opens with a rare set of variations by Tchaikovsky. Here doubts arise as to Tselyakov’s response to more classically based music since the markings in the score are not always scrupulously observed (assuming the Peters Edition is correct). The earlier variations are marked to be played at the same tempo as the theme, for example, but Tselyakov adjusts the tempo between them. He also alters some of the dynamics in the last variation. On the other hand, if you put aside the score and just listen he brings it off the page well. It is a tribute to both Tselyakov’s pianism and Tchaikovsky’s abilities to dress up his theme inventively that it only occurred to me towards the end that the actual melody on which the variations are based is a pretty unmemorable one. It has to be admitted that if Tchaikovsky had written nothing better than this we would remember him, yes, but in the same breath as Glazunov or Arensky rather than as a household name.

Tselyakov proves an altogether outstanding interpreter of Scriabin. He realises the sad songfulness of the more introspective moments without drifting into the doldrums – the music apparently just flows out of him. He is equally able to share Scriabin’s moods of extreme exultation without lapsing into vulgar barnstorming. Having commented on certain variations between the performance and the score in the Tchaikovsky, anyone with the music of the op.65/3 étude is recommended to follow it just to see how an imaginative interpreter can give sense to notes which, on the written page, may not seem to have much.

The recordings are very fine so all round this makes a fine recommendation to anyone at all interested in Russian piano music or Russian pianists. Tselyakov was born in Baku, Azerbaijan, in 1954 and has been living in Toronto since 1994. He made his UK debut at the Wigmore Hall on 14th April 2002. Golomb Records appear to be an offshoot of Golomb Concert Management – – which represents him. They sent the disc to the site together with a selection of laudatory press cuttings, but I would like to commend their honesty for enclosing one which struck a less positive note; the critic noted his "velocity and accuracy" but felt that "one senses in his playing other worlds that remain to be conquered. Namely, the ability at times to create a world around the music itself ….. a lack of atmosphere that often spared the music its ability to compel" (James Manishen, Wpg. Free Press 17th January 1999). Maybe Tselyakov was having an off-day, or else the critic was. I deliberately left perusal of this material till after hearing the disc and as you will gather my impression was practically the opposite. Indeed, if Tselyakov’s future recording schedules should embrace extensive investigation of Scriabin and Prokofiev, I for one very much look forward to hearing the results.

Christopher Howell

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