It’s always refreshing to discover a new composer, especially one like Alexandrov who still holds an honoured place in Russia, yet remains virtually unknown elsewhere.
Anatoly Alexandrov in fact lived a long time, but in all those ninety-plus years, his life was almost devoid of incident, scarcely straying from his native Moscow the whole time. In assessing his relative position in the so-called ‘Russian Piano Tradition’, clearly Balakirev, Taneyev, Skryabin, Lyapunov, Medtner, Rachmaninov and the brothers Rubinstein, to name but a few, are virtually household names by comparison. Alexandrov was a prolific composer, too, with two symphonies, a piano concerto, five operas, and four string quartets to his credit. It is his output of piano music including some fourteen sonatas and his songs - frequently performed by his wife in their joint recitals – which have kept his name alive, at least as far as his homeland is concerned.
The fact that Alexandrov’s music remains largely a closely-kept secret might suggest that it is merely the product of a man who essentially devoted his largely uneventful life to teaching, performing and composing – thus hardly likely, perhaps, to be that exciting. Closer examination of his life reveals an inwardly-intense and often troubled mind. These are some of the ingredients needed to produce something of real interest, and which, in fact, this first recent compilation of his piano music very much substantiates. You should also be aware of Hamish Milne’s Alexandrov fine collection on Hyperion
Toccata Classics has given a good deal of thought to which pieces to include on this disc, and on this occasion presents them to the listener in chronological order.
with its enigmatic opening, grabs the attention from the first bar or so. Immediately there is a natural desire to find similarities with other more familiar composers’ works. While there are fleeting allusions to Medtner and Skryabin, for example, in the expansive use of chromaticism, this is music with a distinct and individual voice, and which makes it the more tantalizing.
The Four Narratives
do suggest Medtner, who also favoured the story-telling aspect in his piano works, although Alexandrov’s language is more advanced. This can be heard especially in the second one, where the composer is heard in one of his more ‘modernist’ modes, even if the post-Skryabinesque harmonic fluidity is always perceived as essentially logical, rather than disarming. The contrasting third piece in the set has a dreamy, often Impressionist feel, while the fourth has clear echoes of the ‘Promenade’ from Mussorgsky’s ‘Pictures at an Exhibition’.
The three-movement Sonata No. 8
again has suggestions of Medtner, especially the cheerful main theme of the opening ‘Allegretto’. The poetic ‘Andante’ blossoms into some expansive romantic textures, whereas the finale evokes an energetic Russian folk-dance, with a particularly impressive coda.
The Echoes of the Theatre
once more demonstrate the wide expressive range of Alexandrov’s writing, and his knack for so-effective musical characterisation. The opening Aria
is a gorgeous romantic creation, while the Galliarde and Pavane
mixes almost Ravel-like writing with genuine antiquity. A footnote in the score reveals that the middle section here is a piano transcription of a sixteenth-century lute piece. The Chorale and Polka
again successfully presents a juxtaposition of two seemingly incongruous styles, while the ensuing Waltz
has an essentially sunny lilt. The Dances in the Square and Siciliana
evoke a medieval or Renaissance Italian scene, particularly with the latter’s often modal harmonies. A cheerful Gavotte
, not without a passing resemblance to the similarly-named movement in Prokofiev’s ‘Classical Symphony’, as well as a slight nod in the direction of Percy Grainger, remains to finish off the set.
The ten Romantic Episodes
which conclude the CD are collectively dated 1962, although at least one of them is apparently considerably earlier. The composer, now in his seventies, seems to be looking back in them, with overall happy memories – here is such a diversity of styles and emotions, and even lengths. The jewel in this particular crown would seem to be the sixth piece – dedicated to the composer’s wife – such a vivid portrait of a singer singing to piano accompaniment. It is undoubtedly one of the playing highlights on the disc. The CD ends most effectively with Tempestoso e maestoso
, a stunning virtuoso piece. It has definite hints of Rachmaninov’s ‘Prelude’ from his Op 23 set, which interestingly shares the same key of B flat major.
Even so, such a superbly varied range of musical styles and genres still needs two other things to help make the necessary impact as a general introduction to the composer’s writing: the pianist, and the instrument.
In terms of the pure pianism, South Korean-born Kyung-Ah Noh does a splendid job throughout. Technically unflawed, she plays with immense power when called for, but is equally able to command the subtlest ‘pianissimo’. She has a real empathy for the style, and certainly as a musical ambassador for this underrated composer, Toccata Classics has come up with a truly first-rate and well-qualified exponent. The piano affords all the necessary depth of tone at the bass end, with glittering clarity in the treble register, while the recording itself has faithfully captured every nuance and dynamic to perfection.
Malcolm MacDonald’s excellent sleeve-notes help fill in all the gaps about the composer and his music, and while they are necessarily academic at times, there is always a happy balance between erudition, biographical detail and anecdote. It’s somewhat akin to the author’s writing-style in his volume on Brahms, in the ‘Master Musicians’ series for Oxford University Press (2002).
Anatoly Alexandrov really does deserve to be far better-known outside his native Russia, and this superb debut-disc should go a long way towards achieving this. While there is already sufficient here to whet the appetite, the hope is that Toccata Classics brings out a second volume before too long. In the meantime, the present CD is well worth getting to know.
Philip R Buttall