Lourié’s Piano Music Re-imagined by Koukl

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LOURIÉ: Cinq Préludes Fragiles. Deux Estampes. Mazurkas. Quatre Poèmes. Formes en l’Air (à Pablo Picasso). Masques (Tentations). Upmann, a Smoking Sketch. Petite Suite in F. Dialogue / Giorgio Koukl, pianist / Grand Piano GP727

This is Vol. 1 of pianist Giorgio Koukl’s intended series of the complete piano music of Arthur Lourié, who studied with Glazunov but was most heavily influenced by Scriabin. I’ve heard some of his music previously, particularly in the recordings by pianist Moritz Ernst on Capriccio, but of the pieces on this album the only ones I had heard were Upmann, Forms en l’Air and the Petite Sutie in F.

Koukl, as he did in his remarkable recording of the piano music of Kaprálova, definitely has his own approach to things. His playing is both structurally sound and rhythmically fluid; he plays in a clear, wide-awake style with only a nod to Impressionist opaqueness, yet also manages to inform the music with a fluid rhythm not too dissimilar from jazz. I doubt that the composer knew what jazz was when he wrote these pieces, but the rhythmic looseness works beautifully in these interpretations, which are full of shade and nuance. Listen carefully, for instance, to the cascading eighth notes in the fourth Prélude Fragile, where Koukl spaces the notes slightly irregularly in pulse. This has the virtue of making each note stand out and not sound like just another cog in the gear, and it is a small but important indication of the kind of sensitivity he brought to this project.

A few facts on Lourié. Born in Propoysk, now Slawharad, Belarus as Naum Israilevich Luria, he changed his first name to Arthur in honor of Schopenhauer and his middle name to Vincent in honor of Van Gogh. He nominally converted to Catholicism in order to marry a Polish Catholic woman, but several years later became a very ardent Catholic due to the influence of the philosopher Jacques Maritain. A weird sort of guy, Lourié. And the music becomes equally strange as one goes on. The first of the Deux Estampes, for instance, has an exotic quality about it that seems to combine the harmonies of Debussy with the exoticism of Scriabin, whereas the second has the feel of sprayed raindrops in the right hand over a chordal left-hand melody with intimations of Ravel in it. By the time you reach the first mazurka of 1911-12, you are smack in the midst of full-blown, mature Scriabin style; indeed, it sounds far less like a mazurka than Scriabin’s own, which had the stamp of Chopin on them. Interestingly, the Quatre Poèmes have so much of the same mystical sound in them that they sound like much the same kind of music as the mazurkas!

I am so much enamored of these pieces, and their performances, that I find it difficult to write about them in an objective manner. Once again with Koukl, you almost feel as if the composer is communicating directly with you, that there is no middle man (or woman) playing the instrument. It’s a hard thing to put into words, but I always feel this way when listening to Koukl’s playing. He always seems to be the conduit for the composer’s thoughts and feelings, seldom the “interpreter” in the conventional sense of the term. That is a high compliment.

Apparently, the earliest years of the Communist Revolution were a boon to artists like Lourié. This was due in large part to the far-sighted guidance of the chief Commissar for Education, Anatoly Lunacharsky, but like nearly everything that was good in the Communist Revolution, it came to an end in 1921 because they had finally looted as much as they could from the wealthy and were running out of money. It’s ALWAYS like that in Socialist and Communist systems, boys and girls, so please pay attention! Socialism is not a glorious future; it’s a short-term panacea that eventually leads to misery and most people living on the bottom. Lourié became so depressed by this that he defected to Berlin, where he stayed briefly with Ferruccio Busoni, which led to his music being banned after the formal creation of the Soviet Union in 1922. That’s another wonderful thing about Socialism and Communism: it shuts out any dissenting opinion as “non-thought” or “oppressive speak” and closes down your thought process. Read 1984.

Meanwhile, back to the CD, Koukl resumes his pianistic journey of Lourié with the Formes en l’Air, played with greater elasticity of phrasing than in the Ernst recording. By this point—1915, the year of Scriabin’s untimely death—Lourié had even begun to move somewhat beyond him, adopting his harmonic language but using it in slightly different ways and forms. There is more “space” between the notes here, and Lourié seems to be thinking in terms of ambient mood much more than even Scriabin did. Broken rhythms seem to have been a hallmark of this period.

Lourié’s music begins to change with Upmann, a Smoking Sketch, a three-minute ballet piece written in 1917. Here the rhythms are stronger, more regular in pulse, and the harmonies closer to some of the modern German music of the period, but it is really with the Petite Suite in F from 1926 that we notice the biggest shift towards neo-classicism. From here on out, Lourié’s music would be more in this vein. The harmonies are now much less exotic, although still modern in the sense that Stravinsky and Poulenc were, and the rhythms far more regular. The final piece on this CD, Dialogue, was not published during Lourié’s lifetime and this is its first recording. Undated, it seems to me to be closer related to his earlier style with its quirky rhythms and unusual pauses.

This is a wonderful album and one highly recommended for its unusual content, splendidly played and recorded.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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