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Hyperion Records

CDA67090 - Catoire: Piano Music
A Female Nude by a Lake (1907) by Karel Vitezslav Mašek (1865-1927)
Sotheby’s Picture Library

Recording details: November 1998
Henry Wood Hall, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Andrew Keener
Engineered by Tony Faulkner & Mike Dutton
Release date: November 1999
Total duration: 77 minutes 42 seconds

'Superlative. Immaculately and sensitively performed. Sound and presentation are superb. It would be hard to imagine one of music's most neglected byways illuminated with more pianistic ease and affection' (Gramophone)

'This is charming, formidably accomplished stuff. Hamelin gives impeccably stylish and sympathetic readings, as if he's been playing them since the cradle. Probably he has' (BBC Music Magazine)

'A fine conspectus of a captivating composer. Russian champagne of glowing vintage' (Classic CD)

'Un disque rempli de joie, de poésie et de lumière' (Le Devoir)

Piano Music
Chant intime  [1'40]
Loin du foyer  [1'58]
Soirée d'hiver  [4'34]
Prélude  [2'14]
Prélude  [2'45]
Capriccioso  [2'16]
Rêverie  [4'19]
Légende  [2'43]
Chant du soir  [3'28]
Méditation  [2'13]
Nocturne  [4'10]
Andante  [1'45]
En rêvant  [2'58]
Capricciosamente  [2'06]
Tranquillo  [3'07]
Poco agitato  [2'02]

Marc-André Hamelin adds another mystery name to his discography with this album of piano music of the almost unknown Russian Georgy Catoire (a French father explains the inauthentic-sounding surname). Catoire was one of a large number of composers who flourished in pre-Revolutionary Russia at the turn of the century, and his musical style is very much of that period. Primarily a miniaturist, most of his pieces can be described as mood pictures rather than as anything more abstract, his more sophisticated use of harmony giving his style a more cosmopolitan feel than some of his more Russian contemporaries such as Liadov or Arensky. Perhaps he can best be compared to earlier Scriabin but without the neuroticism found in the latter's work.

The modesty of Catoire's output and its irrelevance to Bolshevik Russia have undoubtedly led to its neglect, but just as this music has attracted Marc-André Hamelin's advocacy it will no doubt appeal to a new audience of listeners who can now rediscover it.

Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
Georges (Georgy) L’vovich Catoire was born in Moscow on 27 April 1861, to parents of French extraction. As a child, his musical aptitudes—as composer and pianist—were soon apparent, although it was not certain that he would pursue a musical career. When he was fourteen, Catoire took his first piano lessons from Karl Klindworth, a pupil of Liszt and disciple of Wagner who, amongst other achievements, made the vocal scores of the ‘Ring’ cycle, and who was also to teach at the Moscow Conservatoire from 1869 to 1881. Catoire had enrolled as a student of mathematics at Moscow University, but music remained an equal enthusiasm for him. It was Klindworth who first directed Catoire towards the music of Wagner, as a result of which Catoire joined the Wagner Society in 1879. In 1884, Klindworth took a post in Berlin, and the following year Catoire attended the Bayreuth Festival, having become one of the first musicians in Russia—certainly in Moscow—to recognize Wagner’s genius. Catoire continued to study science and mathematics at Moscow University, and he graduated with honours in mathematics in 1884, but music now came to exert the stronger pull.

Following his graduation, Catoire worked for a time in his father’s business, but the post was uncongenial to him. He took lessons for a time from V I Vilborg, a pupil of Klindworth, and composed a piano sonata (unpublished) and several other short piano pieces. He transcribed Liszt’s ‘Dante’ Sonata for piano duet, and also parts of Tchaikovsky’s first Suite for orchestra—which later so impressed its composer that Tchaikovsky persuaded his publishers to issue it.

Catoire eventually went to Berlin to continue studies with Klindworth, whose other pupils included Lyapunov and Ethelbert Nevin. At this time Klindworth was one of the principal conductors of the Berlin Philharmonic. Later, in St Petersburg, Catoire studied for a time with Lyapunov (who was less than eighteen months his senior). Having made the acquaintance of Tchaikovsky in Moscow—a turning point in the young man’s career—Catoire took further composition lessons in Berlin with Otto Tirsch and the Belgian pedagogue Philippe Rüfer at the Klindworth–Scharwenka Conservatoire (which had been formed on Klindworth’s retirement in 1893, when his school was merged with Scharwenka’s).

On his final return to Russia in 1887, and completing his formal, if somewhat chequered, musical studies with Rimsky-Korsakov (which resulted in Catoire’s Trois morceaux, Op 2) and Liadov (which produced the Caprice, Op 3), Catoire settled in Moscow, determined to devote himself wholly to music. From that time, which is to say around 1888, and notwithstanding his extensive education, Catoire was entirely self-taught, apart from seeking occasional help from both Arensky and Taneyev.

Thereafter, Catoire pursued his own original studies, principally with regard to harmony. In many ways, Catoire’s approach to harmony was typical of composers of his generation in that he found the expansion of tonality in the latter years of the nineteenth century—through the growth of chromaticism and a greater tonal freedom in the relationship of certain keys, particularly in Catoire’s case the subdominant and supertonic, to the tonic—both liberating and fruitful areas to explore. What sets Catoire somewhat apart, even from those composers with whom he might at first appear superficially similar (most notably, Scriabin) is the larger-scale rhythmic freedom in his work, compared with, say, Scriabin’s evolving obsession with the two-bar phrase. Nevertheless, as we shall see, Catoire was not averse to this cellular method of structure in his earlier work, a characteristic both he and Scriabin may have taken initially from several of Grieg’s Lyric Pieces.

In Catoire’s case, as is clear from the music on this album, we encounter an original musical mind, one set free by two important creative characteristics: a command of pianistic technique in which anything is possible, evolved in its own way from Liszt and Alkan; and an individual, inquiring freedom which comes from a self-taught composer unafraid to explore the recesses of his imagination.

In this regard one is reminded of Liszt’s highly prophetic writing on John Field’s music: ‘… it is so perfectly adapted to those fleeting impressions which do not belong to that commoner order of sentiments which is bred by one’s social environment, but rather to those pure emotional emanations which eternally weave their spell over the heart of man, because he finds them eternally the same whether he is in the presence of the beauties of Nature, or of those soft sweet tendernesses which surround the morning of life, before reflection arrives to darken with her shadow those radiant prisms of feeling.’

Following his discoveries with regard to harmony and the craft of composition and its codification, late in life Catoire published several important treatises, which are said to have laid the foundation for much composition teaching in the USSR. The composer and enthnomusicologist Vladimir Fere, a pupil of both Glière and Catoire at the Moscow Conservatoire, later wrote, as translated by Robert Rimm: ‘Studying with Catoire, I immediately experienced serious difficulties. Catoire’s teaching method was diametrically opposed to that of Gliere. From the very beginning Georgy L’vovich kept his students within the limits of rigorous academic discipline … he especially emphasized the role of harmony in the structure and form of any composition. Catoire’s personal tastes and preferences were determinative: a student was assigned an entirely precise and single possible path for his composition.’ By this time (the early 1920s) Catoire had become a noted teacher at the Moscow Conservatoire, having been appointed professor of composition there in 1916. His career in Russia therefore spanned the Revolution years: his most famous composition pupil was Dmitri Kabalevsky. Catoire died in Moscow in 1926, less than a month after his 65th birthday.

Catoire’s list of works is not extensive but it includes an early symphony and a once-admired piano concerto alongside several vocal and choral works and a handful of other orchestral compositions. Catoire’s principal interest as a composer would seem to have been in chamber music and in solo piano music, wherein his contributions were more significant. The outstanding Russian writer on music, Victor Belayev, thought sufficiently highly of Catoire to publish a monograph on him in Moscow a few months after the composer’s death. Leonid Sabaneyev, in his book Modern Russian Composers (1927), described Catoire as having suffered from the ‘single, but nowadays unpardonable fault of modesty, an inability to advertise himself’.

After his death Catoire’s reputation as a composer virtually fell into oblivion. His name is barely mentioned in western music dictionaries, and The New Grove makes no mention of his solo piano music at all. There are several reasons for the decline in his reputation; the first was undoubtedly Catoire’s inherent modesty, as Sabaneyev noted. Secondly, Catoire’s music had little in common, aesthetically, with the demands of later Soviet governments; the output of a perceived musical conservative, there was no socio-political mileage in Catoire’s work, although a short posthumous collection of previously unpublished piano music was issued by the State Publishing House in Moscow in 1928—and so, apart from the interest of a few virtuoso students, his music gradually fell into disuse. Thirdly, Catoire’s piano music is technically demanding, and can only be properly revealed when played by a musician possessing a transcendental technique. In addition, with the post-Revolutionary collapse of almost all music publishing houses, Catoire’s music literally went out of circulation—published scores of his works became very scarce. Finally, unlike other Russian composers, Catoire founded no ‘school’, although he was an analytical ground-breaker in the study of harmony, and neither did his music enjoy a fashionable vogue. Circumstances of history, therefore, rather than any shortcomings in his art, have conspired to keep Catoire’s name and music hidden for decades, even from interested musicians.

Apart from the Symphony and Piano Concerto, Catoire composed a symphonic poem after Lermontov, Mtsïri, together with a cantata—Rusalka, also after Lermontov—for chorus and orchestra, and miscellaneous songs. Among his seven large-scale chamber works are the Piano Trio in F minor, Op 14 (written in 1900 and enjoying some vogue in the years up to 1914), the Piano Quartet, Op 31 (both recorded on Hyperion CDA67512), and his Poème for violin and piano, which is surely one of the most beautiful pieces of violin music by any Russian composer.

Caprice Op 3
Marked ‘Allegro con moto’, the Caprice is one of the most brilliant and fascinating of Catoire’s shorter early pieces. Dedicated to Vilborg, one of Catoire’s first teachers, it is in G flat major, and encompasses a basic tripartite structure that also binds an interesting tonal plan. The more lyrical secondary theme outlined in octaves is in A major, which falls by a major third to the dramatic central section, ‘meno mosso’, in F major. This is only eight bars long, and as the material retraces its steps (via A major), the secondary theme is treated to greater development. The central drama is recalled in D flat, the dominant of G flat, and the recapitulation alludes to all the material before a whimsical close.

Intermezzo Op 6 No 5
The ‘Allegro capriccioso’ tempo marking gives some indication of the dual nature of this piece. In B flat, with a central episode in F sharp major, this fluent study is an excellent example of Catoire’s melodic transformation: the initial rising scalic theme is inverted for the central section (such treatment having been hinted at in the opening part). Both are alluded to in combination in the concluding bars.

Trois morceaux Op 2
The three pieces which make up Catoire’s Op 2 are far superior to the salon-type which was so prevalent at that time. The first, Chant intime, is only twenty-eight bars long. Marked ‘Andante espressivo’, it is in E major, and has a fleeting tendency to move towards the supertonic, but notice the subtle manner in which Catoire allows his simple theme to build a tracery of continuously unfolding melody—in its own way, this is evidence of an impressive skill in post-Wagnerian composition. We hear a similar approach in the second piece, Loin du foyer, thirty bars in length. This also tends towards the supertonic (in this case, F), but the rippling, middle-voiced accompaniment, ebbing and flowing against the two-part writing above and below, in this (as marked) ‘quasi improvisato’ piece is quite compelling. The third morceau, Soirée d’hiver, is more extended than the others, but is simply constructed with a gentle theme framing a central section. What makes this particularly interesting are two factors—the B minor allusions of the opening theme eventually end in a deep D major, and the central section is both in 5/8 and in the very rare key of C flat major. We should not be surprised to learn that this piece impressed Tchaikovsky.

Prélude in G flat Op 6 No 2 & Scherzo in B flat Op 6 No 3
These two further pieces from the Six morceaux of Catoire’s Op 6 make a contrasting pair. The first opens as a gently flowing theme in 6/8, which is in a constant state of development; a cadenza bar, ad libitum, prefaces the restoration of the theme, espressivo, grazioso. The Scherzo, marked ‘Allegro con spirito’, is more adventurous in style—among its notable features are: the irregular bar-groupings (it is in 3/8, and the opening theme is of seven bars); the exceptional notation wherein some passages are marked with 3/8 bars for the right hand against 2/8 bars for the left (almost anticipating Bartók); the sudden eruptions of pure virtuosity, and the restrained ending.

Vision (Étude) Op 8
In this breathtakingly brilliant piece, which demands great virtuosity, we can clearly hear Catoire taking his place among the leading composers of his day for the piano—combining elements of Rachmaninov, Scriabin and Debussy. The reference to these other masters should not imply infuences from them, rather to place this gossamer-like short piece within its artistic milieu. Marked ‘Allegro fantastico’, the dynamic rarely rises to forte and only once to fortissimo.

Cinq morceaux Op 10
Dedicated ‘à mon ami G. Conus’—i.e., Georgy Conus, one of a noted generation of musical brothers—these five pieces form, in their own way, a counterpart both to Rachmaninov’s own Op 10—the seven Morceaux de salon of 1893/4—which Guthiel published in 1894, and to the early sets of piano works by Scriabin. What places Catoire’s Op 10 on a similar level to these works is his use of thematic transformation. The opening Prélude announces a simple theme, but one whose simplicity is constantly spun into new aspects. The melodic germs which make up these ideas are further developed in quite unusual ways in each of the following pieces—the second, an effortlessly flowing Prélude, the brilliant Capriccioso in G sharp minor (a masterpiece), the nocturnal Rêverie in A flat and the final impressionistic Légende in A major.

Quatre morceaux Op 12
This set of pieces is different from Catoire’s Op 10 in that the pieces seem not to have an underlying unity. The opening Chant du soir is one of Catoire’s greatest short pieces, a work so fine and direct in its emotional impact and compositional beauty that one may hope this recording will ensure it enters the repertoire at last. The Méditation has, within its brief structure, a wider mood than may be imagined, and the central section of the tripartite Nocturne embroiders the almost Chopinesque theme. The mention of Chopin—a distant influence—is not inappropriate in late nineteenth-century Russian music, for the Irish composer John Field, the inventor of the nocturne, a form that influenced Chopin, had settled in St Petersburg in 1803 and died in Moscow in 1837. The final piece, in G flat major, is another of Catoire’s most compelling and original studies.

Quatre préludes Op 17
Catoire, exceptional amongst Russian pianist-composers, did not complete a set of 24 Preludes. The four Preludes of his Op 17 are, like the pieces of Op 12, self-contained, and are dedicated to Leo Conus, another of the musical brothers. The first, in G sharp minor, is in the manner of a wistful slow waltz; and the second, in G major, is perhaps not unlike a Rachmaninov fragment. The third, in C minor—marked ‘Andante dramatico’ (sic—it should of course be ‘drammatico’)—is more extensive, suggesting a hidden programme. The diminuendo coda is notably imaginative. The fourth, in B flat—ending in the minor mode—is only twenty-eight bars long, but Catoire’s remarkable contrapuntal mastery, the lines seemingly independent but magically woven together, shows this composer at the height of his powers.

Chants du crépuscule Op 24
By the time of the composition of these Songs of twilight, circa 1910, Catoire was entirely his own master. The first, curiously without a tempo indication but marked impressionistically ‘sempre rubato’, maintains both the familiar tripartite structure and upward modulation of Catoire’s shorter piano pieces. It is distinguished by the fluent juxtaposition of three-against-two quavers. The second, Capricciosamente, is quite chromatic and builds to a remarkable central climax before a long coda eventually winds the piece to a tranquil major ending. Tranquillity describes the nature of the third piece, based upon another rather Chopinesque falling theme, which, in the central section, is inverted before the recapitulation, which further develops the initial idea. The concluding song, although marked ‘Poco agitato’, is a summation of aspects of the preceding three, but its central section is more dramatic and elemental. The ending, with an idea quietly repeated in the bass, is both simple and magical.

Poème Op 34 No 2
Catoire’s Quatre morceaux, Op 34, the first two of which were written between 1924 and 1926, was published posthumously in 1928. The Poème is unusual in Catoire’s output in that the tonality of the piece, C minor, is not arrived at until at least half-way through. The final bars gently ease into C major.

Prélude Op 34 No 3 and Valse in A flat major Op 36
Despite being published as part of Catoire’s Opp 34 and 36 the Prélude and the charming Waltz actually date from Catoire’s earliest years. The first is a mere twenty-two bars, and clearly indicates something of this composer’s gifts as a youth, although there is little to distinguish it. The concluding Waltz is more individual and is technically quite demanding, with repeated notes and a constantly winding theme of semitonal inflexion.

What is remarkable about Catoire’s output is that even in his earliest work we can note those extraordinarily fluent, rather than purely volatile, changes of key which impart an additionally rapid and flexible character to the music—music which predates Scriabin’s, if only by a few years. There can be no doubt that in the work of Georgy Catoire we encounter the art of an exceptional composer, an art which has remained unknown for far too long.

Robert Matthew-Walker © 1999

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