Review by: ClassicsToday

Artistic Quality: 9

Sound Quality: 10

Taken strictly on musical terms, this assortment of Romantic-era music written by amateur composers ranges in quality from adequate to gifted. The twist is that they are all Russians who made international reputations in literary and artistic fields other than music. Thus, the title track, a slender but charming Waltz in F major, is by the great novelist Lev (Leo) Tolstoy, the only extant music by the author of War and Peace. His latter-day colleague, Boris Pasternak (Doctor Zhivago), contributes the meatiest course on this menu–a 13-minute, one-movement piano sonata and two piano preludes. Pasternak, described in the program notes as an admirer of Alexander Scriabin, set out to be a composer and studied for six years. Both the good technical training and the strong influence of Scriabin are obvious in this music, along with considerable musical imagination.

Vasily Dmitrievich Polenov was a painter whose work has similarities to French impressionism. His seven-minute “Farewell Song” is a real find, a piece with drama, direction, and affecting musical ideas. It depicts the progress of a funeral procession through the Russian countryside. Polenov’s other pieces are songs: a Pushkin setting called “To the Sea”, and “My Soul is Dark”, based on a Lermontov translation from Byron. If these three pieces are fairly representative of his talent, then Polenov had the potential to be a career composer of some note.

Just about everything else on the disc fits into the category of pleasant salon music of varying quality. Two literary figures, Alexander Griboyedov and Vladimir Odoyevsky, were pupils of John Field and between them add four waltzes, a lullaby, and a canon to the program. The realist painter Pavel Andreyevich Fedotov proves a triple threat: He wrote both the texts and the music for two songs here. None of these eight brief pieces makes a major impression.

Finally are two works by leading figures in the history of ballet, Sergei Diaghilev (a song to a text by novelist Alexei Tolstoy) and George Balanchine (Valse Lente). The latter shows that Balanchine, like his father and brother, was capable of being a composer of importance, but it appears that Diaghilev was right in deciding to hire others to write music (but then, he was only 15 when he wrote the song).

Pianist Lera Auerbach gives us a highly listenable, enlightening, and well-played program. The disc demonstrates a spirit that is sadly rare among today’s recording artists and labels: a sense of exploration and adventure in program building, and not a little risk-taking on the part of BIS. Auerbach takes the role of a committed advocate in playing even the thinnest of these pieces. Japanese baritone Chiyuki Urano has a warm, effortless voice and good Russian pronunciation in the album’s five songs.

Admittedly, the program is for the more committed collector and for listeners curious about the music of these individuals. But the idea is so good, and the decision to implement it so bold in today’s market, that I really hope there are more than a few people out there who will reward this label and performers (and obtain an hour of interesting, rare music) by getting a copy of this disc. [12/13/2005]

Buy Now from Arkiv Music

Recording Details:

Reference Recording: none

Songs & piano pieces by Leo Tolstoy, Boris Pasternak, Sergei Diaghilev, George Balanchine, others -

  • Lera Auerbach (piano)
    Chiyuki Urano (baritone)

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