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Hyperion Records

CDA67512 - Catoire: Chamber Music
CDA67512
Recording details: July 2004
St Paul's School for Girls, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Andrew Keener
Engineered by Simon Eadon
Release date: March 2005
Total duration: 54 minutes 38 seconds

'This is music which could certainly appeal to those who are attracted by Russian Impressionism, or by Scriabin's piano works, especially in these performances. They are led by Stephen Coombs, author of an informative insert-note, who is undaunted by the intricacies Catoire wishes upon his pianist' (Gramophone)

'Catoire demands a high degree of virtuosity and an ear for instrumental colour, both of which he receives here in performances of verve and panache' (The Daily Telegraph)

'The members of Room Music play the entire programme with a committed advocacy that can only assist Catoire's long-delayed emergence into the light. It makes a logical complement to Marc-André Hamelin's Hyperion recording of his piano music (CDA67090), while its greater timbral variety might provide an even better introduction to Catoire's singular achievement' (International Record Review)

'Catoire is a forgotten man of late-19th and early-20th-century Russian music. A maverick Wagnerian in his youth, he found success as a teacher, but since his death has suffered almost total neglect as a composer. Yet his music, which mixes the spaciousness of Franck with the organisation of Brahms and the expressive freedom of Rachmaninov, is extraordinary' (The Sunday Times)

'Catoire's Piano Trio is reminiscent of Rachmaninov, while the Piano Quartet owes more to Scriabin. Fluent performances of both by this enterprising ensemble' (Classic FM Magazine)

'The performances are uniformly excellent, and as persuasive as can be. There's a passion and intensity here that clearly betokens a belief in this music; and the sheer beauty of sound evoked by Inoue and De Groote deserves to be heard for that alone' (Fanfare, USA)

Chamber Music
Allegro moderato  [9'50]
Moderato  [9'54]
Andante  [6'57]
Molto allegro  [6'58]

The pioneering chamber ensemble Room-Music met with considerable critical acclaim with their debut recording of music by Reynaldo Hahn. Now they turn their attention to one of Russia’s most inexplicably neglected composers, Gyorgy Catoire (Marc-André Hamelin has recorded a disc of his piano music, CDA67090—‘A captivating composer. Russian champagne of glowing vintage’, according to Classic CD magazine).

An early supporter of the deeply mistrusted Wagnerian musical innovations and a protégé of Tchaikovsky, Catoire overcame familial objections to forge a musical career which saw him become professor of composition at the Moscow Conservatoire and the spiritual father of a whole generation of compatriot composers.

The Piano Trio in F minor of 1900 is the first in a series of important chamber compositions. Confident and virtuosic, this early work reminds the listener of Tchaikovsky and Arensky, even Rachmaninov, as its soaring themes of considerable innate beauty constantly serve to enhance a reputation for melodic genius.

The Quartet in A minor dates from sixteen years later. The composer’s more mature style takes us into the world of Scriabin, a sense of fluidity pervading this music of ingenious harmonic shifts and rhythmical subtlety.

Stephen Coombs and Charles Sewart complete the programme with a stunning performance of the miniature Elegy in D minor, one of Catoire’s few works to have been published outside of his native Russia.

An enthusiastic booklet essay from Coombs complements the performances—and this important addition to the catalogue.


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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
Georgy L’vovich Catoire is one of Russia’s most unjustly neglected composers. Even during his lifetime he was a peripheral figure in the Russian musical world and after his death even the slight reputation he had attracted faded away. That we know any details of this composer’s life is mainly due to a short monograph written by Victor Belayev a few months after Catoire’s death and some reminiscences by his student Vladimir Fere.

Catoire was born in Moscow on 27 April 1861. It appears that he showed an interest in music from an early age and in 1875 he started studying with Karl Klindworth. In 1868 Klindworth had been invited by Nikolay Rubinstein, founder of the Moscow Conservatoire, to teach at the recently opened institution. A brilliant pianist, he became a highly influential piano teacher. However, Klindworth’s friendship with Wagner, who had entrusted him with the preparation of the vocal scores for ‘The Ring’, made him deeply unpopular in Moscow. It should be remembered that at this time Moscow was extremely provincial and conservative, as described by the writer and musician Sabaneyev: ‘Moscow was inveterately conservative in its tastes and tendencies; narrow in its horizons. Of the Russian National School, i.e. of Rimsky-Korsakov, Borodin and particularly Mussorgsky, even the musicians in Moscow had only a remote idea. Wagner was viewed as a sort of musical Antichrist.’

Despite the prejudice against Wagner’s music, Catoire became a member of the Wagner Society and in 1885 visited the Bayreuth Festival. He remained an enthusiastic champion of Wagner throughout his life. Following Nikolay Rubinstein’s death in 1881 Klindworth must have felt increasingly isolated in Moscow, and the following year he returned to Germany. From this point Catoire’s development as a musician and composer became increasingly difficult and frustrating.

At this time Catoire was also a student of mathematics at Moscow University. In 1884 he graduated with high honours and joined his father’s commercial business. It is clear that Catoire did not enjoy this work and also that his family could not understand why their son continued to show interest in becoming a musician. With Klindworth now abroad, Catoire turned for advice and instruction from V I Vilborg, another student of Klindworth. These short-lived lessons spurred Catoire for the first time to compose, the result being an unpublished piano sonata and some other piano pieces. Also at this time Catoire transcribed for piano Tchaikovsky’s Introduction and Fugue from the First Orchestral Suite – a transcription which attracted the attention and admiration of Tchaikovsky who later persuaded Jurgenson to publish it.

Catoire, described by Victor Belayev as ‘the first Russian Wagnerian’, decided in December 1885 to leave Russia and follow Klindworth to Berlin for further lessons. This apparent decision to turn away from the Russian musical establishment and embrace a German cultural identity might have proved permanent if not for a pivotal event which occurred in the summer of 1886. During a short trip back to Moscow, Catoire was personally introduced to Tchaikovsky. Catoire showed him his first serious attempt at composition (a set of variations) and Tchaikovsky, impressed, told him that ‘it would be a sin if he did not devote himself to composition’. Although Catoire returned to Berlin for further lessons these were to prove unsatisfactory. He had only one month of instruction with Otto Tirsch before moving to Philippe Rüfer (a Belgian composer later described by Catoire as ‘deprived of originality’) for three months of further tuition. Finally in May 1887, with Tchaikovsky’s encouraging words still in his mind, Catoire returned to Russia. That summer he met Tchaikovsky for the second time. He had just finished a string quartet which he had been working on with Rüfer and he showed it to Tchaikovsky. Catoire realized from Tchaikovsky’s comments that his compositional technique was still not sufficiently developed to serve his musical intentions. On Tchaikovsky’s recommendation, Catoire went to Rimsky-Korsakov in St Petersburg with a request for composition and theory lessons. What Rimsky-Korsakov made of this ‘Russian Wagnerian’ from provincial Moscow can only be guessed. Certainly Catoire received only one lesson from Rimsky-Korsakov before being handed over to the scrupulous Liadov. Although Catoire completed several pieces with Liadov, once again the relationship between teacher and student proved unsatisfactory and Catoire’s formal training came to an end.

From the outset Catoire had met resistance from his family, who disapproved of his musical ambitions. He now found himself without support and sympathy for his artistic affinities from his fellow musicians. Had he not worn his Wagnerian colours so openly, things might have been different. However, Russian musical politics were very complex at this time. St Petersburg and Russian nationalistic music were in the ascendancy and little interest was shown in a young composer with leanings towards German Romanticism. One exception, however, was Arensky – another shadowy figure in Russian music. Like Catoire, he had also found little sympathy from Rimsky-Korsakov and his circle. Although the same age as Catoire, Arensky was a far more finished and successful composer. Both young men had received encouragement from Tchaikovsky and now Arensky encouraged his contemporary. Catoire completed a second string quartet and also wrote a small cantata, Rusalka (‘The mermaid’), Op 5. The difficulties he had already faced together with an increasing number of disappointments finally led to a crisis in 1889. Catoire withdrew from Moscow and moved to the countryside breaking off links with his family and fellow musicians. For about two years he contemplated giving up music; the crisis ended with the completion of his C minor Symphony, Op 7.

Despite his intermittent studies, Catoire was largely self-taught as a composer. In 1916, he was appointed professor of composition at the Moscow Conservatory, and he held the post until his death in 1926 – his students included Bely, Fere and, most notably, Kabalevsky. He took his role as teacher very seriously and insisted on a rigorous academic discipline – probably as a consequence of his own experience of patchy and unhelpful instruction. He studied questions of harmony and form and published two textbooks (one posthumously) which became the foundation for future composition-teaching in the Soviet Union. The composer Nikolay Myaskovsky, a fellow professor of composition at the Moscow Conservatory (and, due to his unselfish critical attitude, nicknamed ‘the musical conscience of Moscow’), considered Catoire a truly great teacher.

Catoire’s Piano Trio in F minor, Op 14, was written in 1900. It is the first of a series of important chamber works, an extremely impressive and confident composition which enjoyed some popularity before the Russian Revolution. The musical language is drawn from Tchaikovsky and Arensky though some passages, especially in the first movement, remind one of Rachmaninov’s early works. Throughout, the writing is highly virtuosic – a hallmark of much of Catoire’s output. Indeed, the piano part has a panache and character more normally encountered in a piano concerto of this period.

The first movement opens with a dark and soaring theme of considerable beauty reminding us of Catoire’s undoubted gift for melody. Despite the shoals of notes in the piano part, Catoire is always careful to ensure that equality between the three instruments is maintained. The second movement scherzo, with its strong element of fantasy, has a restless quality enhanced by Catoire’s skilful use of irregular bar lengths. The central section is a fantasy of another kind: resembling a Russian folksong its soulful character again exploits irregular bar lengths especially that of five beats – a metre often used by Arensky and so prevalent in Russian folk music. The third movement finale is truly a tour de force. Intense and driven, once again Catoire piles on the technical demands – most especially in the piano part. The final presto coda makes a thrilling and scintillating conclusion to a work which would surely find many admirers in the concert hall.

The Piano Quartet in A minor, Op 31, was written in 1916 and is more representative of Catoire’s mature style. Here the virtuosity is of a different order. The rhythmic interplay between the four instruments is complex and fluid, especially in the first movement. The influence of Scriabin can be felt strongly. Catoire was a great admirer of Scriabin’s early and middle-period works, though disapproving of his last works which he described as having an ‘absence of harmonic movement and a tiresome stasis’. Looking at Catoire’s Piano Quartet, one can appreciate what he meant. Here everything is fluid with remarkable harmonic shifts and rhythmic subtlety. Despite the ensemble challenges this work presents, there is a natural, almost organic, quality to the writing and the slow second movement has an astonishing beauty in complete contrast to the violent period in which it was written. The rhapsodic final movement is fleet-footed and poignant. A dream-like atmosphere is only briefly dispelled by a forceful presto passage towards the end – though the music finally subsides into a languid coda.

The brief Elegy for violin and piano, Op 26, was published in 1916. Its song-like quality disguises a sophisticated and shifting harmonic soundscape. Rhythmically, there is also considerable sophistication, the piano accompaniment at times moving into quintuplet semiquavers overlaid with triplets. Its fragile beauty is inescapable. Unusually, this piece was published by J & W Chester and for a short while provided a glimpse of Catoire’s gifts as a composer to the world outside Russia.

That Catoire’s works should have been neglected so comprehensively after his death in 1926 is due largely to the difficulties in acquiring copies of his scores. The formidable technical difficulties which his music often presents to performers cannot have helped his cause. His output included five other large-scale chamber works as well as many piano pieces, a symphony, a piano concerto and several songs. A reappraisal of Catoire’s legacy is long overdue and there are signs that this is happening. Robert Matthew-Walker, in his notes for Marc-André Hamelin’s recording of Catoire’s piano music (Hyperion CDA67090), concludes: ‘What is remarkable about Catoire’s output is that even in his earliest work we can note those extraordinary fluent, rather than 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.’

Stephen Coombs © 2005

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