Arthur Lourié’s Impressionist Musical Journey

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LOURIÉ: 5 Préludes Fragiles, Op. 1. 2 Estampes, Op. 2. 2 Mazurkas, Op. 7. 4 Poèmes, Op. 10. 2 Poèmes, Op. 8. Masques. Minuet in the Manner of Gluck. Sintesï (Synthèses). Formes et l’Air. Dnevoy Uzor (Daily Pattern). Royal’ v Detskoy (The Piano in the Nursery). Piano Sonatina No. 3. Upmann, a Smoking Sketch. Nash Marsh (Our March)*. Toccata. Valse. Petite Suite in F. Gigue. Marche. Nocturne. Intermezzo. Berceuse de la Chevrette. Phoenix Park Nocturne. Osibka Barysni Smerti (Death’s Mistake)* / Moritz Ernst, pianist; *Oskar Ansull, speaker / Capriccio C5281

Here is a fairly large collection (3 CDs) of solo piano music by a composer not too well known, Arthur Lourié, who wrote in the manner of the French impressionists (Debussy, Ravel, Kochelin, etc.). Despite his French-sounding name and style, he was actually Russian, born Naum Izrailevich Lur’ya in 1892 (some sources say 1891). A charismatic Bohemian, Lur’ya converted to Catholicism and achieved a position within Russia, and later the new Soviet Union, as a “cultural politician.” Sent on a presumably “official” journey Berlin in 1922, he never returned but changed his name and made the acquaintance of Ferruccio Busoni and later, Igor Stravinsky. Lourié is now recognized as a pioneer of Modernist music who enjoyed mingling among the poets and painters of the Silver Age and was greatly inspired by them.

Interestingly, this is not the only collection of Lourié’s piano works issued this year. Giorgio Koukl is apparently traversing the complete piano works of Lourié on the Grand Piano label, and has issued a single disc (Vol. 1) which includes the 5 Préludes Fragiles, 2 Estampes, 2 Mazurkas, 4 Poèmes, Formes en l’air, Masques and the Petite Suite in F. Comparing the two pianists’ styles in these works common to both recordings, I found Koukl more “bound” in his phrasing, which enhances the structural integrity of each piece, and also with a firmer touch, but he lacks the delicacy and mystery that Ernst brings out in these works. On the other hand, I sometimes found myself irritated with Ernst for relaxing the tempo too much and putting too much space between notes, so it’s sort of a 50/50 proposition. By and large, I found the music interesting but, since I really don’t know which of the two styles of playing is closer to his conception of the music, I sometimes found it difficult to assess its overall quality. This is the problem when you have artists trying to over-interpret the music they play or sing, but since I’ve complained loud and long in my reviews about performers who have no point of view, I suppose that having some interpretation is better than the alternative.

The bottom line is that, in Ernst’s hands, Lourié’s early music emerge as wispy, airy and meditative, while in Koukl’s performances makes him more solid and less mystical. Considering his reputation as a Bohemian, I’d venture a guess that the right solution lies somewhere between the two, yet if these were the only two alternatives I had I’d probably go with Ernst. The way he breaks up the lines of the music irks me, but the alternative is simply too prosaic for this style. One of the features of Lourié’s music that I noted on the first CD (the Préludes Fragiles through Masques) was that, despite his constant use of shifting and ambiguous chords in the manner of Debussy or Kochelin, his music doesn’t really develop within each piece as theirs did. Rather, each piece sets a mood and sustains it from start to finish, and in Lourié’s sound-world the exotic harmonies are the message, not merely the means towards conveying a message. In this sense, then, Lourié appears to have been not so much a continuation of the French impressionistic style of his time as a precursor of the “ambient classical” style so much in vogue nowadays. Granted, his music has more substance than much of theirs—sometimes I wish they’d come up with half the interesting chord patterns that Lourié displays in his works—but the effect is the same. I’ve said many times in the course of my reviews, even of soft music like Wadada Leo Smith’s album America’s National Parks, that some of this music is so subtle that the inattentive listener will miss what it is doing or saying, but in the case of these early Lourié pieces floating mental clouds were really all he had to offer. Mind you, they are interesting floating mental clouds, but this is really music for meditation and not for careful listening.

Interest picks up in the second CD, however, with the Minuet in the Style of Gluck, and continues in the Synthèses and the other pieces that follow. Here Lourié transforms the harmonic ambiguity of his early works wedding it to a more Slavic temperament. In other words, he started to find himself and wasn’t just trying to ape Debussy. There is still space in the music, i.e. the Synthèses, but there is also better construction in addition to more “muscle.” You can no longer just let this music play in the background for your high-toned Sunday brunch or sit and zone out to it. The dynamic contrasts are more extreme, the music is more rhythmic, and although it sounds as if Lourié is juxtaposing themes rather than developing them, there is real direction in what he is saying. He’s not just “staying in one place” for three or four minutes. Perhaps the influence of Stravinsky and Honegger had finally reached his ears. His music is still rather abstract at this point but it’s not just ambient sounds. By the time you reach Daily Pattern, his music has become downright dynamic in quality, pressing forward rhythmically and (finally) assuming form and shape. This is also a good example of his new “Russian” influence since several pieces (Dodo, Le Diable Marie ses Filles and Children’s Song) sound like Russian folk or cradle songs, nothing like his previous material, even within the same suite. Moreover, this new, more muscular style carries into the Piano Sonatina No. 3 (which runs less than three minutes!)

Interest continues through the rest of the recital, one of my favorite pieces being Upmann, a Smoking Sketch, which almost has a Doctor Gradus ad Parnassum (Debussy) quality about it. I also liked the strange, alternately sinister and happy Valse that closes CD 2 and the neo-classic-sounding Petite Suite that opens CD 3, which begins in a lively vein and ends enigmatically. Curiously, the Gigue begins with a beat that sounds eerily similar to that of Henry Mancini’s Peter Gunn theme, and the Marche that follows has a bit of Chico Marx in it. His Nocturne is also an odd piece, more of an uneasy night filled with angst than a romantic evening under the moon. But nearly all of this later music by Lourié is interesting in an odd, off-kilter manner, i.e. the stop-start feeling of his Berceuse de la Chevrette, but none of it more unusual than the closing suite, Death’s Mistake. Here, we have a dark piece with narration (in German) using downward chromatic movement and black-sounding crushed chords (similar to those used by Scriabin in his Black Mass Sonata) to signal the depressing mood of the piece. When Lourié uses rests in this work, it is not to suggest floating clouds of meditation, but merely to stave off one’s inevitable end. (Since I didn’t have a booklet with the downloads, I can’t tell you what the text is about.)

Basically, then, this set is highly recommended for the second and third CDs but not for the first. Yes, I know that sound odd, but that’s how it struck me. Thus I give it three-and-a-half fish for the material, four-and-a-half for the performance quality (CD 1 is just too mushy in style), thus we split the difference and arrive at four.

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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