Russian Piano Miniatures for Children
Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
A children’s album Op.39: No.1 Prière du matin [1:13]; No.2 Matin d’hiver [1:02]; No.3 Jouons à dada! [0:37]; No.4 Maman [0:56]; No.5 Marche des soldats de bois [0:50]; No.6 La poupée malade [1:44]; No.7 Enterrement de la poupée [1:39]; No.8 Valse [1:04]; No.9 La nouvelle poupée [1:39]; No.10 Mazurka [1:05]; No.11 Chanson russe [0:27]; No.12 La paysan joue de l’harmonica [0:44]; No.13 Kamarinskaïa [0:30]; No.14 Polka [1:11]; No.15 Chanson italienne [0:58]; No.16 Ancienne chanson Française [1:13]; No.17 Chanson allemande [0:55]; No.18 Chanson napolitaine [1:02]; No.19 Conte de la nourrice [0:42]; No.20 Baba-Yaga [0:38]; No.21 Rêve délicieux [2:14]; No.22 Chant de l’alouette [0:52]; No.23 Chanson de joueur d’orgue de Barbarie [1:52]; No.24 A l’eglise [0:46]
Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Music for children Op.65
No.1 Le matin [1:53]; No.2 Promenade [0:51]; No.3 Historiette [2:13]; No.4 Tarentelle [0:54]; No.5 Repentir [1:49]; No.6 Valse [1:07]; No.7 Cortège des sauterelles [1:01]; No.8 La pluie et l’arc-en-ciel [1:15]; No.9 Attrape-qui-peut [1:15]; No.10 Marche [1:25]; No.11 Le soir [2:20]; No.12 Sur les prés la lune se promène [1:39]
Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Five pieces for children arr. Levon Atovmian
No.1 Berceuse [3:01]; No.2 Danse [0:36]; No.3 Contredanse [2:15]; No.4 Danse Espagnole [2:00]; No.5 Nocturne [2:38]
A child’s exercise book Op.69
No.1 Marche [0:37]; No.2 Valse [0:37]; No.3 L’ours [0:39]; No.4 Histoire gaie [0:30]; No.5 Histoire triste [1:32]; No.6 La poupée méchanique [0:58]; No.7 L’anniversaire [1:06]
Rimma Bobritskaya (piano)
rec. February 1991, Moscow Conservatoire, Russia.
BRILLIANT CLASSICS 9214 [60:15]
I always regard miniatures in the same way I do short stories: for them to be successful and satisfying musically is extremely difficult. Greater length allows scope for development which is much trickier to achieve when one goes for brevity. The history of literature is full of those who tried to write successful short stories and failed and it is likely to be the same in music. This disc, however, is proof that the art of writing musical miniatures was achieved by these three Russians and there are plenty of other examples in music of other successes. Indeed Tchaikovsky, who wrote to his patroness Nadezhda von Meck in 1878 that he had for some time felt there was a need to add to the relatively small repertoire of pieces written with children in mind, was following in the footsteps of Schumann whose Kinderszenen and Album für Jugend were already well known. He set about writing the 24 piano miniatures on this disc following his letter to her in April and had completed them during the month of July, dedicating them to his nephew Vladimir Davydov (‘Bobik’) who was a child of 7 at the time. The whole cycle is delightful, charming and very memorable, and shows a master craftsman at work. However brief, and some of them are extremely so with a number lasting less than a minute, they are, nevertheless, complete in every way, presenting a musical statement that requires neither a note more nor less. Just listen to track 6 La poupée malade, a beautifully plaintive tune that embodies really powerful feelings of sadness that are further explored in the following track Enterrement de la poupée. Tchaikovsky’s ability musically to describe other countries by way of incorporating folk rhythms is more than amply demonstrated in tracks 15-18. Track 17 for example could not be other than connected with Germany, nor could track 18 be associated with anywhere else than Naples to the extent that you can hear Neapolitan love songs in it. These are pieces that warrant listening to over and over and you find yourself wanting to do just that; they are so compulsive in their deliciousness. Tchaikovsky showed that he did not dismiss these pieces as mere trifles by using a theme from Swan Lake in the Chanson Napolitaine and conversely to reuse the Ancienne chanson Française as a minstrel’s song in his opera The Maid of Orleans a year later. The liner-notes state that these pieces are by no means infantile but they are also not pieces that can be played and played successfully by a mere novice. They are miniatures that an artist of promise might play and if they manage to achieve that then they are clearly on their way to becoming a fully formed pianist.
The above observation goes equally for many of the other pieces on the disc. It is perhaps even more the case in respect of Prokofiev’s Music for Children, Op.65. He was one of several Soviet composers who wrote music for children, Kabalevsky and Miaskovsky among them, along with Shostakovich. The pieces on this disc were written in 1935, the year after his return to the USSR, as a distraction from the major works he was composing at the time, namely Romeo and Juliet and the 2nd Violin Concerto. He explained that he had been drawn back to his love of the style of the sonatina. The cycle is a child’s day from morning ’til evening; descriptive with Le matin, Cortège des sauterelles, Le pluie et l’arc-en-ciel, Le soir and Sur les prés la lune se promène, narrative with Historiette, activities as in Promenade , Attrape-qui-peut and Marche, interspersed with Prokofiev’s love of dance rhythms as demonstrated by Valse and Tarentelle, apart from which the only odd one out would seem to be Repentir, but then, when does a day go by, without a child having to say they’re sorry! As stated above these pieces are not easy but demand a level of proficiency way beyond the beginner, apart from the odd one such as track 27 Historiette, though they are wonderful whether easy or difficult as track 28 Tarentelle must surely be, along with track 33 Attrape-qui-peut. They are all also so typical of Prokofiev, and his style is very evident throughout, but it is his imagination that really staggers – how can anyone musically describe the moon flitting across the sky while its going in and out of clouds casts a kind of strobe effect over a meadow – well listen to track 36 to find out how he does it and in only 1:39!
The disc proceeds with Shostakovich but what to say about the first set, described as “Five pieces for children”? Firstly and most importantly they were not written by Shostakovich for children but arranged by Lev Atovmian from orchestral music written for The Human Comedy (1933-34) and for the films Michurin (1948) and The Gadfly (1955). I’m not suggesting that this shouldn’t be done and they certainly work as pieces children could attempt but it is, nevertheless, misleading. That said they still exemplify the brilliance of Shostakovich as a composer of beautifully simple and disarmingly gorgeous music. Just listen to the first of these pieces on track 37 and if you are a Shostakovich fan as I am I’m sure you’ll recognise the tune and I have to admit how well it works for piano, but then again no doubt it was at a piano that he composed it in the first place. The second of the set is typical Shostakovich, hair down and tongue firmly in cheek for a 36 second whistle-stop dance. As with Prokofiev Shostakovich’s distinctive voice is evident in every note – just listen to Danse Espagnole on track 40 (another immediately recognisable one of his melodies) and it is 100% Shostakovich while perfectly encapsulating the Spanish idiom of its title and the same time. A lovely tune to finish entitled Nocturne - presumably Atovmian came up with the titles. Atovmian was a great champion of Shostakovich and I’m sure these arrangements have done nothing but good in encouraging any children who have attempted to play these to further explore the great man’s work. The last seven pieces on this excellent and enjoyable disc are, however, Shostakovich’s own pieces for children to play and were written for his daughter Galina - his son Maxim had the second piano concerto written with him in mind - and are lovely and very much more approachable for children at the early stages of their piano lessons. They are all again uniformly delightful and so typical of the composer’s sense of fun that so belies what often seemed an extremely serious exterior. As an example of his enjoyment in turning things on their head musically try tracks 45 and 46 where he deliberately writes a ‘Merry story’ in E minor and a ‘Sad story’ in G major, usually seen as being the other way around in terms of happiness and sadness in musical terms.
The pianist on the disc is Rimma Bobritskaya born in 1937, so why hadn’t I heard of her before and why does it seem she has recorded so little! In any event she’s a perfect advocate for these wonderful pieces and the result is a very satisfying one which anyone who loves piano music will thoroughly enjoy.
The result is a very satisfying one which anyone who loves piano music will thoroughly enjoy.