Lyapunov: Piano Concertos No 1 & 2, Rhapsody / Tsintsabadze, Yablonsky

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LYAPUNOV Piano Concertos: No. 1; No. 2 in E. Rhapsody on Ukrainian Themes Shorena Tsintsabadze (pn); Dmitry Yablonsky, cond; Russian PO NAXOS 8.570783 (58: 32)

This release enters into direct, parallel competition with Volume 30 of Hyperion’s Romantic Piano Concerto series, which contains exactly the same program performed by Hamish Milne, Martyn Brabbins, and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. Other than that CD, plus a Chandos recording of Lyapunov’s Symphony No. 1 coupled with yet another version of the composer’s Piano Concerto No. 2 played by Howard Shelley, and a Dutton disc containing Lyapunov’s op. 63 Sextet with the Dante Quartet, I can’t claim extensive knowledge of or acquaintance with the composer’s music. And I daresay that based on current listings of available recordings, I’m not alone in my lack of familiarity, for only about a third of his 71 opus numbers have been committed to disc.

Sergei Lyapunov (1859–1924) became disenchanted with the academic discipline at the Moscow Conservatory, where he studied, and with the conservative inclinations of his teacher, Sergei Taneyev. So he sought out Balakirev of the Mighty Five, with whose Russian nationalist leanings Lyapunov found himself more in sympathy. Balakirev, who at the time was the only professional musician in the group, would remain an important influence on Lyapunov. Despite this, the young composer, having been exposed to the rigors of conservatory schooling, found the others’ dilettantism distasteful and ultimately limiting; thus, as I was to learn, he fell in with the so-called Belyayev crowd, a society of Russian musicians who met in St. Petersburg between 1885 and 1908, and whose members included Glazunov, Liadov, and Rimsky-Korsakov. The latter distanced himself from the Mighty Five after he became professor of harmony, composition, and orchestration at the St. Petersburg Conservatory. Like the Mighty Five, the Belyayev composers also believed in cultivating a native Russian music, but they differed by embracing the requirement for a Western-styled academic education and by being more receptive to the Western-oriented cosmopolitan model of Tchaikovsky. These ideas were largely disseminated by Rimsky-Korsakov through his many students, including Prokofiev, Stravinsky, and Respighi.

For Lyapunov, the Belyayev philosophy presented the best of both worlds: music of a Russian bent wedded to a solid grounding in Western harmonic and contrapuntal practices. In a way, Lyapunov, along with Alexander Kopylov (1854–1911), another Belyayev member, Moszkowski (1859–1925), and Ippolitov-Ivanov (1859–1935), were the link between Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov on one side, and the three Gs—Gretchaninov, Glazunov, and Glière—and Rachmaninoff on the other.

Lyapunov’s Piano Concerto No. 1, in the godforsaken key of E?-Minor (six flats!)—fine maybe for the pianist, but think of the orchestra’s string players—received its premiere in 1890 in a performance led by Balakirev. The piece won a Belyayev Glinka prize in 1904 (as did Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2), and it became a favorite of Josef Hofmann, who performed it often. Critical opinion, however, was not unanimous. Rimsky-Korsakov expressed doubts regarding Lyapunov, observing that “his music, though very noble, was almost completely lacking in originality.” And from there, Lyapunov’s ride was all downhill.

By the time Hyperion released its recording nearly 100 years later in 2002, here is what the critics were saying. Anastasia Tsioulcas of Classics Today : “This is Romantic music with a vengeance. Lyapunov never was satisfied to use one note when 10 would do just splendidly. By the end of the second concerto, you will either be utterly enthralled or so addled by trills, runs, and splayed chords that you’ll be at a loss to know which end is up.” And from an R. E. B. of ClassicalCDReview comes this gem: “The concerto (No. 1) here receives its premiere—and probably last—recording. Its popularity at the time eludes me. It’s a 23-minute work of five connected movements with no memorable melodies and an abundance of rather vapid, rambling filigree and meaningless octaves for the soloist.”

Well, R. E. B. was wrong about one thing; Hyperion’s premiere recording of Lyapunov’s First Concerto was not to be its last, for here on Naxos we have a second. Call me a sucker for “Romantic music with a vengeance,” if you like, but I find Lyapunov’s music hard to resist. Yes, it’s open to the charges leveled against it, and one might not wish to be caught reveling in the embarrassing pleasure of it, but experienced in private, who has to know? I make no claim that Lyapunov is one of music history’s great underrated talents, but the man was no mere potboiler-writing hack. What impresses as much as his obvious keyboard facility is his skill at orchestration and the importance he attaches to the orchestra, which in these works plays more than a simple accompanimental role. Much important melodic material is given to the winds, and the instruments are carefully chosen for their coloristic effects. In the Rhapsody on Ukrainian Themes, for example, the main theme is introduced by an English horn.

Puritans, prigs, and prudes need not apply, but for all those not ashamed to leave their inhibitions at the door and to acknowledge their pleasure-seeking impulses, listening to Lyapunov is like taking a bath in Russian chocolate. And Shorena Tsintsabadze is the lady of the banya . Even if you already acquired the Milne as part of the Hyperion collection, I’d urge you to acquire this new Naxos. Timings-wise, Tsintsabadze and Milne are so close to each other that the few seconds’ differences between them in all three works are so slight they’re negligible. But in the crucial areas of interpretation, orchestral playing, and impact of recording, Tsintsabadze, Yablonsky, the Russian Philharmonic, and Naxos are the clear winners.

Hamish Milne is a wonderful pianist, but my sense of the several volumes he’s recorded for Hyperion’s Romantic Piano series is that he’s had to learn new scores specifically for the project, scores he may not necessarily have come to on his own or be deeply responsive to. His performances in the highly diverse concertos he’s committed to disc—from Hummel to Holbrooke—tend to reflect a certain sameness of approach and a surface playing of the notes that don’t always reflect their national origins or stylistic differences.

Shorena Tsintsabadze, in contrast, is Russian through and through. She was born in Moscow, studied at the Moscow Conservatory, and then in the U.S. with Oxana Yablonskaya. Lyapunov is in her blood, and you can hear it in the way she brings out the Russian idioms in this music derived indirectly from native folk melody sources. One has the feeling that these works have special meaning for her; whereas for Milne, one senses they are just three more assignments checked off the list.

Then there’s the Russian Philharmonic, which, under Yablonsky, sounds not only more technically poised and polished but more deeply into these scores than the BBC’s Scottish contingent under Brabbins. And finally, there’s the Naxos recording, which has a depth and presence to it that exceeds Hyperion’s 2002 effort. Listening to the two CDs, one after the other, I think I can understand why the previously quoted critics had the reaction they did to Lyapunov’s music. Fine as Hyperion’s recording was for its time, the new Naxos eclipses it in every respect and, in my opinion, makes a much stronger case for these works. At Naxos’s budget price, you can’t afford not to add this to your collection, even if you already have Milne.

FANFARE: Jerry Dubins

Product Description:

  • Release Date: December 14, 2010

  • Catalog Number: 8570783

  • UPC: 747313078370

  • Label: Naxos

  • Number of Discs: 1

  • Composer: Sergei Lyapunov

  • Conductor: Dmitry Yablonsky

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: Russian Philharmonic Orchestra

  • Performer: Shorena Tsintsabadze