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Klavierwerke um den Russischen Futurismus - Volumes 1-4
Thomas Günther (piano)
rec. 2008-2014
CYBELE 161405 [4 SACDs: 276:22]

The first volume of this set was reviewed in 2009, and while it now appears in this four SACD collection held together by a cardboard sleeve all of these recordings appear as a stand-alone package with Cybele’s usual fulsome documentation. This means that if a particular work or composer interests you then there is no need to buy the whole set, though in these days of downloads you can of course be as precise as you like – Cybele offers a wide range of options in this regard.

Volume 2 provides a relatively easy way into this sometimes tough and uncompromising musical world, with Arthur Lourié’s Cinq Préludes fragiles reminding us to a certain extent of Janáček’s piano works. Lourié was still a teenager while composing his opus 1, but the Deux Poèmes from just a few years later take us into realms already stretching tonality into Scriabin-esque floating ambiguity and at times elemental rhythmic forcefulness. This trajectory is further developed in the darker Quatre poèmes, Lourié searching and ruminating, seemingly trapped between the literal and the symbolic, still drawing in occasional jazz-like gestures but resolutely steering away from resolution and conventional cadence. Synthèses represents another quantum leap towards the Second Viennese School, with passages reminiscent of Schoenberg’s Three Piano Pieces Op. 11, and serialist ideas being expressed in a ‘total chromaticism’ that possesses its own astringency. Formes en l’air is one of Lourié’s better known piano works, but heard here in context as an extension of those previous sound-worlds makes for fascinating comparisons. Art and music join hands here, the remarkable spatial nature of the score creating its own graphic impression, the dedication to Picasso another connection with pictorial imagination. The booklet also refers to Busoni’s Sketch of a New Aesthetic of Music from 1907, which suggests taking “music back to its fundamental nature … free from architectural, acoustic and aesthetic dogmas.” Striking for different reasons, Dnevnoi Uzor or ‘Daily Routine’ brings us back to tonality and elements of Scriabin and Debussy, the composer’s ever restless imagination rarely settling for long on a single idea or atmosphere without some kind of interruption.

Sergei Protopopov’s Sonata No. 3 is set out in a single, powerful movement that points out genuine darkness by comparison with Lourié’s relatively lighter and more poetic touch. Granite like monumental sections dig deep into the lower registers, descending into subterranean gloom and creating a daunting impenetrability which left the work pretty much unperformed between its première in 1929 and Thomas Günther’s revival of it in Berlin in 1983. The technical demands of the piece are comparable with Liszt at his most virtuosic, but there is an unstoppable logic in the piece’s rumbling progress that keeps the willing and perhaps even the unwilling listener in thrall throughout its duration.

Volume 3 is entirely dedicated to the music of Alexander Mosolov, who is of course best known for his orchestral blockbuster Zavod, generally known as Iron Foundry. There is of course more to this composer than a single work, and the impressive set of piano sonatas here were all written while he was studying at the Moscow Conservatoire. The booklet notes outline the tragic circumstances of Mosolov’s later persecution and artistic exile, but in the 1920s he was performed regularly.

The third piano sonata has been lost, but the surviving works here display a wide range of expression and a striking compositional virtuosity. There are some elements that might be described as ‘constructivist’ in the segmented repetitions at certain points in the Second Sonata, but this work is far less abstract than you might expect, with plenty of powerful passion and passages of wit and expressive beauty resulting in a buoyant work that fills its 20 minute duration without waste. The First Sonata commences with a more introvert and low Lento lugubre e sostenuto, but soon striking out with virtuoso energy and chords with a dark, unmistakably Russian thickness – what Thomas Günther calls “a downright heaven-storming work – or rather one hell of a ride.”

The sonatas are divided by the Zwei Nocturnes, both of which generate a potent atmosphere of menace and unrest over their relatively brief spans. The Fourth Sonata takes us towards the loaded world of late Scriabin, certainly hinted at before, but here expressed in a compact work with a remarkable density of dynamic markings and changes of time signature. The Fifth Sonata returns us to the more generous classical proportions of a four-movement model, but closing with an Adagio. As with the Second Sonata the music is not without its moments of disarming simplicity, straight melodic ideas crystalizing in the second Elegia movement which has a Prokofiev-like line over an anti-expressive and repetitive ostinato accompaniment. The third movement Scherzo marciale is “a ludicrous piece of music, trembling with febrile excitement”, generating contrast for the final Adagio languente e patetico which wrong-foots expectations with its swift ‘walking bass’ opening. This remains a hard-edged and monumental close to the sonata, without a drop of sentimentality to be found – its dramatic ending “with an almost superhuman effort” projected with fabulous technical prowess by Günther.

Volume 4 is packed with variety, starting with the sense of enigmatic wonder in Scriabin’s Deux Morceaux, the gentle romanticism of which is blasted out of the water by Stravinsky’s Piano-Rag Music. I hadn’t really ever thought of this as particularly futurist, but placed in the context of this wide-ranging collection it fits in remarkably well with its forceful rhythms and high-energy impact.

Nikolai Roslavets’ Prélude à la Memoire d’Arkady Abaza is a weighty memorial; a slow march, the block chords of which build implacably and fade into the gloom of mortality. The Deux Compositions and Cinq Préludes seem fairly innocuous to start with, but their total subversion of tonality can be traced into scores thick with accidentals, “the composer … intentionally trying to make the texture murky”, and delivering an effect of surprisingly expressive abstraction.

Sergei Protopopov makes his return after appearing on volume 1, in this case with the Sonata No. 1 Op. 1. Thomas Günther bemoans the neglect of this composer, but makes a good case for this traditionally three-movement work, the first movement of which is a remarkable wedge-shape climb to a peak built up from intervals of thirds and sixths. A quiet, impressionistic Lento second movement has gusts of chill wind that ruffle otherwise still but deep waters, while the marking of the finale pretty much says it all, being a powerful Lugubre tempestuoso.

The most of the rest of the programme is taken up with the visionary Scriabin, the very fine Cinq Préludes Op. 74 being his last completed work, but the most significant piece being the Sonata No. 7 Op. 64 ‘White Mass’, which “unifies in one piece all of Scriabin’s formal and pianistic qualities.” Both rich and heady as well as threading its material through that distinctive whole-tone openness, Günther provides us a performance filled with subtle dynamic touches and seriously high drama.

The final tracks present two recordings of Nikolai Obukhov’s Adorons Christ in a second version, the first of which appeared in volume 1. This craggy but highly pictorial work with its incredibly virtuoso final pages is presented for a second time in binaural sound intended for headphone listening. This recording technique has been used quite a lot by Cybele lately and for headphone users such as myself is very appealing, heightening the feel of being ‘in the room’ and having the sense of real 3D sound.

Roger Woodward on the Celestial Harmonies label (review) has some overlap with the repertoire in this collection and is a superb place to gain a single-disc overview of this remarkable period in Russian music. If you are looking for a more total immersion then this well researched four-volume set will take you into realms both unexpected and challenging. The performances are fabulous and seemingly bordering on the superhuman at times, and of course the Steinway D piano is beautifully recorded with just the right balance of ambience and detailed depth.

Dominy Clements
Vol. 1 [66:39]
Nikolaj OBUCHOV (1892-1954)
Invocations I & 2 (1916) [5:33]
Deux pièces (1915) [6:42]
Conversion (1915) [5:00
Icone (1915) [3:35
Création de l´Or I (1916) [4:50]
Ivan WYSCHNEGRADSKY (1893-1979)
Deux Préludes pour Piano op. 2 (1916) [3:41]
Sergei PROTOPOPOV (1893-1954)
II Sonate op. 5 (1924) [13:01]
Etude sur le Carré Magique Sonore op. 40 (1957) [8:22]
Aimons-nous les uns les autres (1942) [1:51]
La paix pour les réconciliés - vers la source avec le calice (1948) [2:49]
Le temple est mesuré, l´Esprit est incarné (1952) [2:59]
Adorons Christ - Fragment du troisième et dernier Testament (1945) [8:09]
rec. 1-4 November 2008, Deutschlandfunk Kammermusiksaal, Köln.
Available separately as 160404

Vol. 2 [71:50]
Arthur Vincent LOURIÉ (1892-1966)
Cinq Préludes fragiles op. 1 (1908-10) [8:31]
Deux Poèmes op. 8 (1912) [7:52]
Quatre Poèmes op. 10 (1912) [8:06]
Synthèses op. 16 (1914) [8:06]
Formes en l’air (1915) [6:06]
Dnevnoj uzor (Tagesplan) (1915) [11:04]
Sergei PROTOPOPOV (1893-1954)
Sonate Nr. 3 op. 5 (1924-28) [22:07]
rec. 22-26 February 2010, Deutschlandfunk Kammermusiksaal, Köln.
Available separately as 161402

Vol. 3 [65:05]
Alexander MOSOLOV (1900-1973)
Sonate Nr. 2 in h-Moll op. 4 (1923/24) [20:46]
Sonate Nr. 1 in c-Moll op. 3 (1924) [9:46]
Zwei Nocturnes für Klavier op. 15 (1926) [5:42]
Sonate Nr. 4 op. 11 (1925) [8:36]
Sonate Nr. 5 in d-Moll op. 12 (1925) [20:13]
rec. 1-5 March 2012, Deutschlandfunk Kammermusiksaal, Köln.
Available separately as 161403

Vol. 4 [81:02 Stereo and 72:48 SACD 5.1 surround]
Alexander SKRJABIN (1872-1915)
Deux Morceaux op. 57 (1909) [3:52]
Igor STRAWINSKY (1882-1971)
Piano-Rag-Music (1919) [3:10]
Nikolaj ROSLAVETS (1881-1944)
Prélude à la Memoire d’Arkady Abaza (1915) [5:04]
Deux Compositions (1915) [6:34]
Cinq Préludes (1919-1922) [9:40]
Sergei PROTOPOPOV (1893-1954)
Sonate Nr. 1 op. 1 (1920-1922) [11:47]
Alexander SKRJABIN
Deux Danses op. 73 (1914) [5:34]
Cinq Préludes op. 74 (1914) [6:45]
Sonate Nr. 7 (Weisse Messe) op. 64 (1911) [13:35]
Nikolaj OBUCHOV (1892-1954)
Adorons Christ – Fragment du troisième et dernier Testament (1945, Alternativ-Fassung) [6:50] (Stereo & *3D Binaural versions)
rec. 27 February-3 March 2014, Deutschlandfunk Kammermusiksaal, Köln.
Available separately as 161404



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