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.

1 comment:

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