|About this Recording
8.571281 - MYASKOVSKY, N.: Piano Sonatas Nos. 2 and 3 / SCRIABIN, A.: 5 Preludes / LISZT, F.: La lugubre gondola (Biret Archive Edition, Vol. 7)
The FINNADAR RECORDINGS of IDIL BIRET
Idil Biret started recording for the Finnadar in 1972, following a proposal from Ilhan Mimaroğlu. At the time Mimaroğlu, a composer of electronic music, was working as a producer for Atlantic Records in New York, mostly with its co-founder Nasuhi Ertegün. Finnadar label was founded as a subsidiary of Atlantic, one of the few imprints within the major-label corporate structure devoted wholly to contemporary music (1). In a rare interview he gave in 2001, Ilhan Mimaroğlu described his goal for founding Finnadar records:
It was in the early seventies that I started Finnadar Records with an LP of my electronic music and continued throughout the years, primarily with recordings of contemporary compositions, with a view to also offer to the public performers who should be better known, among which Turkish pianists Idil Biret and Meral Güneyman.(2)
During an association with Idil Biret that lasted over ten years nine LPs were issued by Finnadar with recordings of many contemporary works including those by Boulez, Berg, Webern, Miaskovsky, Boucourechliev as well as some classical works by Beethoven, Chopin and others (see discography below). The recordings received great critical acclaim in the US and Europe and the Boulez Sonata no.2 was selected as the “Record of the Month” by Stereo Review magazine. Biret later recorded all three Boulez Piano Sonatas for Naxos which received a Diapason d’Or of the year 1995 in France and sold 30,000 copies within six months of its release. The recording of the Berlioz/Liszt Symphonie Fantastique received special attention on both sides of the Atlantic as it was one of the first forays into recording and performing piano transcriptions—a widely practiced art in 19th century that had fallen out of favour in the 20th century. Idil Biret performed the Berlioz / Liszt work at recitals all over the world including New York, London, Paris, Munich, Milan and helped establish respect for the performance of piano transcriptions once again. On the base of these performances and the Finnadar recording she then went on to record for EMI the complete symphonies of Beethoven in the piano transcriptions by Liszt and performed all the nine symphonies in four recitals at the Montpellier Festival (broadcast live by Radio France Musique) during the Liszt Centennial in 1986.
Sadly, the adventurous label Finnadar did not last long and folded in the early 1980s. In a brief note, the ex-RCA executive Jack M. Einhorn explains some of the reasons for the early demise of Finnadar:
Thank God for Klaus Heymann who has given terrific artists like Idil Biret the exposure that they truly merit. (3)
Ahmet Ertegün gave the copyrights of all her Finnadar LPs (then owned by Warner/Atlantic) to Idil Biret shortly before he passed away. Idil Biret would like to express her gratitude to the Ertegün family and to Ilhan and Güngör Mimaroglu for making possible the release of her early Finnadar recordings on the Idil Biret Archive label.
(1) Dave Lewis, All Music Guide
DISCOGRAPHY of IDIL BIRET / FINNADAR (ATLANTIC RECORDS)
SR9004 Boulez - Sonata No. 2; Webern – Variations Op. 27 (1973)
Nikolai MIASKOVSKY (1881–1950) Two Sonatas, No. 2 Op. 3 and No. 3 Op. 19
All born within a decade of one another Alexander Scriabin (1872–1915), Sergei Rachmaninov (1873–1943) and Nikolai Miaskovsky (1881–1950) were each in his own way representatives of the seething ferment that was Russian Music in the early 20th century. That their paths took them to such different final destinations—mystical modernism, romantic epigonism, and Soviet neoclassicism respectively—is partially explained by accidents of fate and politics: Scriabin died before the revolution, Rachmaninov fled from it, Miaskovsky took its consequences. But all three stylistic destinies can be seen as authentic, valid precipitates from the heady fin-de-siècle emulsion in which they found their common origin.
Rachmaninov and Scriabin, though they now appear an especially irreconcilable contrast, had in fact remarkable parallel musical upbringings. Both Muscovites and pampered scions of aristocratic families, they had their early professional training side by side as pupils of the ferociously demanding piano pedagogue Nikolai Sergeyevich Zverev (1832–93), one of the bulwarks of the Russian school of pianism. (Later they passed through the Moscow Conservatory together, both graduating in 1892 with gold medals.) Zverev had been a pupil of Alexander Dubuque who in turn had studied with Chopin’s friend John Field. Chopin was Zverev’s pupils’ daily bread and his style both in piano playing and of composition became the basis of theirs. But the two young Russians sought and found different sorts of nourishment in the works of the great Pole. Both as pianist and as composer Rachmaninov molded his ways on the heroic Chopin of the Ballades and Sonatas, while Scriabin was shaped by the aphoristic and often enigmatic Chopin of the Mazurkas and the Preludes. Alexander Pasternak (the poet’s brother) who knew them both in their early years, contrasted their piano playing in terms that illuminate a great deal more, besides: “Rachmaninov’s playing,” he wrote, “was already astonishing in its masculinity, like some charger galloping. The hugeness of his wrists is well known, and musicians envied his span. He sat at the piano with the same seriousness and simplicity as he must have sat at his writing desk or at meals in front of a plate of soup, in as prosaic a manner. I remember him thus, bolt upright his head slightly bent, his body rigid. All the strength of his touch was concentrated in his hands, his body playing no part in his extraordinary fortissimos.”
As for Scriabin, “His playing was unique: It could not be imitated by producing similar tone, or power of softness, for he had a special and entirely different relationship with the instrument, which was his own unrepeatable secret. As soon as I heard the first sounds of the piano, I immediately had the impression that his fingers were producing the sound without touching the keys. His enemies used to say it was not real piano playing, but a twittering of birds or a mewing of kittens. His spiritual lightness was reflected in his playing: in his gait, his movements, his gesticulations, the way he jerked his head up when he spoke. Scriabin’s ‘nervous’ playing was one of his characteristics.”
There is such a thing, after all, as temperament. Rachmaninov’s was conservative and establishmentarian. He sought his career at the centers of power. He produced his operas at the Bolshoi, and conducted them himself. He was twice offered the post of Director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra (Karl Muck and Pierre Monteux accepted when he declined). And of course, he pursued the life of international virtuoso at the very pinnacle of prestige. Scriabin was a natural bohemian. He performed publicly no one’s music but his own. While Rachmaninov toured the capitals, Scriabin preferred to hide out in Switzerland with his mistress. Where Rachmaninov competed and often successfully, with Tchaikovsky for the hearts and minds of the mass audience, Scriabin addressed his music increasingly to a coterie. His late sonatas and preludes are famously hermetic, like the poetry of the Symbolists he so admired and emulated. And like them, he sought to transcend the world of human strivings and feelings in his art and attain a plane of distilled esthetic purity and absolutism. Rachmaninov was true to the goal of music as expression, and averred with the nineteenth-century Romantics that “composers of experience take into consideration first of all that melody is the supreme ruler in the world of music; melody is music.” Compare Scriabin: “There is no difference between harmony and melody; they are one and the same. Lyricism does not interest me at all now; on the contrary, I have declared war on it and have cast it away.” Small wonder that, as their fellow Zverev pupil Matvei Pressman recalled, “Scriabin and Rachmaninov never liked each other and this feeling escalated rather than diminished over the years”
Granted a comparison of Rachmaninov’s Prelude in C# minor of 1893, the concert pianist’s very Bucephalus, with Scriabin’s ultimate musical riddle, the Preludes Op. 74, is fatally loaded. And yet the fact remains that they give the perfect measure of their respective creators. Pasternak’s description of Rachmaninov at the piano is powerfully evoked by the Prelude. Its pianism is magisterial. Its form and tonality, governed as they are by an incessantly reiterated perfect cadence, are conventional and authoritarian. Its climax is terrifying and “symphonic” (and notoriously requires four staves for its notation). This is narrative, hortatory music making. Scriabin neither narrates nor orates—he discloses. Each of his preludes flashes upon the listener as an aural apparition, a fleeting exposure to an otherworldly, uninhabited terrain. Melody and harmony are indeed commingled into a higher unity. And the texture to which they have given way, though one senses its relationship with the harmonic usages of the past, and though it is eminently consistent and persuasive, remains to this day an enigma, keenly felt yet uncomprehended.
If Scriabin and Rachmaninov are relatively familiar names today, that of Nikolai Miaskovsky is at best dimly remembered as very much the fourth of the “Big Four” of Soviet music (after Prokofiev, Shostakovich and Khachaturian) who found themselves in trouble in 1948 for writing what the Communist Party of the Soviet Union chose to define as “formalist” music. His twenty-seven symphonies earned him at one time a reputation as a kind of musical Stakhanovite, but Havergal Brian broke that twentieth-century record. Miaskovsky never left Russia, never worked for Diaghilev, never wrote a Sabre Dance, or a Tahiti Trot (or a Prelude in C# minor). His musical mood was ever serious, even sober, his manner rarely spectacular. Classical forms attracted him, but his neoclassicism followed nineteenth-century rather than eighteenth-century models, and never became chic. As a result, Miaskovsky’s reputation has been mainly a national—one is even tempted to say a parochial—one. World recognition was only sporadic (its height was reached with the commissioning of the Twenty-First Symphony by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1940) and since his death, non-existent. It might have been otherwise, though, and the works on this recording might have been the ones that gained Miaskovsky the world attention that always eluded him, had his luck had been better.
The Second Sonata Op. 13 (1912) and the Third Sonata Op. 19 (1920) enclose between their dates the turbulent years of war and revolution that certainly left their traces on the music’s tragic afflatus. Those works seem to do the impossible: bridge the gap between Rachmaninov’s style and Scriabin’s. They are one-movement sonatas like all of Scriabin’s after the Fifth, and they are notably and fluidly chromatic in harmony. The heroically virtuosic and rhetorical piano writing on the other hand owes a great deal to Rachmaninov’s grand manner than to Scriabin’s “nervous” style (though that style is reflected in the quiet second themes of both sonatas). What is rather remarkable (and revealing, given our knowledge of the composer’s future) is the fidelity with which both works adhere to the formal principles of the classical sonata. Unlike the Lisztian (or Scriabinesque) single-movement sonata, they are not compressed multi-movement works but extended “first movements”: a slow introduction (in both cases reminiscent of the awesome opening of Beethoven’s last sonata, the opus 111); a first theme group in the tonic key; a second theme group in the key of the dominant; and extended codetta; a lengthy development section; a recapitulation in the tonic; a “Beethovenesque” (that is, developmental) coda, which in the Second Sonata takes the form of a “Lisztian” chromatic fugue. In both sonatas, but particularly the Third, these formal divisions are more easily perceived at first by looking at the score than by listening. For the composer has taken pains—by means of chromaticized and ‘extended’ harmonies, tempo, rubato, revoiced textures and the like—to dovetail the sections and conceal the “classical” tonal relationships, evidently thinking of such things as elements of the compositional process that need not concern the listener any more than the foundation of a building need be visible to the passerby. Most remarkable for its surface freedom vs. its underlying strictness is the Third Sonata, which is written entirely without meter signatures, and in which the lengths of the measures are perpetually and imaginatively varied in a kind of improvisatory instrumental recitative. This urgent musical “prose” is worlds away both from cold Scriabinesque Symbolism and from Rachmaninov’s warm lyricism. Fever-hot, apocalyptic and expressionistic, it brings to mind (uniquely in the Russian milieu) the early work of Schoenberg, and it comes as no surprise to learn that the young Miaskovsky, as critic for the progressive journal Muzyka, was one of Schoenberg’s leading proponents in Russia in the years immediately preceding the First World War. He greeted Pelleas und Melisande and the Gurrelieder with ecstatic reviews, and no one hearing the fourth-chords in the development and coda of the Third Sonata can doubt that he was well acquainted with the Kammersymphonie, too.
Later in life Miaskovsky was hard pressed to explain away the “pessimism” expressed in these sonatas, particularly the Second, with its portentous organum-like citations of the Dies Irae (perhaps the last wholly serious use of that medieval funeral chant so frequently exploited for its emotional resonances by musical Romantics since Berlioz). At a time when properly defining one’s relationship to the revolutionary events of the century’s second decade was a life-or-death matter in Russia, the composer tried to account for his “pessimism” in terms of his private life: “I myself find it hard to analyze the causes of the phenomenon. Partly to blame, probably, were the circumstances of my personal fate, inasmuch as until I was almost thirty I was forced to fight for my freedom from a milieu that was almost totally hostile to art (by virtue of professional and social positions), and on the personal level, from the thick spider’s web dilettantism that hampered my first (and not only my first) steps in my chosen vocation. On the other hand, there was my acquaintance—altogether superficial, to be sure—with the circle of Symbolists, ‘individualists ex-cathedra’ and the like, whose ideas had their influence, of course, on my as yet fairly callow mentality.” Thus speaks the Soviet composer in hindsight about the modernist he was. The works themselves, full of burning conviction and technical mastery, tell quite another story.
Now what of that bad luck to which he referred? Simply this: Miaskovsky was plagued with obstacles to getting these sonatas performed. The Second Sonata was composed in 1912 and published by Jurgenson in 1914. Its dedicatee, the pianist Boris Zakharov, was scheduled to perform it at a concert in the prestigious Petrograd series “Evenings of Contemporary Russian Music” sponsored by the journal Muzikalny sovremennik headed by Andrei Rimsky-Korsakov and Pierre Suvchinsky. But time and again the première was postponed, because Zakharov could not get the thing learned. As an amused Prokofiev chided his friend after the second postponement: “It’s a positively superb work, but mercilessly difficult, thanks to its chromatic and contrapuntal construction.” Zakharov did not play it until December 29, 1916, none too successfully.
The performance history of the Third Sonata was an even greater frustration. Its Moscow première, by the great pianist Samuel Feinberg on April 22, 1922 was a triumph, and Miaskovsky sent a copy to Prokofiev, who was by then living in Paris. Prokofiev, enthusiastic, passed it along to Henri Prunières, editor of the Revue Musical. Just as enthusiastic, Prunières submitted the sonata to the jury that was electing the programs of the 1923 Festival of the International Society for Contemporary Music to be held in Salzburg—a jury which included Ernest Ansermet and Hermann Scherchen, powerful propagandists for new music. And the sonata was accepted. But the jury had been slow in its deliberations, the concerts were only two weeks away, and no performer had been chosen. Prokofiev was urgently requested to play the sonata himself but he begged off in favor of the work’s dedicatee, Nikolai Orlov, who had just emigrated from the USSR. He too was unavailable, and so Miaskovsky’s sonata had to be withdrawn from the festival program, where it was to have shared the stage with Prokofiev’s Overture on Hebrew Themes.
It seems safe to assume that if the sonata had been performed it would have made an impression, and one can’t help wondering how an ISCM success might have affected Miaskovsky’s stylistic course. In a letter to Prokofiev, after hearing about the cancellation, the composer affected a stiff upper lip, and claimed that he didn’t really like the sonata all that much anyway, but his disappointment was obvious. And his moment was gone. True, Walter Gieseking championed the Fourth Sonata (1925) for a while but that work already showed the beginnings of the comfortable Soviet orthodoxy for which Miaskovsky is now known and often dismissed. Hearing the Second and Third Sonatas today gives us a poignant sense of what might have been.
(The above notes are from the original LP, Finnadar SR 9029)
Franz Liszt’s later compositions suggest something of the course that music was to take after his death. Throughout his life he had generally enjoyed good health. In 1861, at the age of fifty, he had left Weimar, his home since 1848, to settle in Rome, the prelude to a life that he described as ‘three-pronged’, with visits to his native Hungary, where he had become a national hero, returns to Weimar to teach, generally during the summer months, residence otherwise in Rome. His circumstances underwent a considerable change in 1881. Now at the age of seventy, he suffered a serious fall downstairs during his stay in Weimar, the beginning of increasing debilitation. At the same time he began, in his compositions, to explore newer territory.
Nuages gris (Grey Clouds), its title indicative of its mood, was written in 1881. Here Liszt makes evocative use of the so-called gypsy scale, its opening phrase characterized by its augmented fourth and its close by an indeterminate cadence.
Liszt made two versions of La lugubre gondola in 1882, drawing inspiration from the sight in Venice of funeral gondolas. In November of that year Liszt had joined his son-in-law Richard Wagner and his family at the Palazzo Vendramin in Venice, staying in Venice until the following January. The two pieces date from this time. In the first elegiac piece the movement of the gondola is reflected in the undulating rhythm of the accompanying figuration. The second piece, marked Andante mesto, non troppo lento, opens with a passage of spare recitative, leading to the rocking accompaniment figure and the curiously mournful song heard above. The music moves forward to a dynamic climax, before the return of the opening recitative and the closing section, fading gradually into the distance. There is something prophetic about the choice of subject for these innovative pieces. In February, a month after Liszt had left Venice, Wagner died, his body carried to the mainland in a funeral gondola before the journey back to his home in Bayreuth.
* The two late works of Liszt, Nuages gris and La Lugubre gondola, included here, were recorded in 1978 in New York together with the Liszt transcription of Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique (SR9023). However, they were not released at the time. This is their first release.
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