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Russian Impressions
Nikolai Petrovich RAKOV (1908-1990)
Three pieces for cello and piano (1943) [15:42]
Alexander Tikhonovich GRECHANINOV (1864-1956)
Sonata for cello and piano in E minor, Op. 113 (1927) [21:18]
Mily Alexeyevich BALAKIREV (1837-1910)
Romance (1856) [8:54]
Nikolai Yakovlevich MYASKOVSKY (1881-1950)
Sonata No. 2 for cello and piano in A minor, Op. 81 (1948-49) [20:43]
Ramón Jaffé (cello)
Andreas Frölich (piano)
rec. 2000, SWR Studio, Stuttgart, Germany

Paladino has released the album ‘Russian Impressions’ played by cellist Ramón Jaffé and pianist Andreas Frölich, which the duo recorded at the start of the new millennium. This captivating programme for cello and piano by Soviet/Russian composers Balakirev, Grechaninov, Myaskovsky and Rakov consists of works that Jaffé describes on his Facebook page as ‘little-known musical pearls’. Jaffé from Latvia and German-born Frölich have a long-established partnership in the recital hall and recorded the works in 2000 at SWR (Südwestrundfunk - Southwest Broadcasting), Stuttgart. It comes as some surprise that such an excellent recording has had to wait twenty years for its first release, but I am certainly glad it has.

The opening work, Rakov’s Three Pieces for cello and piano, is from 1943 and most attractive.
A conservative composer, Rakov found inspiration in the late/post-Romantic style of Glazunov and Gličre. There are very few recordings of Rakov’s works and I’ve yet to see any programmed in the recital/concert hall. Quite substantial at just under sixteen minutes, the Three Pieces are entitled Poem, Romance and Serenade. The duo Jaffé and Frölich provide an aching longing to the Poem and with the Romance afford a sense of reflection with a central passage of intense passion. Conspicuously, the Serenade commences with writing of a distinct Spanish flavour, an approach propagated by a number of Russian composers including Glinka, Balakirev, Rimsky-Korsakov and Glazunov. The duo movingly performs the Serenade communicating an unashamed lyricism ranging from an ataractic to a deeply unsettling state. Another possible influence occurs at point 3:30 (track 3) which strongly reminds me of the haunting passages described by Prokofiev as ‘wind passing through a graveyard’ from the first and fourth movements of his own first Violin Sonata.

Taught by Taneyev and Arensky at the Moscow Conservatory and Rimsky-Korsakov at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, Grechaninov is a composer whose works are known more by reputation than actual performances. From Grechaninov’s output, his sacred choral music continues to enjoy considerable acclaim. Unsurprisingly, his music developed from the traditional late-Romantic Style of his teachers through to the influence of leading figures of twentieth century music, especially Stravinsky and Prokofiev. A product of his early émigré years in Paris, Grechaninov’s Cello Sonata from 1927 is the second of five sonatas from his chamber music output. It is marked Mesto in the opening movement, and Jaffé and Frölich certainly convey a gloriously relaxed charm, although within the lyrical writing there are contrasting passages of distressed character. Movement two Menuetto tragico contains a salon-like melancholy expressed by the duo heart-on-sleeve. This sadness is interrupted by several very short but starkly conflicting episodes of hostility that hit like violent storms. A positively upbeat Allegro - Allegro molto movement concludes the work with the partnership providing a degree of vehement vitality. This is a work that does not entirely hold my attention; nonetheless, Jaffé and Frölich demonstrate that the score has merit and deserves to be heard.

At St. Petersburg, Balakirev and Cui formed a circle of nationalist composers which included Mussorgsky, Borodin and Rimsky-Korsakov. Known as ‘The Mighty Handful’ or ‘The Five’, the group’s objective was collectively to develop a distinctly Russian school of music. A prolific composer of lieder (including some forty or so titled Romances) and solo piano works, today Balakirev is best known for a select number of orchestral works. From the composer’s modest output of chamber music, Jaffé and Frölich have chosen here the single movement Romance for cello and piano written in 1856 around the same time as his first Piano Concerto, Op. 1; Piano Sonata, Op. 5 and Octet, Op. 3. To my ears, the Romance generally inhabits a sound world comparable to composers that Balakirev knew from playing their works at the fashionable salons such as Chopin, Field, Glinka, Liszt, Anton Rubinstein et al. The Romance is a work which exploits the generous range of the cello from top to bottom and provides a brilliant piano part. Balakirev championed Chopin’s music and it is no surprise that the Romance reminds me often of Chopin’s Cello Sonata. Perceptively Jaffé and Frölich reveal the melancholy and reflection in the score with an awareness that avoids the mawkish.

After training for a military career, Myaskovsky (Miaskovsky) initially studied privately with Gličre at Moscow. Later he transferred to the St. Petersburg Conservatory as a pupil of Rimsky-Korsakov and Liadov (Lyadov). At the Conservatory, he developed a friendship with fellow student Prokofiev. A professor of composition at the Moscow Conservatory, serving from 1921 until he died, Myaskovsky is sometimes known as the ‘Father of the Soviet Symphony’ and is mainly remembered today for his output of twenty-seven symphonies. He completed his second Cello Sonata in 1949; his first Cello Sonata (original version) had been written almost forty years earlier. Although he won the Stalin Prize six times and other awards, it did not prevent him from receiving official criticism. A late work the second Cello Sonata was written in the wake of his stinging rebuke in Zhdanov’s 1948 speech at the General Assembly of Soviet Composers where Myaskovsky and several others were singled out for propagating the anti-democratic formalistic tendencies in Soviet music. Endeavouring to take the heat out of the situation with this Sonata, Myaskovsky assumed a more traditional approach by adopting a noticeably studied plainness while integrating music of folk/peasant quality. It was the young soloist Mstislav Rostropovich, the works’ dedicatee, who, with pianist Alexander Dedyukhin, gave the premiere in 1949. Predictably throughout, the cello rather than the piano part dominates. Although recorded a number of times and occasionally performed, the Sonata certainly could not be described the repertory staple it fully deserves to be. Noticeably, the Sonata’s opening movement, which has been described as a Romanza, contains music based on components of folk song particularly the rather proud and glorious main theme and coda. Jaffé and Frölich fully recognise the squally, passionate, often agitated character of the writing which fully overshadows the episodes of relative calm. In the central movement Andante cantabile, the duo excels by providing an astute level of passion that feels contained and inward rather than employing the heart-on-sleeve approach of, say, the Andante of Rachmaninov’s Cello Sonata. Concluding with a thrilling Allegro con spirito, the movement makes conspicuous use of the folk-dance rhythms. Here, the duo demonstrates its virtuosity and impetus with the unremitting Moto perpetuo providing a headlong race to the finishing line.

This recital is so compelling that it feels like a window on to the Russian soul. Jaffé’s cello sounds splendid, having spotless intonation and articulation which adeptly demonstrates the instrument’s expressive potential. Clearly a most accomplished pianist, Frölich has an impressive presence and is highly supportive throughout. The duo has cultivated a high level of rapport and complement each other admirably. Providing a striking sense of immersion in the music. Conspicuous is the duo’s levels of alertness, conveying a warm lyricism and ardent expression when required. This was recorded impressively for radio broadcast at SWR Studio, Stuttgart, the engineering team providing a satisfying clarity and skilful balance with a natural perspective. This well-presented album contains a considerable essay by Klaus Oberrauner and biographies of Jaffé and Frölich, who provide outstanding performances of these undervalued works which deserve a wider circulation.

Michael Cookson

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