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Hyperion Records

CDH55309 - Liadov: Marionettes, A Musical Snuffbox & other piano music
Front illustration by Jackie Williams (b?)
(Originally issued on CDA66986)

Recording details: May 1997
All Saints' Church, East Finchley, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Amanda Hurton
Engineered by Ken Blair
Release date: August 2008
DISCID: 1B108E15
Total duration: 69 minutes 59 seconds

'Scarcely anybody outside Russia looks at them these days, but, as Stephen Coombs eloquently establishes on this disc, they are gems' (The Daily Telegraph)

'A sparkling collection of gems honed to perfection by a fine craftsman' (Classic CD)

'Exquisite piano pieces. Yet another winner by a pianist who is proving a worthy champion of Late Romantic Russian repertoire' (The Scotsman)

'A ravishing range of tonal colours and flawless sense of timing which constantly reduced this particular listener to putty in the master's hands' (Hi-Fi News)

Russian Piano Portraits
Marionettes, A Musical Snuffbox & other piano music
Waltz in E major  [1'45]
F sharp major  [0'41]
B flat minor  [1'11]
G major  [1'03]
Grimace  [0'44]
Gloom  [1'32]
Temptation  [1'44]
Reminiscences  [1'08]

'A new talent has appeared in our midst, a genuine, thoroughly original, thoroughly Russian talent … he is bright and unaffected, he has boldness and power. Cui, Borodin and my humble self are delighted with him … as for his own scribblings, well, you will judge for yourself. Korsakov has been holding forth on them quite a lot.' So wrote Mussorgsky of the young Liadov.

And yet his works have remained little known. A Musical Snuffbox will be familiar to most listeners, but the majority of Liadov's canon has fallen into obscurity, not least because the composer dedicated his life to indolence and seems to have been utterly without ambition either for himself or for his music.

The two major piano works are the 'Glinka' variations and the 'Polish' variations; as for the rest of his output, it is of miniatures as finely crafted as they are few in number.

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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
'Liadov is a composer whom everybody knows by name, and of whom everybody knows a piece or two. There, as a rule, the matter ends.’ These are the opening sentences of Michel-Dimitri Calvocoressi’s short ‘life’ of Liadov published in 1936 and they succinctly summarize the neglect Liadov suffered after his death in 1914. If that was the situation in 1936, it certainly has not got better. How many people today know his name? And of those who do, how many know any of his works?

Anatol Konstantinovich Liadov, in common with most of his musical contemporaries, studied the piano. Though he remained throughout his life an accomplished pianist, his musical studies, both as a performer and a composer, can perhaps be best described as haphazard. He was born on 11 May 1855 in St Petersburg. His father, Konstantin Nikolayevich Liadov, was the conductor of the Russian Opera at the Mariinsky Theatre and regarded as one of Russia’s finest musicians. With three uncles who were also professional musicians, Anatol would appear to have had the perfect musical start in life; this was unfortunately far from the case.

Anatol’s mother died while he was still a young child. His father proved to be a poor role model, but one who had a lasting influence. Rimsky-Korsakov gives a vivid description:

The brilliant gifts of Anatol’s father were stifled in continuous revelling and carousing. He frittered away his activity as composer on mere nothings, composing dance-music and pieces to order … Anatol and his sister had been left to grow up as best they might. Their father, deep in his carousing and his liaison with the singer L., was never at home and never laid eyes on his children for weeks at a stretch. Though he drew a good salary, he very often left his children without a copper, so that they had to borrow money occasionally from the servants to escape starvation. Of formal education and instruction there could be no question at all.

Konstantin Liadov died on 7 December 1868 when Anatol was just thirteen years old. His early upbringing, without supervision or structure, had left its mark and when he finally entered the St Petersburg Conservatory in 1870 he proved unable to apply himself to study. He started formal studies in piano and violin but soon abandoned classes in both instruments. Transferring to composition and studying first with Johannsen and later with Rimsky-Korsakov, he was expelled from his class in 1876 for failing to attend regularly. Shostakovich in his memoirs retells a famous instance of Liadov’s indolence:

He paid little attention to his composition studies. For instance, he would be assigned to write a fugue and he knew ahead of time that he wouldn’t do it. And he would tell his sister, with whom he lived, ‘Don’t give me dinner until I’ve written the fugue’. Dinner time would approach and the fugue would be unwritten. ‘I won’t feed you because you haven’t completed the assignment. You asked me to do that yourself’, Liadov’s sister, a kind woman, would say. ‘As you like’, our marvellous young man would reply; ‘I’ll dine with Auntie.’ And leave.

Despite his poor record as a student, Liadov was widely admired by the composers of his day. In the summer of 1873 Mussorgsky wrote to the influential writer and critic Stasov: ‘A new talent has appeared in our midst, a genuine, thoroughly original, thoroughly Russian talent … He is bright and unaffected, he has boldness and power. Cui, Borodin and my humble self are delighted with him … As for his own scribblings, well, you will judge for yourself. Korsakov has been holding forth on them quite a lot.’ In 1878 Liadov was readmitted to Rimsky-Korsakov’s class and, perhaps suitably chastened, he quickly produced for his graduation exercise a cantata on the final scene of Schiller’s The Bride of Messina. It was a brilliant success (receiving its debut on 4 June at the St Petersburg Conservatory) and, despite its opus number of 28, was Liadov’s first publicly performed work. Had he been able to continue to apply himself in this manner, Liadov’s reputation today might have been quite different.

The success of his cantata led to Liadov’s appointment as a teacher of elementary theory at the Conservatory in September 1878 and, in time, he proved to be an important and influential teacher. When Rimsky-Korsakov (dissatisfied with Tchaikovsky’s system) came to write his celebrated textbook on harmony in 1884, it was to Liadov that he turned for advice and methods of instruction. In 1906 Liadov took over teaching the advanced composition class at the St Petersburg Conservatory. Unlike many of his contemporaries Liadov was generally impressed by the new, more modernistic, composers; his own later experiments in tonality (as in his symphonic poem Skorbnaya pesn Op 67 and the Four Pieces Op 64) are clearly influenced by the younger composer Scriabin. It is not surprising that such an open-minded musician should have encouraged and influenced his many pupils, including Miaskovsky and Prokofiev.

Liadov seems to have been totally without ambition. The legacy of his wretched childhood was such that despite the comfortable circumstances of his later life he still complained that the world was ‘tedious, disappointing, trying, purposeless, terrible’. He longed to escape from the realities of life and once wrote: ‘Give me fairies and dragons and mermaids and goblins, and I am thoroughly happy. Art feeds me on roast birds of paradise. It is another planet—nothing to do with our earth.’ Indeed, his desire to separate his private life from the outside world led him to hide his wife away from even his closest friends. It was Belaieff, his publisher, who, driven by curiosity, first succeeded in meeting Liadov’s devoted wife. Knowing that the composer was absent, he arrived at his lodgings pretending to have a message. Encountering the charming woman, he introduced himself and made her acquaintance. Nevertheless, it was to take many years before any of Liadov’s other friends succeeded in gaining admittance. Liadov’s happy and successful marriage had one unfortunate side effect. Through his wife he had inherited a country estate at Polďnovka and this gave him an excuse each summer to retreat into pure idleness. It was yet another opportunity to indulge his indolent nature, which was disturbed only occasionally by sporadic attempts at composition.

In 1905, on the occasion of Liadov’s fiftieth birthday, the Russian critic Karatyghin published an essay, observing sadly: ‘He has every conceivable gift: a marvellous technique, originality, a genuine poetic fancy, an abundance of rare humour … unerring taste, great intelligence: and all he gives us, year in year out, is about ten pages of music, or even less. This is a mortal sin against Apollo who endowed him so lavishly. He realizes this himself, I think.’

Liadov could not fail to be aware of his own inability to produce a larger body of work. His description of Glazunov’s apparent facility is not perhaps without a hint of self-justification: ‘He starts, speeds straight along as if on rails, and there he is … How fortunate to be thus!’ Liadov planned to write two ballets—neither was completed. The second was to have been for Diaghilev, who admired Liadov greatly. The story of his failure to complete this commission and its subsequent replacement by Stravinsky’s Firebird in 1910 has become almost legendary. His abandoned opera Zoryushka did, however, yield enough material for his two tone-poems, The Enchanted Lake Op 62 and Kikimora Op 63, which (together with an earlier tone-poem, Baba-Yaga Op 56) still have a small place in the orchestral repertoire.

That Liadov failed to complete any large-scale projects undoubtedly overshadowed his other, not inconsiderable, achievements. He was a highly successful conductor and in the 1890s frequently took charge of Imperial Russian Music Society concerts. He became interested in the field of folk music, partly due to the influence of Georgy Dyutsh, an important pioneer in this field and a childhood friend. Balakirev’s collection of forty folk songs published in 1866 was undoubtedly another influence. His own collection, begun in 1897, resulted in some one hundred and fifty settings for both voice and piano, and chorus. Several volumes of these folk songs were published during his lifetime, in addition to his 1906 free arrangement of Eight Russian Folk Songs Op 58 for orchestra. Liadov’s exploration of folk song represented a new development in the fusion of classical music and folk material. He managed, with his customary taste and skill, to fashion exquisite settings, without obscuring the original peasant intonations.

Liadov’s largest published body of work is for the piano. He worked on his piano pieces like a jeweller—constantly polishing and refining them. If he was slow in starting a composition, he was even slower completing it and consequently only a few of these pieces last longer than five minutes (the majority considerably less). His two most substantial piano works are the Variations on a Polish folk theme Op 51 (1901) and the Variations on a theme by Glinka Op 35 (1894). For the most part the remainder of Liadov’s piano music is a succession of tiny preludes, mazurkas, waltzes and other typical salon pieces. Though often small in scale, each piece is immaculately finished. Their emotional range may sometimes appear restricted, yet Liadov’s art creates an elegant sound-world which is both strangely fascinating and genuinely moving.

Only towards the end of his life do we see any change in Liadov’s musical palette. In his Four Pieces Op 64, written in 1909/10, the harmonic language is obviously that of Scriabin. Liadov was a constant supporter of the younger composer and it is tempting to view these late pieces as a last public endorsement of Scriabin’s art. It is strangely fitting that the teacher of Prokofiev should also have been one of the first composers of the older establishment to recognize the new developments in musical language. However, it is surely ironic that these same developments would shortly consign the music of Liadov (together with that of many of his contemporaries) to obscurity and neglect.

For the last three years of his life Liadov suffered from ill health. Diaghilev, persistent to the end, was still trying to persuade him to finish his ballet. Liadov continued to speak of his planned projects, including a final section to his tone poem Iz Apokalipsisa Op 66 (‘From the Apocalypse’), and an orchestral work on the theme of a Russian legend. Not surprisingly, none of these projects was ever completed, if ever started. He died at Polďnovka, his country estate, on 28 August 1914, shortly after the outbreak of war.

Stephen Coombs © 1998

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