Mikolajus čIURLIONIS (1875-1911)
Piano Music, vol. 1
Sonata, VL 155 [24:34]
Humoresque, VL 162 [3:17]
Prelude, VL 164 [2:04]
Prelude, VL 169 [3:05]
Nocturne, VL 178 [3:18]
Impromptu, VL 181 [4:16]
Prelude, VL 182a [2:11]
Nocturne, VL 183 [4:11]
Prelude, VL 184 [4:20]
Prelude, VL 185 [2:16]
Prelude, VL 186 [2:25]
Prelude VL 187 [1:15]
Prelude, VL 188 [1:55]
Prelude, VL197 [3:30]
Chansonette, Dainele, VL 199 [1:07]
Mazurka, VL 222 [2:25]
Prelude, VL 230 [0:40]
Mazurka, VL 234 [2:42]
Muza Rubackyte (piano)
rec. Clara Wieck Auditorium, Heidelberg, Germany, 13-16 April 1993. DDD
NAXOS 8.572659 [69:34]

As is evident from the recording date, this is a re-issue, previously released in 1994. It is the first of two volumes of Lithuanian composer Mikolajus čiurlionis's piano music originally issued by Marco Polo, now part of the Naxos stable. Volume 2, again featuring mainly Preludes, is available from September 2011.

As there is no mention of re-mastering, this is presumably an undoctored 1993 recording. Sound quality is very good, if perhaps slightly tinny. A good five seconds of silence have thoughtfully been allowed at the ends of tracks, and included in the timings on the track listing, as given above. All Naxos appear to have done to the original, in fact, is give it a new coat of paint - mainly a new photo for their white-look booklet. The notes have not been updated, and Muza Rubackyte's photograph shows her as having aged remarkably little for a 52-year-old!

It would have been nice, of course, if keys for the pieces could had been supplied; they may well have been included with the original Marco Polo release - certainly, the Presto Classical website has got them from somewhere. Rough dates have been given: all the works on this volume are said to have been composed between 1898 and 1902. Yet there is no explanation, mention even, of the VL catalogue numbers supplied. The VL presumably refers to Vytautas Landsbergis, who wrote the notes, and who is čiurlionis's biographer, now a Lithuanian MEP no less. čiurlionis did publish his piano music, however, and most of these pieces belong to official opuses, the numbers of which should have been indicated by Naxos where appropriate, alongside the VL numbers - as it stands, the dateless VLs are only meaningful to specialists.

Nevertheless, the Marco Polo original is out of print, so to speak, and, far from profiteering, Naxos are rendering an important service to music lovers as they slowly but surely re-issue one CD after another from the massive and generally invaluable Marco Polo catalogue. Happily, čiurlionis's music is beginning to crop up with increasing regularity on various labels, albeit still in bits and pieces. For example, some of his organ works were recorded in a Lithuanian programme by the German organist Martin Rost for MDG, released in 2009 (review), and some of his piano preludes by the young Lithuanian pianist Evelina Puzaite on Landor (review).

The Piano Sonata aside, all the pieces on this disc - mainly Preludes - are under four-and-a-half minutes and, in the absence of any information regarding how čiurlionis originally grouped them for publication, must be considered on their strength as individual items. In fact, they are delightful little lyric pieces - often Grieg-like, despite their titles - brimming with lovely melody and harmony, now flirtatious, now introspective. Very much of their time, certainly; even rather 'old-fashioned', with a distinct echo of Chopin in the Preludes and Mazurkas. Not mere salon pieces, however: the Prelude VL 184, for example, is as original as it is ravishing, and into the 34 seconds of the Prelude VL 230 čiurlionis packs a lot of imagination.

The best work though, is his only Piano Sonata, composed in 1898 while he was still at the Warsaw Conservatory. Written in F major, this cheerful, sunlit work clearly comes from a happy period of čiurlionis's sadly short life. Indeed, none of these works is typical of the more modernist idiom he took up when he left Warsaw for Lithuania and St Petersburg. In these works, the Sonata especially, the listener can sit back and enjoy čiurlionis's seemingly endless supply of mellifluous music with its folk-inspired rhythms and memorably melodic flights of fancy.

Paris-based Lithuanian pianist Muza Rubackyte (pronounced approximately roo-bats-kee-tey) has one of those tryingly trendy websites that look great but are very difficult to extract any information from for any visitor with high browser security settings. But the pianism of this former child prodigy speaks volumes for itself, even at the relatively early stage in her career this recording represents. Nowadays she is widely considered an outstanding performer of Liszt. Recently she has recorded Shostakovich's Preludes and Fugues for Brilliant Classics, as well as Franck's Quintet in F minor with the Vilnius Quartet for the same label (review). čiurlionis's piano music is a fair bit more straightforward than that of Liszt or Shostakovich, admittedly, but she nevertheless pays it decent respect and her lovely lyrical tone and expressiveness ensure a persuasive performance.

Collected reviews and contact at reviews.gramma.co.uk

Lovely lyrical tone and expressiveness ensure persuasive performances.