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Piano Works during and after Russian Futurism - Volume 1
Nikolaj OBUCHOV (1892-1954)
Invocation (1916) [5:33]
Deux Pièces (1915) [6:42]
Conversion (1916) [5:00]
Icône (1915) [3:35]
Création de l'Or (1916) [4:50]
Ivan WYSCHNEGRADSKY (1893-1979)
Deux Préludes pour Piano (1916) [3:40]
Sergey PROTOPOPOV (1893-1954)
II Sonate op.5 (1924) [13:01]
Etude sur le Carré Magique Sonore op.40 (1957) [8:22]
Aimons-nous les uns les autres (1942) [1:51]
La paix pour les réconciliés - vers la source avec le calice (1948) [2:49]
Le Temple est mesuré, l'Esprit est incarné (1952) [2:59]
Adorons Christ - Fragment du troisième et dernier Testament (1945) [8:09]
Thomas Günther (piano)
rec. 1-4 November 2008, Deutschlandfunk Kammermusiksaal, Köln.
CYBELE SACD 160.404 [66:39]
Experience Classicsonline

With the swathes of familiar recorded repertoire for piano solo one comes across, it is always refreshing to discover new veins of untapped musical resource. The Cybele label is doing just that on a number of fronts, and this looks like becoming a valuable project. This is one of those CDs which is so packed with new information and intriguing music that it's hard to take in on even quite a few listenings, let alone review in a few paragraphs.  
I doubt many will have heard of Nikolay Obukhov, Ivan Vyshnegradsky and Sergey Protopopov. These composers all belong to the generation of young, avant-garde artists who emerged from the turbulent time in both the arts and society which accompanied the revolutionary upheaval of the early 20th century in Russia. Alexander Scriabin is cited as the most important source of inspiration this young Russian generation of composers, and there are indeed numerous echoes of that composer's highly colourful expression, distinctive and enigmatic harmonies, and elusive melodic gestures. The period of relative artistic freedom in which these artists initially flourished ended abruptly in 1929, when the severe criticism of 'revolutionary' composers began. A few, including Vyshnegradsky and Obukhov had left Russia earlier in the immediate aftermath of the 1917 revolution, but their exile in the West led them not so much to fame and recognition, but more frequently to isolation and obscurity. World War II was the final nail towards keep their music in the dark wooden box of oblivion. Those composers who remained in Russia awaited a different fate, being obliged to conform to party idealism or being expunged from 'respectable' society. One such figure is Sergey Protopopov, of whom there are no confirmed photos in existence and very little being known of his life and, beyond some editorial commissions, his work.

Only three pieces by Nikolay Obukhov were ever published, and the rest of his catalogue languishes in manuscript form in various archives. The earlier set of short pieces have a distinct feel of Messiaen about them, though they of course pre-date that composers piano music by several decades. Straight from the opening Invocation, there is the feel of a nocturne with birdsong. These early era works preserve and develop the visionary feel of Scriabin's pieces, blurring tonality with the use of 12-tone 'note fields', and extremes of range and dynamic at the keyboard. This would seem to indicate some pretty tough listening, but in fact the ear is drawn in by fascinating resonances and an ongoing sense of poetic mysticism which is quite enticing. Either way, if you like Messiaen you will find yourself at home amongst these creations. The later Obukhov works from the 1940s and 50s open with understated expression in the wonderful Aimons-nous les uns les autres, which is like a gentle prayer. Darker expression inhabits the other, longer pieces, with at times rough biblical imagery. Once again however, these pieces hold a strange aura of fascination which I for one am glad to have discovered.

Ivan Vyshnegradsky or Wyschnegradsky - spelling is one of the issues dealt with in the booklet to this release - has in his Deux Préludes pour Piano something more of the romantic pianistic gestures of Rachmaninov wedded to that Scriabin or Skryabin atmosphere. These are preparatory pieces which do not prepare you for the incredible technical mountain which is the Etude sur le Carré Magique Sonore op.40. There is a reproduction on four staves and a section of the score in print which covers six, something which would be a stretch for an organist with feet as well as hands, let alone at the piano. The Carré Magique Sonore or 'sonic magic square' is of course the reason for this complexity, but with careful listening the architecture of the piece is not so very difficult to fathom, and the interaction of the related lines creates a kind of canonic anthill which - aside from the black holes of silence - is always on the move.

Sergey Protopopov wrote three sonatas for piano, which are described by Prof. Thomas Günther as 'among the most cryptic of all works in the piano literature.' Analysis without hearing the music doesn't help a great deal, but Protopopov's approach to tonality clearly produces work of irresistible power. This is certainly the 'heaviest' of all the pieces here, alternating more sparkling material in the upper registers with an underlying build-up in slower moving progressions of menacing force in the lower registers - a build-up which increases tension to the kind of climax which, if you have any musical sensitivity, will have you climbing the walls and over the ceiling.

This hybrid SACD release with the excellent playing of Thomas Günther introduces the start of a whole series in which further piano works from during and after Russian Futurism are rediscovered and released for the first time on multiple discs. As usual, Cybele's sound quality is stunning, though without shoving the strings of the piano so close that they wrap themselves around your cochleae. In my opinion this is exactly the kind of thing we need: more adventurous projects which will broaden the horizons of established repertoire and revive undeservedly forgotten names. I salute all of those concerned in the production of this remarkable document.

Dominy Clements


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