Sunday, March 10, 2013

How's Georgy Catoire for an inaugural post?

Whenever I hear a piece of art deemed a "classic" there is a part of me that cringes.  It isn't merely that I may not like the work in particular, but the notion that this work must last beyond others, and that those others aren't worth the consumer's time.  In all my time reading books, watching movies, and listening to music I can't think of anything more counterproductive to personal growth than sticking to the standards, as so many great artists and their works are left behind by history for any number of reasons, be it artistic politics, real politics, the blockheadedness of the public or just bad luck.  It's been a major obsession of mine for the past few years to find great lost composers and works and work my hardest to restore them to their rightful places in the classical canon (or at least get a few more recordings and performances).  And I can't think of a better entryway to obscure composers than Georgy Catoire (1861-1926).

Catoire (of both Russian and French lineage) is an interesting case in Russian music, a composer who was right in line with a compositional lineage (the piano school headed by the work of Scriabin) and then was forgotten by his peers for being irrelevant at the end of his career.  What I mean by all that is that his work fit in with the vogue for a good while, and then two radical changes left him in the dust: the ultra-modern early Soviet school under Lenin, and the repressive populist regime under Stalin.  The funny thing about him being left in the dust is that some composers thrived under Stalin by being crushingly old-fashioned; Catoire had the misfortune in having little interest in Russian National themes.  It would be safe to say that between his twin influences of Scriabin and Wagner (him actually being one of the few Russians in the Wagner society), his had much more interesting things on his mind.

Though he wrote music in many genres (including the orchestra and many chamber pieces) it appears Catoire will mostly be remembered for his piano works, and I can't see anything wrong with that on account of them being pretty fantastic.  The above piece is wickedly effective, and has a beautiful fetish with the Dorian mode and half-diminished chords.  As difficult as it sounds it actually lays very well under the fingers (though I have an allergic reaction to those who judge pieces solely on playability).  There's a great vaulting quality of how the arpeggios towards the main chord end in a leading tone, in a way letting the pianist throw the chord down, hitting the listener in the gut (and Marc-Andre Hamelin doesn't do a too-shabby job with it, either).  For a Wagnerian I actually don't hear Wagner in Catoire's works, but the Scriabin definitely rears its lovely head.  Here's another piece from that set for some contrast:

The Reverie as a piece concept arose in the late-19th century, and I've read it attributed to music that lets the mind drift off into a hazy, introspective realm (a state of reverie, if I might pretend to be clever for your chagrin).  So much of Catoire's music seems to fit this mold, not to mention this piece actually called "Reverie," and I think the heart of the piece lies not in its actual climax, but at the point of 2:19 (my favorite, but of course).  The harmony is a B-flat minor Dorian scale, lightly falling and being held over a C, suspending a transition to the V chord of F minor (the relative minor of A-flat major, the key of the piece).  He could simply strike the notes, but it's that utterly fragile, fading quality, and the placement of the transition note (C) on the most off of off beats that makes this piece incredibly beautiful.  For my money Catoire's technique with this kind of piano writing peaked with the 4 Chants du Crepuscule, which Hamelin recorded on his CD (which you should pick up before its out-of-print price point goes up further).

One could speculate on the focus on delicate sadness that rips waves through his oeuvre.  It may be good to note that he almost stopped composing completely fairly early into his career, forced into seclusion by the disapproval of his friends and family at his life choices.  A more foolish critic would focus on how his work seems all the more sad considering the downward political spiral Russian music took via hideous public trials and forced bucolicism, but I'm long past believing in artistic precognition (I'll talk of George Butterworth in the future, thank you very much).  The only truth is that this sadness can't be denied, and it takes the form of supple, organically rhythmic line work and deep, yearning melodies.  He never took radical shifts in his methods, and there is never a sense in his work of an artist desperate to prove himself.  It just is, and a gorgeous "is" it is.  Hopefully some more recordings and performances will emerge, but to give you a boost here's a bunch of his works on the great IMSLP:,_Georgy.  Here's to unforced beauty and kind conviction, and a happy inaugural post to you, too.


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