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Alexey STANCHINSKY (1888-1914)
Complete Piano Works - Volume 1
Olga Solovieva (piano)
rec. 2018, Studio 1, Russian State TV & Radio Company KULTURA, Moscow, Russia
GRAND PIANO GP766 [72:20]

Even from a young age, Alexey Stanchinsky was a gifted musician, composing and performing his first works at the age of six. At 16 he took piano lessons from the likes of Josef Lhévinne for piano, and Alexander Grechaninov for theory and composition, before entering the Moscow Conservatory at nineteen, to study with Sergei Taneyev among others. Stanchinsky had always shown great musical promise even at a very young age, but was often deemed ‘unstable’, as well as a victim of his own nerves. This became particularly conspicuous on the death of his father in 1910, and the composer became more and more delusional, an illness from which he then suffered for many years. After a short break from music, he returned to his roots by amassing folk tunes for a personal collection, eventually returning to the conservatory life-style by studying with his former colleagues once more. However, his life would never again be what it was, and, in October 1914, he was found dead next to a stream while wandering the countryside.

While Mozart, Mendelssohn, and Schubert all died in their thirties, Stanchinsky was only 26 when he passed away. This puts him in the same company as Pergolesi, Lili Boulanger, and Guillaume Lekeu – again well-respected composers with a special voice, even if not on the ‘great composers’ list’ like the first three names. As, no doubt, Stanchinsky is new to most of us, is their sufficient evidence here to afford him membership of the ‘Twenties’ club, I wonder?

This new CD is, of course, Volume 1 of the composer’s piano works on the Grand Piano label, and includes all Stanchinsky’s published works written before 1910, presented in chronological order, with the exception of the opening track. A previous CD of the composer’s piano music was the subject of an MWI review by Stephen Greenbank in 2017, which also includes a most useful round-up of the composer’s discography at the time.

First to come is the early Sonata in E flat minor, and despite the fact that the composer was just 18, it is a really arresting work, from its cascading opening which very soon leads into a typically Russian-romantic melody, which speaks in the manner of Rachmaninov, Bortkiewicz, and Scriabin, before harking back to the world of Tchaikovsky for a moment. The piano writing is really thrilling, and needs a true virtuoso to bring it off in performance, something which Russian pianist Olga Solovieva so very comfortably achieves, playing with all the power and stylistic empathy the music demands. It is a one-movement work, rather in the style of a poem or ballad, which aligns it, from the formal standpoint, closer to Scriabin. The ending is especially thrilling, and there are already hints of how the composer’s style and harmonic palette will develop, as he gains in maturity.

This is followed by the three Songs without Words, which predate the Sonata by two years. The set was, in fact, the result of an assignment by Gretchaninov, who asked for examples of binary and ternary form, and so admirably demonstrates one of Stanchinsky’s unique selling points – the ability to write such warmly expressive melodies, which fit the piano like a glove.

The first Mazurka in D flat major has a distinct dance-like quality, with a more lyrical middle section, while the later example in G sharp minor is a more intimate affair – almost a mazurka within a mazurka. The Humoresque, and the Nocturne in C sharp minor which follow later are both interesting in that, unlike the Mazurkas, which generally have a distinct stylistic similarity, irrespective of composer, often arrived at through its traditional dotted-rhythm pattern, these two pieces buck the trend in terms of what one would expect from pieces with their respective titles. The Humoresque is devoid of the usual light humour or jokes, in either section. The piano-writing is especially challenging, and the harmonic palette and some chord progressions heard, are decidedly more forward-looking. Nonetheless, this would make an exciting addition to a concert programme, with its Lisztian virtuosity

To make the whole experience even more enjoyable, the CD now goes on to present more of the composer’s works, but in an effective mix of different genres. Les Larmes (‘Tears’) is a delightful miniature, which again harks back to Tchaikovsky, and the sentiment of something like his Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennt. The early Préludes of 1907 are all heartfelt and passionate, from the soul-searching despair of those in C sharp minor, and C minor, and the shifting chromaticism and quasi-Impressionist textures of the faster D major example, barely a minute or so long. The A flat major / F minor Prélude contrasts serenity and aggression with its two respective tonalities, while the E flat minor one becomes an impassioned lament, and is noticeably somewhat more forward-looking, harmonically.

The Prélude in the Lydian Mode scarcely gives the listener any inkling of its modality. Effectively it is written in the key of E flat major, but uses the key signature of B flat major, with the result that, as early as the second bar – when the piano right hand enters, we immediately feel a slight glitch when an A natural, rather than A flat is heard, almost as if a ‘wrong’ note. The piece is really most expressive, and builds to a great climax. Part of its immediate attraction is the feeling that it is perhaps written without bar-lines, since the flow seems totally uninhibited. Of course, actually writing without bar lines would make it more difficult for the performer, and so the composer goes for the unconventional time signature of 21/16 – 21 semiquavers, or sixteenth-notes, in the bar, which Stanchinsky deploys in three groups of seven. The Prélude in E major ‘Mixolydian’ proves quite a contrast to its sister-piece, almost hinting at the modality at the start of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, though with quite a heady infusion of a contrapuntal Three-Part Invention – and an ending that leaves the listener somewhat up in the air.

There are two more Préludes to be heard – in B flat minor, and B minor respectively. The first has a definite Russian feel to it, and clearly witnesses progress in Stanchinsky’s style in the two years since his 1907 ones. Both are highly animated, and cram an incredible amount into the space of less than a minute, the second in particular, which lasts a mere 35 seconds.

Unsurprisingly the composer’s Études are virtuoso pieces combining technical aspects with expressive and interpretative considerations. The A flat example is an ingenious combination of a number of styles-within-styles, with the striding main theme serving both as an ostinato, as well as the subject of ongoing variation and thematic development. The Étude in G minor has almost jazz-like syncopations, with bold harmonies to match., which while rhythmically challenging to the listener, are more straightforward on paper, because of the composer’s real knack of turning a 9/8 time signature – often the hall-mark of a lyrical Barcarolle – into something that sounds immensely more complex. The Étude in B major could hardly inhabit a more contrasting world – a gentle Nocturne with delicate filigree adornments. The excellent sleeve-notes refer to its ‘stereophonic’ texture, which is how the composer achieves its ravishing effect – once again with a metrical sleight of hand – the right hand, in 9/16 and 5/8. weaves its magic over the 9/16 of the left hand, again an intricate effect on the ear, but less so to the eye.

From 1911 to 1914, the composer experimented with polyphonic forms, by creating his own unique genre, the ‘canon-prélude’, and the CD features two early examples – his Canon in B minor, and the Prélude and Fugue in G minor which concludes Volume One. If you were to land on Track 18 first, you could well be forgiven for thinking that you were listening to a contemporary composer, rather than a late-Romantic Russian. An exercise it might be, and I can recall having to write something similar to impress my Composition professor at college, many years ago. True, the result ticked all the boxes, but I don’t recall ever wanting to hear it again. There is also something experimental about the final Prélude and Fugue, though not quite to the degree of the Canon. Only towards the end of the Prélude does it begin to feel as if Stanchinsky would rather like to return to his natural writing-style, as he seeks to combine this with a more grandiose moment of ‘hommage to Bach’. The closing Fugue is again cast in the astringent language of the earlier Canon, an academic exercise that is certainly impressive and well-constructed. Despite the virtually atonal writing, when the end does come, it’s by way of a welcome tierce de Picardie – the corresponding major, rather than minor final chord – though arrived at by a somewhat less than conventional, and decidedly individual chord progression. Personally it’s not quite my cup of chai, but both these two ‘exercise-pieces’ take up little space, and it’s always interesting to appreciate what the composer was capable of producing in 1908-09, while Schoenberg was writing his Drei Klavierstücke, Op. 11 – assuming, of course, Stanchinsky felt the urge.

This new release is a most compelling one, not only because it contains such attractive late-Romantic music, extremely well-executed and faithfully captured on disc, but because Alexey Stanchinsky really does have original things to say, and, while his life was but short, there is tantalisingly more than a glimpse here of what might have been. Like Schumann, Stanchinsky suffered from a severe mental illness, but often genius is just one step away from madness. Not wishing to imply that these two composers could in any way share the same musical pedestal, the Grand Piano label has already done an immense service to this sadly-neglected composer, and the promise of a Volume Two is something to relish in the hopefully not-too-distant future.

This CD, and the music of Alexey Stanchinsky, have been a real ‘find’ for me, and the fact that it features six World Premiere Recordings makes it an even more attractive proposition. I, for one, would be more than happy to consider him alongside the likes of Lili Boulanger, or Guillaume Lekeu, as a fully paid-up member of that unfortunate ‘Twenties’ club.

Philip R Buttall


Piano Sonata in E flat minor (1906) [10:27]
Three Songs without Words (1904) [9:03]
Mazurka in D flat major (Allegro) (1905) [3:22] *
Humoresque (1906) [5:01] *
Les Larmes (‘Tears’) (1906) [1:55] *
Prélude in C sharp minor (Lento) (1907) [2:06]
Prélude in C minor (Andante) (1907) [2:29]
Nocturne in C sharp minor (1907) [5:14]
Prélude in A flat major / F minor (Lento espressivo) (1907) [1:55]
Étude in F minor / A flat major (Animato assai) (1907) [2:31] *
Prélude in D major (Con moto) (1907) [1:11]
Prélude in E flat minor (Adagio) (1907) [2:28]
Étude in G minor (Allegro patetico) (1907) [3:16]
Prélude in the Lydian Mode (Andante) (1907) [4:21]
Mazurka in G sharp minor (Allegretto) (1907) [1:43] *
Canon in B minor (1908) [1:00]
Prélude in E major ‘Mixolydian’ (Non troppo vivo) (1908) [1:16]
Étude in B major (Lento ma non troppo) (1909) [6:50] *
Prélude in B flat minor (Presto) (1909) [0:58]
Prélude in B minor (Animato) (1909) [0:35]
Prélude and Fugue in G minor (1909) [4:40]

* World Premičre Recording

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