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Nikolai MYASKOVSKY (1881-1950)
Piano Sonata No 2, Op 13 in F-sharp minor (1912) [14:19]
Piano Sonata No 3, Op 19 in C minor (1920, rev. 1939) [14:48]
Eccentricities for piano, Op 25 (1917-18, rev. 1923) [13:57]
Nicolas BACRI (b. 1961)
Piano Sonata No 2, Op 105 (2007, rev. 2008/10) [12:58]
Piano Sonata No 3 ‘Sonata impetuosa’, Op 122 (2011) [12:37]
Fantaisie for piano, Op 134 (2014/16) [7:11]
Sabine Weyer (piano)
rec. August 2020, Kulturzentrum Immanuel, Wuppertal, Germany

Luxembourg-born pianist Sabine Weyer, a prize-winning student, commenced her training at the Conservatoire de Musique Esch-sur-Alzette, Luxembourg, then in France at the Conservatoire à rayonnement régional de Metz and finally at the Koninklijk Conservatorium, Brussels. Noted on the international stage as a piano recital soloist, concert pianist and chamber performer, since 2015 Weyer has been active as professor of piano at Conservatoire de la Ville de Luxembourg. Her artistry first came to my attention in 2015, when I reviewed her debut solo album ‘Images’, an outstandingly performed programme of solo piano works by Rameau and Debussy on the Austrian label Orlando Records. Now, with her fifth album ‘Mysteries’, her fourth for the German label ARS Produktion, Weyer turns her attention to another programme of captivating works by Nikolai Myaskovsky and Nicolas Bacri, whose birthdates are eighty years apart.

Weyer’s album was recorded in 2020 to mark the seventieth anniversary of Myaskovsky’s death. It’s worth pointing out that Weyer has released two promotional clips for ‘Mysteries’: one nine-minute video was filmed in Moscow, where Weyer introduces several aspects of the project as background for this recording. Both can be found either on Weyer’s own website or on YouTube.

Rarely have I so wanted to put a disc into the player as I did this album of solo piano music by Myaskovsky and Bacri. It was Bacri who first introduced Weyer to the music of Myaskovsky and the reason Weyer chose this coupling was because Myaskovsky’s Third Piano Sonata had inspired Bacri to write his own Third Sonata that he dedicated to Myaskovsky. Given my love of the piano sonata form, these two prolific, yet undervalued, composers from separate eras and different traditions certainly piqued my interest. Despite the obvious differences in eras, cultures and countries of origin between these Myaskovsky and Bacri works, Weyer has noted ‘similarities in terms of hyper-expressiveness, with dark tortured, panting climaxes, others of a lost lyricism or a poignant melancholy.’

Myaskovsky was born near Warsaw, then part of the Russian Empire, and was later categorised as a Soviet-era composer. He is noted mainly for his prodigious number of twenty-seven symphonies, perhaps less for his thirteen string quartets and his nine piano sonatas. Although recordings of Myaskovsky’s works are available, they are almost never encountered in the concert hall or even on the radio. That said, as recently as February 2020, Myaskovsky’s Symphony No. 6 with chorus was performed by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra Chorus and BBC Philharmonic under Vassily Sinaisky at Bridgewater Hall, Manchester. Rather like the current situation with Weinberg, the cause of Myaskovsky is hindered by the variants of his name, notably Miaskovsky and Miaskowsky.

Myaskovsky’s nine official numbered piano sonatas span the period 1907-49. Throughout her recital, Weyer alternates the Myaskovsky and Bacri works, beginning with Myaskovsky’s Piano Sonata No 2, written in 1912 only a year after his graduation from the Saint Petersburg Conservatory. It is a striking score, with the sweep and emotional temperament which remind me of Rachmaninov – and with early Scriabin never too far away. A number of composers, notably Rachmaninov, used the Dies Irae motif in their works. Here it is prominent, soon taking on a haunting significance. Weyer relishes the challenges of Myaskovsky’s score, creating a gathering tension that imbues the dramatic music with menace. It is striking, too, how Weyer shapes the variegated shafts of sunlight that break through the gloom and her approach to tempos and dynamics is ideal.

Myaskovsky’s Piano Sonata No 3 in C minor was composed in 1920 (revised in 1939) while Russia was in the midst of civil war as several groups vied to decide Russia’s political future. From 1917-21, Myaskovsky served in the Red Army, was wounded and suffered shellshock. During this tumultuous time, his father was murdered by Red Army soldiers and the next winter his aunt, to whom he was close, also died. Terrible famine was widespread and in the background was the murder of Tsar Nicholas and his family. Given the quite awful circumstances in Russia, it comes as no surprise that Myaskovsky’s sonata is one of tortured passion, full of fury, so convincingly captured by Weyer’s expressive playing. Amid all this anguish, the short moments of relative tranquility, which in Weyer’s hands seem a most uneasy calm, are soon blown away by the strength of the wrath.

Myaskovsky’s Eccentricities are six piano miniatures written in 1917-22. There is an alternative title for the collection, Bizzarreries, which I have seen used a couple of times. Evidently the composer would write down musical ideas as they came to him, bringing them together as a collection, each described by tempo marking and key signature rather than a descriptive title. Other collections of short pieces identified in the notes as being similar to it are Beethoven’s Bagatelles and Prokofiev’s Sarcasms. With Eccentricities, Myaskovsky pays tribute to Sarcasms and also Prokofiev’s Visions fugitives, Prokofiev being his friend and fellow student at the Saint Petersburg Conservatory.

Weyer takes this set of miniatures in her stride. Despite their brevity and lack of great emotional depth, she treats each one with the utmost respect. Every one is satisfying, especially the first marked Andante semplice e narrante a non-threatening piece, gentle and carefree, flanking a central moment of gathering angst which soon disappears. Number two, Allegro tenebroso e fantastic, is rapid and percussive, containing two contrasting moments of calm. Number three, Largo e pesante, is full of world weariness and number four Quieto, (Lento), is a toothsome piece which glows bright. Number five, marked Allegro vivace, has an airborne quality with scurrying runs of notes, relentless and determined, surrounding a contrasting moment of a rather ponderous tread. Writing of a dreamy, near weightless character slowly circling imbues the final piece marked Molto sostenuto ed espressivo.

For recordings of Myaskovsky’s nine sonatas, the main competition in the catalogues is contained in four separate cycles, three complete and one as yet unfinished. Complete cycles are played by soloists Endre Hegedüs on Marco Polo and Murray McLachlan originally on Olympia. McLachlan’s complete cycle has been re-issued on Alto with Regis re-issuing only Nos 4 and 5 (review). Still ongoing is Lydia Jardon’s cycle, with two volumes already released on Ar Ré-Sé. To complete the Jardon cycle, all that remains is a single volume containing Nos 6, 7 and 8, down for projected release in 2023. Stylish and expressive, Weyer’s outstanding performances have nothing to fear from Hegedüs and McLachlan, although Jardon’s as yet incomplete cycle is well worth hearing. Actually, there is another complete Myaskovsky cycle of which I have only just become aware and have yet to hear. Played by pianist Mikhail Lidsky and recorded in 2017 at the Great Hall of Moscow State Tchaikovsky Conservatory, this four CD set includes the Violin Sonata, Op 70 with violinist Alexey Lundin. The Lidsky cycle was released in 2018 on Moscow Conservatory Records. There are some recordings of individual piano sonatas from the cycle notably by Sviatoslav Richter and Boris Lvov but my focus is on complete Myaskovsky cycles.

A Parisian born in 1961, Nicolas Bacri is a prolific, award-winning composer. A recipient of many commissions he has written seven symphonies, various other orchestral and concertante works, a rich collection of chamber works including eleven string quartets and three piano sonatas. Bacri, unlike Myaskovsky, has written stage works including a pair of one-act operas, and some choral works both sacred and secular. The clarinet certainly interests Bacri who has written in excess of thirty works for it. He writes relatively accessible music, having an individual approach that resists fashion and classification. With regard to solo piano music, he has written some twenty works - a considerable number, as one might expect for one so productive.

His Sonata Corta (Piano Sonata No 1) was completed in 1979 (revised 2003); then it took him almost thirty years to write his Piano Sonata No 2 completed in 2007 (revised 2008/10). In a single movement, the Piano Sonata No 2 has been compared to the Liszt Sonata (1853) for its spirit and passion, and its continuous sections. Bacri has commented on the strong feeling of unity owing to the motifs derive from two themes taken from the mournful and introspective Adagio doloroso section which opens the score. With playing that demands attention, Weyer makes short work of the virtuosic demands of this formidable score. This is an intense reading, evoking a confined, airless almost claustrophobic world, before developing into an energised Scherzo leaping and scampering around devilishly.

Subtitled ‘Sonata impetuosa’ Bacri wrote his Piano Sonata No 3 in 2011 and dedicated it to the memory of Myaskovsky. Cast in a single movement form, it comes close to matching the aggressive tone of Myaskovsky’s Piano Sonata No 3 although Weyer’s playing produces more anguish than violence expressing an unnerving sense of looming doom. Weyer is compelling with the mesmerising fluctuations of the writing where the frenetic and compulsive character contrasts with passages of a breathless almost suffocating character.  

The most recently written score on the album is the Fantaisie, composed by Bacri in 2014/16. At seven minutes in length this is a work of humbler dimensions than the previous two sonatas. Weyer’s clear-sighted approach to the Fantaisie is palpable, bringing out the heavily melancholic nature of the score so adeptly. A soft opening grows into a haunting melody which gives way to a threatening mood of anguished foreboding, all revealed by Weyer with focus and depth. A disparate, scuttering central passage marks a change to a more determined, percussive character.

With regard to alternative recordings of Bacri, his music is absent from my collection and I am hearing these piano works for the first time. On Naxos, there is a single album of Bacri’s piano music including the Piano Sonata No 2 receiving its premiere recording in the revised version (review). Recorded in 2010, the soloist Eliane Reyes is the dedicatee of several of Bacri’s works.

Played on my standard unit, this hybrid SACD, recorded for ARS Produktion at Kulturzentrum Immanuel, Wuppertal, offers outstanding sound. Weyer plays a Bösendorfer 280VC concert grand known as the Vienna Concert piano, producing vivid colours and a quite splendid tone. Included with the album are interesting and informative booklet notes.

Conspicuous throughout the album is Weyer’s formidable musicianship and her choice of music by Myaskovsky and Bacri suits her down to the ground. One soon senses her inherent capacity for this repertoire. Standing out, is her often dizzying capacity for generating drama, and a distinctly masterful technique combined with a probing intellect. Not a soloist who overemphasises the percussive elements in the writing, Weyer’s approach to tempo and dynamic seems ideal. She gives outright stellar performances of works entirely deserving of wider circulation. From start to finish, ‘Mysteries’ is an album I cannot praise highly enough.

Michael Cookson

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