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Hyperion Records

CDA67328 - Alexandrov: Piano Music

Recording details: October 2001
Henry Wood Hall, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Jeremy Hayes
Engineered by Tony Faulkner
Release date: May 2002
DISCID: 7211AB19
Total duration: 73 minutes 52 seconds


'Hamish Milne’s poetic insight comes as no surprise … This is rather a find … Civilised, rewarding listening, warmly recommended to anyone for whom aesthetic novelty matters less than purely musical value' (Gramophone)

'Sumptuous recording, with brilliant and thoughtful playing by Hamish Milne … Piano enthusiasts looking for new material – especially those interested in Russian music – will certainly enjoy this' (American Record Guide)

'This is altogether exceptional playing … it made me want to dust down my two volumes of Alexandrov's music and take them straight to the piano to find out what other treasures they have in store. May it please be the first of several' (International Record Review)

'Hamish Milne, on this new Hyperion release is a persuasive advocate for this music … Recommended? But of course, and let’s hope that more Alexandrov appears, and soon' (Fanfare, USA)

'Imagine a cab ride where the driver is in the same league as Formula One driver Michael Schumacher. There’s something similar to be said for this Hyperion release, in which we have the privilege to hear a forgotten but phenomenal composer through the mind of such a distinguished and world-class pianist as Hamish Milne' (Pianist)

'Milne expounds all this music … with evident affection and belief, and with all the musicality and technical mastery it demands, in an absolutely first-rate recording' (International Piano)

'Hamish Milne believes in this music 125 percent, and he sails through the composer’s daunting challenges with complete technical command and a gorgeous tone to match' (

'On a envie de remercier le pianiste Hamish Milne pour son interprétation magnifique, très soignée, et surtout pour nous permettre de découvrir une musique aussi belle, doucement expressive et envoûtante’ (Répertoire, France)

Piano Music
Languido  [1'25]
Veloce  [1'18]
Andante con moto  [3'30]
Sordamente  [2'59]
Adagio  [1'45]
Allegro  [2'14]

If you like Medtner and Scriabin, you'll love this. Anatoly Alexandrov (1888-1982) was one of the most prominent Soviet composers who forged a new creative voice in Russian music after the lush Romanticism of Rachmaninov. He composed piano music that was both individual and forwardlooking, yet steeped in Russian tradition. After the 1920s Alexandrov distanced himself from the more avant-garde modernism of, say, Nikolay Roslavets. Most of his music is forgotten, at least in the West, and this selection of his finest piano works should place his name firmly back on the musical map.

Alexandrov's best piano music often suggests a fusion of Scriabin and Medtner, but with an individual voice exemplified by the quirky title of his Opus 6, A Long-Forgotten Madness. Hamish Milne's experience with the music of Medtner tells in these superb performances.

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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
’Whenever discussion turns to the most modern Russian composers who are working today within the borders of their motherland, it is above all the names of Myaskovsky, Feinberg and Alexandrov that are mentioned as the most outstanding representatives of the new era.’ So wrote Viktor Belyayev in 1927 in the first monograph to be published on Anatoly Alexandrov (1888-1982). Today, however, the name of Alexandrov has been almost entirely forgotten, even though he – unlike Nikolai Myaskovsky and Samuil Feinberg, who died considerably earlier – kept composing into ripe old age, and enjoyed a considerable reputation. But stylistically he had by then distanced himself from the modern sound of the 1920s. It is precisely in this regard that Alexandrov’s work typifies the development of Russian music from the turn of the century to the final stage of socialist realism and the dissolution of Soviet cultural policy in the 1980s. Alexandrov shows that there are still rewarding discoveries to be made in this area – a repertoire that threatens to disappear even before it has become known.

Musicologists have until now limited their interest in the Soviet period almost exclusively to the avant-garde composers (often only supposedly avant-garde), to artists who were discriminated against and forced to emigrate – in other words to the moral victors of the Soviet tragedy. However understandable the wish may be to rehabilitate such artists, it would be shortsighted to neglect the other, apparently well-known composers, who were officially praised or silently tolerated. To judge the music of this era according to the degree of its modernity is a failure in methodology that is based on an outmoded belief in progress. If one stigmatizes the officially recognised forms of expression of the Soviet Union, their value will then be assessed by old ideologies. Besides, the political orientation of the composers and the extent to which they enjoyed freedom is hardly a basis for musical analysis. Of course, the gradual change in aesthetic values after the disintegration of the Soviet Union makes it a thankless task to consider the music which was neither forced underground or abroad, nor used for the glorification of the regime. But conventional Soviet culture from Stalin to Gorbachev cannot be judged solely by reference to extremes. The horizon must be broadened to include the whole range, and a disinterested view of the works in question must be encouraged – works which have already been subjected to so many ideological stereotypes that they have still not been assessed in an objectively musicological way. That is also true for composers such as Anatoly Alexandrov.

Having left school, Alexandrov initially received a private musical education. His mother, who had studied with Tchaikovsky, sent him in 1907 to Sergei Taneyev, the doyen of Moscow’s school of composition, who initially entrusted the budding composer to his progressively-minded pupil, Nicolay Zhilyayev (who fell victim to Stalin’s Reign of Terror in 1938). From 1908 Taneyev himself instructed him in counterpoint and composition. In 1910 Alexandrov was finally admitted to the Moscow Conservatoire where he was taught composition by Sergei Vasilenko and piano by Konstantin Igumnov (until 1915/16). From 1923 to his retirement Alexandrov himself taught composition at this most prestigious institution not only of the Soviet Union but also of the entire eastern bloc.

Alexandrov’s aesthetic development was influenced above all by the leading Moscow composers of the pre-Revolutionary Tsardom, in particular Scriabin and Medtner, who were described by Arthur Lourié as the diametrically opposed poles of Russian music at the beginning of the twentieth century. The names of Scriabin and Medtner stood on the one hand for the search for a new music that was characterized by ingenious exuberance and exceptional refinement of sound, and on the other hand for dense thematic concentration and spiritualization in the tradition of Beethoven. Rachmaninov, with his emotional directness and concern for melody, also had a deep and lasting influence on Alexandrov. The contradictory tendencies of Moscow’s musical culture clashed for Alexandrov in the two very different characters of his two composition teachers Taneyev and Zhilyayev:

My aesthetic ideals were formed in my youth by two diametrically opposed sources. On the one hand Taneyev, who was musically an out-and-out conservative; on the other his pupil Zhilyayev who brought me up on Scriabin and Debussy, convinced that contemporary music should break new ground. These two points of view exercised an influence on my creative work. But my ideals were finally formed through discussions with Medtner, who did not entirely agree with either tendency.

Alexandrov’s debut as a composer were the Cinq Préludes Op 1, written between 1907 and 1910 and published in 1916; a sixth prelude was added in 1927. The composer revised the work in the 1960s and placed the sixth prelude at the beginning. Although the atmosphere and compositional structure of the work owes much to early and middle period Scriabin, the pieces (like Szymanowski’s Preludes Op 1) are far more than eclectic experiments: Scriabin’s gestures form just a starting point for new harmonic and psychological quests. Myaskovsky wrote an favourable review of Alexandrov’s Opus 1.

Mr Alexandrov’s Preludes reveal a musician of excellent taste who has a good understanding not only of piano technique but also of pure compositional technique […] The Preludes do not as yet show any clear originality, but the mastery and conviction of the style in which they are written […] lead us to suppose that his talent will eventually develop quite independently of outside influences. The fact that the influence of early Scriabin can still be detected in no way diminishes the merits of the fresh and attractive compositions of Mr Alexandrov.

Particularly characteristic of Alexandrov is a tendency to write a detailed and at times highly complex part writing, whereby the transitions are often veiled between horizontal lines and vertical sounds, with a merging of harmonic and melodic development. The opinions of colleagues among Taneyev’s pupils (including those of Alexei Stanchinsky, a genius who died young) confirmed Alexandrov’s belief that after many years of immaturity, he had finally composed his first mature work. It was only Taneyev himself who could not accept the style of these harmless apprentice pieces which deviated too far from his own conservative ideas:

During my apprenticeship with Taneyev, my compositions were still rather childish and showed many technical blemishes that needed correcting. Only once, in the autumn of 1909, did I show him a little piece which was free of such blemishes and which, despite its small format, could be called a work of art. That was the Prelude which was later (1916) published as Opus 1 No 1 [later No 2]. “Goodness me! How very ‘modern’”, said Sergei Ivanovich with good-humoured irony, sitting in his rocking chair. That was all. I was furious at the time. I had expected some encouragement, because I had only just heard Zhilyayev’s opinion, which was quite different: “That is your first work to which nothing can be added and from which nothing can be taken away. Congratulations!” And Alyosha Stanchinsky was of the same opinion. He found that my individuality expressed itself in this Prelude “in a synthesis of Scriabin and Kalinnikov”. I don’t know whether this remark is true, but I can now see the justice of Zhilyayev’s opinion and the pedagogic accuracy of what he told me. […] I still do not quite understand Taneyev’s irony. Sergei Ivanovich did not like ‘modern’ music. But then what was ‘modern’ about my simple and modest Prelude? The figure in the left hand, perhaps? Much more so, surely, the way those triplets are grouped [across the bar-line], in the manner of Scriabin. But my Prelude was partly composed in the spirit of early Scriabin, whom Taneyev greatly admired. […] Perhaps my work was ‘modern’ for him in that it followed the fashion of composing little preludes, which ‘finish almost before they have begun’. He was always telling us, by the way: “Why do you always write prelude after prelude? When will you finally write a fugue?”

Alexandrov was also in the habit of studying the works of his contemporary Alexei Stanchinsky (1888-1914). He too took Scriabin as his starting point and tried even more consistently than Alexandrov to combine excessive expressiveness and eruptive extravagance with the stricter forms (sonatas) and styles (fugues and canons) used by Taneyev, and in doing so he abandoned late romantic hyper-chromaticism in favour of new diatonic models or modified scales. It was not entirely by chance that it was Alexandrov who edited Stanchinsky’s works which regarding contents and style were quite simply unequalled, after his early death. Alexandrov’s Obsession passée (‘A Long-Forgotten Madness’), Op 6, which was dedicated to the memory of Stanchinsky, and published in 1918, brings together works that had been composed between 1911 and 1917. These Quatre fragments make reference to Stanchinsky’s tonal language, but also in their titles to the latter’s psychical frailness and insanity (he worshipped horses as gods and doffed his hat to them). Against this background, Alexandrov carried out a number of experiments: in the first three pieces there are no key signatures at all, and in places he abandons tonality entirely, as in the fourths of Langueur (No 1, 1913) and in the nervously iridescent Impression (No 3, 1916). Alexandrov later described the cycle as an expression of mysticism and a compulsive quest for the new; and he considered the closing Epilogue (No 4, 1917) to be ‘a sort of reflection on that period, but in a different time’. He made no effort to conceal the metrical borrowings from Stanchinsky in the Étude (No 2, 1911):

I once even consciously imitated Alyosha. I liked his Prelude for piano in D major in 7/16 time, and I composed a study in 14/16 time, which was later included in the Obsession passée cycle. It is true that our pieces are similar only in tempo, but the idea was borrowed from Stanchinsky.

It was in his fourteen piano sonatas, rather than the miniatures, that Alexandrov challenged tradition much more powerfully and consistently; they were composed between 1914 and 1971, and together with some song cycles are at the centre of his œuvre. Alexandrov himself indicated who his stylistic models had been: “Up to the eighth sonata, the odd numbers reflect ‘modernism’, the even ones ‘Medtner’.” This statement, however, is only partially true – tradition and innovation, and all the various influences, are very closely interwoven with Alexandrov. Like Medtner’s and Scriabin’s attempts to renew and continue the genre, Alexandrov’s first three sonatas are one-movement experiments in form. But in the fourth sonata he abandoned his quest for new forms, and from now on chose almost as a matter of principle the traditional three-movement form.

Alexandrov’s Third Sonata, Op 18, was written in 1920 and twice revised by the composer, in 1956 and 1967. One of its first interpreters was Maria Yudina. In his 1923 review of this sonata Zhilyayev drew attention to the enormously increased importance it had on contemporary Russian music, and placed Alexandrov not alongside but ‘immediately behind such great modern Russian composers as Prokofiev, Stravinsky and Medtner’. The brooding style of the third sonata and the way that the Interlude (tonally strongly reminiscent of Rachmaninov) is integrated into the one-movement structure, along with many other details, all reflect the influence of Medtner – and as with Medtner, the way the material develops is given more prominence than the melodic elements which only come into their own in the Interlude. Myaskovsky – who more keenly than Alexandrov but likewise following Medtner strove for intellectual concentration, thematic tightness and conflicting structures – was therefore perhaps wrong to have described Alexandrov too exclusively as an idyllic lyrical composer:

Anatoly Alexandrov is in actual fact a lyrical composer; his poetry is deeply honest and at the same time exquisitely formed, a veil of dreaminess hangs over it which never, however, degenerates into melancholic or elegiac sentimentality. He is a lyrical pantheist who harbours a great love of the world. He strives for light, sun and, above all, the idyllic – which does not at times exclude mystery and immensity.

Such a description is better suited to the Fourth Sonata, Op 19, from 1922 (revised in 1954). It became a firm favourite with the audiences that gathered at the Wednesday musical soirées of the musicologist Pavel Lamm – a meeting place for a number of Moscow composers. Its striking C major optimism full of victory hymns, dashing march rhythms and rich-sounding cantilenas announced a change in style that was to be characteristic of the compositions of the 1930s but which typically emerged long before the ideological struggles and the later restrictions. The composer’s own interpretation reads almost like a programme for this sonata:

My creative work is based on two contrasting but connected principles. One is the idyll, the serene attitude to life, devoid of shadows. The other is scepticism, irony, sometimes sarcasm. Scepticism accompanies the idyll, casts doubt, as it were, on the assumption that life is devoid of clouds and that one can abandon oneself to such bliss. But scepticism in my works never emerges victorious.

The psychology and dramaturgy of the Fourth Sonata are diametrically opposed to the Third Sonata, which gropes hesitantly forward full of doubts: the triumphantly domineering main theme heralds the victory, which otherwise was still to be won, as a programmatic certainty. Some traces of Prokofiev-like sarcasm, instead of providing a counter-balance, serve rather as a springboard for further heightenings and intensifications. The sonata does not just give the impression of being a unified whole: its stability and confidence engender happiness, and it attains an undisguised grandiosity through the cyclical return of the themes in the stormy finale. Small wonder that Heinrich Neuhaus liked performing this work and, according to contemporary reviews, proceeded with even more vitality than the composer had in mind.

During the 1920s Alexandrov fought out within himself the battle for the future of musical aesthetics, before externally this battle became more widespread. He made continued attempts to free himself more and more from the Classical-Romantic tradition (see the piano pieces of Op 27), but his basically late-Romantic stance is almost always evident – as, for example, in the technically (for the pianist) very demanding Three Studies Op 31, of 1925, where the emotional, tritone-suffused last piece takes up the Russian tradition of imitating the mighty sound of bells. The at times unusual sound world of these works is merely imposed on basically traditional musical thoughts. Three decades later Alexandrov wrote about this period: “The impact of ‘modernism’ in my work was at this time, as it had been previously, very experimental, and reflected very little the essential facets of my musical philosophy”. Leonid Sabaneyev recognized this conflict most astutely, but rightly stressed that the value of this music was in no way dependent on its compositional style:

Alexandrov possesses simultaneously the typical characteristics of both the academy and the salon. He is without doubt a composer who is concerned with style and whose compositional technique is perfect. There are no particular innovations in the dreams of this art, which is tightly locked in a world of old traditions, and in which occasional concessions to the modern era sometimes ring out shyly. […] Located somewhere between the two extremes of the innovators and the extreme conservatives, he is held in equal esteem by both camps. A certain anaemic quality, a lack of fiery emotion, a rational approach to composition, that is neither hot nor cold but lukewarm, distinguishes his lyricism from that of Rachmaninov. […] Yet Alexandrov must be considered as one of the most powerful composers of our time and on a par with Myaskovsky, who is likewise little tempted by innovation and is equally devoted to the unwritten rules of ‘old music’.

Consumed with self-doubt and seeking help, Alexandrov corresponded in the mid 1920s with his great idol Medtner, who had for some years been living in the West, and received from him the advice to remain loyal to the fundamental values of music. The intensification of the ideological trench-warfare between the Russian Association of Proletarian Musicians (RAPM) and the representatives of the New Music who, like Alexandrov, had organised themselves into the Union for Contemporary Music (ASM), together with direct attacks, threw the composer into a deep crisis:

Before the Seventh Sonata I composed nothing for a long time – the RAPM members left the Federation of Workers. […] The papers wrote many nasty things about me at that time; Feinberg, Shenshin and I were considered to be aesthetes. […] Members of the RAPM erected theories on what one should compose and how one should compose. I was confused and didn’t know what to do.

Elsewhere Alexandrov expressed himself even more clearly:

While the RAPM ruled supreme on the musical front, my own music was to a significant degree discredited, which cast me into a certain creative depression, which then disappeared when the RAPM was dissolved.

When Alexandrov then decided to compose, technically and stylistically, along much more simple, late-Romantic lines, he fulfilled the basic conditions of Socialist Realism that had been proclaimed in 1932. And yet, despite availing himself of folk music and revolutionary themes he was anything but an ambitious homo politicus. Despite his professorship and a few state honours, Alexandrov held no political posts and distanced himself astonishingly from public musical life. Whether his compositional technique, which was from now on constantly late-Romantic in style and from time to time naïve, only corresponded ‘coincidentally’ to the aesthetic ideals of Soviet cultural policy, or was imposed on him by the Soviet authorities, remains open to question. What is beyond question is that his plan to blend fruitfully together the various main compositional styles of the turn of the century – which he had encouraged more than any other – had fallen through once and for all.

The composer’s wife, the singer Nina Alexandrova, gave public performances of her husband’s songs over many decades, with him at the piano. Her death must have caused a deep wound in Alexandrov’s unspectacular domestic life. This agony and farewell find musical expression in several piano pieces that he dedicated to her. One of them is the sixth of the ten Romantic Episodes Op 88 (1962), which in their unabashed sentimentality, melodic indulgence and harmonic strength come near to Rachmaninov: a bewitchingly fragile Adagio which seems to have been inspired by Chopin’s E flat minor Etude, Op 10, No 6. The Elegy too, and the Waltz Op 89 (1964) (which is traditionally elegiac in Russian music) are dedicated to Nina Alexandrova’s memory – comparatively quiet and pensive pieces, in which the symbolic moment of dying is compellingly caught. There is no trace here of the piano pieces that Alexandrov composed in the twelve-tone technique during the 1960s; and the composer never published such ephemeral excursions into atonality that he wrote more out of curiosity than inner conviction.

Alexandrov was only able to finish two of the projected Visions, a cycle of seven pieces; when he composed them in 1979 he was already in his ninety-first year – they eventually appeared posthumously in 1988. Aimlessly repeated polymodal figurations, sudden hymnic flights and pale chains of chords merge here in a disturbing late style that, though standing completely outside other developments in the history of music, possesses without doubt great visionary power. That Alexandrov was able, at such a great age and after decades of artistic stagnation, to draw inspiration from such secretly slumbering sources, is astonishing evidence of his musical greatness which he had obscured and almost destroyed through a multitude of educational pieces, children’s songs, naïve folksong arrangements and light film music.

Christoph Flamm © 2002
English: Roland Smithers

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