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‘A cultural problem cannot be resolved as quickly as political and military problems ... Political problems can be overcome in a matter of weeks in times of acute crisis. In war it is possible to achieve victory in several months, but it is impossible to win the cultural war in such a time-span, for by its very nature it requires a much longer time, and it's necessary to adapt ourselves to that longer time, planning our work and displaying the greatest persistence, perseverance and systematic effort.

Lenin's sights were set not specifically on realms of artistic culture but more widely on culture in general and on urging people to change their ideas about fiscal and social responsibilities under his new regime. Nevertheless, Lenin's pragmatism served the arts well in the new Soviet state, at least for the time being. The 1920s saw a healthy flowering of poetry, literature, painting and theatre. In music, too, composers were endeavouring to find a way of writing that chimed in with the new revolutionary sentiment: there were premieres of works by Schoenberg and Berg as part of a move towards modernism and experimentation with other music deliberately aimed at mass appeal. Russia at this time thrived on being a hotbed of creativity. It was only towards the end of the decade, and decisively with a blanket decree of 1932, that Stalin and his apparatchiks started to rein artists in, leading, as the philosopher Isaiah Berlin put it, to a dead level of state-controlled orthodoxy.

Some composers maybe saw this coming, or at any rate found the very idea of revolution and disruption of the status quo to be anathema. Some of them got out of Russia as quickly as they could, and it is four of those who form the basis of this recording. All of them went on to enjoy successful lives and careers outside the Soviet Union, but Alexander Karpeyev's programme draws on works that they composed during the last years of Imperial Russia, a final flowering of something beautiful and irreplaceable blossoming from their association with their motherland.

Prokofiev had already made a name for himself as an enfant terrible during the dying years of Nicholas II's reign as tsar. With his short First Piano Concerto (1911-12), and even more so with the much longer Second (1912-13), he decisively cut any ties with the 19th century and instead opted for a mode of expression that was percussive, propulsive and harmonically caustic. Indeed, he seemed quite oblivious to the howls of incomprehension that greeted the First Concerto, or to comments that he appeared to be hitting notes at random or simply dusting the keys. In the Second Concerto he challenged his audiences (and his pianists) even further with music that is even more defiant and, in the first movement, embraces a massive uncompromising, keyboard-crossing cadenza that lasts much longer ?than would normally be the case. Prokofiev echoed this punchy manner of writing in certain solo piano pieces of the same period, such as the Visions fugitives and the industrial-strength Suggestion diabolique, and it also spills over into his operas, with his Dostoyevsky-based The Gambler of 1915 resolutely smashing the templates of previous Russian opera and striding out with something much more discordant and frenetic. Prokofiev left Russia in 1918 and spent the next few years in the United States and Europe, before revisiting his homeland in the late 1920s and finally settling back there in the 1930s.

Medtner's close friend Rachmaninov considered him to be the greatest composer of their time. Both were pianists of renown as well as composers, and it was with those dual talents that Medtner left Russia in 1921, settling in Paris in 1925 and moving to London in 1935. He lived in Wentworth Road in Golders Green and is buried in Hendon Cemetery. Unlike Rachmaninov, however, Medtner never adapted easily to the demands of a touring virtuoso, but he continued to compose in London and it was there that he completed his last work, the C major Piano Quintet, which had occupied him on and off for the best part of five decades. However, just as Rachmaninov left a valuable legacy of recordings that attest to the wonders of his playing, so Medtner, with the financial support of the Maharajah of Mysore, recorded all his own piano concertos as well as a number of his other works. As the organist and composer Marcel Dupré observed,Possessing a marvellous technique of unlimited possibilities carried to the point of perfection, [Medtner] remained, when at the piano, impetuous,emphatic and free ... If his interpretations were incomparable lessons, they had at the same time the hieratic character of a delivered message The fusion of poetry, passion and intellectual rigour in Medtner's own music makes a powerful impact in his F-sharp major Sonate-Ballade, a work in three distinct movements played without a significant break.

Grechaninov entered the Moscow Conservatoire as a piano student in 1881, but his interests quickly broadened to the extent that his list of compositions would eventually include opera, concertos and four symphonies, together with the sacred music and works for children with which his name is particularly associated. He received an imperial pension for his liturgical music in 1910, initiating a period during which his star was very much in the ascendant and led to the composition of the miniatures in this recording. But the pension was annulled after the Revolution. Grechaninov visited London and Prague in 1922, settled in Paris in 1925 (the same year as Medtner and his wife), and in 1939 (the same year as Stravinsky) went to America, taking American citizenship in 1946 and dying in New York at the venerable age of 91.

Rachmaninov wrote to his cousin Alexander Ziloti in June 1917, expressing concern that his finances were in jeopardy in the prevailing atmosphere of turmoil but also saying, I am frightened of another sort of ruin: ?everything around me makes it impossible for me to work and I am frightened of becoming completely apathetic. Everybody around me advises me to leave Russia for a while. But where to, and how? And is it possible? As luck would have it, Rachmaninov received an invitation to do some concerts in Stockholm, leaving Russia with his family just before Christmas 1917. They never returned. Their lives were divided between America and Europe for well over a decade, until in the early 1930s they built a house on the shores of Lake Lucerne in Switzerland. With the gathering clouds of war in Europe, however, Rachmaninov moved back to America, undertaking gruelling concert tours and, when time allowed, continuing to compose. He had written his liturgical All-Night Vigil for unaccompanied chorus in 1915, a work of transcendent beauty and emotional depth in which the serene Nyne otpushchayeshi (Nunc dimittis) forms the fifth movement and is played here in a piano arrangement probably made by Rachmaninov himself. Fragments and the C minor Étude-tableaux achingly attest to the dark thoughts of apprehension that haunted Rachmaninov's mind as the Revolution took hold.

Stravinsky was already abroad in Switzerland when the October Revolution took place, and thereafter he returned to Russia only once, for a visit in 1962. The Three Movements from Petruchka have their origins in his ballet of 1911, but the composer was keen to emphasise that they are not mere transcriptions from the orchestral score: rather, the music is re-imagined in terms of pianistic vernacular, while still having a clear connection with the original numbers in the ballet itself. The arrangements were made at the behest of the pianist Arthur Rubinstein, who records in his autobiography My Many Years (1980) that he had asked Stravinsky to write a sonata made of the material of Petruchka. The result was a work of such virtuosity that Stravinsky himself was never able to play it and even Rubinstein found it very difficult to perform. The ballet was conceived for Diaghilevs Ballets Russes, which gave the first performance of it at the Théâtre du Chatelet in Paris on 13 June 1911. Like Stravinskys earlier ballet The Firebird, Petruchka is intrinsically Russian in conception, particularly with the backdrop of the Shrovetide fair and with Stravinsky's recourse to Russian folksong. This is especially audible in the Russian Dance and in the Shrovetide fair music of the third piece, but the intonations from the ballets first scene, immediately demonstrates the sort of bravura that Stravinsky, inspired or egged on by Rubinstein, felt confident enough to demand of his performers: this is music that requires not only stamina and a secure rhythmic pulse but also two agile hands that can negotiate glissandos, wide leaps and an animated, hyperactive texture of phenomenal intricacy. In the second piece, which runs on directly from the first, we encounter the cell and the soul of Petrushka himself, the harlequin-like figure whose dejectedness and angular, string-puppet jerks we can hear in the music. With the final piece we are in the midst of the Shrovetide bustle: this features a folk-tune associated with the Wet Nurses Dance that acquires layer upon layer of pianistic colour, detail and dramatic incident to create a truly vivid theatrical climax.
© Geoffrey Norris 2017

 

 

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