Russian Émigré Composers – Alexander Karpeyev – CR6042


In one sense the Medtner is the reason to buy the disc but the Prokofiev and Stravinsky are very well played and such good music that they make it still more worthwhile. Karpayev uses a Fazioli F278 piano which has a noticeably different sound in the venue Colin Attwell usually uses, St Bartholomew’s, Brighton. It is brighter and has more ‘zing’ to it than the regular Steinway. That such differences are obvious is a reflection on the clarity of this high-definition stereo recording.


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. © 2017 Geoffrey Norris. 

**Artists Website

Review: I – Music Web International

The first piece I played on this BDA was the Stravinsky. It is as good a test as any of a pianist’s virtuoso credentials and Alexander Karpeyev passes with flying colours. All three pieces are rhythmic and colourful and whilst I still have a soft spot for Maurizio Pollini on DG (a fabulous coupling with the Prokofiev 7th Sonata and some Webern and Boulez) this present recording is still worth hearing. Compared to Pollini’s disc this one has a less exciting programme but a more coherent one. The title “Russian Emigré Composers” is very precise though it does slightly obscure the fact that all these pieces, at least those dated in Geoffrey Norris’ excellent notes, were written before the respective composers left Russia. Prokofiev spent many years outside Soviet Russia but eventually returned despite the problems. Medtner left soon after the revolution and never returned, dying in London in 1951. Grechaninov (sometime transliterated as Gretchaninov) left in 1925 to live in Paris then in later life moved to the USA where he died in 1956. Rachmaninov left very soon after the revolution and died in the USA in 1943. Stravinsky was always a traveller but left Russia even before the revolution and lived mostly in France and then the United States until his death in 1971.

Prokofiev’s set of twenty short pieces, Visions fugitives, were written over two years, 1915 to 17, and are often played in selection. Karpayev chooses nine of them, giving a satisfying sequence of contrasts concluding with the forceful 19th piece. Each of these is a tiny vignette and the composer himself used them as short encores to recitals. They are consistently attractive and of course too short to outstay their welcome. Karpeyev gained his music doctorate in 2014 on Medtner’s performance practice and he is artistic director of the London-based International Medtner Festival (more on his website) so one must regard his approach to his music in particular as very well grounded. As it happens Medtner’s Sonate-Ballade was a significant discovery for me having only one, long neglected, LP on my shelves of his music. The Sonate, though in three movements and over twenty minutes long, never loses its grip on the listener and I found myself asking why it does not get more exposure. I am very glad to have made the acquaintance of this imaginative and varied work. I cannot honestly say the same for Grechaninov’s five short pieces which did little to hold the attention. Rachmaninov, inevitably, is a different issue, he always repays some concentration even in pieces this short, the Étude-Tableaux being particularly good.

In one sense the Medtner is the reason to buy the disc but the Prokofiev and Stravinsky are very well played and such good music that they make it still more worthwhile. Karpayev uses a Fazioli F278 piano which has a noticeably different sound in the venue Colin Attwell usually uses, St Bartholomew’s, Brighton. It is brighter and has more ‘zing’ to it than the regular Steinway. That such differences are obvious is a reflection on the clarity of this high-definition stereo recording.

Finally, I note this BDA is encouragingly called “Volume 1”. Given Karpayev’s evident familiarity and expertise with the music of Medtner, and given the music itself is rather underexposed, perhaps he can be encouraged somehow to include in Volume 2 some more of Medtner’s oeuvre, along with one of Prokofiev’s “War Sonatas” and some Shostakovich. Dave Billinge.

Review: II – Music Web International

Alexander Karpeyev has won prizes at a number of international piano competitions. He is currently the Artistic Director of the International Medtner Festival in the UK. He recently completed his doctoral thesis on Medtner, and clearly has an affinity with this composer.

The title of this recording is ‘Russian Émigré composers’. It features music by five composers who decided to leave Russia after the 1917 Revolution. Karpeyev’s programme draws on works they composed during the last years of Imperial Russia. The period from the middle of the 19th Century to 1917 was a golden age for the arts in Russia. Many of the great Russian novels and Romantic musical masterpieces emanated from this period. The music on this recording represents a final creative surge.

Karpeyev opens his programme with a selection from Prokofiev’s Visions Fugitives written between 1915 and 1917. The title of the piece comes from a line in a sonnet by Konstantin Balmont: “In every fleeting vision I see worlds / Filled with the fickle play of rainbows”. Karpeyev conjures a gorgeous tone from his Fazioli for the opening Lentamente. He captures perfectly the reflective, impressionistic character of the piece. The ensuing collection are all vividly characterised; Karpeyev shows the lyrical, playful and pugnacious sides of the composer. Prokofiev’s spikiness and diabolism come to the fore in the second and sixth pieces of the collection, which have trenchant bite.

Medtner’s Sonata-ballada was written in 1913-14 when the composer was strongly influenced by ideas around temptation and redemption. The score is littered with unusual directions designed to reflect extreme shifts of mood. The three movements are played without a break. Karpeyev captures the brooding Romantic melancholy of the opening movement brilliantly. He handles the dense virtuoso textures with consummate ease. There is a wonderful elasticity and freedom about the playing. It is very easy for pianists to get lost in Medtner’s cascades of notes but Karpeyev’s playing always conveys a firm sense of line and structure. He shows his technical firepower in the coda, a blistering virtuoso tour de force. The slow movement opens in the realm of Stygian gloom and sees Karpeyev displace the feverish Romanticism of the previous movement with cold dark shadows. There is a superb build-up in intensity as the movement progresses and bright arpeggio figurations irradiate the shadows. Karpeyev brings a light mercurial touch to the finale. The playful and effervescent quality of the music shines through brilliantly. The fugal central section is played with Bachian clarity and the music becomes increasingly dark. Karpeyev banishes the shadows one final time before steering the music through to its triumphant conclusion. His superb playing may lead to many more people getting to know this truly wonderful sonata.

Karpeyev includes some short lesser-known works by Grechaninov and Rachmaninov, all composed in the five years leading up to the Russian Revolution. He brings a poet’s sensitivity to the Grechaninov miniatures which end with the swirling figurations of the Caprice. In the Rachmaninov we encounter spiritual reflection and nostalgia before a final pealing of bells in the C Minor Étude-tableau.

The final work on the recording is Stravinsky’s fiendishly difficult Three Movements from Petrushka. Karpeyev is clearly on top of the extreme technical demands. He deploys a deft touch throughout. He constantly explores Stravinsky’s textures and sonorities, and responds to the rapidly changing rhythms. The opening Danse Russe has rhythmic vibrancy and Karpeyev brings extraordinary lightness of touch to the rapid left-hand figurations. The scene in Petrushka’s house is brilliantly characterised as the increasingly manic and jerky movement of the puppet are brought vividly into view. Karpeyev elicits a range of imaginative textures and sonorities in The Shrovetide Fair and responds with relish to Stravinsky’s constantly changing rhythms. Some of the tempi he adopts are very fast indeed, and he builds up an impressive head of steam before bringing the piece to its climactic conclusion.

This is an extremely impressive debut recording. The playing of the Medtner sonata compares well with the very best recordings in the catalogue, including those by Hamelin, Tozer and Milne. I liked the performance of the Stravinsky immensely, although Karpeyev cannot quite match the visceral excitement of Pollini or the technical polish of Wang. Robert Beattie.

Review: III – Gramophone Magazine Review – November 2018

 Given the title, it is surprising, to say the least, that not a single item on this disc was actually composed in emigration. And given that every piece bar one dates from before October 1917, it is curious that Alexander Karpeyev’s programme was conceived for a concert marking the centenary of the Russian Revolution. Its centrepiece is the Medtner Sonate-Ballade of 1913 14, inspired by Afanasy Fet’s poem depicting Christ’s temptations in the wilderness. Evidently an avid Medtner crusader, Karpeyev is unlikely to convert a Medtner sceptic; his playing is simply too expressively crowded and structurally arbitrary for that. Compare Marc-André Hamelin, who allows the sonata to grow organically while depicting each poetic moment in a distinct shade and bringing to vivid life the fight between good and evil represented by the satanic theme in the second movement.

The sacred theme continues in Rachmaninov’s (possibly) own transcription of a movement from his All-Night Vigil and his funereal Étude-tableau. There is certainly a high enough emotional charge in the latter but Karpeyev is no match for Richter’s earth-shattering monumentality, nor for Horowitz’s theatricality. Similarly the Three Movements from Petrushka. Karpeyev’s are shadowed by a number of laboured passages, so that the performance as a whole becomes something of a battle royal – not a patch on the classic Pollini for bravura and colouristic flair.

Rachmaninov’s rarely performed Fragments and the five Grechaninov miniatures are a pleasant bonus. But I’m not sure who would want the average-to-good accounts of barely half of Prokofiev’s Visions fugitives. There is a workable recital programme here – ‘Before the Revolution’ or ‘Before Emigration’, perhaps.