'The Concerto Symphonique is a perky, extrovert piano concerto, full of nifty passage-work, if light on musical substance, and The Fantaisie Russe, full of Lisztian flourishes and apparently much admired by Tchaikovsky, is based on three Russian folk tunes … all of it happily negotiated by Evgeny Soifertis, who sounds a very accomplished pianist indeed' (The Guardian)
'it's hard to dismiss music that tries so hard to be likeable. Certainly, if you've been collecting the rest of Hyperion's 'Romantic Piano Concerto' series, you'll enjoy this latest addition as well. There are strong notes and typically fine Hyperion engineering' (International Record Review)
'Both composers are fortunate in having as their champion here such a charming and polished virtuoso as Evgeny Soifertis, whose gift for combining an almost childlike simplicity with scintillating bravura is perfectly suited to the music at hand, and who receives splendid support from Titov and the BBCSSO' (Piano)
'Napravnik's Concerto symphonique throws just about everything into the melting pot, from Verdi's Requiem to Tchaikovsky. The Fantaisie opens arrestingly with a massive rendition of The Volga Boatmen, and if Blumenfeld's Allegro proves slightly less individual, in performances as fiery and impassioned as these, it makes an indelible impact' (Classic FM Magazine)
'Star of the show is pianist Evgeny Soifertis … His bravura style is all there, but some pianissimo playing and tender melodic phrasing, not least in the slow movements, might have lifted the works out of obscurity' (Pianist Magazine)
'None of these pieces was perhaps destined to change the course of Russian music, but they all attest to creative exuberance and skill, slightly anonymous in style maybe, though with a resourcefulness and sparkle to the piano-writing that Evgeny Soifertis communicates with élan' (Daily Telegraph)
'Evgeny Soifertis throws it all off in great style and musical intelligence' (BBC Music Magazine)
'Evgeny Soifertis' effervescent, colourful virtuosity never fails to delight' (Classics Today USA)
'Hyperion's recorded sound is excellent, soloist Evgeny Soifertis contributes impeccably manicured playing, and the orchestra performs with immaculate accuracy under Russian maestro Alexander Titov. So if you are interested in exploring the Romantic concerto literature at its most obscure, here's your opportunity' (Fanfare, USA)
Allegro energico [12'58]
Allegro vivace [10'59]
Eduard Nápravník is hardly a household name, but he was one of the most important figures in nineteenth-century Russian music. As conductor of the Mariinsky Theatre—one of the finest opera houses in Europe, which became the Kirov Theatre—he worked with many of the most important composers of the day, including Tchaikovsky and ‘The Five’. He composed four operas, and many works in a range of genres, including four symphonies and the two works for piano and orchestra on this disc. His A minor Piano Concerto (1877) begins with a striking reference to the ‘Dies irae’ of Verdi’s Requiem, and is a work of tremendous energy and lyricism, with a nocturne-like slow movement and a dance-like finale. The Fantaisie russe (1881) is based on three Russian folk tunes, and is infectious in its melodic richness and thrilling in its virtuosity.
Felix Blumenfeld is probably best known as the piano teacher of Vladimir Horowitz and Simon Barere, but he too was a key figure in Russian music, as pianist, conductor, editor, teacher and composer. His Allegro de concert (1889) combines an oriental flavour reminiscent of Glinka, Rubinstein and Balakirev with piano-writing that owes much to Liszt.
Evgeny Soifertis, who was born in Kiev but has settled in London, breathes life into these neglected scores and plays with zestful energy and poetic repose. He is superbly supported by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and Alexander Titov, and this is another distinguished addition to Hyperion’s exploratory Romantic Piano Concerto series.
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It is impossible to imagine musical life in Russia during the second half of the nineteenth century without the presence of Eduard Nápravník (1839–1916). This great conductor, composer and public figure, Czech by origin, played a truly historic role in the development of Russian music. Nápravník moved to Russia at the age of twenty-three, and worked in St Petersburg at the Mariinsky Theatre (later the Kirov Theatre), becoming chief conductor in 1869 at the age of thirty, a post he held almost until his death in 1916. In this capacity Nápravník gave the premieres of over eighty Russian operas, working closely with the most important composers, including the members of the ‘Mighty Handful’ (or the ‘Five’: Rimsky-Korsakov, Mussorgsky, Borodin, Balakirev and Cui) as well as Anton Rubinstein and Tchaikovsky. He also conducted the great Western European operas, from Gluck to Wagner, and raised the standard of performance such that it was hard to find another opera house in Europe on the same level as the Mariinsky Theatre. All the composers who worked with Nápravník had the greatest respect for him, and Tchaikovsky had special admiration for his work both as conductor and composer. Stravinsky, too, paid tribute to Nápravník in his autobiography (1935):
It seems to me that, in spite of his austere conservatism, he was the type of conductor which even today I prefer to all others. Certainty and unending rigour in the exercise of his art, complete contempt for all affectation and showy effects […], iron discipline, mastery of the first order, an infallible ear and memory and, as a result, perfect clarity and objectivity in the rendering […] what better can one imagine?
Eduard Nápravník was born in the Czech town of Býšô on 24 August 1839. His father was a village schoolmaster and a church choirmaster who played the violin and organ, so Eduard’s early childhood was surrounded with music. The family moved to Dašice, where Nápravník studied with his uncle, Augustin Svoboda. He was orphaned in 1853 when his father died (his mother had died two years earlier), and his uncle secured work for him and his brother Karl as organists in the cathedral, in return for which they received free board and lodging and were able to complete their secondary education. From 1854 Nápravník studied at the Prague Organ School with Blaúek and Pitsch and from 1856 he was also a student (and later a teacher) at the Maydl Institute, where he took private lessons with the conductor and director of the Prague Conservatoire J F Kittl. So convinced of Nápravník’s talent was Kittl that he offered him the post of conductor at the Frankfurt Opera House; but Nápravník was also recommended to the Russian music collector and patron Prince Nicolas Yusupov, and in 1861 he became director of Yusupov’s private orchestra in St Petersburg.
When the orchestra disbanded in 1863, following the emancipation of the serfs, Nápravník was taken on as répétiteur and organist at the Mariinsky Theatre. He had made a favourable impression on the conductor there, K N Lyadov, when he took over at a moment’s notice after the pianist fell ill at a rehearsal of Ruslan and Lyudmila, sight-reading the score with consummate expertise. After taking over from Lyadov as principal conductor in 1869, he conducted the premieres of Tchaikovsky operas (The Queen of Spades, Iolanthe and others), as well as Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov, Rubinstein’s Demon and Rimsky-Korsakov’s Snow Maiden. In 1895 Nápravník was joined by Blumenfeld as conductor at the Mariinsky Theatre, as his declining health forced him to reduce his prodigious workload. But he continued to be a leading figure in Russian musical life, and gave his last performance in December 1914 (conducting his own opera Francesca da Rimini); he died, after a protracted illness and several unsuccessful operations, in November 1916.
Nápravník composed four operas himself, successfully produced at the Mariinsky Theatre although none has remained in the repertoire; these show his own influences to be more aligned to Tchaikovsky than to the ‘Mighty Handful’. The best of the operas, Dubrovsky (based on Pushkin with a libretto by Modest Tchaikovsky), was staged in Moscow for many years, and was also produced in what became Czechoslovakia and in Switzerland. Nápravník’s modesty, however, prevented him from using his position to promote his own works, and he only occasionally conducted them. He also wrote four symphonies and other orchestral works, the Concerto symphonique in A minor and Fantaisie russe in B minor for piano and orchestra (both on this disc), three string quartets, a piano quartet, two piano trios (the G minor Trio Op 24 won an award at a Russian Musical Society competition in 1876, ahead of a work by Rimsky-Korsakov), a violin sonata, pieces for violin and piano and for cello and piano, and many solo piano pieces.
The Concerto symphonique in A minor Op 27 was composed in 1877 at the suggestion of Leschetitsky, the teacher of the legendary pianist Anna Esipova who gave the first performance of the work on 17 December 1877 in the Symphonic Assembly of the Russian Musical Society. The concerto is dedicated to Esipova.
The first movement (Allegro energico) begins with four mighty A minor chords from the full orchestra, a gesture that owes a clear debt to the ‘Dies irae’ from Verdi’s Requiem which Nápravník had conducted in St Petersburg shortly before composing this concerto. The main theme is then introduced by the piano in octaves. There is something reminiscent of Brahms in the scope of this melody, although it has its own distinctive flavour. The woodwind takes over this theme in a more lyrical fashion, although swirling figuration from the soloist maintains the sense of energy and momentum. An expressive linking theme, based on the opening diminished fourth interval of the main motif, is repeated and then fragmented, and leads us to a subordinate melody first stated by the piano in C major (at 2'48''). The short development section begins with this subordinate theme played in E flat major by the strings, accompanied by delicate but virtuosic thirds and sixths from the piano (from 4'18''). This development section emphasizes the tight motivic construction of the movement as well as its driving energy. The recapitulation begins with the return of the main theme in C major (from 6'06''); in the repeat the soloist metamorphoses the main theme, giving it a more lyrical character (meno mosso), later imitated in dialogue with the flute. After a coda that summarizes the melodic ideas comes an exquisite chordal transition from the strings which leads directly into the second movement.
The Larghetto, in B flat major, begins with a nocturne-like theme from the piano, supported by lilting left-hand chords. An episode in G minor (poco piů mosso) introduces a secondary theme in the orchestra, and is characterized by the delicate double-note figurations from the soloist which lend the music an almost impressionistic colouring. The music’s tenderness is combined with a latent passion which grows until the second theme resounds from the full orchestra supported by the piano’s figurations which are now in grandiose octaves and chords (energico). The first theme returns, this time from the orchestra, against a backdrop of the piano’s running scales and leggiero decoration.
The finale (Allegro vivace) is built on three themes. The first, in A major, is of a jocular nature, possibly having its origin in Glinka’s Kamarinskaya; the second, in F sharp minor, is a playful Russian dance; the third (meno mosso, con tenerezza) is tender and intimate, and contrasts with the merriment of the first two themes. The confessional mood of this third idea is broken off when the second theme returns, and the element of rustic buffoonery is intensified as the first two themes are heard fortissimo; the lyrical third theme then returns with an even greater sense of contrast. The piano-writing becomes increasingly virtuosic during further interplay between the first two themes which leads to a glorious statement of the third theme, grandioso and forte, played by the orchestra with flamboyant arpeggios and passagework from the soloist. (Such exalted, hymn-like culminations are typical of the finales of Russian piano concertos, as in for example Tchaikovsky’s first and Rachmaninov’s second.) The coda is thrilling and triumphant, the work closing in a whirlwind of arpeggios and octaves.
Nápravník’s Fantaisie russe in B minor Op 39 was composed in 1881 and published in 1886. It was dedicated to one of Liszt’s favourite pupils, the Russian pianist Vera Timanova, who first performed it on February 1881 with great success, and subsequently played it often. Taneyev and Siloti also performed the work, and Tchaikovsky conducted it and held it in high esteem.
The Fantaisie is written in a free form, based on three Russian folk tunes. It begins with ‘The Volga Boatmen’, traditionally sung as the barges were hauled along the towpath—intensely physical labour. This theme is played forte by the full orchestra, accompanied by powerful chords in the lower register of the piano, the heavy texture keeping the music moving forwards at a steady pace. A modulation to the dominant, F sharp major, leads to the second theme (at 2'25''), a Russian dance, lighter in colour and more sprightly in nature (although the tempo remains the same). It is stated first by the soloist (piano, scherzando), before soaring octaves lead to a forte repetition by the orchestra combined with grandiose references to the first theme from the piano. The theme develops against the background of the piano’s continuing ostinato rhythm, before chordal exclamations announce a solo cadenza (at 3'59''), built on a development of the first theme and surrounded by extended trills which give it a more lyrical character. After further development of the second theme, the third tune—an impetuous dance full of unrestrained merriment—is introduced (at 7'52'') in D sharp major. The coda repeats this third theme, which then gives way to an expressive rendition of the second theme (andante) over a repeated pedal B from the piano; the music fades away before the work concludes with a presto flourish.
Felix Blumenfeld (1863–1931) was, according to Heinrich Neuhaus (the teacher of Richter and Gilels), ‘a musician from head to foot: a composer, conductor, pianist and teacher, there was not one “profession” in the field of music of which he did not have full mastery, in which he did not manifest his remarkable outpouring of talent’. As a brilliant pianist, highly praised by Paderewski and Anton Rubinstein, he gave concerts throughout Russia; an excellent accompanist, he performed all of Beethoven’s violin sonatas with Pablo de Sarasate, and often accompanied the baritone Feodor Chaliapin. As a prominent conductor he worked successfully with Nápravník at the Mariinsky Theatre; he introduced many Russian operas to the public, including to Western audiences, most notably in Paris. As an editor he worked with Rimsky-Korsakov and Glazunov in publishing new Russian works. As a distinguished teacher he worked at the St Petersburg, Moscow and Kiev conservatories, and nurtured a large number of famous pianists, including Vladimir Horowitz, Simon Barere and Maria Grinberg. And finally, as a composer he wrote over sixty works, encompassing orchestral pieces (including a symphony subtitled ‘Ŕ la mémoire des chers défunts’), a string quartet, thirty-four songs, and a large number of solo piano pieces including ballades, sonatas, suites, impromptus, a cycle of twenty-four preludes and many études.
Blumenfeld was born in the small town of Kovalyovka in southern Ukraine, enjoying an intensely musical atmosphere. He spent his youth in Elizavetgrad, a significant cultural centre of pre-Revolutionary Russia (Liszt gave his last public concert there in 1847). His first piano teachers were his brother Stanislav and Gustav Neuhaus, the father of Heinrich Neuhaus, although lessons stopped when he was twelve and he received no further tuition until he entered the St Petersburg Conservatoire at the age of eighteen. There, he studied the piano with Stein (a pupil of Chopin) and composition with Rimsky-Korsakov. He gained the support of the influential critic Vladimir Stasov, and became an active member of the Belyayev circle, promoting the music of Russian composers including Scriabin, Glazunov and Rimsky-Korsakov.
The Allegro de concert in A major Op 7 for piano and orchestra was published and first performed, with the composer as soloist, in 1889. Stasov described it as ‘energetic and captivating’. Liszt’s concertos are an obvious influence, especially in terms of texture and piano-writing. The opening moves from B minor through B flat major before arriving at the home key of A major. The march-like main theme is full of joy and optimism, and is followed by a linking passage (poco piů tranquillo) where the piano accompanies a beautiful oboe solo (at 2'20''). The second theme, in E major (poco meno mosso, at 3'01''), with an oriental flavour typical of Glinka and Rubinstein (as well as Balakirev, Borodin and Rimsky-Korsakov), is announced first by the piano and then taken over by the orchestra against the soloist’s leggiero arpeggios. Extended pianistic figurations—the work’s debt to Lisztian keyboard devices is clear—lead to a lyrical minor-key version of the main theme (at 5'43''), with harp-like accompanying passages from the piano. The first theme is then fragmented and undergoes a series of modulations, the piano continuing to provide a backdrop of repeating virtuoso patterning, before the arrival of the recapitulation (meno mosso (tempo I) e maestoso, at 7'32''). A cadenza then further develops the main thematic ideas before the second theme is heard on the clarinet. The piano-writing becomes more intricate and sophisticated, with challenging double notes, as the second theme sings with increasing radiance. The piano then reintroduces the main motif as an ingenious counterpoint to the second theme, played fortissimo by the orchestra (piů mosso, at 12'09''), in an ecstatic culmination to this captivating work.
Evgeny Soifertis © 2005
Other albums in this series
The Romantic Piano Concerto, Vol. 24 – Vianna da Motta
Studio Master: CDA67163 Studio Master FLAC & ALAC downloads available
The Romantic Piano Concerto, Vol. 38 – Rubinstein & Scharwenka
Studio Master: CDA67508 Studio Master FLAC & ALAC downloads available
The Romantic Piano Concerto, Vol. 59 – Zarzycki & Żeleński
Studio Master: CDA67958 Studio Master FLAC & ALAC downloads available