Koukl Presents Vol. 2 of Lourié’s Piano Works


LOURIÉ: Deux Poèmes. Menuett nach Gluck. Sintesï (Synthèses). Daytime Routine. 8 Scenes of Russian Childhood. Piano Sonatina No. 3. Toccata. Gigue. Valse. Marche. Nocturne. Intermezzo. Berceuse de la Chevrette. Phoenix Park Nocturne / Giorgio Koukl, pianist / Grand Piano GP750

Following his superb Vol. 1 of Arthur Lourié’s piano music, Czech pianist Giorgio Koukl herewith presents a very meaty program in Vol. 2. As I mentioned in my review of the first entry in this series, Lourié’s music was the closest thing to Scriabin after the Russian composer’s death, exploring augmented and extended chords as if they were simple majors and minors. The one piece here that stands out because it sounds so tonal is the Menuet nach Gluck.

The real question seems to be not why Lourié wasn’t recognized for his genius, because he was in the years between 1914 and 1940, but why fame slipped away from him. Perhaps it was because, although his friend Serge Kossevitzky welcomed him with open arms when he was forced to flee Paris after the Nazi occupation (although Lourié was by then a devout Catholic, he was born a Jew), he was never able to establish himself in America as the major composer he was. For this, however, he had his far-left politics to blame. Annotator Anthony Short notes that his Communist and Socialist leanings made Lourié “an obvious target of the McCarthyite and anti-Communist purges of the early 1950s.” Rather than denounce his affiliations, Lourié withdrew from the musical scene, spending years working on his huge and still unperformed opera Le Maure de Pierre le Grand. He died in relative obscurity in Princeton, New Jersey in 1966.

Some of the music on Vol. 2 sounds a bit strange, for instance the various pieces of Daytime Routine (Dnevnoj Uzor) from 1915. This music almost tries to be normally tonal, perhaps to emphasize its connection to everyday tasks, yet Lourié cannot help going outside the tonality when it is least expected to wander into weird little cupboards of the mind. Koukl plays these pieces with just the right mixture of relaxation and mystery, using pauses to create tension between the odder sections of the music. This is especially true in the fourth piece of the suite, which bears the non-daytime routine title of “Sorcery,” but even the fifth and last piece, “Mischeivousness,” wanders back towards the realm of Scriabin, who was still alive when this suite was written in 1915.

Almost predictably, 8 Scene of Russian Childhood are among the simpler and most immediately appealing pieces on this CD. Even when Lourié explores outside chord changes, as in the “Trepak,” his rhythm remains constant and the ear is not too wildly misled. This suite could easily be performed in recitals along with the music of Poulenc or Prokofiev and not be out of place. The 1917 Piano Sonatina No. 3, though fairly brief (3:24), is a dense piece that always seems to lead the listener into its labyrinth rather than away from it. The music is extremely tricky to play (see sample page below) and ends in a tumbling cascade of notes. On the other hand, the Toccata—a minute and a half longer than the Sonatina—almost sounds like a second movement of the previous work, albeit in a darker, more energetic vein. Without having seen the score, it sounds terribly difficult to play.

Sonatina p 4

Page 4 of Lourie’s “Sonatina No. 3”

The 1926 Valse, in B minor, has a quintessentially Russian sound about it; not a waltz in the French or Viennese sense, but a rough-and-tumble work, full of angst and sorrow. The Gigue, from the following year, would not have embarrassed Stravinsky or Alkan, sounding a bit like a cross between the two. Again, despite dutifully following the form which the title describes, this is no more a “jig” in the classic sense than the previous tune was a “waltz.” Here Lourié surprises us by introducing a few unexpected key changes.

Following these, one would expect the Marche to be just as accidental- and angst-ridden, but although Lourié has fun playing around with the concept of a march, producing instead an almost dance-like piece with rolling triplets in the bass line, it is surprisingly free of both (although very densely written for the keyboard and requiring a virtuoso touch). Similarly, the Nocturne is not terribly nocturnal, certainly not in the John Field or Frydryk Chopin sense of the term. Once again, we return to thorny harmonies, a few crushed chords and an atmosphere of darkness but not of moonlight and roses—at least until near the end, when the mood lightens somewhat.

But this is what I like about Lourié’s music: the sense of surprise and the unexpected. And he had a few different musical personalities once he grew out of his Scriabin-clone phase. Listen, for instance, to the Intermezzo, with its constant leanings of tonalities on top of tonalities, shifting internally even when the melody line remains constant or both hands shifting together. It’s basically in D-flat minor, but not consistently so. Sharply-attacked chords outside the tonality lead to a quiet finish.

The Berceuse de la Chevrette is more Chevrette (or perhaps Chevy Camaro) than berceuse, the music built on a 6/8 rhythm with frequent pauses in its progression. Later Lourié seems to have enjoyed playing with listeners’ expectations in this way. The recital ends with the Phoenix Park Nocturne, written in 1938 but not published until 1942, when it was dedicated “To the memory of James Joyce” who died in 1941. Oddly, this is one of his loveliest and most attractive pieces, almost late-Romantic in feeling and scope, although (again) not very nocturne-like. The lovely melody is interspersed with sections played in a quicker tempo and different rhythm, perhaps paying homage to Joyce’s own quixotic and contradictory personality.

All in all, an absolutely splendid recital and a worthy successor to Vol. 1. Lourié’s music will hold your attention not just because it’s so good but also because it’s so varied in mood and character. I liked it so much, in fact, that I decided to ask pianist Giorgio Koukl a few questions about Lourié’s music and his involvement in it.

Art Music Lounge: Let’s start with the obvious question. How did you first come across Lourié’s music, and why did it impress you so much?

Giorgio Koukl: I am constantly researching forgotten music of 20th century, especially with some links to Paris of the 1920a. This has been really the center of my musical world for a certain time. I am also interested in personal destiny of the composer, giving more chance to the less privileged. But beside all this, the music must “speak” to me.

AML: How did you arrive at recording his music? Were you playing a lot of it in recitals, and you wanted to put it on disc, or did the record company contact you?

GK: Unfortunately there are only few recitals where you can use “unknown” music, so I played Louriè only twice before recording. I have the privilege to work for Grand Piano: they share with me the same passion of discovery, despite the obvious financial risks.

AML: I’m particularly delighted by the surprises I hear. Almost none of his pieces go the way you expect them to when they first start, and most of them are so irregular in rhythm as well as harmony that you almost feel like you’re on a roller coaster ride. How do you see his music?

GK: Lourié had an extraordinary evolution as composer, his origins, his time with Stravinsky, his  joy of playing, interacting and experimentation are the basis of his constantly changing style, which is so charming.

AML: I admit to not being very familiar with Lourié outside of his piano pieces. Do you know any of his orchestral scores? I’ve only heard fairly rough-sounding old recordings of his Symphony No. 2, “Kormtchaia,” and the “Concerto Spirituale,” and although I liked some of the music I just didn’t think it had the compact structure and “surprise” of his piano works.

GK: I tried to listen to as much other Lourié’s music as possible, but there are tons of his music that is never played and unfortunately also music held in private hands, which is completely inaccessible.

AML: Listening to other pianists’ recordings of Lourie, such as Moritz Ernst and Benedikt Koehlen, I hear the exact same notes and phrases that you play but a clipped, more “objective” style. It almost sounds as if they’re trying to make Lourié sound like Stravinsky, if you know what I mean. Yet when I look at the scores, they’re full of descriptive expression markings: “à tempo rubato,” “expressione,” “calme,” “pesante,” and many extreme dynamics contrasts. These give the music much more personality, which is what I hear in your interpretations. What are your thoughts on this?

GK: There is no such a thing as only one way to play a piece and my respect of the two pianists you mention is great. I simply have another style in imaging a phrase and translating the inner wold of a composer into sound.

AML: Is there a Vol. 3 to come, or are we finished with Lourié’s piano music?

GK: There are four major piano works missing and much more research should be done on the composer’s Russian period. When the day people holding these scores decide to share them with the world, I would be delighted to produce Vol. 3!!

AML: Thank you for your time! I really appreciate your doing this interview with me.

GK: Thank you for this opportunity.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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