Liszt, Scriabin, Medtner - Poom Prommachart
The breadth and depth of artistic drives at large in Russia during the dying days of the Romanov dynasty are the focus of this debut album by young Bankok-born pianist Poom Prommachart. The music reflects everything from the die-hard conservatism of Medtner to the introspective mysticism and harmonic daring of late Scriabin.
Winner of the second Sussex International Piano Competition and a recent Shigeru Kawai Artist, Poom is regarded as one of the most accomplished Thai pianists today. Described by a critic as 'a young Ashkenazy', Poom was a hugely successful student. He received the most prestigious Tagore Gold Medal for his outstanding career and contribution to the RCM, which was presented to him by HRH The Prince of Wales
Liszt dedicated the published score of Variations on a Theme of Bach to Anton Rubenstein ' the two men met in Paris in 1840. He built the variations on material from the first movement of the same cantata which Bach revisited for the Crucifixus of his B minor Mass, but which yields to Liszt's Romantic invention, growing towards a catyclysm out of which rises a chorale.
Poom describes Scriabin's Black Mass sonata as 'a conversation between human and demon', the result of the composer's deep immersion in esoteric philosophy and here he explores the mind's shadowy side, drawing dark forces into the light of awareness.
Medtner is a favourite composer of Poom's, and he enjoys the opportunity 'to inject spirit and powerful imagination' into the piece ' so appropriate here in music which takes its cue from the song of the water-nymph, or rusalki, whose siren songs lure young men to their deaths by drowning. A series of variations creates a labyrinthine world of elves, gnomes and winged dancers.
The transcription of the famous Liebesfreud, Poom's encore on the disc, was the result of another great friendship, that of Rachmaninoff and Kreisler who met in 1918 in New York. The first performance in 1925 was hailed as a great success.
- Sleeve Notes
Russian cultural history is routinely presented as a tale of opposing forces, of striking contrasts between high and low, radical and conservative, the timeless and the transient. Western commentators are not alone in dividing the story into clean factions; Russian historians have also looked for and found neat dualities, often used to highlight Russia's difference from the rest. In fact the boundary lines of the nation's art and culture were far from clearly defined in the decades before the October Revolution of 1917 and remained so for some time after the Bolsheviks demolished the old tsarist order. The breadth and depth of artistic drives at large in Russia during the dying days of the Romanov dynasty are reflected in this album's programme, which embraces everything from the die- hard conservatism of Medtner to the introspective mysticism and harmonic daring of late Scriabin.
Alexander Scriabin was raised in Moscow at a time when diverse philosophies competed for space, some encouraged by the ruling elite, others repressed with brute force. Born into a family of noble descent, his mother was among the first female musicians to be recognised as such in Russia. Following her death in 1872, the infant's upbringing was entrusted to his grandmothers and an infatuated aunt, herself an accomplished amateur musician. The boy was taken to the Russian Musical Society, founded as a vehicle to boost Moscow's concert life and music education, and accompanied his aunt to operas at the Bolshoi. By the age of five he could memorise the melodies he heard in performance and was encouraged to improvise variations on them at the keyboard. Scriabin's childhood development under the pampering, near-obsessive care of his female relatives was saturated with experiences of consuming and making art. It came as a surprise, not least to his long-absent diplomat father, when the eleven-year-old decided to join the Second Moscow Cadet Corps. The physically weak youngster's exploits at the piano were much admired by his fellow cadets; he also became notorious as the only boy never to hold a gun during his five years of preparatory training for the army.
Scriabin, who was declared unfit for military service, enrolled at the Moscow Conservatory in 1888. He was recognised among the institution's finest pianists, a considerable achievement given the depth of its talent pool, and made his mark as a published composer around the time of his graduation in 1892. Scriabin's early piano works owe much to the influence of Chopin and Liszt. His musical language evolved in the early 1900s and soon began to colonise fresh harmonic territories. The process of change flowed through a series of short pieces created between 1904 and 1908, and was shaped in part by the composer's reading of Helena Blavatsky's The Secret Doctrine, a syncretic blend of ancient wisdom, occult practices, mysticism, and critical reactions to Darwin and modern 'materialist' science.
Scriabin's deep immersion in esoteric philosophy and the related process of spiritual awakening became integral to his art. It has been suggested that the upward rising contours of his late works, coupled with their stillness and concentration, represent the composer's intent to transcend mundane cares and cultivate unity with something beyond the ego, the pleroma or totality of divine powers. His Ninth Piano Sonata of 1912'3 explores the mind's shadow side, drawing dark forces into the light of awareness. Its opening motif, stated in the right hand and echoed by the left, is built from consecutive tritone intervals, the so-called 'Devil in music'. Scriabin's friend Alexey Podgayetsky, an amateur musician and theosophist, responded to the work's harmonic ambiguity and sensual fervour by calling it a Black Mass, the antithesis of the Seventh Piano Sonata, which the composer had subtitled White Mass. Scriabin weaves disintegration and fracture into the sonata's fabric. Although the single- movement Black Mass is sectional in form, with the tritone motif returning at the midway point and at the work's conclusion, the music's restless anxiety consistently undermines any sense of structural stability. The work's sudden shifts and contrasts recall the mysterious contours of a dream, like the repetition of some atavistic trauma.
The Medtner family, in common with so many among Moscow's merchant class, were unprepared for the shock of revolution and counter-revolution. Nicolas Medtner's formative years were conditioned by a conservative outlook that ruled everything from his cultural tastes to moral codes. The latter were tested in the summer of 1903 when the composer told his eldest brother Emil that he was in love with Emil's wife, Anna, a feeling she shared. Emil Medtner was interned in Germany following the outbreak of the First World War and was subsequently granted a visa to enter neutral Switzerland. In Zurich he became a patient of Carl Gustav Jung and went on to influence the analytical psychologist's pioneering work on archetypes. Emil quietly agreed to divorce Anna and accept her eventual remarriage to Nicolas, which took place in June 1919 following the death of the brothers' mother.
Although Medtner privately despised Lenin's Bolshevik regime, he agreed to join the advisory board of the musical section of Narkompros, the People's Commissariat for Education. It proved a smart decision, one that almost certainly guaranteed the visas that allowed the Medtners to enter Germany in 1921 and set up home in Berlin. They left behind a country hard hit by international sanctions, civil war and starvation. The composer planned to revive his career as a pianist in Europe and earn enough money to return home as soon as possible. In fact he struggled to secure concert engagements and was further demoralised by the dismissive reaction of Berlin's critics to his music. Medtner described Berlin as 'a foul den of vice' and later wrote of his dismay at the city's support for composers such as Schreker, Busoni and Schoenberg. He also criticised Stravinsky, Prokofiev and a litany of fellow émigrés for betraying eternal values of beauty and truth in Russian art.
A lucrative concert tour of the United States in 1924'5 and subsequent move to Paris only intensified Medtner's longing for home. The prospect of compromise, of trimming his sails to new trends in composition, never entered his mind: 'In general,' he wrote to his brother Alexander, 'every contemporary circumstance of life is strongly conducive to making the artist either fall silent or produce the kind of outrages with which the marketplace of art is now filled.' Medtner continued to compose but, like so many Russians in exile, struggled to adapt to life in a world unrecognisable from that in which he had been raised.
Following their return from America in April 1925, the Medtners rented a cottage in the peaceful Vallée de Chevreuse, a short distance from Versailles and close to Rachmaninoff's summer home at nearby Orsay. Medtner began work on the second of his two Improvisations in June and completed the score in September. The composition, a set of freely developed variations on a theme, evokes shades of Liszt and Chopin, the former strongly present in the seventh variation, the latter in the turbulent passagework of variation fifteen. Medtner caught the mood of the theme and each of its variations in his choice of titles, circumscribing a broad imaginative space for the listener to populate with rusalki, ghostly water-spirits whose siren songs lured young men to their deaths by drowning. He may have had Lermontov's romantic poem Rusalka in mind while creating his Second Improvisation; the piece certainly connects with popular Russian myths about the spirits of place.
Medtner opens with the water-nymph's wordless song, bleak in its opening bars, more alluring as it unfolds. The pensive first variation reflects on what has gone before, becoming more agitated in character and giving way to the charm of a beautifully crafted Caprice. Relentless rhythmic energy and sensual allure belong to the composer's character study of birds in Winged Dancers, while the intricacy of the fourth variation's part-writing underlines its enchanted spirit. Variation five revels in the amusing hesitancy of music peppered with rests, staccato chords and teasing references to the water-nymph's song, while the sixth variation unleashes a fleeting floodtide of triplet semiquavers. Was Tumult of the Crowd inspired by images recalled from the streets of revolutionary Moscow? The seventh variation's heroic course, apparently unstoppable, is blocked by an improvisatory coda, which in turn leads to the chromatic instability of In the Forest. Medtner here creates a labyrinthine world, ambiguous in terms of its harmony and mysterious in nature. The Sylvan, The Elves and The Gnomes share traits common to Medtner's piano skazki or 'tales', short pieces rooted in the fertile soil of Russian folklore, while the arresting melody and sumptuous chordal harmonies of Conjuration provide intimations of Orthodox choral chant. Breathless phrasing and restless figuration sustain and intensify The Threat, among the work's longest variations; its unsettling atmosphere overshadows the return of The Song of the Water-Nymph and remains present throughout the penultimate variation's lugubrious course. Bold traces of the work's theme in the piano's right- and left-hand parts surface in The Storm, the uninhibited, often violent character of which passes into memory as Medtner's Conclusion retrieves consoling echoes of Conjuration.
Liszt met one of Russia's most marketable musical exports, the prodigiously talented pianist Anton Rubinstein, in Paris in 1840. They became friends and lifelong admirers; in fact Rubinstein absorbed aspects of Liszt's technique and performance mannerisms into his own playing. The older man dedicated the published score of his Variations on a Theme of Bach to Rubinstein 'in reverential friendship'. Liszt composed the work soon after the death of his daughter Blandine in September 1862. He built his variations on material drawn from the ground bass of the first vocal movement in Bach's Cantata BWV12 Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen ('Weeping, wailing, lamenting, fearing'), which Bach also used in the Crucifixus of his Mass in B minor. Bach's lachrymose theme, comprising a slow chromatic descent from F to C and decisive return to F, condenses death's pain and defeat into the span of six notes. Liszt plucked the theme from its original F Dorian mode and set it in the key of D-flat major before exploring it more fully in F minor. While Bach's stylistic influence remains clear in the work's opening variations, it soon yields to the heightened Romanticism of Liszt's invention. 'The variations,' notes Alan Walker in his monumental study of the composer's life and works, 'grow towards a cataclysm and the keyboard starts to weep and wail beneath the player's hands.' Like Bach in his cantata, Liszt finds consolation in the Lutheran chorale Was Gott tut, das ist wohlgetan ('What God deals, is dealt bountifully'), which arises from the cataclysm. Out of private grief Liszt projects a universal Christian truth: death emerges here as mankind's reconciliation with God, its sting swallowed up in victory.
Four-year-old Fritz Kreisler began music lessons with his amateur violinist father. The boy's swift and confident progress led to his enrolment as the Vienna Conservatory's youngest ever student. Here Kreisler studied violin with Jacques Auber and Joseph Hellmesberger and music theory with Anton Bruckner. He later became a pupil at the Paris Conservatoire, but abandoned playing to study medicine and undertake military service as an officer in a cavalry regiment. In 1898 he decided to revive his solo career following a performance with the Vienna Philharmonic and soon flourished on the international concert circuit. Kreisler's success owed much to his innate talents, which included an effortless technique and an enviable ability to project the tone of his instrument without trace of distortion. He supplemented the standard violin repertoire by composing a series of immensely popular encore pieces, Caprice viennois, Tambourin chinois and Liebesfreud among them. The latter was first published in 1905 as one of three Old Viennese Melodies, which Kreisler deliberately misattributed to Joseph Lanner.
At the beginning of the First World War, Kreisler returned to his old regiment. He was wounded in the thigh during an attack by Cossack troops and, after four weeks on the Eastern Front, was invalided out of the Austro-Hungarian Army. The celebrated musician travelled to the United States in November 1914 where he resumed his playing career. When Sergei Rachmaninoff arrived in New York exactly four years later, Kreisler was among the first to greet him. Their friendship grew and was deepened by the experience of performing and recording together. Rachmaninoff's transcription of Liebesfreud, which he first performed in Stamford, Connecticut in 1925, was hailed by an early reviewer for its 'originality and resourcefulness'. The critic of the Boston Evening Transcript also noted how the 'things that the transcriber has not done to the work ... would be hard to discover'. Above all Rachmaninoff managed to preserve the original composition's joyful spirit while magnifying its sense of fun.
- Press Reviews
"This debut disc for Champs Hill reveals a pianist that has an unerring ability to draw in the listener with performances not just of mere virtuosity but with clarity of phrasing and an exquisite touch."
"The recording is up to the usual high standards of Champs Hill Records productions made at their Champs Hill Music Room."
- The Classical Reviewer
"Poom Prommachart’s debut recital has one of the most interesting programmes I’ve seen in years"
"Prommachart... is a gifted performer… a highly attractive disc""
"The Kreisler/Rachmaninov encore, Liebesfreud, is perfect… Champs Hill’s recorded sound is as good as ever…”
“...an excellent calling-card for a young pianist whose repertoire choices and performing skills are as intriguing as his name.”
- Musicweb International
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