Pianist Anton Kuerti was born in Austria, grew up in the USA, and has lived in Canada for the last thirty-five years. His teachers included Arthur Loesser, Mieczyslaw Horszowski, and Rudolf Serkin. At [...]
They spoke about it
With the exception of the Seasons, Tchaikovsky’s numerous piano works are largely unkown, apparently eclipsed by his outstanding success as a symphonist, opera and ballet composer. With a few notable exceptions such as Sviatoslav Richter, the Grand Sonata in G, Op. 37 has mainly been performed by competitors at the Tchaikovsky competition in Moscow where it is a “pièce imposée” that must be played by all entrants — a status more likely to promote resentment than sympathy! There are some monumental flaws in this enormous sonata.
The first movement’s bombastic crashing chords threaten to violate the boundary between the thrilling and the tedious, and some of the transitions are surprisingly weak, especially the one to the second theme in the recapitulation, which grinds to an unbelievably awkward, embarrassing halt; the plaintive repeated notes of the second movement theme overtax the pianist’s resources of tonal variety and would be more effective on the obœ, and the Finale’s freshness and vigor can easily outwear their welcome if the performer’s commitment and enthusiasm are allowed to flag along the way.
But if the listener, like a tourist viewing a magnificent sight with the sun in his eyes, can shade himself from these imperfections, he will be rewarded with a scintillating panorama full of excitement, glory and profound expression. The fervent, brilliant color of the G minor portion of the first movement’s main theme as it sweeps upward with abandon; the earnest pleading of the second theme and its subsequent ornamentation with inspired arpeggio figures; the furor of the development with its vaulting chords and octaves; the picturesque tenderness of the Andante’s bubbling middle section; the wild rhythmic exhilaration of the splendid Scherzo and its fluid, gently informal middle section; the whirling, glistening snowsqualls of the Finale, intermingled with strains of authentic slavic melancholy: these are just a few highlights of this epic and exquisitely pianistic work.
Like Tchaikovsky, both Glazunov and Liadov are noted more for their symphonic literature than for their piano works. Glazunov’s huge output of more than 50 orchestral works deserves far more attention than it gets, but even so, it is much better known than his two excellent piano sonatas, his piano concerti and other piano works. Of these, none is more brilliant in its harmonic charm and tongue-in-cheek acrobatics than the Grand Concert Waltz, Op. 41. It is remarkable that a composer who never lived in Vienna could so successfully portray the magic, the grace and the tumult of the Waltz.
Liadov, by contrast, turned out only a handful of works, but these all demonstrate exceptional craftsmanship and a touching poetic sensibility. While the debt to Chopin is obvious, there is an endearing originality of expression and an exceptional variety of moods. Of the pieces on this record, the Intermezzo is a pulsating character piece which, within its Schumannesque context, brings some daringly poignant harmonies into play. The Gigue‘s brilliant counterpoint brings Mendelssohn’s playful moods to mind, and the Etude and Mazurka could easily be Chopin — and not second-rate Chopin, either. But the Prelude, though, is perhaps the most personal and soulful of these, with its long spun-out melody which soars and falls with inspired pianistic imagination.
Few composers have changed their style so drastically during their career as Alexander Scriabin, his chief rivals in that respect being Fauré and Schönberg. It hardly seems possible that the sweetly brilliant chopinesque etudes and preludes from the early 1890s come from the pen of the same composer who wrote such disturbing and nearly atonal works only two decades later.
This recording’s offerings start in the middle of this development, with the Sonata no. 4 in F-sharp major, written in 1903. By this time, Scriabin’s inimitable personal characteristics had severed most of the bonds linking him with Chopin, but a certain late romantic sweetness still hung in the air. There is an almost stifling tenderness, and an extravagant dose of pianistic coloration in the slightly languid Andante introduction. Scriabin’s fascination with harmonies built in 4ths and with irregular rhythmic groupings and contrasts is already quite prominent here, though still tame compared to his later works. The Prestissimo volando vaults breathlessly and nervously towards its ecstatic climax; the undercurrent of impatience, with brief clipped groups of two and five notes chasing each other, is just as keen in the many extremely soft passages as it is in the bravura moments. The climax itself brings back the lonely, delicate sweet theme of the Andante, now to throb luminously over the jubilant repeated chords whose fiery momentum drives the work to its frenetic conclusion.
Another world opens in the Etudes, Op. 65 and the Preludes, Op. 74, both written within a dozen years of the Fourth Sonata. The flavor has become abstract, introspective and eerie; flashes of insight plunge at us and dissolve before we can quite absorb them. The music stabs at us in a desperate but fleeting attempt to rapidly share some deep, painful mystery. Intense, haunting characterizations gnaw at our senses, to the point where the music often seems to have a distinct odor.
No wonder this music can antagonize as well as captivate — and often simultaneously, like a drug which both attracts and repels the user. Each etude exploits one interval. The first has the audacity to use piquant, scurrying ninths as though they were octaves, and the second is a slow-motion pæan to the aristocracy of the seventh. The third weaves a tight fabric of interlocking fifths, accompanied by tiny irregular bursts of two and three notes, which turns into a nearly regular drone as the first majestic explosion soars skyward. When the main idea returns, it adopts the nervous bursts that had previously been restricted to the accompaniment.
The Five Preludes Op. 74 are Scriabin’s last work. Each is very short, but intensely packed with feeling — despair and turbulence predominate. The even-numbered preludes provide quieter moments, but are equally disturbing in their deeply meditative questioning.
© 1990 Anton Kuerti