More Stanchinsky…A Journey Into the Abyss

cover DUX1559

STANCHINSKY: Humoresque. Mazurkas in Db, G# min. Nocturne. 3 Preludes. Sonata in Eb min. Prelude in the Lydian Mode. Canon in B min. Prelude & Fugue. Canon-Preludes / Witold Wilczek, pno / Dux 1559

Since my curiosity was piqued by Peter Jablonski’s recording of piano music by Alexei Stanchinsky, I poked around and found this CD which was issued last year. Strange that I didn’t select it for review, but here it is.

As you can see, seven pieces on this CD are duplicates of the material played on the other: the two Mazurkas, the Nocturne, the 3 Preludes and the Sonata in Eb minor. But here we start out with a strange, thunderous and altogether sinister piece that Stanchinsky titled “Humoresque.” It consists of rapidly-descending chromatic figures and crashing chords, revealing a very turbulent side of the composer.

Even more interestingly, the liner notes give us a lot more information about Stanchinsky which puts his early death into perspective. Apparently, he was showing signs of mental illness even when he was studying with Tanayev. When his teachers asked him to come by the next afternoon for a private lesson, Stanchinsky fought him, saying that he preferred the night. His fellow students found him to be extremely talented but prone to unexpected blow-ups and fits of temper. He was seen as highly intelligent but constantly depressed. When his father died (in either 1908 or 1910, sources vary), he suffered a nervous breakdown and had to be confined to a clinic for six months, where he was diagnosed with dementia praecox (precocious madness), nowadays classified as a form of schizophrenia. Small wonder that his mother-in-law objected to him marrying her daughter and tried to keep them apart! I’d have done the same thing in her case. These liner notes also claim that the local authorities viewed Stanchinsky’s death not as a sort of tragic accident but, rather, as a suicide. This, too, makes more sense in view of the facts.

Young Wilczek approaches these pieces from that viewpoint, and thus infuses them with more nervous energy than Jablonski did. I have to agree with his approach. Take, for instance, the Mazurka in Db, where Wilczek makes much more of the contrast between the outer sections of the piece—a bit wild and manic—with the “calm center” of it, and for me, this works both musically and psychologically.

The question that arises, however, is: Are these works invalid as music because they were the product of a disordered mind? I don’t think so, and apparently neither did Taneyev, who was clearly not prone to admiring works of “madness.” The music, though highly unconventional, is well-ordered and superbly crafted. Apparently, Stanchinsky was able to focus on composition, bypassing the split in his brain that eventually led to madness…but it’s telling that once, when separated from his wife and child and depressed, he destroyed several of his manuscripts.

Nonetheless, the smoldering intensity with which Wilczek plays this music is completely apropos, and if anything he has an even wider dynamic range than Jablonski. He is completely zeroed in on this music and makes it more interesting, such as in the Prelude No. 2 in D, where the notes virtually explode from the keyboard yet still retain good phrasing and articulation. Wilczek also plays the Sonata a minute faster than Jablonski, with a very positive effect on the music. The generally higher level of nervous energy in these performances brings out Stanchinsky’s genius more fully.


Alexei Stanchinsky

Yet although his compositions were apparently the products of his lucid moments, the feeling of darkness never quite escapes them. Stanchinsky’s music always seems to gravitate towards a “dark night of the soul” filled with despair; there is no way out and no light at the end of his tunnel. His music makes Mussorgsky’s sound bright and gay.Even a relatively calm piece such as the Prelude in the Lydian Mode, which on its surface sounds a bit Chopin-esque, tends to snake its way into dark corners where he can hide himself from the world. My theory is that he was an extraordinarily sensitive person who let things bother him to the point of mania; he could not come to grips with tragic events or disappointments, so he internalized them where they grew and festered in his mind until he could no longer bear them. The exceedingly strange downward chromatic figuration of the melody of his very brief  Canon in B minor (1:09) also feels like the product of a mind that is fleeing from something, but doesn’t know where to run.

In addition to this wonderful CD, I’ve also run across an excellent performance of Stanchinsky’s 12 Sketches  by Ekaterina Derzhavina on a Profil disc. Her playing is a shade more brusque than Wilczek’s but she, too, captures the conflicting emotions in his music and mind perfectly.

Highly recommended.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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