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Leonid SABANEYEV (1881–1968)
Piano Music - Volume 1 (1902-15)
Quatre préludes, Op. 1: No. 1 in E minor [3:11]
Quatre préludes, Op. 2: No. 1 in A minor; No. 4 in C major [5:00]
Deux préludes, Op. 3: No. 2 in C sharp minor [3:49]
Deux morceaux, Op. 5: No. 2 Prelude in G minor [1:57]
Two Compositions, Op. 6: No. 1 Poème in G sharp minor [3:06]
Two Compositions, Op. 7: No. 2 Feuillet d’album in G minor [5:01]
Quatre morceaux, Op. 9: No. 1 Feuillet d’album in B minor [1:38]
Deux morceaux, Op. 8: No. 2 Prelude in E minor [3:23]
Quatre morceaux, Op. 9: No. 4 Prelude in E minor [1:54]
Huit préludes, Op. 10: No. 2 in B minor; No. 5 in E major; No. 6 in E major; No. 8 in E minor [10:03]
Sonata, Op. 15, In Memory of Skryabin (Commodo; Misterioso; Risoluto) [31:50]
Jonathan Powell (piano)
rec. Jacqueline du Pré Music Building, Oxford, 2014/15

This Russian composer has always intrigued me. That's probably for the fatuous reasons of exotic titles and having written gargantuan works. On the other hand, there has to be some trigger to hook a listener's interest when the music is unperformed and unrecorded. I first came across Sabaneyev's name during my student years when I read a brief profile of him by Gerald Abrahams.

More recently you may have been introduced to his music by two Genuin label discs: Michael Schafer's volume of the piano music and another of the piano trios.

The present disc, which promisingly is labelled "volume 1", cuts a sampled swathe through Sabaneyev's prodigious output of short piano pieces. To this harvest it adds a very substantial piano sonata written in memory of his contemporary Scriabin. Everything is richly performed and recorded.

The Quatre Préludes op. 1 No. 1 is a strenuously storm-tossed piece that alternately heaves and subsides. Finally, it settles into a cortège decorated with lavish whirlpools of notes. The Prélude op. 2 no. 1 adopts a more subdued mood but it is not long before Sabaneyev evokes storm-clouds wreaking havoc on some distant horizon. The second of the set is more tremulous and atmospheric.

With the second of the Deux Préludes op. 3 Sabaneyev is drawn to an almost Baxian inwardness. The gait of the music has "our hero" uncertain of himself and rather wide-eyed. The second of the Deux Morceaux op. 5, at first suggests a more belligerent engagement with the struggle yet ends up as more of a sketch than a ballade.

Of the Two Compositions op. 6, the Poème in G sharp is to be found in brooding Winter waters. The composer swims contentedly in the shallows around the jetty of Rachmaninov's Isle of the Dead. The second is Feuillet d'Album. This is a more impressionistic wash. It affirms Sabaneyev's instinctive ways and his tendency towards impressionistic dream-states.

In No. 1 of the Quatre Morceaux Op. 9 the waters are warm. The island shores evoked suggest Tennyson's Lotos-Eaters, even if in this case their leisurely reflections are troubled by upwellings of emotion.

The second of the Préludes Op. 8 finds itself in a floating world, part Ravel and part Rachmaninov. An emotional charge is there and barely kept under wraps. The Fourth of the Op. 9 Préludes implies but largely subsumes emotional outbursts. When these are felt they are apparent more as a suggestion than as a candid explosion. In the second of the Huit Préludes op. 10 there is an emotional stirring but that motion struggles with a honeyed viscous lassitude. The impressive Fifth of the Op. 10 set is an essay in which the message is touched in with the gentlest of notes. Crude comparisons: Rachmaninov meets William Baines meets Roy Agnew meets Greville Cooke and the exotic outliers of Australia's 1920s and 1930s.

The sixth of the Huit Préludes op. 10 sets out with a sense of story-telling. It has the feel of a Ballade or Étude-Tableau with heroic notes ringing out from some isolated bell tower in ruins. The Eighth of the set is related to the Sixth. Fairy-tale deeds of valour are the subject but now recounted in safe and fireside retrospect.

Sabaneyev's Sonata op. 15 is here presented in three separately tracked movements. The score carries the words "In Memory of Skryabin" on an inner page. The music is complex and pursues its path amid swirling dark clouds. It erupts into direct heroic statement at 2:50 in the first movement. Stony themes stalk these pages. The central Misterioso continues to stir complexity and links to the iron-tolling theme in the first section. That descending arpeggiated figure - an overarching signature - is to return in the finale. The final section begins in rolling thunder that repeatedly surges and recedes. The score's challenge to the pianist is part and parcel of the work's grandeur, moody glamour and bleak concentration.

The invaluable essay, firmly founded in research and reflection, is by Jonathan Powell.

I have high hopes that the implied volume 2 will follow.

Rob Barnett



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