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Forgotten Russians
Alexei STANCHINSKY (1888-1914)
Prelude in Lydian mode [4:26]
Four Sketches from Op. 1 (1911) - Nos. 3, 5, 7, and 10 [5:01]
Samuil FEINBERG (1890-1962)
Berceuse (1912) [5:21]
Nikolai OBUKHOV (1892-1954)
Four Pieces (1912-1918) [5:37]
Arthur LOURI… (1892-1966)
Forms in the Air (1915); Forms I – III [8:45]
A Phoenix Park Nocturne [6:38]
Nikolai ROSLAVETS (1881-1944)
Five Preludes (1919-1922) [12:32]
Alexander MOSOLOV (1900-1973)
Two Nocturnes, Op. 15 (1925) [5:58]
Two Dances, Op. 23b (1927) [3:59]
Sergei PROTOPOPOV (1893-1954)
Sonata, No. 2, Op. 5 [15:58]
Vladimir Feltsman (piano)
rec. 2018, Wyastone Leys, Monmouth, UK

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. Louriť 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.

Roy Westbrook

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