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Semyon Alexeevich BARMOTIN (1877-1939)
20 Preludes, Op. 12 (1910) [50:16]
Tema con variazioni, Op. 1 (1904) [26:49]
Christopher Williams (piano)
rec. 2019, Wyastone Leys Concert Hall, Monmouth, UK
First recordings
GRAND PIANO GP799 [77:49]

The fascinating booklet notes say that for many years Semyon Alexeyevich Barmotin’s date of death remained unknown. With next to nothing written about him in the literature, it was only with the US publication in 1989 of the Biographical Dictionary of Russian/Soviet Composers that he was brought to wider public attention. This dearth of biography and the concomitant mystery surrounding him led some to speculate that he had come to a sticky demise at the hands of the Soviet regime in the dark days of the 1930s. For more comprehensive information on Barmotin, one has to go to the St. Petersburg city archives, home to around fifty documents relating to him. One of them is a handwritten obituary, penned in 1939, by one S.F. Bakhlanov, which includes a list of his works. What we do know is that he was born in St Petersburg on 26 January 1877 and showed musical promise from an early age. He studied composition at the city’s conservatory with Balakirev and Rimsky-Korsakov. In addition to composing, he spent most of his life in various teaching posts.

The pianist Christopher Williams describes Barmotin’s piano music as “richly layered textures and expansive harmonies, coupled with flowing, romantic melodies”. It is music that fans of Rachmaninov should feel drawn to.

The 20 Preludes, Op. 12 were published in Moscow as four separate volumes of five pieces each. It is a cause of puzzlement that Barmotin confined himself to only twenty, rather than twenty-four as Chopin did in his Op. 28 or Scriabin in his Op. 11, thus traversing all the keys of the chromatic scale. So, in this case four keys are absent. The Preludes are small-scaled works that run the full gamut of emotions. We open with No. 1 which is dignified and solemn, with melancholic leanings, a mood similarly found in the funereal tread of No. 4. The passionate intensity of the following Prelude calls to mind Rachmaninoff in its pianistic writing. In total contrast, No. 7 flows with genteel charm, yet midway it does become more urgent as the pace gathers. No. 8 is donned in Chopinesque figurations. No. 9 is wistful and reminiscent, whilst No. 19 is one of reflective introspection. The composer’s melodic gifts are revealed in Nos. 11 and 17. Some of the Preludes call for a high level of virtuosity, for example as Nos. 10 and 11.

The bulk of Barmotin’s early compositions were for solo piano. Tema con variazioni, Op. 1 dates from 1904. This was a time when free variation form was all the rage, with distinguished contributions from such composers as Glazunov, Dukas, Szymanowski, Rachmaninov, Reger and Ropartz. This form permitted the variations to substantially stray from the theme in respect of melody, harmony, metre, rhythm, tempo, tonality and texture. The theme of Barmotin’s effort is sombre and pensive and, over the course of the work, is subjected to treatment imaginatively managed, where every mood is explored. The piano writing is richly melodic, rhythmically interesting, varied and thrilling in its exploitation of virtuosity. Christopher Williams performs this engrossing score with relish and a wide colouristic range. His playing is nothing short of enthralling.

The flattering acoustic of Wyastone Leys Concert Hall, together with a beautifully voiced Steinway model D, showcases these compelling scores at their finest. Christopher Williams’s artful musicianship and championing of this forgotten composer can only be commended.

Stephen Greenbank

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