Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Alexei Stanchinsky's Euphonious Fractals

The music world is littered with many untimely deaths, so much so that it's business as usual in Rock stardom, and without fail people keep a special place in their hearts for the Might Have Beens.  Monroe Couper was a recent example, but there are many more and today's may be my personal favorite (if that's the most sensitive wording).  Hailed in his lifetime as a genius by his elders, Alexei Stanchinsky (1888-1914) had always been troubled, having been diagnosed with the symptom-stuffed dementia praecox and reeling from the death of his father.  At the age of 26, just months after a career-making recital of his mature work, Stanchinsky was found dead next to a country stream, and to this day no one is sure if it was illness or suicide, but all new that Russian music had lost one if its best and brightest.  I first discovered him through one of my favorite piano albums, Thomas Adès - Piano, and his best pieces are some of the most haunting and innovative works in the whole of the piano repertoire.  The pieces on Ades's album are part of the reason I started looking for obscure works, and they remain gorgeous reminders of music's capacity to create religious experiences.

Trained among the already rich and intricate language of Russia's turn-of-the-century elite, Stanchinsky soon found his own sophisticated and heartbreaking voice.  Readers of this blog may remember the "Scriabinism" tag I've attached to a couple of articles, though I'll be the first to admit its vagueness as a label.  Alexander Scriabin's piano music came flying out the starting gate with some wildly influential attributes, such as deft rhythmic complexity, a rich extended tonality and refined, lattice-like arpeggiated melodies.  For example, here's the first line to the first of his 24 Preludes, op. 11:

All of these elements are exploited in the Prelude in the Lydian Mode, one of Stanchinsky's most beautiful early works, at times to startling new extents, such as the rare 21/16 time signature (three groups of seven notes each).  The left hand ostinato makes a rich tapestry upon which the melody tiptoes, as well as being a sweeping, cello-like melody in itself.  I've always thought that you can create the impression of expansive or constricted time by simply bumping all the note lengths up or down a level respectively, and in Stanchinsky's slow works such as the Prelude he note values are zoomed in to a near microscopic level, as if euphonious fractals exist just below humanity's musical comprehension.  The already intoxicating rhythmic web is divided in a seemingly endless variety of pulse, fashioning in the process new melodies so poignant as to arch the back in ecstasy.  Counterpoint has been deeply important to Russian classical music since the Mighty Handful, with an unbroken line stretching from Taneyev to Shostakovich, but I never saw a composer reach the same dazzling heights of mastery and innovation as Stanchinsky.  The Prelude is just a taste, and soon enough he showed his contrapuntal power with the Four Canon-Preludes, the third of which is especially incredible.

The listening experience is like stargazing, drinking deep of the silent diamond expanse of the universe.  It takes extraordinary sensitivity of balance and pedal to play these works, and both recordings of this work are excellent.  They also require stellar vision*, as looking at the scores of some of his works is like looking at wood grain through an electron microscope.

His last works, by the time he started assigning opus numbers, are so accomplished they make his death seem an unthinkable robbery.  While many people point to his 12 Sketches, op. 1 as his greatest technical display, I think that while their variety and innovation make them important entries in Russian piano music his greatest work is his Piano Sonata no. 2 in G major, and it has become one of my favorite piano works of all time.  Divided in two movements rather than the usual three or four (even one movement is more common), the latter is his best fast movement, cast in 11/8 and containing passages and sonorities so unbelievable I'd sacrifice a dozen newborns to have written them myself.  Essentially a dance, the Presto swings between charismatic darkness and atmospheric delicacy.  Every possible rhythmic subtlety and melodic contour is exploited, a harrowing kaleidoscope of motives and passions.  While Scriabin's most virtuosic sonatas may eclipse it in technical display, Stanchinsky's reliance on singable melodies and recognizable modes gives the audience the anchors necessary to comprehend his genius without deep analysis.  That doesn't mean that it's easy to play, and only a couple of pianists have tackled it; Nikolay Fefilov's recording has both the technical mastery and interpretive confidence to make the movement sing.

Just because I put the second movement first doesn't mean I forgot the first, and it may be the greatest fugue I've ever seen**.  Stanchinsky's subjects and counter-subjects are his best ever in this movement, using wide leaps without losing the listener's ability to follow the tune.  The tempo is once again achingly slow, but the rhythmic divisions become so thin as to eschew fears of monotony; some of his textures are immensely fragile in their static refinement, like crystal spiderwebs.  The key follows a unique path, beginning in G major and snaking down into atonality, the piano's lowest registers creating a feeling of arcane foreboding.  When the home key returns the right hand explodes into constellations of fractalling arpeggios, and the piece eventually settles into a sophisticated, almost jazzy alternative to V-I (which I won't dare spoil).

Only a scant handful of pianists have recorded Stanchinsky's works, and his audience is far too small for the accessibility of these works.  I'm of the opinion that it's better to bring an audience to esoteric art with a few good anchors for them to hold onto, and Stanchinsky picked the right ones to draw the listener into his crystalline soundworld.  He'll continue to remain obscure unless he gains more high profile performers, and his oeuvre is the kind that could attract someone like Marc-Andre Hamélin, arguably the world's greatest living pianist and a champion of piano works of this period and character.  All of Stanchinsky's works have fallen into the public domain, and all his piano music can be gotten here.  This article has been a long time coming, with the opportunity to share some of my favorite pieces being a driving element in my unjustly ignored scholarly subjects***.  Perhaps its not very rigorous of me to highlight a composer with such strong sentimental value, but this is the season of memory and you couldn't pick a better piece of nostalgia if you raided the Library of Congress.  Here's to you , Alexei, and let your legend grow as much as it can - I'll help out as much as I can.


*Heh, stargazing puns.

**Apologies to Bach fans, of course.

***Though I'd be the first to call my work more Pop Scholarship than anything else.  I have no shame in that, thank you very much.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Visual Music - Grotesken-Album


I leaped for joy last night (or rather leaped internally as I remained sitting in my bed), because arguably the seminal document of Expressionist music has finally been uploaded to IMSLP in full.  Universal-Edition's Grotesken-Album, though mostly compiled from single movements of larger works as a marketing ploy, encapsulates a rich and striking moment in Classical history when horror, madness and mockery were the soups du jour.  Expressionism gained traction in music after WWI, and the freedom of dissonant architecture that works like Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire and The Book of the Hanging Gardens introduced made a huge impression on younger composers.  Much like Impressionism, Ultra-Modernism and Scriabinisim, the fecundity of Expressionism was ultimately swallowed by movements defined by regularized architecture and reduced individuality.  That isn't to say that Expressionism didn't have its mediocre moments, and viewers of the Grotesken-Album may experience varied mileage with its mix of still-established (Béla Bartók, Ernst Krenek) and now-obscure (Felix Petyrek, Rudolph Réti) artists working in a volatile new language.  A fine example of the language in the book by a lesser-known composer is the Burleske movement of Eklogen, op. 11 by Egon Wellesz - just skip to 5:31.

Universal-Edition was unstoppable at the time, a new music juggernaut and bastion for all things exciting and Germanic (Durand had the French stuff).  What's so great about the collection isn't even how creative its works were at the time, but rather that it owes its existence to good old fashioned advertising tricks**.  And with such an inventive product to sell Universal-Edition felt compelled to market it inventively.  Thank God for inter-war irreverence.

A better grotesk cover couldn't have come to be even if Leviathan coughed up Behemoth onto your Thanksgiving dinner table to sing bawdy drinking songs.  The jester, Europe's longtime symbol of the Id's cruel laughter at everything sacred, is deformed into a skeletal, superhuman frame, head spinning like an Art Nouveau Regan MacNeil.  His clothes, along with the backdrop, are drenched in browns and grays, subverting any hope for a symbol of glory by presenting its messenger resplendent in mud.  The superimposition of fuschia and sky blue against charcoal is bizarre, almost beckoning the viewer to a demented carnival.  Much like Edwin Roxburgh's Labyrinth the title gains power by reaching past the frame, but instead of that cover's overwhelming font mass Grotesken's letters remain nimble and spidery, their overreach more a quirky mistake than anything else.  The grasp of exotic humorror*** on display is almost impossible to describe in words, so I'll let the inevitable realization by the viewer that the jester's left leg isn't attach to anything sink in.  It's too good for the music it's promoting, and while that may be a recurring theme in this series that shouldn't keep you from gobbling this anthology with as much speed as you can muster on a mid-November Sunday.  I can't guarantee you'll finish it with your head right side up, though.


*Isn't that font just fantastic?

**Is Scorewife an acceptable term?  Either way I'm using it.

***Humor-horror, but you can chuck that word into the dustbin if you like.  The jester got to me.