Russian Émigrés
Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1973)
Sonata No.2, Op.36 (original version, 1913) [26:31]
Elena FIRSOVA (b.1950)
For Alissa, Op.102 (2002) [7:12]
Dmitri SMIRNOV (b.1948)
Sonata No.6, ‘Blake Sonata’, Op.157 (2008) [17:17]
Variations on a Theme of Corelli, Op.42 (1931) [18:52]
Alissa FIRSOVA (b.1986)
Lune Rouge, Op.13 (2005) [6:02]
Alissa Firsova (piano)
rec. 2015, The Menuhin Hall, Surrey, UK
VIVAT 109 [76:00]

Having heard Alissa Firsova’s commission for Andrew Litton and the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra, Bergen’s Bonfire, from the BBC Proms in August 2015 I was eager to hear her debut solo piano disc. This includes another work of hers plus one each by her parents along with two by Rachmaninov. If one were to produce discs that included works by all Russians who were forced to emigrate over the years of the twentieth century it would run to a large box set. Concentrating on Rachmaninov and on Fisova's parents makes a good start since it introduces us to music we might otherwise miss along with two works we might know well.

It was very interesting to read in Alissa Firsova’s notes that her mother, composer Elena Firsova was never a great fan of Rachmaninov until she heard her daughter practising his Variations on a Theme of Corelli not recognising its composer saying “Who is this by? It’s so interesting”. For many of us it is difficult to imagine not being a fan and thus it was equally interesting to read the quote of the conversation between Lev Oborin and Artur Rubinstein during which Oborin asked Rubinstein’s opinion about who he regarded as the greatest pianist. The answer came back, “Horowitz” and when Oborin opined “But what about Rachmaninov?” Rubinstein replied “I thought you asked me about pianists, Rachmaninov is ...” raising his hands heavenwards to signify he considered him God. Alissa Firsova’s playing of Rachmaninov’s Sonata No.2, Op.36 (in its original version from 1913) is masterly. She finds all the power necessary to make the work shine out as the masterwork it surely is whilst the quiet passages are beautifully judged making for wonderful contrasts. One of the best things about reviewing music is that it encourages one to listen more intently than perhaps one normally does and the rewards that brings are significant. I have certainly taken more from this ravishingly beautiful sonata than I have ever done before for which I am more grateful than I can express. When you hear this disc put your feet up, turn off your phone, dim the lights and allow yourself to be transported.

There is quite some back-story involved in Elena Firsova’s piece as she was inspired to write this, her first ever set of variations, on hearing Alissa playing Rachmaninov’s Variations on a Theme of Corelli, as mentioned above. She took a song she had composed aged 16 and wrote the variations for her then 16 year old daughter. There is an otherworldliness about the piece that reminds me of Scriabin as well as, at times, a savage beauty. It comes to an end very quietly and then we have Alissa’s father’s Sonata No.6 that, since it begins as quietly I thought I was still with his wife. Dmitri Smirnov is, as explained in the booklet, fascinated with William Blake and has written over forty compositions inspired by him and his poems. This sonata has the subtitle ‘Blake Sonata’. It was written for his daughter to play and is immensely powerful and impressive. Unfortunately never having studied music I cannot appreciate the technical structure which has the first movement taking the spelling of BLAKE and translating it into notes through encryption and then doing the same with WILLIAM and then spelling each backwards. The second movement takes the poem The Tyger and treats it similarly, creating a symmetry that brings to mind the lines in the poem ‘What immortal hand or eye, / Could frame thy fearful symmetry?’. However, I can and do appreciate the musicality of the work which I shall enjoy listening to regularly.

Framing these two works by Alissa’s parents is Rachmaninov’s Corelli Variations which helped change her mother’s opinion of the composer. I can only speculate as to what it was about Rachmaninov’s music that had left Elena Firsova cold but I can see why this work had the power to change her mind. At the time it was written Rachmaninov was not alone in believing that the theme he based his variations on was by Corelli whereas La Folia is much older than that. In fact it can be traced to the sixteenth century at least. Since then over 150 compositions have been based upon its simple but memorable theme. That said Rachmaninov’s variations are surely among the most successful and rewarding in their thorough exploration of the source material and the scintillating music that he drew from it. One could never tire from listening to it and marvelling at the composer’s brilliance and Alissa Firsova’s rendition is quite breathtaking in its power and beauty.

The final piece on this disc is by Alissa Firsova herself. Lune Rouge was commissioned by the Cheltenham Festival in 2005 for British pianist Imogen Cooper. Using Alissa’s own initials and those of her parents, thus A-F, E-F and D-S — which Shostakovich was often to use — Alissa has written a gorgeously evocative piece inspired by a trip to Eastbourne. It is interesting to note that a similar visit in 1905 inspired Debussy to write much of La Mer. Indeed Alissa’s piece reminded me of a moon reflected on a calm sea. Its tinkling bell-like sounds give the work a magical quality. It is a piece that I will enjoy listening to many times.

As a debut disc this is wonderfully impressive and I am eager to hear more of this highly inventive and masterful pianist/composer – bring it on.

Steve Arloff

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