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Georgy CATOIRE (1861-1926)
Piano Music
Track listing below review
Marc-André Hamelin (piano)
rec. 10-11 November 1998, Henry Wood Hall, London, England
HYPERION HELIOS CDH55425 [77:56]

The superb disc of Hamelin's pioneering survey of piano music by Georgy Catoire first appeared on full-price Hyperion back in November 1999. This re-issue on their budget label makes for quite exceptional value, given that in essence only the price has dropped. The fabulous playing is still there, and all faithfully reproduced in an outstanding recording environment.

A key figure in Russian musical life at the turn of the century, Georgy L’vovich Catoire was born in Moscow on 27 April 1861 to parents of French extraction. Although fascinated by music from an early age — at 16 he began studying the works of Richard Wagner — he enrolled as a student of mathematics and science at the University of Moscow, graduating in 1884. After gaining his degree, however, he decided to devote himself to music. His early compositions showed the influence of Tchaikovsky and in 1888, Tchaikovsky, in a letter to Rimsky-Korsakov, described Catoire as ‘very talented ... (but) in need of serious schooling’. This was subsequently provided by such teachers as Rimsky-Korsakov, Lyadov, Arensky and Taneyev.

Catoire’s musical activities progressed to the point that by 1916 he was appointed Professor of Composition at the Moscow Conservatory, a position he held for the rest of his life, and where Kabalevsky later was one of his students. He wrote several treatises on music theory, which became the foundation for the teaching of music theory in Russia. His compositional style is essentially a synthesis of the Russian, German (Wagner) and French (Chopin, Franck and Debussy) schools. In addition to piano music, his output includes two symphonies, a piano concerto, choral works, songs, and chamber music (review ~ review ~ review).

Canadian-born Hamelin’s astoundingly original mix of musicianship and pianistic virtuosity has earned him not only legendary status for his performances of the classic repertoire, but also for his intrepid exploration of unfamiliar musical terrain.

As such he is the perfect choice of exponent for this CD of piano music from a composer who is still almost unheard of, and whose music has suffered considerable and unjustified neglect. This, though, is truly a pianist’s music, written by someone who understands so instinctively every nuance of which the instrument is capable. The pieces range in individual length from some forty-nine seconds to a little over four and a half minutes. Even the longest set – the four-movement Chants du crépuscule plays for just over ten minutes in total. While these are all essentially miniatures, they make significant demands on the performer, not necessarily in overtly virtuosic passages, but often far more subtly. This, perhaps, is a significant reason for their somewhat infrequent recital programming.

While Catoire studied composition, for a considerable time he was essentially self-taught and this, coupled with an unbridled command of piano technique and an equally original mind set his music free in terms of imagination, while also leaving him unfettered by conventions of the time or the need to conform. This is certainly not to say that the pieces on the present CD are experimental on the one hand, or decidedly conservative on the other. They simply speak with a unique voice – an individual mix evolved from both a greater sense of harmonic and rhythmic freedom, especially the former in terms of key.

Hamelin’s CD is one of those where, no matter which track you could randomly start with, or if you simply play it through from start to finish, there’s pure delight awaiting you either way. The opening Caprice is, perhaps, one of the most captivating and dazzling of Catoire’s early pieces. It seems at times reminiscent of Ravel’s À la manière de Borodine, written some years later. The following Intermezzo provides a good example of Catoire’s penchant for melodic transformation, where an initial rising theme is inverted for the central section, and then hinted at in combination towards the end. While the Trois morceaux point towards the salon-type which was so popular at the time, despite their relative shortness, they are much superior in design. Sharing its title with one of Liszt’s Transcendental Studies, Vision (Étude) is described as ‘a breathtakingly brilliant piece, which demands great virtuosity’. In Hamelin’s highly-skilled hands it certainly doesn’t disappoint, not at all easy in a piece marked ‘Allegro fantastico’, but where the dynamic rarely rises to ‘forte’, and only once to ‘fortissimo’.

While the individual pieces in the Cinq morceaux make clever use of thematic transformation between them, those in the slightly later Quatre morceaux do not appear to have a fundamental unity. Unlike Scriabin, Rachmaninov or Shostakovich, Catoire did not complete a set of Twenty-Four Preludes. His Quatre préludes, like the preceding same number of Morceaux, are just self-contained pieces. However his Quatre morceaux pour piano, Op. 24 – entitled Chants du crépuscule (‘Songs of Twilight’), and written around 1910 – show Catoire in a more experimental mode, relatively-speaking. The first, curiously, has no specific tempo indication, but is marked ‘sempre rubato’, which, with its three-against-two quavers, helps to impart an impressionist feel to the writing. The second is fairly chromatic, the third essentially tranquil, while the fourth effectively is a résumé of aspects of its three predecessors.

The CD concludes with the second of his Quatre morceaux, Op. 24, entitled Poème, unusual in that, while cast in C minor, this key is not reached until half way through its mere three minutes, and the closing bars edge into the tonic major. This is followed by the third piece in the Op. 24 set – a Prélude of just some twenty-two bars – leaving a once more technically demanding Valse in A flat major, Op. 36 to finish. Although these last two pieces have relatively late opus numbers, they actually date from Catoire’s early years, something which the almost embryonic Prélude tends to suggest.

Even at its original full price, this quite enthralling CD is really too good to miss, but in this budget reissue, it would appear almost a compulsory purchase, given the valued inclusion of Robert Matthew-Walker’s most informative original sleeve-notes.

Unfortunately Catoire’s available discography isn’t massive, but some of his chamber music in particular is quite well represented, as you’ll surely want to delve further into his fascinating and original repertoire after auditioning this highly attractive Helios re-issue.

Philip R Buttall

Previous review (original release): Gerald Fenech  

Track listing
Caprice Op. 3 [4:01]
Intermezzo Op. 6 No. 5 [4:08]
Trois morceaux Op. 2 [8:13]
Prélude Op. 6 No. 2 [1:34]
Scherzo Op. 6 No. 3 [4:24]
Vision (Étude) Op. 8 [3:45]
Cinq morceaux Op. 10 [14:19]
Quatre morceaux Op. 12 [13:00]
Quatre préludes Op. 17 [7:48]
Chants du crépuscule Op. 24 [10:15]
Poème Op. 34 No. 2 [3:00]
Prélude Op. 34 No. 3 0:49]
Valse Op. 36 [2:55]