Classical CD Reviews

New classical music releases reviewed in detail by Gavin Dixon

Thursday, 13 August 2015

Alissa Firsova Russian Emigres

Russian Émigrés

Rachmaninov: Piano Sonata No. 2 (1913 version), Variations on a Theme of Corelli
Elena Firsova: For Alissa 
Dmitri Smirnov: Piano Sonata No. 6, “Blake” Sonata
Alissa Firsova: Lune Rouge

Alissa Firsova, piano

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The multi-talented Alissa Firsova is not new to discs – at least two currently available CDs feature her compositions – but this new release represents her recording debut as a pianist. It’s an impressive recital, cleverly mixing new and old into a coherent and musically focussed programme.
The disc is structured around two major Rachmaninov works, the Second Sonata (1913 version) and the Corelli Variations. If I’ve one grumble about this recital, it is the sheer ubiquity of the Second Sonata on pianists’ debut recital discs: very rare the Russian pianist who chooses not to include this on their first CD.  Still, it gets an excellent performance from Firsova. Her reading is disciplined and precise, but with plenty of drama too. The sheer clarity of her touch is impressive, and there are always nuances of dynamic and articulation distinguishing the melodies from the accompanying textures. Firsova plays a Fazioli, whether by choice or circumstance, and it is the ideal instrument for her pianism – elegant and clear without ever sounding forceful. The opening of the sonata is suitably thunderous, though even here there is never any sense that the music is carrying her away: She’s always in control. The dotted rhythms in the second subject are not overly emphasised – here and elsewhere, the music’s dramatic contrasts are clearly acknowledged, but without any exaggeration or undue pathos. All round, this is a committed and involving performance, but one that always feels focussed, directed and clearly articulated.
Both of Firsova’s parents are composers. Their emigration from Russia, along with Rachmaninov’s several decades earlier, is the theme of this recital (the disc’s title is Russian Émigrés). It’s just an excuse, of course, for programming Rachmaninov with works by Firsova’s own family, and in the case of the Second Sonata, written before Rachmaninov left Russia, it wears thin. Fortunately, the musical connections linking all the works together are so strong that the “Émigrés” theme becomes secondary to the sheer musical coherence of the recital. Elena Firsova (Alissa’s mother) composed the following work, For Alissa, after hearing her practising the Corelli Variations, which appears later on. That may explain the surprisingly Romantic sound of the work’s opening passages. In fact, this short piece is a set of variations, and the music quickly increases in complexity and harmonic intrigue. Yet, true to form, Firsova maintains a strong sense of unity and stylistic focus. The music always retains its initial lyricism, even when the textures become more turbulent and dense. Everything moves by smooth transition – despite the sectional structure, the work gives the impression of a single utterance. And while it quickly moves away from Rachmaninov’s soundworld, it always sounds undeniably Russian, especially with sound of tolling bells from the repeated fourths deep in the instrument’s bass as the work closes.
At only seven minutes, the Elena Firsova work only gives a frustratingly short glimpse of the composer’s talents. Fortunately, Dmitri Smirnov, Alissa’s father, is represented by a more substantial work, his Sixth Piano Sonata, the “Blake” Sonata. Firsova tells us in her detailed liner notes that Smirnov has a long-held fascination with William Blake, having composed over 40 works based on the writer and, even more remarkably, translated everything he ever wrote into Russian. The relationship between this music and Blake’s work is abstract, beyond the use of letters from his name to make musical cyphers. In fact, the question of the relationship between Blake’s mystical spirituality and Smirnov’s often devotional, often clear-eyed and rational, intonations is probably a very productive way into this music.
But whether treated as exegesis or pure musical form, this is a masterly work that deserves the widest audience. Again, the music here has a strong Russian accent – it is clearly the work of a composer from the last generation of Soviet-trained Russians. Smirnov is a master of counterpoint, and the clarity of the contrapuntal lines here – often just in simple canonic relations but ranging right across the keyboard – makes the music continually engaging. I often hear Schnittke’s piano music in the background. I doubt Smirnov himself would appreciate the comparison, and it is probably more to do with shared technical apparatus than common artistic goals. For example, the use of monograms based on names often leads to single, highly expressive lines (but monody rather than melody, as per Messiaen). So the sparse opening becomes reminiscent of Schnittke’s First Piano Sonata, and the sparse ending of his Piano Quintet. We also hear homophonic chordal/choral textures – a link perhaps to Schnittke, or, more probably, and like Firsova’s tolling bells, to the shared inheritance of the Russian tradition. But such comparisons apart, this is an impressively distinctive, original and assured work – the highlight of the programme.
Given the clarity and care that Alissa Firsova applies to the Rachmaninov Sonata, it is little wonder that the Corelli Variations suit her even better. When the Folia them appears after the Smirnov Sonata, it brings a refreshing break from the highly emotive music we have just heard: Having the Rachmaninov follow straight on from the Smirnov without a break is an inspired piece of programming. As the variations go on, the dance-like grace of the music becomes the defining character of Firsova’s reading. Again, we have drama and contrast where required, but continuity and focus are always the more apparent virtues.
To close, one of Alissa Firsova’s own works, Lune Rouge, written for Imogen Cooper in 2005. The liner reproduces the first page of the Rachmaninov Sonata inside the front cover and the first page of Firsova’s work on the inside of the back. The two look remarkably similar, with repeating figures in the treble accompanying a long-ranging melody in the mid-register. But Firsova’s soundworld is closer of Liszt’s La campanella, for the continually ringing sounds of the treble accompaniment – it’s those Russian bells again, you can’t get away from them.
Firsova’s work at the end feels like a brief encore after the more substantial Corelli Variations, the real climax of the programme. It is as if Firsova the composer is deliberately taking a back seat so as not to steal the limelight from Firsova the pianist. That is a delicate balance, but one that this programme manages well. All three of the Smirnov/Firsova family deserve more exposure as composers, but that is only a secondary concern here. As a debut recital disc, it does everything it sets out to do, not only demonstrating the Firsova’s impressive talents, but also giving a clear picture of her musical personality. Strongly recommended, primarily on those grounds, but also for Smirnov’s “Blake” Sonata, which has the makings of a modern masterpiece.

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