The figure of Sergei Ljapunov is little known outside the circles of music specialists, yet his personality and work deserve better recognition. Within the framework of a high-quality overall output, his piano works stand out as one of the most interesting results of the Russian piano school in the late nineteenth century. This Da Vinci Classics album collects some of the most significant works in his catalogue, thus allowing for a deep appreciation of his creativity.
Ljapunov came from an important family who lived in Yaroslavl, a little less than 300 kilometers from Moscow. His lineage was august, since one of his ancestors had been a brother of the famous Alexander Nevsky, in the thirteenth century. Their greatness, though, was not limited to the past. Sergei’s father was a famous scientist; Sergei’s two brothers were likewise gifted, and in particular Aleksandr is still remembered as one of the greatest mathematicians of his time. Their mother, Sofia, was a talented amateur pianist; as the composer recalls, her repertoire was not huge, but she could master some technically demanding works, such as operatic transcriptions realized by such virtuosos as Liszt and Thalberg. She gave the first rudiments of piano performance to her sons; however, only Sergei went forth on the musical path to become a professional musician.
Things changed with the death of Sergei’s father, which led to financial difficulties for the family. They moved to Nizhny Novgorod, in 1870. Sergei was just eleven; it was time for him to be enrolled at a local gymnasium, where, as he recalled, “Music was completely abandoned”. Sergei’s mother did not feel up to the task of educating her son in music any further, and there was a lack of professional teachers in the city. Eventually, in 1874, the Imperial Russian Musical Society opened a branch in Nizhny Novgorod, and Sergei immediately applied to its school.
During his time in Nizhny Novgorod, Sergei was able to hear a few top-class concerts, including performances by Nikolai Rubinstein, the legendary founder of the Moscow Conservatory. This planted the seed for Sergei’s desire to study music in Moscow; however, at the same time, another seed was also introduced in his soul: “During the period of study in Nizhny Novgorod, […] I became interested in music of the New Russian School, known as the Mighty Five”. The “Mighty Five” were a group of musicians based in St Petersburg, and comprising Balakirev, Borodin, Cui, Mussorgsky, and Rimsky-Korsakov. In marked opposition with the Moscow school, which looked determinedly westwards in its overall inspiration and style, the Mighty Five were more interested in the musical heritage of their homeland. They did not wish Russian music to Westernize itself; they wanted it to express the country’s soul, as transmitted in its musical traditions and what we call “folklore”. Clearly, such a polarization demanded a faithful allegiance; Ljapunov was still in search of his own stance between these two extremes.
His first choice, in fact, seemed to be entirely in favour of the Western party. Upon graduating from gymnasium (1878), he moved to Moscow rather than to St. Petersburg (where, incidentally, he could have shared lodgings with one of his brothers), attracted by the stellar faculty who taught there. As the composer himself recalled, the faculty of the Conservatory included “legendary names such as Nikolai Rubinstein, piano, and P. Tchaikovsky, composition. These two names influenced [my] decision to enter the Moscow Conservatory”.
It was to be a constant in Ljapunov’s life, though, to fail to achieve an educational goal he pursued. Upon his arrival in Moscow, Ljapunov was not accepted in the classes of these genius musicians. At first, he was assigned to a piano class taught by a lesser-known professor, who seemingly cut his wings by forcing him to practise beginner’s exercises. Yet, Ljapunov humbly submitted himself to this discipline, acknowledging that it was needed, since his piano education had lacked some important elements.
When time came for Ljapunov to move to the next step of his pianistic education, and he was ready to receive Rubinstein’s tuition, the maestro died, and Sergei was assigned to Karl Klindworth. Even though this was not his first choice, however, and Klindworth taught Ljapunov for no more than one year, Ljapunov later admitted that Klindworth had been the single most influential teacher he had at the Moscow Conservatory: he was, in Ljapunov’s words, “a subtle musician and a pedagogue of the Lisztian school”, whose teaching was “perhaps more beneficial, in terms of musical growth, than all the other years at the conservatory combined”.
But, once more, this was not to last, and Ljapunov was entrusted to another of Liszt’s former pupils, Pavel Pabst, with whom, however, the relationship was far from idyllic. And, just as Ljapunov had come to Moscow for studying piano with Rubinstein, ending up with Pabst, also his aspiration in composition got frustrated: instead of Tchaikovsky he studied with Gubert first, and then with Sergei Taneyev. In spite of Taneyev’s undeniable musicianship and of his young age, their relationship was not ideal; Ljapunov was getting closer and closer to the aesthetic vision of the Mighty Five, while Taneyev could not agree with his student’s sympathies. So it came that Ljapunov, once completed his studies, boldly declined a job offer from the Conservatory of Moscow in order to get acquainted with the Mighty Five in St. Petersburg. But, once more, when he got there the situation was different from that he had imagined. The Mighty Five had practically dissolved; Balakirev was lonely both on the human and on the musical plane. As a consequence, however, a warm friendship developed between the two musicians. Whilst Balakirev was Ljapunov’s senior in terms of age and experience, their relationship was not that between teacher and student, but had a measure of independency and autonomy.
One major occasion of disagreement between the two arose precisely in connection with the composition of Ljapunov’s Sonata. Ljapunov had begun working on this major work in 1906 but its gestation took two years. During that time, he was absorbed by other major projects, as well as by other engagements as a teacher (at the Saint Helen’s Institute) and as a concert pianist. As soon as the work was finished, Ljapunov sent it to the publisher, Zimmermann, without asking for Balakirev’s advice: this was not Ljapunov’s normal practice, since usually he had a high consideration for Balakirev’s opinions on his works. Here, however, disagreement between the two had begun even before the work’s completion, and regarded the Sonata’s form. In fact, when Balakirev could later see the work, prior to its actual publication, he clearly expressed dissatisfaction about the general form, and about certain details; with time, the passages to which Balakirev objected seemed to increase, rather than decrease, in number. When, later, Ljapunov would play the work in semipublic venues, Balakirev would unequivocally express his dissent by leaving the room.
The Sonata’s overall structure is a one-movement form which was not unheard-of already in the eighteenth century, but which received its consecration with Liszt’s B-minor Sonata, an acknowledged masterpiece in the piano repertoire. Similar to its models, it alludes to the traditional genre of the solo Sonata in three movements (allegro, adagio and a scherzo/finale with coda), but merges it with a more compact concept consisting of a seamless construction. An element of particular beauty in this work is its powerfully narrative component, which characterizes it as quintessentially Romantic.
The language employed here by the composer is the very personal outcome of the reciprocal influences among a number of languages and styles: the Western piano tradition, as embodied particularly by Chopin and Liszt, the Russian melos, and suggestions of exoticism which can be perceived as vaguely Oriental. This last element becomes rather conspicuous in Ljapunov’s Barcarola, clearly inspired by Chopin’s, but purposefully adopting a certain rhythmical wavering, which eschews easy classifications and imparts a really “fluid” colour to the piece.
In contrast with the broad lines of the Sonata and with its grandioso language, the Sonatina op. 65 seems to look further back, to the purity and essentiality of a Classical language. Its form would probably have pleased Balakirev more than that of its elder sister; it can be considered as one of Ljapunov’s last important works, and it was premiered by him during his famous concert tour in Paris in 1923. There, the composer would die, during a period of self-exile following the Russian revolution. The Soviet regime, unwilling to admit its own failure to impress one of its most distinguished artists, maintained that Ljapunov was abroad just for concerts, whereas the musician was fleeing the material and spiritual dearth which had affected his motherland.
Allusions to the past are also found in the Prelude and Fugue op. 58, which predates the Sonatina by circa ten years. It is a large-scale work, whose Prelude is an enthralling perpetuum mobile, while the fugue, carefully constructed, is based on a long and partially chromatic subject.
While the form of “variations and Fugue” looks back in turn to the past (to the recent past, embodied by Brahms’ work on a theme by Handel, but also on the remote past with the homage paid by Brahms himself to the Baroque), in the case of Ljapunov’s op. 49, written in 1912, a distinguishing trait is also its “Russianness”, stated from the very beginning with an unmistakably “Russian” theme.
Together, these works demonstrate the wide palette of Ljapunov’s creativity and his masterful handling of the piano technique and of the instrument’s resources, as well as his fertile fantasy and creativity.
Chiara Bertoglio © 2023
Emanuele Delucchi: Born in 1987. Pianist and composer, he studied with Canzio Bucciarelli (Genoa), Riccardo Risaliti (Imola) e Davide Cabassi (Bozen); he graduated in 2009 summa cum laude and in 2016 he got the Composition diploma. He has given recitals in Italy, Germany, France, UK, Greece, Slovenia, Croazia and Mexico and he has recorded for the labels Toccata Classics (music by Alkan-Da Motta, first recording, with pianist Vincenzo Maltempo), Dynamic (Beethoven-Drouet, Sonatas op. 30 with flutist Fabio De Rosa) and Piano Classics; his repertoire includes music from renaissance to contemporary age, with special attention for the less-known literature (he gave the first live performance of Pianist im klassischen Style op. 856 by C. Czerny in 2017 and first italian performance of the Concerto op. 39 by C. V. Alkan in 2009). He is an appreciated interpreter of the piano music by L. Godowsky (albums “Piano works” and “Studies on Chopin opus 10” are issued by the label Piano Classics and have been enthusiastically reviewed by critics Jeremy Nicholas, Jed Distler and Robert Nemecek). His own works are published by M.A.P. in Milan and Da Vinci Edition in Osaka; his Ricercare II for orchestra opened the VI Festival Primavera di Baggio in 2017. He is a voracious reader and a classical culture lover.
(b Yaroslavl, 18/30 Nov 1859; d Paris, 8 Nov 1924)