Thomas Günther

Klavierwerke um den Russischen Futurismus, Vol. 1

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Cybele's Klavierwerke um den Russichen Futurismus, Vol. 1 (Piano Works during and after Russian Futurism), provides a generous perspective on some of the least-known figures associated with the movement of Russian Futurism; pioneer microtonalist Ivan Vïshnegradsky (who is pictured on the front cover), foremost exponent of Boris Yavorsky's theory of modal rhythm Sergey Protopopov and Nicolas Obukhov, an electronic instrument builder and developer of a parallel system of twelve-tone organization independent from Arnold Schoenberg. What these three gentlemen share is an admiration of Scriabin and they are, in posterity, regarded as having a loose alignment to the "Russian futurist" ideal; they all sincerely believed their innovative ideas would become recognized as opening the door to the music of the future. To a small extent, Vïshnegradsky would be the only one of these musicians to gain a small measure of recognition in his own lifetime, at the very end of his life; the others remain completely obscure, Protopopov to the extent that no photograph or portrait has ever been found of him.

The lion's share of the disc is given to Obukhov, and this makes sense as three of his works have been least investigated. Obukhov's music is presented in two groups, the first containing pieces written in Russia between 1915-1916 and the second representing late pieces from 1942-1952, when the composer had long been based in Paris, having fled Russia in the wake of the revolution. The earlier pieces are very short; only 4 of the 13 pieces crack the two-minute mark. Both attentive and repeated listenings are advised to avoid having all these short things run together in one's head, and listeners so dedicated will discover in Obukhov's "totalist" twelve-tone system a kind of correspondence with music written three to four decades later by Olivier Messiaen, although the rhythmic language is not quite as advanced. In the later works, such as Aimons-nous les uns les Autres (1942), Obukhov returns to functional harmony here and there and permits himself more canvas to paint on; in the interim, Obukhov had composed a number of huge oratorio-styled works, such as Le livre de la vie (1918-1927), a work of Stockhausen-like proportions designed to be performed on the first and second day of the Second Coming of Christ, and we're not making that up.

Of Protopopov's output, three piano works survive and little else, but the small number that has made it down is exceedingly intense, particularly the Sonata No. 2, Op. 5 (1924), which has been previously recorded by Steffen Schleiermacher for Hat Hut. It is dark, bracing, pulse-quickening stuff even as the Theory of Modal Rhythm that determines its content produces a piece more or less completely static in a harmonic sense. After a Soviet Party Congress declared that the Theory of Modal Rhythm was counter to the needs of the revolution in 1931, Protopopov completely disappeared from sight; though he is known to have lived until 1954, he doesn't seem to have written another note of music. The Vïshnegradsky selection here consists of two preludes from 1916 that slightly predate his research into microtonality and the Etude sur le Carré Magique Sonore (1957), a later work that exists in parallel microtonal and non-microtonal versions. The early preludes bear a strong resemblance to Scriabin, whereas the other piece has a highly chromatic -- and unquestionably romantic -- aspect that renders it the most unique of all of these pieces. While all of this music is fascinating and challenging, based on what this disc presents, one is inclined to conclude that Vïshnegradsky was the greatest of these three composers in terms of variety of ideas, communication, and inventiveness.

Pianist Thomas Gunther has his work cut out for him in this program, and he does an admirable job interpreting these pieces, which have little or no performance tradition to support them in most cases. However, Gunther comes up short in providing a sense of interpretive variety among the various works in the program, and as nearly all of them utilize a Scriabin-esque, tritone-based harmony one develops a sort of "tritone tunnelvision" by the end of the Protopopov. Variety is possible in these pieces; Schleiermacher played the Protopopov with more force, and the few other Vïshnegradsky recordings tend to show a bit more light and shade than this one. Cybele's SACD sound, however, is resolutely faithful to the piano, and listeners with an absorbing interest in these composers should find the disc quite satisfactory if taken in short stretches.

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