Forgotten Russians

This recording brings together the works of seven composers who were born in Russia between 1882 and 1900. Five of them – Roslavets, Feinberg, Stanchinsky, Protopopov and Mosolov remained in Russia. Two – Obukhov and Lourié – emigrated to France after the Revolution of 1917. Nowadays, these composers are often called “Forgotten Russians” because their works are rarely performed and their names unknown outside a narrow circle of specialists and people interested in Russian art of the first quarter of the twentieth century.


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Five Stars For Seven Forgotten Russians, By Norman Lebrecht

Pianist and conductor Vladimir Feltsman revives the memory of seven Russian composers criminally forgotten outside a narrow circle of specialists.Forgotten Russians ★★★★★ (out of five)

There were those that Stalin murdered or suppressed, those who went abroad and the few who stayed at home and kept very quiet for most of their lives. I thought I knew them all, but the New York pianist Vladimir Feltsman has put together a gallery of peripherals, each of whom adds a vital dimension to the Russian picture.

Alexei Stanchinsky (1888-1914) was a Scriabin-like figure who wrote vaguely modern sonorities and suffered intermittent mental lapses. He drowned two months into the First World War, possibly a suicide.

Samuel Feinberg (1890-1962) taught most of his life at the Moscow Conservatoire, confiding some secret Schoenberg leanings to the private page. Nikolai Obukhov (1892-1954) fled the Revolution to France, where he worked as a bricklayer, invented a new method of notation and preached religious mysticism to such willing ears as Olivier Messiaen. Why we don’t hear more of his wild pianisms is a bit of a mystery.

Arthur Lourie (1892-1966) was a high-ranking Soviet official when he defected to the West in 1921, making his reputation in Stravinsky’s shadow. Championed by Gidon Kremer, he is probably the best known in this selection, and well worth hearing.

Nikolai Roslavets (1880-1944), banned from 1930 on, was an outright atonalist who worked directly against the Soviet grain and was lucky to be left alive. Thirty years later, officials still talked of tearing up his grave. His Preludes are fabulously invigorating.

What about Sergei Protopopov (1893-1954), then, exiled to a Siberian penal camp for alleged homosexual acts? His second sonata is a car-wash of a piece, all jets of water and huge sweeps of machinery. Heavens, do we need this stuff right now! Or is it just the playing that makes it so convincing? Must get out some of the scores. Norman Lebrecht,

"Protopopov adopted his partner’s musical theories and his music follows these closely. His sonata here is in one movement, but full of changes of mood and texture, taking off from late Scriabin and moving onwards from that. This is both the longest and the most impressive work in this recital and indeed the disc is worth its price for this work alone."

It [Phoenix Park Nocturne] is a charming, unchallenging and rather melancholy piece, put here as a relief after what Vladimir Feltsman rightly calls a “rather disquieting recording.” His playing is thoroughly idiomatic and committed; indeed, I have the sense that this was a real labour of love for him. He also wrote the booklet notes, in English only, which are very helpful in filling out the background of these little-known composers. The recording is up to the standard of the house.

"...anyone wishing to sample this repertoire will be well rewarded by this disc." MusicWeb-International

Vladimir Feltsman has a large, varied and distinguished catalogue of solo piano discs on Nimbus, ranging from Bach, Beethoven, and the Romantics to the music of his fellow Russians. Here is an addition with a difference: more Russian musicians, but not very familiar ones. These are “Forgotten Russians”, figures who once inhabited that gloriously inventive artistic epoch, the first third of the 20th century, from the end of the Tsars to the advent of Stalin, but who are little known today. Take down the main books on the subject by Taruskin and Frolova-Walker and if these characters can be found at all, it will be as a footnote or an aside. This disc features seven composers born in Russia between 1882 and 1900, five of whom lived there all their lives and two of whom left after the 1917 revolution. All were to varying degrees influenced by Scriabin, and suggest where that influence might have led, had these voices been heard longer and louder in their homeland.

Feltsman not only plays their music most persuasively but “curates” the selection – a modish term but justified here by the common soil from which these men (they are all men) sprang, and the commonalities amongst what they offer. Feltsman even sets the scene in his essential 15-page note – this is the CD booklet as exhibition catalogue. Having given us the great Russian solo piano highways of the era with his recitals of Scriabin, Rachmaninov and Prokofiev, he now wanders into the most obscure byways, where of course discoveries await.

Alexei Stanchinsky died, possibly by his own hand, aged 26. His music is almost all for piano and apparently exhibits an obsession with unusual metres – the time signature for his Prelude in the Lydian mode is 23/16 (!), but the piece builds effectively to a quasi-Romantic climax. From his ten Sketches Op.1 we hear four contrasting examples: the final one, the tenth, is a brilliant con moto and Felstman points out its metrical and harmonic kinship to another work of 1911, Stravinsky’s Petrushka. From the following year comes Feinberg’s Berceuse, which has perhaps too many piquant dissonances to send any musical child to sleep, but still retains the charm of the lullaby genre. You can hear why Feinberg had the only long and successful Russian public career of any of these composers, writing in a modern but still accessible idiom that would not upset the commissars. That cannot be said of any of those following on the disc, who either became exiles or had their music suppressed at one time or another.

Obukhov was an inventor – of new modes of musical organisation (including 12-tone rows), musical notation and even instruments. As a religious mystic who worked for a time as a bricklayer he sounds like a figure from Dostoevsky. He certainly followed his own path, mainly in France, and his Four Pieces are each haunting and contemplative, suggesting Webern’s enclosed world. Lourié and Roslavets were also experimenters with modernist methods. The former’s Forms in the Air has its first page as an illustration in the booklet, and it looks more radical in 1915 than perhaps it sounds. If Roslavets’ Five Preludes also recall the sound world of the Second Viennese school, in his case it is more the suppressed Romanticism of Berg that we hear at times. Mossolov’s Nocturnes are a long way from Chopin’s or even Debussy’s, and their bracing aggression could disturb the neighbours if you set the volume too high. But the most intriguing and substantial work on the disc is the Sonata No.2 of Protopopov, which will be enjoyed by any listener who responds to late Scriabin or Prokofiev. Protopopov was not prolific – he suffered imprisonment and neglect - and one wonders if his other two piano sonatas are as fine as this one.

Feltsman calls this selection “a rather disquieting recording” and one knows what he means. But it is rather more than a fascinating piece of historical excavation – this is music worth hearing, even if it is challenging at times - what on earth did these artists think the Soviet bureaucrats would make of it? In addition to that excellent booklet, there is very good recorded piano sound. There is of course no direct competitor for a disc such as this, and in any case, it is difficult to imagine a more sympathetic guide to these pieces than Vladimir Feltsman. His involvement is shown by the fact that the recording sometimes catches him breathing hard in his concentration, but more importantly by the finesse and sensitivity he brings to a demanding programme. Anyone curious about those paths not taken in Soviet music should hear this disc. MusicWeb-International

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