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Arthur LOURIÉ (1892-1966)
Piano Works
Cinq préludes fragiles Op. 1 (1908-10) [11:59]
Valse (1926) [3:55]
Deux estampes Op. 2 (1910) [10:07]
Intermezzo (1928) [9;03]
Petite suite en Fa (1926) [2:59]
Gigue (1927) [4:26]
Nocturne (1928) [8:47]
Lullaby (Eight Scenes of Russian Childhood No. 6) (1917) [2:27]
Christian Erny (piano)
rec. 2018, Kulturzentrum Immanuel, Wuppertal, Germany

The name of Arthur Lourié comes up most frequently in connection with Stravinsky, whom he came to know in Paris in 1924 through his friendship with Serge Sudeikin, a theatrical designer who had worked with Stravinsky, and his wife Vera Sudeikina.  Vera left her husband to become first Stravinsky’s mistress and later his second wife. Lourié became Stravinsky’s assistant, a position rather like that later occupied by Robert Craft. In this capacity, he made the piano versions of Stravinsky’s Symphonies of Wind Instruments, Octet and Concertino. However, he quarrelled with Stravinsky, apparently over Vera, and after they both went to the USA, Lourié to New York and Stravinsky to Hollywood, they had no further contact. Lourié does not rate a single mention in Stravinsky’s conversation books, although at one time he had had an important role.

However, he was also a composer in his own right. He was brought up in pre-Revolutionary Russia, and, unlike Stravinsky, stayed there for a few years after the Revolution, before defecting first to Berlin – where he met Busoni – then to Paris. He continued composing until two years before his death and his works include two symphonies, two numbered string quartets, a setting of passages from T. S. Eliot’s Little Gidding, many songs and an opera – yet to receive a stage production. He also had the unhappy knack of having his musical ideas taken up by Stravinsky, that notable musical magpie: his Little Chamber Music is said to anticipate Stravinsky’s Apollo, his Concerto spirituale the Symphony of Psalms, and his Eliot setting includes the same passage that Stravinsky used for The Dove Descending. Be that as it may, what matters in music, as in art generally, is not being first but being best, and he was simply outclassed.

All this is as a preamble to a selection of piano works from his Russian and Paris periods. I shall discuss them in chronological order, though this is not the order in which they are played on the disc. Earliest are the Cinq préludes fragiles and the Deux estampes, which were composed between 1908 and 1910, when the composer was a teenager. Not surprisingly, they are highly derivative of early Rachmaninov and Scriabin. The Estampes also show the influence of Debussy, not only in their titles but in passages cribbed from Debussy’s Préludes. All these are melancholy in a pleasant way and quite slight. The Cinq préludes fragiles would make good teaching pieces.

With the Valse, Petite suite and Gigue we move into the 1920s. Not surprisingly, we find the influence of composers of that time – not only Stravinsky. The Valse is a cabaret-style number rather in the manner of Kurt Weill. The Petite suite, which contains four tiny pieces in less than three minutes, is in a jolly Poulenc style, while the Gigue is pastiche Stravinsky with its pounding rhythms and sudden irregular accents. The influence of the Piano-Rag Music and Piano Sonata is clear. It is the best piece here, though inferior to its models.

The Intermezzo and Nocturne are a pair, though separated on the disc. They are both in a Scriabinesque idiom – rather old-fashioned by then, I would have thought – and the Nocturne opens with a pastiche of Scriabin’s ninth piano sonata so close that he could have sued, had he still been alive. The Intermezzo develops into something quite personal and powerful; the Nocturne is episodic and reverts to a late Romantic manner in the middle. Both are too long for their material. The final Lullaby, taken from a suite of eight pieces, is gentle and characterful.

Christian Erny the pianist is a versatile musician who conducts choral music as well as playing the piano. He plays fluently and well and is clearly committed to the cause of Lourié. This is an SACD; I was listening in ordinary stereo and have no complaints about the sound. The booklet, in German and English, begins discouragingly with the single word “CONCEPT” but gives some useful information. It contains eight pictures of Erny – nine if you add the jewel case – but none of Lourié himself.

Lourié comes over as a minor Russian émigré composer, who neither fashioned a distinctive idiom of his own, nor worked well enough in that of others. He wrote more piano works than are recorded here: I noted a two-disc set of his complete piano music by Giorgio Koukl on the Grand Piano label, and there are others. You can also get a disc of some ensemble works, including the Little Gidding setting, on Presto. However, nothing I have heard so far has inclined me to explore them.

Stephen Barber



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