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8.223656 - BLUMENFELD, F.: Piano Etudes (Complete)

Felix Mikhailovich Blumenfeld (1863–1931)
Complete Piano Etudes


Felix Mikhailovich Blumenfeld was born in Kovalyovka in South Ukraine in 1863 and was of Polish extraction. He studied the piano at St. Petersburg Conservatory from 1881 to 1885 as a pupil of Theodor Stein and continued there as a teacher of piano and from 1897 as a professor. His early career was as a concert pianist. He studied composition with Rimsky-Korsakov and was a member of his circle, having first introduced himself in 1881, when Rimsky-Korsakov was visiting the Crimea, the introduction facilitated by his friendship with the grandson of Stasov, mentor of the Five, the Mighty Handful of Russian nationalist composers. In St. Petersburg Blumenfeld and his brother Sigismund attended the Friday meetings at Belyayev’s and in 1905 he was only too glad to resign from the Conservatory, following Rimsky-Korsakov’s example, an opportunity he seems to have welcomed, after the disturbances of 1905. He later resumed teaching at the Conservatory from 1911 until 1918.

In 1895 he was engaged by Napravnik as a répétiteur at the Mariinsky Theatre and in 1898 became a conductor there, extending his interests from opera to the conducting of concerts and winning something of an international reputation with the first Paris performance of Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov in 1908. Illness and hunger in the aftermath of the Revolution led Blumenfeld to leave St. Petersburg in 1918 and embark on a career as director of the N.W. Lysenko Institute of Music and Drama in Kiev and as a teacher of piano and conducting at the Kiev Conservatory and from 1920 to 1922 as director. In the latter year he was invited to join the staff of Moscow Conservatory. His pupils included Horowitz, Dubyansky, Barer and Linde.

As a pianist Blumenfeld gave first performances of music by composers such as Glazunov, Arensky and Liadov. His playing was much influenced by that of one of the greatest pianists of the nineteenth century, Anton Rubinstein, founder of the St. Petersburg Conservatory, and he was at the same time an increasingly valued member of the group centred on Rimsky-Korsakov, being of material assistance to him both as a pianist and as a conductor. In the second capacity he directed the first performances of Rimsky-Korsakov’s operas Servilia and The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh. In 1899 he had conducted the first Russian performance of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde and was also responsible for the first performance of Scriabin’s Le poeme d’extase and other works by that composer.

Blumenfeld’s piano compositions show the influence of Chopin and, perhaps rather more, that of Rubinstein. His orchestral works include a Mazurka, Opus 10 and a Symphony, Opus 39, written A la mémoire des chefs défunts, and his concert pieces an Allegro de concert for piano and orchestra. Apart from two pieces for cello and piano, a String Quartet and a number of songs, the greater part of Blumenfeld’s work was for piano. Of this last the Etudes make up a considerable part. The four pieces that constitute Opus 2 were written in 1886. Here the Etude in A major recalls the style of Chopin. The three studies of Opus 3 are possibly more elaborate in ornamentation, the cascading arpeggios of the Etude in D-flat major, with its dramatic shifts of harmony and moving melodic content, largely in the middle register, giving way to the dance rhythms of the Etude in E minor, dominated by its opening figuration. The third of the set, the Etude in A minor; is again elaborate in its figuration and technically demanding and ostentatious in its virtuosity. It is followed by the Valse Etude in F major; Opus 4. This starts with a grandiose introduction, before the waltz begins. The principal melodic content again remains in the middle register of the keyboard and in the centre of the texture, with an upper voice melody in the central section, eventually exploring the higher register.

The Etude, Opus 14, with the descriptive title Sur mer (“On the sea”), is tempestuous enough, with the sea in question running quite a swell, above and below the song-like melody, before the storm subsides. It was written in 1890. The following Etude de concert, Opus 24, in F-sharp minor was written in 1897, the year of Blumenfeld’s promotion to the position of professor at the St. Petersburg Conservatory. As its title suggests, it is a work of challenging technical demands, a vehicle for Blumenfeld himself, now among the most distinguished players of his generation in Russia. The two Etudes-Fantaisies, Opus 25, were composed in the following year, 1898. The first opens ominously, its melody heard over the continuous rhythmic figuration of the lower part, leading to a more homophonic passage of gentle chords, swelling in volume and then diminishing, before the return of the earlier material. The second of the Etudes-Fantaisies opens with busy activity, melodic content emerging through the elaborate accompanying figuration, before a gentler passage of sequentially descending chords. The more dramatic mood of the opening is restored in conclusion.

1898 saw the composition of two further studies, the Etudes, Opus 29, in D major and A major. The first of these is a less elaborate work, shorter and consequently offering one mood. The second of the set is of similar length and relative lack of complexity, although it makes, as always, considerable technical demands on a performer. Opus 36 is a study for the left hand only. It opens tenderly enough, with an accompanied melody that makes use of the middle and higher range of the keyboard. It goes on to a more demonstrative section, extending the range of the keyboard used and suggesting more than ever the use of two hands. It was written in 1905.

The Quatre Etudes that make up Opus 44 were written in 1912. The first of the set, in G-flat major, is relatively short, a work of initial delicacy and charm, more than ever recalling the example of Chopin, moving forward to a dramatic climax. It is followed by a study in D-flat major, wistful in its opening bars, a duet between higher and lower registers, winding its slow progress to a dynamic climax. The third and fourth studies of the set, in E minor and A minor respectively, offer, in the first of the pair, a busier accompanying texture, and in the second a strongly histrionic opening and music that suggests rather Rachmaninov than Chopin.

Blumenfeld wrote the third of his Etudes-Fantaisies in 1916. It is highly characteristic of the composer in its arpeggio accompanying figuration, through which a relatively simple yet strongly felt melody emerges. A contrasted chordal passage introduces interesting twists of harmony, before a return to the arpeggiated figuration of the opening, with its descending scale melody, and the final climax of the rapider conclusion. The last of the studies, the Etude in F-sharp major, Opus 54, was written in 1927 and marks the end of Blumenfeld’s piano compositions. Again considerable technical demands are made on the performer in music in a familiar idiom that must seem, inevitably, to belong now to an earlier age.

Keith Anderson

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