Feltsman Presents Forgotten Russians

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FORGOTTEN RUSSIANS / STANCHINSKY: Prelude in the Lydian Mode. Sketches, Op. 1: Nos. 3, 7, 8 & 10. FEINBERG: Berceuse. OBUKHOV: Icons, Nos. 1 & 2. LOURIÉ: Forms en l’Air. Phoenix Park Nocturne. ROSLAVETS: Préludes. MOSOLOV: 2 Nocturnes. 2 Dances. PROTOPOPOV: Piano Sonata No. 2 / Vladimir Feltsman, pno / Nimbus Alliance NI6377

The impetus of this release is to focus on Russian composers of the early 20th century who either remained in Russia, later the USSR, or who emigrated to France but were scarcely known outside that circle. Of this group of seven such composers, the only two whose work I was familiar with were Nikolai Roslavets, who stayed in the USSR, and Arthur Lourié, who moved to France and “Francophiled” his name, since both have been revived on records in recent years (Lourié most especially by the great Hungarian pianist Giorgio Koukl).

First up is Alexei Stanchinsky with Prelude in the Lydian Mode and four of his Op. 1 Sketches. The first of these is late Romantic music with a harmonic twist, not terribly interesting to my ears, but the Sketches are clearly more modern in outlook, using even more unusual modal harmonies. Samuil Feinberg’s Berceuse is so much in the same vein that at first I thought it was another of Stanchinsky’s Sketches; evidently, these composers influenced one another.

I particularly liked Nikolai Obukhov’s two Icons: this is modern music in the vein of late-period Scriabin, impressionistic with chromatic and modal harmonic movement. And again, there seemed to me to be some cross-influence between Obukhov and Lourié, whose Forms en l’Air was also impressionstic yet modern in feeling. In all of this music, however, Feltsman plays with great understanding of these works’ structures and the right feeling.

Nikolai Roslavets’ Préludes are also Scriabin-influenced. It’s amazing, in a way, how strong this composer’s influence was among Russians after his death—in a way, far more than Stravinsky, whose odd sense of rhythm was less flowing and more “mechanical,” not to mention far more complex, with constant time signature shifts, sometimes from bar to bar. But then again, Scriabin was very close in some respects to the French impressionists, and this was the order of the day in France despite the fact that Stravinsky was also living and working there in the 1920s. Thus, Alexander Mosolov’s two nocturnes fall into the same general pattern.

What impresses me, then, is not the originality of each composer but rather their stylistic similarity. Most of this music could have been written by one composer, so alike it sounds. Of course, this is not an indictment on the structure of each piece, which is sound, so much as on the reluctance of each to create a personal voice. I think it is this, as much as anything else, that has kept most of them from being rediscovered. Why bother when they all sound pretty much alike? That being said, Mosolov’s second nocturne is clearly different from the pack, with ferocious rolling chords and a quicker tempo that removes it, for me, from the concept of a nocturne entirely. Mosolov’s Two Dances sound more Stravinsky-related than most of the preceding music, so evidently he had more than one “voice.”

Sergei Protopopov’s second piano sonata inhabits the same harmonic world as most of the preceding music, but has a much stronger rhythmic drive, particularly in the first movement. Being a sonata, it is also more interesting in terms of development; yet by nine minutes into it, I felt that Protopopov had lost his way, getting entangled in the harmonic novelty of the piece and not paying much attention to form. Despite some interesting moments afterward, it seemed to me to not go much of anywhere.

The program ends with Lourié’s Phoenix Park Nocturne, a charming piece in a style that seems to vacillate between impressionism and 1920s dance music (which was rhythmic but not necessarily jazz). Overall, then, an interesting program with some highs and lows, but a lot of music that sounds alike.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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