Move Records MD 3328
Heading towards his 82nd birthday, Larry Sitsky is a surviving member of that group of composers who came to prominence in the 1960s when Australia’s musical world woke up to the 20th century. Not part of the Sydney collation of Sculthorpe, Meale and Butterley; non-allied with the Melbourne league of Dreyfus, Werder and Gifford; Sitsky has made his base for many years in Canberra, where he is still Emeritus Professor at the Australian National University. His renown as a pianist has endured through his teaching and recordings, this particular one being a double album released in 2010; on it, one of his major preoccupations is given ample space and you would find it hard to detect a similar undertaking elsewhere.
Born in China of Russian parents, the composer/pianist studied with Egon Petri and, through him, can claim some descendant status from Busoni. Throughout these discs, you come across example after example of a 19th century European virtuoso approach to interpretation where the letter of the law is not strictly observed, the player comfortably taking liberties, mainly with respect to rhythm which becomes a moveable feast. Much of this music I’ve not heard before and some of it fails to engage immediate sympathy. Yet the enterprise is much more than a musicological research tool and the performer’s authority of utterance is mightily impressive.
Towards the end of Disc 2, the program moves to an assemblage of small pieces, several of them so slight in length and substance that they almost disappear simply through weight of numbers. But the chief works that Sitsky presents constitute a remarkable journey from the next-to-last stages of Russian Romanticism, through the outbreak of mysticism spearheaded by Scriabin, to the Constructivist movement that followed the 1917 Revolution. These focal tracks begin with Anton Rubinstein’s Op. 88 Variations in G, Vladimir Shcherbachev‘s Sonata No. 2, Nikolai Roslavets‘ Second Sonata, and the First Sonata by Alexander Mosolov, the man once famous for his Iron Foundry orchestral essay in Futurism. Scattered between these are smaller scores by Leonid Polovinkin, Nikolai Obukhov, a suite for sophisticated children by Rebikov, and will-of-the-wisp bagatelles by Vladimir Deshevov and Stravinsky’s one-time intimate, Arthur Lourie. And that’s not all: some scraps by Roslavets and Mosolov offer slight fleshings-out of these writers’ sonatas.
Listening to these discs in succession is certain to lead to empathy overload, sometimes disguised as fatigue, so you’re best advised to oscillate between the long and the short in bursts, rather than embracing Sitsky’s program as a one-sitting continuum. Not that the opening Rubinstein Variations offer many difficulties. Unlike the rest of the album’s contents, this was a live performance from 2006, performed on an elderly Ronisch instrument at the Canberra School of Music. Rubinstein wrote his solid construct in 1871, and Sitsky’s piano was made for the Melbourne International Exhibition of 1880 so there is a kind of historical congruence to the recording, even if the Ronisch is not exactly in tune in parts of its higher compass.
The theme is a noble extended chorale that emerges after an opening recitative for bass octaves. Sitsky adopts a free approach to the bar-line’s exigencies as early as Variation 2, by which stage you realize that the shade of Chopin is present, even if the Polish composer’s inspired manipulation of the keyboard is not. The Marcia Variation 3 would never do for any parade ground, thanks to lots of indulgent arpeggios. The Vivace of Variation 6 comes over as leaden-footed, a Teutonic romp. During the following two variations, the work takes on a predictable format; Rubinstein is never happier than when leading you into the obvious. At Variation 11, Sitsky employs a different rhythmic pattern to the printed one, and lets fly with the individuality in the final segment with octave transpositions, hefty use of the sustaining pedal that blurs any rapid-fire passage work, idiosyncratic emphases of notes, semiquavers transform to triplet quavers. All of which could have been part of contemporary practice in the composer’s era, especially as we know that masters like Liszt and Paganini delighted in adding quirks to stable if ordinary structures. The only real objection to this interpretation is a looseness in the joints, too much rubato when strict persistence in the pulse would give the work some flesh-strengthening muscle.
The Shcherbachev Sonata was written in 1914 when the composer was 25 and gamely experimenting. A one-movement rhapsody, it shows an awareness of developments in harmonic vocabulary, at times a less hard-edged Prokofiev tongue, at others a Rachmaninov-like chromatic facility with much roaming anchored in tonality. This composer is prone to employing a strong-voiced melody with plenty of surrounding ferment, his climactic moments as rhetorical and passionate as anything in the preceding Rubinstein variations.
On Disc 2, Sitsky’s first major reading is of the Roslavets sonata which reveals – as do several other tracks on this album – the influence of Scriabin, although this later composer differs from his predecessor by being pretty keen on octave declamations in both hands. Sitsky continues to treat the set tempi erratically, with clipped triplets and a breezy treatment of time values in gruppetti. The single-movement sonata follows the Liszt practice of referring to itself but what impresses above all else are Sitsky’s pains in mastering its myriad chord structures, its abundance of trills and its typically 20th Century tendency to leap inconsiderately across the full compass of the piano itself.
Mosolov’s vocabulary is about as confronting as Soviet music gets; the Iron Foundry is an object lesson in depicting industrial, i.e. factory, power with relentless drive, and my only other experience of this writer’s work, Susanna Stefani-Caetani’s execution of the Piano Concerto No. 1 with her husband Oleg Caetani and the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra in August 2006 was memorable for its execution more than its material. Sitsky gives the opening tone-row outline plenty of breadth before the inevitable barrage of massive block chords oscillating with discernible melodic motives over bass rumbles. Once again, this sonata comprises one movement that juxtaposes episodes of varied texture, employing cells rather than more solid continuous arches, but at the core its world is pure Constructivist, heading towards the brutal. Mosolov is happiest pounding ideas around the instrument rather than settling in for a good round of development. For all the talk of his use of rows and a genre of 12-tone writing, the composer was no doctrinaire in his composition’s organization, as witnessed by the multiple repetitions of notes, chords and phrases. Sitsky contrives to preserve the 1924 sonata’s ebbs and flows of tension, right up to the soft, gloomy concluding gestures.
Of the less substantial pieces, Polovinkin’s Ereignis VII stands out. Three internally fraught fragments make an arresting sequence, enigmatic in their terseness. During the second, L’action, the composer inserts some notes for prepared piano – a card inserted between some centre-range strings – that startle for their unexpectedness. The third, Souvenir, loses its drive as the performer again suits himself about both pulse and pace.
Lourie’s Formes en l’air, written without bar-lines or time signatures, reveal a moody quiescence, typified by some staccato pointillism and abrupt blurts of activity. The last of the three pieces is formally apprehensible, the most impressive – and impressionistic – of the set, with some Ravel washes initiating an unpretentious if brief experimental paragraph. This composer’s slightly earlier five Syntheses occasionally startle by their anticipation of the sort of writing that came into vogue about 1950, but the revenant at this particular feast seemed to me to be Schoenberg; while Lourie’s brevities seem flighty, there are suggestions in them of the 1909 Drei Klavierstucke. Like his great contemporary at this developmental stage, Lourie is not breaking away from his time, yet these tracks are like nothing else in Russia from the period – at least, judging from the context of these discs – and much more sophisticated in their elements than anything that his colleague Stravinsky had produced at this stage. If one of the Syntheses stands out, it is No. 4: fertile in manipulation of material, its movement both strong and delicate.
Rebikov’s Music for Children and three extracts from the Op. 15 Melomimiques enjoy fine service from Sitsky, the former not as patronising as you might think, certainly not over-saccharine in flavour but packed with whole-tone, bitonal, and suspense-through-non-resolution surprises. The program concludes with two samples of Obukhov’s pianistic mysticism. Revelation consists of six excursions into metaphysical areas such as Death, Immortal, and The Distress of Satan. In atmosphere, the suite is placidly neurasthenic, hard to penetrate because of the composer’s mysticism where The Void turns out to be a pretty active plane. The state of perpetual existence is typified by bleak isolation, and the Devil’s agony lasts only long enough for a few punitive pin-pricks. The final diptych of Le temple est mesure: l’esprit est incarne and La paix pour les reconcilies would have delighted Messiaen with its three-stave spread and clangorous chords juxtaposed with reserved lulling.
A labour of love, then, this large-scale exercise. You have to admire Sitsky’s dedication and erudition, as well as the clear evidence throughout these recordings of his innate virtuosity. A lot of it makes for hard listening – not just the sheer percussiveness of a morsel like Deshevov’s Rel’sy which imitates Bartok’s Allegro barbaro in several respects – but the sustained aural onslaught of the three focal sonatas. This music-making gives some welcome substance to our knowledge of a strikingly fertile time in Russia’s musical activity that, for many years, was in danger of being wiped from the memory of all but a few true believers. We should thank Sitsky for his remarkable gift of restoration.