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Forgotten Russians
Alexei STANCHINSKY (1888-1914)
Prelude in Lydian mode [4:26]
Four Sketches from Op. 1 (1911) - Nos. 3, 5, 7, and 10 [5:01]
Samuil FEINBERG (1890-1962)
Berceuse (1912) [5:21]
Nikolai OBUKHOV (1892-1954)
Four Pieces (1912-1918) [5:37]
Arthur LOURIÉ (1892-1966)
Forms in the Air (1915); Forms I – III [8:45]
A Phoenix Park Nocturne [6:38]
Nikolai ROSLAVETS (1881-1944)
Five Preludes (1919-1922) [12:32]
Alexander MOSOLOV (1900-1973)
Two Nocturnes, Op. 15 (1925) [5:58]
Two Dances, Op. 23b (1927) [3:59]
Sergei PROTOPOPOV (1893-1954)
Sonata, No. 2, Op. 5 [15:58]
Vladimir Feltsman (piano)
rec. 2018, Wyastone Leys, Monmouth, UK

In recent years we have become tolerably familiar with some of the composers who were suppressed, persecuted and often murdered by the Nazis, and such names as Korngold, Braunfels, Eisler, Ullmann and Schulhoff are now performed and recorded. We are much less familiar with those who fell by the way in the Soviet Union; admittedly, they were usually not murdered but instead were silenced or forced into conformity. Here Vladimir Feltsman, who has a recording history of mainstream works and Russian works in particular, has given us a recital of little-known Russian works by composers who may be little more than names to most people, if that.

Stanchinsky stands rather outside the rest of this group, in that he died young, before the Revolution. He suffered from mental illness and his death may have been suicide. He had a particular interest in unusual metres: The Prelude in the Lydian Mode has a time signature of 23/16. It is a gentle piece with a charming tune over what might have been a rocking accompaniment, but the irregular rhythm gives it an unsteady effect. The four sketches, from a set of ten, which follow, anticipate Prokofiev with their pungent rhythms and toccata-like writing. They also use various modes.

Feinberg managed to hold down a position at the Moscow Conservatory from the 1920s to his death and avoided falling into official disfavour. Over him, and indeed over most of the remaining composers represented here, the influence of Scriabin is strong. Like Scriabin he wrote mostly for the piano, with twelve piano sonatas and three concertos. The Berceuse recorded here is an early work. Complex chords support a plaintive melody. The effect is oddly like early Messiaen, but this is some twenty years before.

Obukhov was a very strange character, a mystic, a reformer of musical notation, an inventor of unusual instruments – his Croix sonore was a kind of alternative to the theremin – and he worked for years on a magnum opus, The Book of Life, which he did not finish. His four short pieces here are very much in the world of Scriabin.

Lourié was an émigré, best remembered as a friend of Stravinsky’s in the Paris of the 1920s, until they fell out. I had a disc of his music to review last year (review), when I thought he had neither established an idiom of his own nor worked well enough in that of others. His Forms in the Air, recorded here, was not on that disc, but it does not persuade me to change my opinion. It still seems to me a feeble pastiche of Scriabin, of the sixth sonata in particular.

Roslavets was a much stronger creative personality. He stayed in Russia and suffered for it. His idiom is an extension of Scriabin’s and his output includes two violin concertos and some other orchestral works which have been recorded (review). His piano works are of considerable interest, though not all of them survive. I had a two-disc set of what there is a little while ago (review). His Five Preludes are very much still in the Scriabin idiom, taking off from Scriabin Op. 74 preludes, one of his last works. However, they are all rather too similar, being slow, quasi-improvisatory and lacking the variety of their model.

Mosolov was notorious in the 1920s for his short orchestral work Iron Foundry, one of a group of modernist works which briefly made him famous. He then fell foul of the authorities and changed his idiom in an attempt to do what was required. These later works do not seem to have been successful and he is now remembered only for the modernist works which ruined him. I had a disc of them to review (review) and am glad now to hear some of his piano music. The two Nocturnes are so fierce that the titles seem ironic and the two Dances bounce around, like Prokofiev but without his humour.

Protopopov was originally a medical student until he met Boleslav Yavorsky, a musicologist and philosopher. They became lifelong partners until Yavorsky’s death, though Protopopov was sentenced to three years in labour camps during the 1930s for his homosexuality. Later, he was given access to Scriabin’s archives and he undertook to complete Scriabin’s Prefatory Action, the first part of his projected Mysterium. This he did not achieve – it was later done by Alexander Nemtin and recorded by Ashkenazy. Protopopov’s own output was small but includes three substantial piano sonatas, of which we here have the second. Protopopov adopted his partner’s musical theories and his music follows these closely. His sonata here is in one movement, but full of changes of mood and texture, taking off from late Scriabin and moving onwards from that. This is both the longest and the most impressive work in this recital and indeed the disc is worth its price for this work alone.

Finally, we return to Lourié and his Phoenix Park Nocturne. Phoenix Park is in Dublin and has a rich history of its own. Lourié dedicated this piece to James Joyce, who featured the park in several of his works. It is a charming, unchallenging and rather melancholy piece, put here as a relief after what Vladimir Feltsman rightly calls a “rather disquieting recording.” His playing is thoroughly idiomatic and committed; indeed, I have the sense that this was a real labour of love for him. He also wrote the booklet notes, in English only, which are very helpful in filling out the background of these little-known composers. The recording is up to the standard of the house.

There are other recitals with varying combinations of works by these composers. I should particularly note a four-disc set by Thomas Günther, featuring all of them and including all three of Protopopov’s piano sonatas (review). However, anyone wishing to sample this repertoire will be well rewarded by this disc.

Stephen Barber

Previous review: Roy Westbrook

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