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The Russian Piano Tradition: Konstantin Igumnov
Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
The Seasons Op. 37 (1873-76) [38:10]
Fryderyk CHOPIN (1810-1849)
Mazurka No.33 in B major Op 56 No.1 [3:12]
Alexander SCRIABIN (1872-1916)
Poème in F sharp minor Op.32 No.1 [2:48]
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Kreisleriana Op.16 (1838) [29:20]
Konstantin Igumnov (piano)
rec. Moscow 1935 (Chopin, Scriabin), 1941 (Schumann) and 1947 (Tchaikovsky)
APR 5662 [74:07]

Konstantin Igumnov inaugurates his own series on APR – “The Igumnov School.” He may now be less well remembered than his titan contemporaries Neuhaus and Goldenweiser but he remains a significant and powerfully important figure in the Russian pianistic tradition. Rightly APR now turns its attention to him and to his valuable but regrettably small corpus of recordings.
He was born in 1873, a contemporary and fellow student of Rachmaninoff, with whom he was close friends. He worked with Siloti and studied theory with Taneyev and Arensky, later going on to premiere Rachmaninoff’s First Sonata and Glazunov’s First Concerto. From 1894 until his death in 1948 he was a piano professor at the Moscow conservatoire. He had many hundreds of students – amongst the best known being Oborin, Flier, Grinberg and Bella Davidovich.
He made very few recordings. There’s a Tchaikovsky Piano Trio with Oistrakh and Knushevitzky and Schumann’s Dichterliebe with Ivan Kozlovsky. His final recital was also taped – Chopin’s Third Sonata, Beethoven’s Op.10 No.3 and Tchaikovsky’s Grand Sonata. Otherwise the APR recital is pretty much all that we have; two 1935 78s of Scriabin and Chopin, the Seasons and Kreisleriana. For so august a player the discography is pitifully small but he is known to have had an aversion to recording.
The Seasons was his last studio statement, recorded the year before his death. The recording is not good even by prevailing Soviet standards. In addition the piano sounds in bad shape with a watery bass. Nevertheless it’s worth persevering and of course specialists will want to persevere if they don’t already know the performance. It’s a reading full of lithe power and fantasy. He sculpts in paragraphs, never allowing the music to settle into stagnancy or routine. February is vital and alluring in his hands – not all hands can make it so – and he sounds in fine fettle here, despite his seventy-four years. March has a panoply of infectious adjustments – tempo modifications, rich characterisation from doleful introspection to the capricious. He builds April steadily, rolls the chords of May with warmth and dignity. July is agitated and fast – powerful and energetic and reflective of his linear and direct way with the music. Igumnov certainly doesn’t hang around. Despite the subterranean sound one can certainly hear the tension and excitement he cultivates in September.  
His Kreisleriana is another major statement. It was recorded in Moscow in 1941 and is in slightly better sound. It’s intriguing to contrast him with another highly regarded Russian Schumann player, Sofronitsky, who recorded the cycle a decade later in 1952 – currently on Vista Vera. The older Igumnov is quicker than the younger man in all movements bar the second, where Igumnov takes his time. Igumnov’s playing is analogous to his Tchaikovsky cycle – poetic but vital, dynamic and energising. He shapes the slow second movement attractively ensuring that it never loses shape despite the relatively relaxed tempo. As if to balance things the sixth movement (Sehr langsam) is no stroll; it’s forward moving and alert. It’s music making, despite the unhelpful recording, of finesse and colour, one that takes phrases in long spans and absorbs local incident into long-term musical goals.
Finally we hear Igumnov in two brief pre-War performances. They’re rather clattery sounding for 1935 but we can still feel him aligning to the non-neurotic Neuhaus school in Scriabin – perhaps that sound be the Igumnov school, but certainly not the hothouse Sofronitsky.
The APR series then continues in historically important style. The recording perfections are honestly noted and must be acknowledged but these are rare and valuable examples of a master pianist’s small legacy. Fine notes complete the package.
Jonathan Woolf


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