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Chants Populaires
Leonid DESYATNIKOV (b.1955)
Songs of Bukovina (2017) [43:26]
Béla BARTÓK (1881-1945)
15 Hungarian Peasant Songs Sz.71 (1914-1918) [13:19]
Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Dumka Op.59 (1886) [8:33]
Lukas Geniušas (piano)
rec. 19-21 September 2019, Gustav Mahler Concert Hall, Toblach/Dobbiaco, Italy
Reviewed as a digital download from a press preview
MIRARE MIR440 [65:18]

I first became aware of the Russian-Lithuanian pianist Lukas Geniušas through his 2018 release of Prokofiev piano sonatas and other solo works (MIR412). Here, I thought, was a musician brimming with imaginative ideas about the music and the fingers to deliver those ideas. Whilst his follow-up disc of Chopin took him into a much more competitive part of the repertoire, I found the same capacity to find new ways of performing much-played music as on the Prokofiev disc. I was left in the curious position of simultaneously accepting that Geniušas couldn’t really compete with the very best in, say, the Chopin third sonata and yet listening to and enjoying his performances a lot. It is partly a matter of the sound he makes, which is remarkably wide in range. Partly, it is his sparky and sparkling intelligence which brings a real sense of play to the music.

For this release, the substantial part of the programme departs from the mainstream for something much rarer. If I had some lingering doubts about his Chopin, I have none about his playing of these folk song-inspired pieces by the Russian composer, Leonid Desyatnikov. As with the Prokofiev on his earlier disc, this is music that fits Geniušas like a glove. The music is wry, fantastical and full of opportunities for a pianist with the range of colour Geniušas has under his fingertips.

The songs in question hail from Bukovina, an area of Eastern Europe that straddles Romania and Ukraine. Desyatnikov was born in Kharkov in Ukraine and though Wikipedia lists him as a Russian composer, he clearly cherishes his links to the area if this music is anything to go by.

I doubt that many listeners hearing this music without knowing its background would guess that it dated from 2017. If I said that it seems a continuation of Bartók’s folk song arrangements, I do not mean the abrasive Bartók of the Allegro Barbaro or the Third String Quartet. Unlike so many contemporary composers who attempt to turn back the musical clock to more traditional days, Desyatnikov is neither bland nor derivative.

The piece takes inspiration from a 1957 collection of traditional songs from the area but the creative relationship to them is more tangential than straight arrangements. The helpful sleeve notes point out that, like Debussy with his preludes, in the score the song titles are placed at the end of each piece. So the songs are much more of a jumping-off point. They certainly seem to have fired Desyatnikov’s fertile imagination.

There are 24 pieces in total, following the tonal scheme made most famous by Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier though there is nothing Bach-like about them. They are highly diverse in style, so that the effect is more like a folky version of Chopin Preludes. Desyatnikov clearly does not see the piano as a percussion instrument, nor are any pianos plucked or sawed during these compositions! I can imagine these pieces being extremely popular if given the right exposure.

With Geniušas it isn’t just a matter of tone colour. He has a capacity to turn a phrase so that a whole cast of characters comes to life before our eyes. He is like a master storyteller. One minute he speaks in the voice of young lovers frustrated that the night is too brief (Oh Petrivocha! A Night So Short), the next he speaks as a child thrilling to the bright sun (The Wind is Blowing, The Sun is Warm) or with playful coquetry (I’ll go into the Garden). Not that he is lacking in gravitas in the more serious pieces such as A Rocky Mountain. This is music that, like folk music, gets to the heart of the matter with great economy of means. Poplars Grew from one Field to Another is full of soulful melancholy devoid of sentiment that in Geniušas’ hands communicates a powerful sense of loss, regret and displacement.

As this suggests, there is no hint of monotony in the teeming diversity of this composition. Geniušas matches this with playing whose creativity is never about making a splash but to illustrate or enhance the effect of the music. He is particularly good at giving a distinctive sound to each strand of the musical texture, as in the almost Debussy-like Red Arrowwood, Green Leaves. He can also float a melody as seamlessly and effortlessly as the best of them as in the gentle Pike in the Sea. It is worth pointing out that, even though this was written in 2017, it is full of great tunes – Bukovina is clearly blessed musically for all its complex history, or perhaps because of it! It has been recorded before by Alexei Goribol on Melodiya but this new version eclipses it completely in terms of performance and the quality of the recording, which is excellent.

Desyatnikov clearly takes these melodies and uses them as the basis for little musical folk tales. They Say I’ve Lost My Looks is given a crabby, angular setting, which has just the right note of bitterness to bring up an image of a narrator looking envious at younger men and women. The marvellously named A Woman Had a Husband, She Loved Peter Though is given a rumbunctious rolling rhythm that suggests that the plot of this particular song involves all kinds of shenanigans. Geniušas positively romps through all of these and pulls out all the stops in the virtuosic, ironic You Singer. The final song is a piece of the utmost delicacy and affecting loveliness and Geniušas, like all the best musicians, is virtually able to make time stand still even though it lasts less than two minutes. When I first listened to this disc, instead of proceeding to the much more celebrated Bartók, I went back to track one and listened to these playful, crafty, illuminating, touching compositions all over again. The combination of Desyatnikov and Geniušas will have this recording staying with me for the rest of the year at least.

But what of the Bartók? To begin with Geniušas happily does not make the mistake of thinking that because these pieces are simple they lack anything musically. Bartók’s immersion in this music enables him to select again and again just the right little touch to complement the melody. Those touches always have the unique character of the melody in my mind. Indeed, it is this sensitivity to what the songs are about that unites Bartók and Desyatnikov. Bartók insisted on the words of the songs being published in the score so that the performer would not just think of them as tunes. He wants performer and listener to immerse themselves in the whole world and culture from which these songs emerge. Geniušas’ instincts are finely calibrated to pick up every nuance of these settings. Sometimes he surprises by slightly underplaying some of the more vigorous dances only to reveal a deeper, stranger and more evocative sound picture that Bartók has conjured up as a context for the melody. He is tuned into the atmosphere of each piece, which makes them as much about place as melody. In the final song I see a scene of an ancient culture summoned up before my eyes.

With Tchaikovsky’s Dumka, we are in a more conventional world of art music. I hadn’t previously heard this particular piece before and Geniušas makes an excellent case for me, though I had missed out. Needless to say, he is in harmony with the heartfelt folk-like elements of the music but I imagine it was chosen to close the programme with an opportunity for Geniušas to show off a few more of his virtuosic musical muscles after the subtle details of the Desyatnikov and Bartók. It sits within the programme rather as an encore might in a concert programme and I enjoyed it a lot.

Desyatnikov’s composition deserves wide recognition on its own merits regardless of Geniušas’ inspired interpretation. Likewise, I hope that a pianist of Geniušas’ quality is not overlooked because of taking risks on unproven material. I had a very high opinion of him before listening to this recording and it is now even higher. A pianist playing music as enjoyable as this in a manner as persuasive as this makes this a CD I have already listened to many times and no doubt will many times to come.

David McDade

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