Music Of The Russian Avant-Garde 1905-1926
Roger Woodward

It was in the mid seventies that I first encountered a recording by Mats Persson of some tiny piano works by Roslavetz, as it was then usually spelled, and was utterly smitten by this music that seemed to take Scriabin’s already fat-free musical language and refine and compress it into magnificently cryptic aphorisms. Since then there has been a slow but sure growth of interest in the composers of the post-Scriabin period, with ground-breaking recordings by such adventurous musicians as Marc-André Hamelin, Herbert Henck, Steffan Schleiermacher, and Jay Gottlieb: first we started to encounter the pre-Iron Foundry works of Mosolov, and more of Roslavets—we also learned to spell their names more consistently—then the odd work of Lourié and Protopopov, and finally the strangest and most extreme radicals, Obukhov (who tried to re-design music notation) and Vyschnegradsky (who divided the semitone into up to six tiny steps). We learned that Scriabin had had a son who drowned at age 11, who was a composer of haunting, tiny, Preludes we even discovered that Boris “Dr Zhivago” Pasternak had studied with Scriabin and left a handful of convincingly successful piano works. Much of the scholarship pertaining to these sadly neglected musical visionaries has been carried out by Australian musicologist and composer/pianist Larry Sitsky, and it is no surprise to find Roger Woodward—who has recorded both late Scriabin and Sitsky’s Second Piano Concerto for ABC Classics—recording some of their significant and representative works. Almost all of the pieces were written between 1905 and 1918.

The sheer radicalness of their universally Scriabin-derived musical language inclined these composers to brevity, and Obukhov’s Reflet Sinistre of 1915 is, at six minutes, the longest essay Woodward includes—there is absolutely no comforting redundancy in these pieces. This puts fairly serious demands on the listener: let your attention wander for a few seconds and you are lost. But, lest the reader think that it all sounds too much like work, listening to the sequence of works recorded here produces an effect on the perceiver not unlike that of the Debussy Preludes, or Mompou’s Musica Callada: endlessly fascinating, and, once one has adjusted to the soundworld, oddly persuasive dreamscapes. If there is a shortcoming that they all share, it is that they simply could not match Scriabin’s rhythmic originality—but then who, before Messiaen, did? The rhythmic sameness nonetheless results in a pleasingly mesmeric quality. Curiously, the very first piece,le glas de l’au-dela by Nikolai Obukhov is built on a phrase that startlingly resembles the ‘Love Theme’ from Messiaen’s Turangalîla Symphony.

The idiosyncratic, extensive, and  highly informative liner notes are by Woodward himself, and they demonstrate his commitment to this project. I would have preferred if he had performed blocks of a single composer’s works, rather than alternating between Obukhov and the others, but that is a very minor quibble. I am, admittedly, a bit on a limb for regarding these micropieces as some of the loveliest music of the first half of the twentieth century, but I exhort intrigued listeners to judge for themselves. To have produced such restrainedly intense works in an entirely new idiom seems to me salutary: there is not a dud piece or performance on the CD, a claim one can rarely make about pioneer recordings of virtually unknown repertoire. The smallness of the available discography makes Woodward’s excellent new recording invaluable. This will be going on my ‘inner sanctum’ shelf.

Review reprinted with permission of Thomas’ Music.