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Lera AUERBACH (b. 1973)
Preludes and Dreams

24 Preludes for piano Op. 41 (1999) [45.22]
Ten Dreams Op. 45 (1999) [21.19]
Chorale, Fugue and Postlude Op. 31 (1994/2003) [12.20]
Lera Auerbach (piano)
rec. Nybrokajen 11 (The former Academy of Music), Stockholm, July 2004.
BIS-CD-1462 [80.05]

What it is to be multi-talented. The Russian composer Lera Auerbach is making a name for herself not only as prolific composer and very fine pianist but also as a poet. Why write poetry and music? They say that one appeals to the left side of the brain; the other to the right. It’s also true that where words end music begins. With words you can, if you wish, be direct; music can be and often is ambiguous.

Freely formed poetry is not as common as freely formed music. Anything with a title such as ‘Dreams’ offers a composer a free hand. Rhyming poetry and music entitled ‘Fugue’ offers a composer a straitjacket, which can in itself be a creative stimulus or a nuisance. Creative people need space to manoevre and yet need also a framework and architecture to prevent rambling or repetition.

How I would love to read some of Lera Auerbach’s poetry. Has any been translated? If the dark and mysterious music is anything to go by perhaps her poetry may be similar to that of Anna Akhmatova (d.1966), another dark and brooding Russian.

It would be good to see Lera Auerbach perform. She uses the whole piano and clearly loves vast, sonic spaces as well as contrasts between extreme registers. Her long hair, as she darts around the keyboard, would add to the spectacle - she is glamorously featured on the booklet - rather like Jacqueline du Pré.

What a productive year she had in 1999. The 24 preludes are op. 41 and the ‘Ten Dreams’ are op. 45. What came in between? I haven’t been able to discover. She must compose quickly. Perhaps the poetry is written alongside the music. How does she find time to do other things: love and live? Yet surely music comes out of loving and living. Yes, I know, so many questions. But why not; that is in the nature of this extraordinary composer to provoke questions but not to provide answers.

Auerbach traces through the twenty-four keys, the cycle of fifths like Bach and Chopin – C major followed by A minor then G major and E minor. But these are surely - and it must be remembered that I don’t have access to the scores - only tonal centres. For example No. 7 in A major has definite melody acting as the ‘A’ section in the ternary structure but the ‘B’ section is tonally very ambiguous. Indeed it can be difficult to tell the difference between a Prelude, said to be in a key and one of the ‘Ten Dreams’ for which no key is stated. Added to that, each piece, a Prelude or a Dream, is a miniature, the longest movement being the last Prelude in D minor at over five minutes bringing the cycle to a satisfactory conclusion. The average length of a Prelude is not much more than two minutes.

The opening prelude sets the sonic space. A vast and wild chord, top and bottom, then jagged lines and arpeggios; but C major? It’s not easy to find the key.

The first Dream sets another agenda. The ‘Allegro ma non troppo’ is said to be ‘As in a nightmare’. But most of the Dreams have a similar soundworld. The word ‘misterioso’ is a favourite, but not only in the Dreams; also in the Preludes. Fast music is exceptional and where it comes it is short-winded. The A minor Prelude swings through vast scales but for just sixty seconds. The F# sharp prelude is marked Presto; its violence is over after just sixty-seven seconds. A spent force, worked out? Or is the composer unable or unwilling to sustain the mood.

The ninth Dream is a mixture ‘Allegro (but) misterioso’. It’s fast and deep. The bass clef throws off a brief melody then there are over forty repetitions of a broad and ecstatic chord. The next movement, marked Allegro, seems to be going in a different direction but those hammering chords come again only a minute into the Dream like a recurrent nightmare.

The Chorale, Fugue and Postlude show the composer in another light again. This is a formal structure with historical baggage. Of course J.S. Bach is alluded to again. This time, at over twelve minutes and its three sections inter-connected, we find Auerbach making a grandiloquent statement. Vast tonal harmonies are contrasted in the ‘Chorale’ with massive chord clusters again utilizing the entire keyboard. The music hammers at you, shouts at you and is then almost apologetic in its solitude. The ensuing Fugue is quite strict and formal with a chromatic melody reminiscent of Shostakovich. The shorter Postlude gently winds up the composition.

So, am I impressed with this music? Yes. Is this an important CD? Yes. Do I like it? No. For some reason I find that it does not appeal. The moods are always dark. The composer realizes also that she can make an impression by sheer power and by extraordinary contrast which are not always logical. It is disturbing and keeps me at arms length, never inviting me in, not even in sections where an attempt to lure with something approaching a key or a conventional tune is made. Warmth is difficult to find, but fear lies at its heart.

First-class recording accompanied by and a wonderfully waffly booklet note that manages to say nothing in lots of exotic sentences.

Gary Higginson


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