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CÚsar CUI (1835-1918)
25 Preludes Op. 64 (1903)
Jouni Somero (piano)
rec. 2018, Kuusaa Hall, Kussankoski, Finland
FC RECORDS FCRCD-9759 [70:48]

CÚsar Cui remains the least known of the Mighty Handful of Russian nationalist composers, although in recent years there has been a steady trickle of recordings of his music. These include the one-act opera A Feast in Time of Plague (CHAN10201), just one of his fourteen operas, a disc which clearly shows there is much more to Cui than the usual title of self-taught amateur composer would suggest.

Cesarius-Benjaminus Cui was born into a military family with French, Polish and Lithuanian roots in Vilnius, which at the time was part of the Russian Empire. Indeed, he entered the Imperial Russian Army and rose to the rank of Engineer-General, becoming an expert on fortification. His musical education revolved around childhood piano lessons and a study of Chopin. Despite this, he was never a natural pianist and never regarded himself as a good one. He composed a few small pieces in his early teens, even though he had had no lessons in composition – just some lessons in musical theory in the few months before entering the military academy. It was only after meeting Mily Balakirev in 1856 that he began to be more serious about music, especially Balakirev’s concept of a national style of music.

Although Cui was not a great pianist, as a composer he seems to have had an for the instrument, writing over thirty pieces in various forms, most, like these Twenty Five Preludes of 1903, being collections of short pieces. There has been a growth of interest in his piano works since the 1990s. The Preludes alternate major and minor keys, starting and ending in C major. The first Prelude has a hymn-like feel to it, while others in the set, such as the third in G major or the sixth in F sharp minor, have allegiance to his great hero, Chopin. Others, like the second Prelude in E minor, show the influence of his mentor Balakirev. Other Preludes again, including the eighth in C sharp minor, have a feel of Rachmaninov, whose Ten Preludes Op. 23 were composed in the same year as these Preludes by Cui. The Preludes were dedicated to various pianists and friends - numbers 20 to 22 are dedicated to Ignacy Paderewski.

I once had Jeffrey Biegel’s 1993 Marco Polo recording of these Preludes (8.223496), a recording which was lent out never to be seen again, so for this review I borrowed a friend’s copy for comparison. While Biegel’s recording is a little swifter, it is this new recording by Jouni Somero that I find myself drawn to most. I find Somero more authoritative in his interpretation, he puts greater weight behind the quicker and more forceful Preludes, while having a more delicate touch in the quieter, more introspective ones. The recorded sound has a slightly reverberant acoustic, which gives it the feel of a live recording. The booklet notes leave a lot to be desired. There is more about Jouni Somero than about CÚsar Cui and his music combined, and only five lines on the Preludes. This is one place were the Marco Polo disc was an improvement.

Stuart Sillitoe

No. 1 in C Major [1:29]
No. 2 in E Minor [3:23]
No. 3 in G Major [1:30]
No. 4 in B Minor [2:32]
No. 5 in D Major [3:12]
No. 6 in F-Sharp Minor [5:22]
No. 7 in A Major [1:46]
No. 8 in C-Sharp Minor [2:47]
No. 9 in E Major [2:35]
No. 10 in G-Sharp Minor [2:05]
No. 11 in B Major [2:39]
No. 12 in E-Flat Minor [2:47]
No. 13 in F-Sharp Major [5:30]
No. 14 in B-Flat Minor [2:18]
No. 15 in D-Flat Major [3:40]
No. 16 in F Minor [1:53]
No. 17 in A-Flat Major [4:00]
No. 18 in C Minor [2:17]
No. 19 in E-Flat Major [1:53]
No. 20 in G Minor [2:26]
No. 21 in B-Flat Major [2:49]
No. 22 in D Minor [6:12]
No. 23 in F Major [1:38]
No. 24 in A Minor [1:40]
No. 25 in C Major [2:15]