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Arthur Vincent LOURIÉ (1892-1966)
Complete Piano Works - Volume 2
Two Poèmes for piano, Opus 8 [7:21]
Menuet for Piano after Gluck [3:19]
Synthesis, Opus 16 [7:08]
Dnevnoj uzor (Tagesplan) [11:29]
Royal' v detskoy [10:35]
Three Sonatinas for Piano, no 3 [3:23]
Toccata for Piano [5:08]
Valse for Piano [4:10]
Gigue for Piano [5:01]
March for Piano [2:30]
Nocturne for Piano in B flat Major [6:56]
Intermezzo for Piano [5:53]
Berceuse de la chevrette [3:19]
A Phoenix Park Nocturne [5:05]
Giorgio Koukl (piano)
rec. Conservatorio della Svizzera Italiana, Lugano, Switzerland, 2016
GRAND PIANO GP750 [81:18]

For many, Arthur Vincent Lourié (1891-1966) is perhaps best known for his relationship with Anna Akhmatova and as a friend of Stravinsky. Though after listening to but a few bars of this second volume in Giorgio Koukl’s projected complete survey of Lourié’s piano music for the Grand Piano label (the first was released this time last year on Grand Piano 737), it’s easy to accept that the composer’s work stands in its own right.

The music here all dates from between 1912 and 1938. It’s a generous selection at over an hour and twenty minutes. The pieces are varied and easily capture our attention. Some are atonal and others could have been written in France half a century earlier… even the Royal' v detskoy (‘Scenes of Russian Childhood’), although they too have hints of Stravinsky’s forthright rhythms and acerbic harmonies.

At times Koukl’s playing - for all its insight and technical prowess - seems unsure of exactly to which genre the music belongs. It’s to his credit, though, that he keeps his options open and never wavers into pastiche or too imitative a style. Given that Lourié was virtually deprived of an accepted and distinct reputation of his own for so many years later in his life and after his death, it’s well that Koukl is clearly letting the composer speak for himself, rather than over-interpreting him.

Our appreciation of this sympathy on Koukl’s part is reinforced as we listen to his gentle and tactful playing of such almost stylised pieces as the the Minuet in the style of Gluck [tr. 3], and the unadventurous waltz at the end of the Eight Scenes [tr. 21]. These could easily have evoked bathos or parody. Instead, Koukl uses a serious touch. Typical is the way he approaches the more substantial works, such as the wonderfully evocative Deux Poèmes Opus 8 [trs. 1, 2]. Given what we know about the poetry of the Silver Age and pre-War era (the Deux Poèmes were written in 1912), Koukl’s playing is apt and communicative. It has a delicate balance between the tentative and the confident.

There are moments when one feels that Koukl is trying too hard, though. That he seems to be struggling to try and make the deliberate and measured tempi of Lourié says more than perhaps they are meant to. The later movements of Dnevnoj uzor (‘Daytime Routine’) [trs. 12, 13], for instance, are a touch forced; they lack spontaneity. Perhaps that is the ‘routine’. More and greater variations in dynamic would have helped.

The sound world of much of this music is that of Satie. Had Koukl kept Scriabin and Debussy in his mind more, he might have better revealed the subtlety of this strange composer. Despite what we have on record of Lourié’s understanding of his own times and works, surely he is the musical heir neither to the symphonists of the preceding century nor to the grand scale of Liszt (or at greater distance Schubert, as in the fetching Gigue [tr. 24]), but rather to the reflectiveness and attention to detail of a writer like Tolstoy with his match of compassion and doubt to detail and pathos.

Such juxtapositions Koukl seems to understand. And he wants to point them up - unobtrusively yet unambiguously. Small motifs count; simple melodic ideas are given their due. At the same time Lourié must be striving for what he too knows is unattainable, as did Tolstoy. Koukl also pulls out of Lourié’s writing the same elegant seriousness which informed the drama of Mayakovsky despite its apparent absurdities.

Lourié here is not one seeking to tear everything down and start again, in contemporary nihilist fashion. His music is too concerned with itself. Of this, too, Koukl is thankfully aware, and pushes it forward with just the right sense of purpose and force. At the same time, the importance of the composer’s transition from optimism to disillusion in the years of purges and famine cannot be attenuated. One maybe has to listen to the music here more than once thoroughly to appreciate the balance which Lourié struck between, say, the macabre and the potentially (though never unalloyed) lyrical. The same must go for the contrast between the (Russian) avant garde (the Phoenix Park Nocturne [tr. 30] is dedicated to James Joyce) and the Romantic. This is not easy to communicate - and Koukl does so well.

The acoustic of the studio of the Conservatorio della Svizzera Italiana is dry yet full. The piano resonates throughout each piece, but is not pushed to the fore artificially. The space leaves ample room for Koukl to expand. It seems at times almost as though he is experimenting - listen to the ending of the second Synthesis [tr. 5], for example. The whole experience is one of happy latitude, always supported by the recording; though never of laxness. The short essay reprinted in English and German that comes with the CD sets the scene nicely, and introduces listeners unfamiliar with them to Lourié’s interesting life and compositions.

Apart from the three-disc set by Moritz Ernst (with Oskar Ansull) on Capriccio (5281), there is no competition for Koukl’s series. Thankfully, the latter’s style, enthusiasm and understanding of the idiom make it an easy choice. Despite some reservations about the pianist’s lack of a more relaxed touch, if you bought and were happy with the first volume, you’ll want this one too. It’s full of surprises and delights.
Mark Sealey

Previous review: Steve Arloff



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