A demanding recital disc from pianist Yulia Chaplina, a former Junior Tchaikovsky Competition winner and highly acclaimed young international soloist, who studied under Dimitri Alexeev at the Royal College of Music in London.
Yulia's connection with the music on this disc began before she was born - her concert-pianist mother continued to give recitals until shortly before Yulia's birth - and Yulia has childhood memories of dancing to her mother's playing of Chopin Waltzes.
The disc opens and closes with works by the great Russian composer, Sergei Rachmaninov. His second piano sonata is a work that confused some at its premiere in 1913, with a critic writing: "[it] has no interesting or profound ideas, and exterior pianistic virtuosity dominates its musical potential" ... "He did, however, commend the fresh, and for Rachmaninov, rather unusual harmonies and counterpoint".
Shortly after completing his revisions to this work in 1931, Rachmaninov wrote his dazzling and technically demanding Twenty Variations on a Theme of Corelli, which contrast dashing display and pianistic fireworks with introspective and meditative slow variations.
Yulia's recital includes two Tchaikovsky transcriptions - the Lullaby No.1 Op.16 and the Andante maestoso from The Nutcracker Suite arranged by celebrated pianist by Mikhail Pletnev. This recording, intense and full of energy, also includes a Chaconne from Sofia Gubaidulina, one of the most important Russian composers of her generation, and Scriabin's Ninth Piano Sonata of 1912-13, which projects a sinister, often troubling soundworld.
Success as a pianist and conductor placed heavy burdens on Sergey Rachmaninov. The composer's crowded concert schedule during the autumn and winter of 1912 certainly offered little space for rest or recovery. Exhaustion temporarily checked the flow of his demanding career that December. He cancelled the last in a series of conducting engagements in Moscow and travelled soon after with his wife and daughters to Switzerland for a month's holiday and on to Rome. The change of scene and release from performance commitments supplied Rachmaninoff with ideal conditions for creative work, the energy of which he channelled into the sketches for a new choral symphony, Kolokola (The Bells). When both his daughters contracted typhoid fever in Italy, Rachmaninoff took them to Berlin in search of expert medical help and remained there until the girls were well enough to make the journey to his country estate, Ivanovka, around 250 miles south east of Moscow.
"My children are now, thank God, quite well," he wrote to the poet Marietta Shaginyan in July 1913. "As for myself, I have been able to work [at Ivanovka] the whole day for the last three months. Whenever this work is too much for me, I get into my car and fly about 50 versts [one verst = 0.66 mile] from here to the open air of the highway. I breathe the air and bless freedom and the blue sky. After such an air bath I feel bolder and stronger." Life's full intensity was mirrored in The Bells and flowed into the score of Rachmaninoff's Second Piano Sonata. The composer completed the sonata's opening at Ivanovka in August and set the seal on its two companion movements following his return to Moscow in September.
Four days after conducting the first performance of The Bells in St Petersburg on 30 November, Rachmaninoff gave the premiere of his new sonata in Moscow. One hostile critic, a partisan supporter of modern developments in music, declared that the work "has no interesting or profound ideas, and exterior pianistic virtuosity dominates its musical potential ..." He did, however, commend the "fresh, and for Rachmaninoff, rather unusual harmonies and counterpoint". Even the composer found fault with his work in later life, declaring dissatisfaction "with the setting" and comparing it unfavourably with Chopin's celebrated B minor piano sonata. "Chopin's sonata lasts nineteen minutes and all has been said," he confessed to the musicologist Alfred J. Swan in the early 1930s. Rachmaninoff returned to his original score in 1931 and systematically revised its contents, trimming extended virtuoso passages, thinning textures and reducing the composition's overall length by 120 bars. Much of the revision process involved condensing existing material, although Rachmaninoff also deleted long passages in the first and final movements and compressed more than twenty bars of the slow movement into the space of thirteen. It left a taut work, still romantic and technically demanding but more focused in form than its predecessor of 1913.
Strong echoes of The Bells sound in the Piano Sonata in B flat minor, clearly so in the bell-like descending scales present in its Allegro agitato. The opening movement's main theme, with its emphatic introductory iamb rhythm (da-dum) and yearning melodic line, supplies rich material for the elegiac second subject and generally serves as a unifying force throughout the work. Rachmaninoff makes good use of counterpoint to develop his thematic material, building dramatic intensity as the movement progresses toward its chiming climax. A tender melody, marked Non allegro, meanders and modulates its short course from the second movement's opening to the statement of its Lento theme in E minor, source of a wonderfully fluent set of variations. The movement closes with a return of material based on the first movement's main theme, cast here as a languid melody that fades away to leave the final say to its gentle E major accompaniment. The seven-bar Non allegro melody surfaces again as the finale's introduction, modulating to C major to provide the launch pad for a spectacular B-flat major Allegro molto. Rachmaninoff develops
aspects of his Non allegro and Allegro molto themes, interweaving them with other ideas before crowning his work with a thrilling presto coda.
Within days of Rachmaninoff's arrival in New York in November 1918 as an exile from Bolshevik Russia, the Viennese violinist Fritz Kreisler arrived at the Sherry- Netherland Hotel on Fifth Avenue to greet his famous Russian colleague. The two men went on to become good friends, performing and recording together and reflecting their mutual appreciation in transcriptions of each other's compositions. In May 1931, having revised his Second Piano Sonata, Rachmaninoff began a set of variations for solo piano. It appears likely that Kreisler supplied the work's theme, complete with its false attribution to the virtuoso violinist and influential composer Arcangelo Corelli (1653-1713). Rachmaninoff in return dedicated his new score to Kreisler. The Variations on a Theme of Corelli, completed on 19 June 1931 at the composer's rented holiday villa in Clairefontaine-en-Yvelines, to the south west of Paris, opens with an unadorned statement of the first sixteen bars of Corelli's Sonata No.12 in D minor, Op.5, itself based on the anonymous 'folia' melodic and harmonic framework.
Over the span of twenty brief variations, Rachmaninoff evolves and gradually deconstructs his chosen theme using a dazzling array of melodic, harmonic and modal elaborations. "All this mad running about is necessary in order to efface the theme," he told Alfred J. Swan while playing his Variations. When he had finished he looked at his hands and said, "The blood-vessels on my fingertips have begun to burst; bruises are forming." While Rachmaninoff suggested that the damage was probably the consequence of old age, many younger pianists have emerged wounded from close encounters with his Corelli Variations. The work's dashing display and pianistic fireworks emerge from four slow variations and are punctuated by the introspective meditation of Variation 8, the 'misterioso' nature of which flows from
its meandering chromatic bass line, and two Andante variations, the second of which is cast in the remote key of D-flat major. The Coda, noted Swan at first hearing, is "neither a climax nor a return to the beginning"; rather, it transcends what has gone before, reconciling minor and major tonalities to create an atmosphere of calm concentration.
Rachmaninoff was only thirteen when he first met Tchaikovsky. The latter, an acclaimed composer among late Tsarist Russia's greatest cultural ambassadors, inspired in the youngster a lifelong devotion to the Romantic spirit of beauty and truth in music. In later life, Rachmaninoff made an exquisite recording of Tchaikovsky's Lullaby Op.16 No.1 for solo piano. The work was conceived in the winter of 1872-3 as a setting of Apollon Maykov's 'Cradle Song' for high voice and piano. Tchaikovsky soon made two arrangements of the song for solo piano - one in A-flat minor, the other in A minor - preserving the original's tender lyricism and compassion in both. Yulia Chaplina's interpretation takes its lead from the dream- like imagery of Maykov's poem:
CRADLE SONG (KOLYBEL-NAJA PESNJA)
Sleep, my baby, hushaby! sleep, hushaby! Welcome sweet sleep:
Nannies three watch over you
Wind, sun, and eagle.
The eagle flew home;
The sun hid over the water; The wind, after three nights, Comes racing to his mother. His mother asked the wind:
Where have you been hiding all this time?
Were you playing battle with the stars?
Or just pushing waves around?
I wasn't pushing any sea waves around,
I didn't touch the golden stars;
I was keeping a baby safe from harm,
I was rocking a little cradle!
Sleep, my baby, hushaby! sleep, hushaby! Welcome sweet sleep:
Nannies three watch over you
Wind, sun, and eagle.
Apollon Maykov (1821-1897)
The art of arrangement, cultivated by composer-pianists throughout the vast Russian empire before the Revolution of 1917, survived under the Soviet system of music education. Shortly after his triumph at the Tchaikovsky International Piano Competition in 1978, Mikhail Pletnev gave fresh life to the transcription tradition with his Concert Suite from Tchaikovsky's The Nutcracker. His virtuoso arrangement of the ballet's Andante maestoso retains the melancholy of the original composition while intensifying its spirit of heroic defiance.
Individual heroism is transcended in Sofia Gubaidulina's Chaccone to reveal deeper levels of individual and collective consciousness, beyond and beneath the limits of its venerable formal structure. The piece, a product of the composer's student years at the Moscow Conservatory, was completed in 1962. "I really can't say that any radical shift has taken place in my work, or any unexpected change in my way of thinking...," Gubaidulina recalled over three decades later. "It seems to me that I have been travelling through my soul the whole time, in a definite direction, always further and further and further...." The Chaccone was written for the Georgian pianist Marina Mdivani, first-prize winner at the 1961 Marguerite Long-Jacques Thibaud Competition in Paris and a star pupil of Emil Gilels. Gubaidulina's composition opens with an eight-bar chordal theme, presented in stately fashion and voiced in the key of B minor. Its note values are diminished in the variations that follow and its eight-bar frame gradually eroded until its reestablishment towards the work's close; the theme's melodic material, meanwhile, is reordered and freely repeated by Gubaidulina to give a 23-note tone row. The composer employs inversion, retrograde motion and other serial techniques to unleash storms of pulsating energy and deliver contrasting episodes of meditative reflection.
While Sergei Rachmaninoff's later years were conditioned by nostalgia for his homeland, those of Alexander Scriabin were directed by insatiable interest in metaphysics and mysticism. Scriabin's outlook, that of a universalist, reached far beyond music to embrace the pre-Revolutionary aesthetics of such contemporary poets as the symbolists Konstantin Balmont and Vyacheslav Ivanov, the mystical philosophy of Vladimir Solovyov and the theosophy of Helena Blavatsky. The complexity of Scriabin's worldview embraced aspects of ancient eastern wisdom, albeit sketchily absorbed from equally sketchy early translations of Vedantic and Buddhist texts; it was also directly influenced by the occult ideas of Madame Blavatsky's magnum opus, The Secret Doctrine of 1888.
Scriabin's openness to the occult was, according to the Russian musicologist Leonid Sabaneev, central to the composer's work: "Undoubtedly, the entire spiritual and creative physiognomy of [his] consciousness was conditioned by Satanism," observed Sabaneev in his essay "Scriabin and the idea of religious art". The Taoist concept of universal harmony and ancient Russian mysticism, however, were arguably more influential on Scriabin's philosophy than western ideas of the fallen angel. Whatever the nature of the composer's interest in the occult, his Ninth Piano Sonata of 1912-13 projects a sinister, often troubling soundworld. 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'. The work's chromaticism, its technical demands and unsettling fervour directed Scriabin's friend and fellow theosophist Alexey Podgayetsky to refer to it as a 'Black Mass', the dark-hearted antithesis of the Seventh Piano Sonata, which the composer had subtitled White Mass. Although the single-movement 'Black Mass' is sectional in form, with the opening motif returning at the midway point and for the work's conclusion, the music's restless anxiety consistently trumps any sense of structural stability.
"Yulia Chaplina shows that she has technique galore..."
"In many ways this is a very personal performance, full of character and hugely enjoyable. She creates a wonderful atmosphere with sudden little rushes and much fire in places."
"A mention should be made of [Chaplina's] beautiful touch in [the Non allegro - Lento] movement which rises powerfully. Beautifully done."
"There is some formidable playing from Yulia Chaplina in this recital, but it is her exquisite judgement of tempo and dynamics and fine touch that stand out equally. This disc is a real joy." - Bruce Reader, The Classical Reviewer