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Nikolai PEYKO (1916-1995)
Complete Piano Music - Volume One
Ballada (1939)
Piano Sonata No. 1 (1946–54)
Variations (1957)
Sonatina No. 2 (1957)
Bylina (1966)
Piano Sonata No. 2 (1972–75)
Concert Triptych for two pianos (1986) (I Prelude and Toccata; II Nocturne; III Waltz-Poem)
Dmitry Korostelyov, Maria Dzhemesiuk (pianos)
rec. May 2008-Jan 2009, Moscow

Complete Piano Music - Volume Two
Concert Etude (1940)
Sonatina No. 1 in D major (1942)
Sonatina-Skazka in D minor (1943)
Piano Sonata No. 3 (1988)
Sonata for the Left Hand (1992)
Concert Variations for two pianos (1983)
Dmitry Korostelyov; Maria Dzhemesiuk (pianos)
rec. May 2008-Jan 2009, Moscow

The Soviet era composer and pianist, Nikolai Peyko was a student of Myaskovsky and Rakov. Born in Moscow, he graduated from the Conservatory there where he was to become a teacher; also at the Gnesin Institute both of which were venues for these recordings. His wide-ranging catalogue includes symphonies and concertos alongside much else. He enjoyed the attentions of Melodiya and there have been LP recordings of his symphonies 4-7 although, to the best of my knowledge, none of these have found their way onto CD.

In 2014 and 2015 Toccata Classics issued his complete piano music on two separately available CDs - all first recordings, it seems. Each disc follows the same structural layout with works from the 1940s appearing first and tracing their way through to the 1980s and 1990s.

Volume 1: The Ballada is a smokily dangerous, evocative piece suggesting a sinister Islamey-style world. The post-war four-movement Piano Sonata No 1 is a sharp-edged essay from a harder world. It is terse, halting, ruthless, forbidding and even inhuman. There's a more yielding relief in something close to Beethovenian romance in the finale but the piano part is prone to flinty episodes. The little Variations from 1957 are tough and stony. The two movement Sonatina No. 2, from the same year as the Variations, is studiously more accessible - music of chimes, marches and shafts of tragedy. There's an engaging shade of Prokofiev's Classical in the second and last movement. Wind forward to 1966 for the brilliant single-movement Bylina, a display in obsidian harsh virtuosity. Into the 1970s for the 10-minute Piano Sonata No 2 in three movements. Several times this makes a feint in the direction of Bylina's pile-driving style but makes time for softer fantasy - and not only in the central Moderato. The glittering rocky display and tocsin evocations of the finale also accommodate the softer emotions (2:20) - why it's almost Nyman's The Piano. The concluding two- piano Concert Triptych (1986) is in three very impressive movements. The first declaims and rings out heroically and then turns on a sixpence to explore tenderness one moment and a flighty troika ride the next. The long central Nocturne is at times like viewing the second movement of the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1 through a soft focus lens. It's not as sentimental as the equivalent movement in Shostakovich's Second Piano Concerto but it comes close. Its final Waltz-Poem is resolutely cheery and determinedly out of sorts with the type of writing you might expect to have been written in 1986. The Concert-Triptych is a complete triumph and should be taken up by accomplished young pianists everywhere. Well done to Korostelyov and Dzhemesiuk generally for their work on these two discs but also for taking up this specific work.

Volume 2: The 1940 Concert Etude is a ruthless display piece in the manner of Prokofiev but has some of the same exotic Eastern spirit found in the Ballada from the year before. The three-movement Sonatina No. 1 from two years later is a feel-good piece with jollity pitted against romance. Its Larghetto is subtle, slow-pulsed and impressionistic - John Ireland leapt to mind at times. The subtle little Sonatina-Skazka from 1943 is a feathery hailstorm of notes that slows and drifts into romantic realms. We then jump forward to 1988 for the four-movement Piano Sonata No. 3. We already know from the Concert Triptych that Peyko writing in the 1980s is not to be taken for granted. The Sonata's Toccata is, however, typically hard-nosed and granite-chinned. The tragic second movement has a gentle side (1:02). It's followed by a flighty brief Scherzo - a sort of Baba Yaga in full flight. The finale is seriously eloquent. There is some extremely telling music in this Sonata although it feels more like a suite than a completely resolved syncretic structure. The Left Hand Sonata of 1992 had its origins in the fact that Peyko suffered many strokes in later life such that only his left side was functioning. Its four movements are nicely contrasted. By now the style and substance is familiar and is sustained throughout this very late work: touching, fantastic and romantic though never slushy. The disc ends, as does CD 1, with a 1980s work for two pianos: The Concert Variations. These span less than ten minutes - a theme and eleven highly inventive variations. For all their resourceful exploitation this work does not feel contrived and can be enjoyed without dwelling on the minutiae of Peyko's alchemical transformations.

The liner-notes are by Yuri Abdokov. Aside from offering ideally full information about Peyko, each piece is profiled. The essay refers also to Peyko's other works including nine symphonies (1945, 1946, 1957, 1965, 1969, 1972, 1980, 1986, 1990).

The performances on these two discs appear confident and feel convincing - indeed masterly. The engineers have secured full spectrum sound within which Peyko's extremes of violence, harshness and tenderness are happily accommodated.

Those curious about Soviet music of these unstable years and who wonder what there is beyond Shostakovich and Prokofiev but before Gubaidulina and Schnittke should seek out these two rewarding discs.

Rob Barnett



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