This is my second CD dedicated to Russian piano music of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In this album I present early works by young S. Rachmaninov and S. Prokofiev. Rachmaninov’s “Morceaux de Fantaisie” Op.3 reminds me of my cheerful student life in Minsk. Written by my favourite composer, S. Prokofiev’s Sonata Op.1 No.1 was my first and most liked from all the Prokofiev sonatas I have ever played. I also dedicated a special place on my album for N. Medtner and his “Fairy Tales” Op.20 and 26.
The album starts with the Prelude Op.36 by A. Arensky. Rachmaninov was a student of Arensky and he dedicated several piano works to his dear mentor. I therefore think that it would be fitting to dedicate this album to all my wonderful teachers over the years.
Julia Sigova @ 2022
A reproach which is often moved against Western musical historiography is that it deals with individual composers. Indeed, it frequently resembles a collection of silhouettes rather than a true narrative. Of course, music is made by people and for people, and should one be oblivious of the human component of the musical language, the result would be a dramatic impoverishment of our capability to understand music. Here, however, the point is not to forget the individuals behind the music, but rather to show that no man is an island. In other words, that no composer writes in isolation from his or her biographical, musical, and cultural context. One can, of course, reject one or all of these contexts; nonetheless, even this rejection is a form of relationship with the surrounding framework. When, however, a musician is deeply inserted within the proximate culture, and has a net of friendships with some of his colleagues, teachers, students, etc., then the comprehension of that context is fundamental for grasping the composer’s true value.
Indeed, as concerns relationships, both human and cultural, there were perhaps few places like the two main cities of Russia between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries – and, indeed, the situation would remain under same aspects unchanged even after the Revolution. In spite of the complete difference in social and statal structure between Czarist Russia and the USSR, geography did not change, in fact. Moscow and St. Petersburg were, remained, and still are, the greatest cities in an immense territory. Unavoidably, before the Revolution and after it, and even today, the greatest talents of music, creativity, arts, who happen to be born in the vast territory of Russia and of many of its current neighbouring states end up in either of these cities. They can in fact provide education at a level unparalleled in most other cities, and the varied provenance of their inhabitants (be they stable or occasional) nourishes a unique melting pot of cultures, viewpoints, and insights.
The composers featured in this Da Vinci Classics CD constitute good examples of these processes. In the great Russian cities, artists could meet their equals, study with the most important teachers, and either adopt or refuse the aesthetic models transmitted to them. Unavoidably, deep friendships and powerful enmities sprouted, whereby the mutual aesthetic evaluations dovetailed with personal sympathy or antipathy.
For instance, Anton Arensky came from a wealthy family originally from Novgorod. Having demonstrated a considerable musical talent before his tenth birthday, Anton moved, with his parents, to St. Petersburg, where he was quickly admitted to Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov’s composition class. Rimsky-Korsakov belonged in the aesthetical sphere of the “Mighty Five”, who deliberately declined the seemingly compulsory adoption of forms, modes, and styles of contemporaneous Western music. They sought a musical language for Russia which had to be its own, rooted in the magnificent tradition of folk music, but open to the future precisely due to the innovation granted by these deep roots. The Mighty Five set themselves particularly over and against the likes of Pëtr Ilić Čajkovskij, who, instead, employed some ideas taken from the popular repertoire but incorporated them within a frankly Western perspective.
Ironically, Arensky, who had come to St. Petersburg in order to study with Rimsky-Korsakov, ended up as a great admirer of Čajkovskij. This was noticed by his very teacher, who once famously wrote: “In his youth, Arensky did not escape some influence from me; later, the influence came from Tchaikovsky. He will quickly be forgotten”.
Rimsky’s judgement was too harsh, and probably embittered by personal reasons. Still, it is undeniable that Čajkovskij’s profile looms large on Arensky’s own musical style. Probably, however, Rimsky’s bluntly expressed opinion was also due to his disapproval for a lifestyle which verged on the bohemian, and which would (at least in Rimsky’s opinion) lead Arensky to a premature death.
In spite of this, Arensky’s legacy was important, both as concerns the rich heritage of his own works, and his activity as a pedagogue. His class at the Conservatory of Moscow included some of the greatest composers who lived between the two centuries: among them, Alexander Scriabin, Alexander Gretchaninov and no less a pianist-cum-composer than Sergei Rachmaninov. The originality of Arensky’s style comes also from his careful study of the choral idiom and of the intricacies of polyphony: a talent he derived from his years as the Director of the Imperial Choir. At his premature death, in 1906, due to tuberculosis, another young composer wrote to his own father: “Composer Arensky died a few days ago. His was a desperate case already in the past autumn. He wrote (three) operas and several other things, many of which are beautiful”. This appreciative young man was no other than Sergei Prokofiev. As we will shortly see, this happened just two years before Prokofiev’s composition of his first Piano Sonata, op. 1, also recorded here.
Rachmaninov’s Morceaux de fantaisie date back to the last decade of the nineteenth century. They were written by their composer when he was not yet twenty years old. This is all the more impressive if one considers that, within this collection, there is the Prelude in C-sharp minor which has become an iconic landmark and a signature piece for its composer’s entire output.
This set was composed by Rachmaninov during a particularly difficult period of his life, where he struggled with depression, poverty, and illness. However, even though tragedy is abundantly present within these pieces, they are also shrewdly conceived, representing, on the one hand, the already mature quintessence of Rachmaninov’s pianism, and, on the other, a collection clearly conceived to “please” the large audiences. And so it did: the Prelude quickly became one of its composer’s most famous works, and one which he frequently performed as an encore in his international tours as a concert pianist.
The collection is dedicated to no other than Arensky, who, has been said above, had been Rachmaninov’s teacher, and whose poetical world seems to be observable, as a watermark, in his student’s originality. Rachmaninov displayed the set to Čajkovskij – him again! – who did not conceal his admiration for the striking Prelude.
The “fantasy” cited in the title of Rachmaninov’s collection is not a musical genre, but rather a state of mind. These are not Fantasies as a musical (non-)form; rather, they are an attempt to translate into music the variability of our interior world, of our thoughts, and of our dreams.
This somehow corresponds to the effort of another composer who features prominently in this CD, i.e. Nikolaj Medtner.
His life has something of the novel – and, indeed, it has become the subject matter of a thriller recently. Born in Moscow, Medtner was taught music first by his mother, and then by her brother. He soon revealed an impressive talent as a pianist, winning the prestigious Anton Rubinstein prize for performance. However, Medtner favoured composition over playing, even though this choice was far from pleasing to his family. He did continue playing in the subsequent years, but focussing first and foremost on his own works, which he performed extensively.
His musical style is difficult to describe, since it can be defined as both very conservative and very innovative at the same time. On the one hand, in fact, Medtner drew from the Beethovenian tradition (but Beethoven had been his senior by approximately one century!); on the other, however, his study of the visionary works of the late Beethoven led him to anticipate some of the most striking developments in twentieth-century music.
His eventful life included marrying his brother’s divorced wife (but with the brother’s consent) when his brother was interned in Germany; an emigration to the West after the Revolution, and the august patronage of an Indian maharajah who generously funded him, the recording of his works, and the posthumous publication of several of his works.
Medtner’s numerous piano Sonatas are mostly in one movement, and, as we will see, this lesson was not lost on Prokofiev. In turn, Rachmaninov would demonstrate his appreciation for Medtner by dedicating his Fourth Piano Concerto to him.
Medtner’s output for the piano includes also his Skazki, translated commonly as “fairy tales”, but which are indeed “tales” of the Russian folklore, not always provided with the magical elements of faerie. Rachmaninov delighted in these pieces, and would once exclaim: “No one tells such tales as Kolya” (i.e. Medtner). Indeed, even though they are not always furnished with clear non-musical narratives, these pieces beautifully succeed in narrating musical tales through the musical language.
Together with Scriabin’s Sonatas, and particularly with the Fifth, which Prokofiev was practising at the time, Medtner’s Skazki are one of the main sources behind Prokofiev’s inspired composition of his own First Piano Sonata. It is dedicated to a childhood friend of the composer, the veterinary surgeon Vassily Morolyov, who was a great enthusiast of Scriabin’s music. Still, if Scriabin’s shadow looms large on Prokofiev’s First Sonata, Medtner’s influence is no less pronounced. This applies both to form and to content, and reaches its most evident manifestation at the very beginning of Prokofiev’s Sonata: its opening motif, with chromatic descents in octaves, seems to clearly refer to a similar passage, found towards the end of the second Tale from Medtner’s op. 8. Another possible reference to Medtner is in the Sonata’s key, which is F minor as was that of both Scriabin’s and Medtner’s first sonatas.
Together, these works demonstrate the power of reciprocal admiration and knowledge among composers – which, of course, does not rule out a certain amount of, at times healthy, rivalry –; while each not only maintained, but rather developed his own style, this was the result of a wider process involving the music and the culture of the era, and which shines clearly in our ears when we listen to their works.
Chiara Bertoglio © 2022
Julia Sigova, piano
Praised by International Piano (August 2019) for "an imaginative programme, brilliantly performed..." pianist Julia Sigova has received wide international acclaim for her powerful performances, her poetic interpretations and her innovative programming across a wide repertoire, often including lesser-known works from the Russian and Romantic repertoire.
Since Ms.Sigova’s debut with The Malmö Symphony Orchestra in 2010, she has become one of the leading female concert pianists in Scandinavia. She has been invited to perform at many prestigious festivals and venues worldwide including La Biennale in Venice, Societa dei Concerti in Milano, Satie Festival in Paris, Britt Music Festival in Medford, Båstad Chamber Music Festival , Music in Tagaborg and Malmö Live in Sweden as well as St.Martin in the Fields in London. Some of the many musicians and conductors with whom Ms.Sigova has performed include: Håkan Hardenberger; Susanne Resmark; Mats Rondin; and Marc Soustrot.
Her many awards and scholarships include not only the prize of Best Pianist in the Öresund region in 2008, but Julia Sigova was also designated Best Female Classical Artist in Sweden by the Fredrika Bremmer Foundation in 2011.
In December 2018 Julia released her debut album “Russian Piano Music” (Classical Dal Vivo) featuring an innovative program of works for solo piano by Tchajkovsky, Rachmaninov, Prokofiev and Shchedrin. The album has earned critical raves among prestigious music press including International Piano, Fanfare, American Record Guide and OPUS. "Russian Piano Music" was selected by Fanfare as a 5-star ‘must-hear’ debut recording.
Julia's recordings are often broadcast on radio around the world. She also performed on Swedish TV in the very popular program "Kulturfrågan kontrapunkt".
Born in Minsk, Belarus, Julia showed an early musical talent, beginning to play piano at the age of 6. After finishing Glinka Music High School in Minsk, Julia was invited to study at the Malmö Academy of Music in Sweden, completing her Soloist Diploma with prof. Hans Pålsson, and subsequently studying at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki. She continues her education as a soloist under the guidance of prof. Norma Fisher in London and prof. Konstantin Bogino in Italy where she was his assistant.
In addition to her performance career, Ms. Sigova is deeply committed to music education, and is the founder of the International Piano School “Sigova PianoForte” in Malmö, Sweden. She regularly appears as a member of the jury at international competitions and gives master-classes across the world. Ms. Sigova has extensive experience and owns a diverse chamber music repertoire. She is organizer of the chamber music concert series "Salon de Musique" in Malmö. Finally, Julia is also founder and artistic director of Malmö Yamaha Piano Competition, which began in 2021.
Anton [Antony] Stepanovich Arensky
(b Novgorod, 30 June/12 July 1861; d nr Terioki, Finland [now Zelenogorsk, Russia], 12/25 Feb 1906). Russian composer, pianist and conductor. His father, a doctor, was a keen cellist, and his mother an excellent pianist who gave him his first music lessons. By the age of nine he had already composed some songs and piano pieces. When the family moved to St Petersburg, Arensky took lessons with Zikke before entering the St Petersburg Conservatory (1879), where he studied composition with Rimsky-Korsakov and counterpoint and fugue with Johannsen. He graduated with a gold medal in 1882. Even before this Rimsky-Korsakov had been sufficiently impressed by Arensky’s talent to entrust him with a share in preparing the vocal score of The Snow Maiden. After graduating Arensky went straight to the Moscow Conservatory as a professor of harmony and counterpoint; among his pupils were to be Rachmaninoff, Skryabin and Glière. The move to Moscow brought him into close contact with Tchaikovsky, who gave him much practical encouragement, and Taneyev. From 1888 to 1895 he directed the concerts of the Russian Choral Society and also appeared as a conductor at symphony concerts. In 1889 he was appointed to the council of the Synodal School of Church Music in Moscow, remaining until 1893. One of Arensky’s greatest personal successes was with his opera Son na Volge (A Dream on the Volga), based on the same Ostrovsky play as Tchaikovsky’s opera Voyevoda, and produced in Moscow in 1891. Parts of the opera had been composed under Rimsky-Korsakov’s supervision when Arensky was still a conservatory student.
Nicolas [Metner, Nikolay Karlovich] Medtner
(b Moscow, 24 Dec 1879/5 Jan 1880; d London, 13 Nov 1951). Russian composer and pianist. His ancestors came from northern Europe (his father was of Danish descent and his mother of Swedish and German extraction), but by the time of his birth the family had been established in Russia for two generations and had thoroughly assimilated a Russian identity without abandoning their German cultural inheritance.
Medtner played the piano from the age of six, receiving lessons first from his mother and later from his uncle, Fyodor Goedicke. Enrolling in 1892 at the Moscow Conservatory, he studied successively with A.I. Galli, Pabst, V.L. Sapel'nikov and Safonov, and graduated in 1900 with the institution's gold medal as the outstanding pianist of his year. As a composer he was largely self-taught. Though he wrote music throughout his student years and in his junior course had studied theory with Kashkin and harmony with Arensky, he did not follow the customary advanced conservatory regime for prospective composers, even abandoning, with his connivance, Taneyev's counterpoint class, while continuing to take him his work informally.
After heading the list of honourable mentions in the pianists' section of the Rubinstein Competition in August 1900, Medtner prepared for the launch of a career as a concert artist, but encouraged by Taneyev and his mentor in life, his eldest brother, Emil, he had a change of heart and decided that his true vocation after all was composition. Henceforth, devoting himself to his art with an almost religious zeal, he made no effort to build a career as a performer but treated his occasional concert appearances essentially as showcases for his own music, of which the bulk is for solo piano and none without a part for the instrument.
Sergey Rachmaninov: (b Oneg, 20 March/1 April 1873; d Beverly Hills, CA, 28 March 1943). Russian composer, pianist and conductor. He was one of the finest pianists of his day and, as a composer, the last great representative of Russian late Romanticism. The influences of Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov and other Russian composers soon gave way to a thoroughly personal idiom, with a pronounced lyrical quality, expressive breadth, structural ingenuity and a palette of rich, distinctive orchestral colours.
Sergey Prokofiev (b Sontsovka, Bakhmutsk region, Yekaterinoslav district, Ukraine, 11/23 April 1891; d Moscow, 5 March 1953). Russian composer and pianist. He began his career as a composer while still a student, and so had a deep investment in Russian Romantic traditions – even if he was pushing those traditions to a point of exacerbation and caricature – before he began to encounter, and contribute to, various kinds of modernism in the second decade of the new century. Like many artists, he left his country directly after the October Revolution; he was the only composer to return, nearly 20 years later. His inner traditionalism, coupled with the neo-classicism he had helped invent, now made it possible for him to play a leading role in Soviet culture, to whose demands for political engagement, utility and simplicity he responded with prodigious creative energy. In his last years, however, official encouragement turned into persecution, and his musical voice understandably faltered.