Two transitional piano works from early the 20th century
RAVEL: Gaspard de la Nuit; RACHMANINOFF: Piano Sonata No. 1 in D Minor, Op. 28 – Valentina Lisitsa, piano – Naïve 7583 (12/21/21) 60:06 [Distr. by Naxos] ****:
Under the rubric “1908,” Ukrainian-American pianist Valentina Lisitsa (rec. 28-29 June 2017) presents two works from that year, designated by Leonard Bernstein in his Norton Lectures as seminal in the evolution of music, since, among other works, Schoenberg’s Three Pieces, Op. 11 were imminent, with their virtual dissolution of the standard rules of tonality. Lisitsa, however, chooses the “more” classically inclined works, Ravel’s suite Gaspard de la Nuit and Rachmaninoff’s Piano Sonata No. 1 in D Minor. Each of these two works possesses a literary component: Ravel bases his three movement suite upon Gaspard de la Nuit — Fantaisies à la manière de Rembrandt et de Callot (1842) by Aloysius Bertrand, while Rachmaninoff claimed that the Faust legend and Liszt’s Eine Faust-Symphonie provided the impetus for his sonata.
Given the full texts of Bertrand’s poems in the liner notes – “Gaspard” served as a pseudonym for Satan, from the Persian origin of “a man who guards mysterious, jewel-like treasure” and is truly the author of the book – it seems a pity that, unlike the June 1964 recording by Gina Bachauer and Sir John Gielgud (on Mercury 434 359-22), Lisitsa has no such effective narrator. In contrast to Bachauer’s brisk tempos for the three movements, Lisitsa slowly basks in Ravel’s figures: the redolent harmonic veils and liquid arabesques in the opening “Ondine” prove both alluring and sinister as the water nymph attempts to seduce a man who confesses he already loves a mortal. Minor and major seconds, laced with chains of fluid arpeggios, capture the oceanic seductiveness, until, in her dissolution “in tears and laughter,” Ondine vanishes “in a shower that streamed white down my blue stained glass windows.”
“Le Gibet” depicts a hanged corpse dangling from a gallows, while the attentive narrator detects the sounds and movements of tiny insects, even in the midst of the north wind. The corpse rotates on the rope to the sound of a tolling bell from a distant city. An ostinato B-flat assumes varying harmonies, even with hints of jazz impulse. The last movement, “Scarbo,” projects much of the terror we find in Poe, with a malignant goblin’s haunting a sleeper’s alcove, here in the form of a transcendental etude worthy of both Liszt and Balakirev’s technically daunting Islamey. Ravel claimed he wanted to make an “orchestral transcription for piano,” having concocted a virtuoso piece well beyond the composer’s digital means. The various, explosive keyboard eruptions of color and mental pirouettes confirm Ravel’s accompanying statement that he “wanted to make a caricature of romanticism. Perhaps it got the better of me.” Indeed, Ravel’s opus presents one of the most demanding of color fireworks. Lisitsa’s fluent and somber bass tones rise up in glittering arpeggios as she approaches the “diaphanous body” of the evil dwarf, his face now “turned pale like the wax of a candle stub” The nervous propulsion reaches a torrential level of bitter intensity, the goblin’s achieving an apotheosis in eerily dissipated chords.
Following Liszt’s 1854 Eine Faust-Symphonie – with its three movements each a musical depiction of Faust, Gretchen, and Mephistopheles – Rachmaninoff concocts a score that, despite its intricacy of means, relies on scalar figures, fifths, and repeated notes. The D Minor texture often seems a collage made of impulses of the piano concertos in C Minor and D Minor. The original performer of the D Minor Sonata, Konstantin Igumnov, demanded severe cuts, some 110 measures, from the score, to which the insecure composer agreed. Lisitsa obviously admires the music, and she asserts of the opening movement Allegro moderato, with alternating declamatory force and liquid, poetic tenderness. Like Liszt, the melodic content and the harmonic basis will recycle in various forms throughout the composition. More than once, we hear in Rachmaninoff’s ascending progressions echoes of Liszt, even from the former’s Dante Sonata. Despite the competing elements in Faust’s psyche, the music makes its long-considered, even sweeping, progress to a D Major epilogue in meditative tones.
The Lento, opening momentarily in D, settles in F Major, where Rachmaninoff employs stretto, polyphonic effects to overlap complementary motifs. The lyrical, nostalgic impulse in Rachmaninoff Lisitsa well nourishes in rich chords and glistening scales and arpeggios. Rachmaninoff exploits the interval of a fifth in rocking pulsations. The swelling melody drips with allusions to the tone-poem The Isle of the Dead. This music concludes in the manner of a duet between motives in the Faust first movement and the repeated tropes of Gretchen pleas and exclamations of devotion. The last movement, Allegro molto, indulges Rachmaninoff in the Lisztian fervors of an impassioned, demonic and frenzied gallop, like the Berlioz “Ride to the Abyss.” The tolling bells, reminiscent of the ubiquitous Dies Irae in this composer’s oeuvre, ripple through modal scales and brisk runs, making the three-note gallop even more rhetorically manic. Except for a lovely melody that arises, twice, in the midst of Faust’s imminent damnation, the music sings even as it plummets, the Dies Irae in the bass awaiting his fall. When that fall occurs, Faust has pictured past memories and regrets, ready to concede his soul to The Devil. Lisitsa plays these pearly figures in the manner of an exalted etude-tableau, as Lisztian as it indicative of Rachmaninoff. Highly ornamented, the Dies Irae comes crashing down, now in a four-note pattern rife with the “Fate” of the Beethoven Fifth, so Faust’s pitiful shrieks for mercy have incurred only divine malice.