The sparkling opening bars of “Russian Gems” define the program of this Musical Concepts CD, one that is superbly performed by Sicilian pianist Sandro Russo. The concept behind this project is to “showcase the Romantic tradition in Russian music” (Russo), and features works by some composers I have not heard of before as well as some rarities by Rachmaninov and Medtner.
Space does not allow for even a cursory overview of the lives of each of these composers. Collectively, the span of their productive lives runs from the late Romantic period with Sergei Taneyev (1856-1915) and Mily Balakirev (1837-1910) well into the 20th century with the music of Julius Isserlis (1888-1968) and Nikolai Rakov (1908-1990). To my ear, the largest unifying aspect of the music here is that each of these composers was a virtuosic pianist, a facet of their talents you can hear in the music. Some of these pieces, such as the opening Fairy Tale, Op. 6 by Julius Isserlis (1888-1968) are soft, charming miniatures, redolent of French Impressionism while others, the sweeping Sonata No. 1, Op. 5 by Nikolai Medtner for example, are full of Romantic passion and ‘on the edge’ pianism.
The sample in the sidebar for you to hear is a transcription by Grigory Ginzburg of a Waltz from the opera Casanova by Ludomir Różycki. You can also listen to Islamey by Mili Balakirev in the video below.
Sandro Russo handles it all without a blink. As far as I recall, I have not come across his name prior to encountering this CD, but I assure you, he is a pianist of extraordinary technical and artistic abilities. Captured in splendid sound on recordings dating from 2012 and 2013, this sixty-eight minute program will appeal to just about any music lover. If you enjoy the music of the composers you know here – Rachmaninov and perhaps Balakirev and Medtner – you will enjoy the entire program.
Following Sandro Russo’s stunning ‘Scarlatti Recreated,’ this album delves into the Romantic idiom to present piano rarities spanning a century of Russian masterworks. Contains treasures by renowned masters Rachmaninoff, Balakirev, Medtner, and Taneyev, as well as gems by lesser-known though highly accomplished pianist-composers Julius Isserlis, Ludomir Rozycki, and Nikolai Rakov.
Julius Isserlis who was a Russian Jew, was one of 12 musicians allowed to leave Russia in the 1920s to promote Russian culture, but he never returned. His grandson is Steven Isserlis, the renowned British cellist.
Nikolai Karlovich Medtner was a Russian composer and pianist. A younger contemporary of Sergei Rachmaninoff and Alexander Scriabin, he wrote a substantial number of compositions, all of which include the piano.
Sergei Ivanovich Taneyev was a Russian composer, pianist, teacher of composition, music theorist and author.Along with beauty and expressiveness, Taneyev’s music could also show a whimsical streak. Gerald Abraham writes, “Taneyev had a dual nature rather like Lewis Carroll’s, half mathematician, half humorist.” Among Taneyev’s unpublished works are reportedly various parodies
Sergei Vasilievich Rachmaninoff (1873 – 1943) was a Russian composer, pianist, and conductor. Rachmaninoff is widely considered one of the finest pianists of his day and, as a composer, one of the last great representatives of Romanticism in Russian classical music.
Mily Alexeyevich Balakirev (1837-1910) was a Russian pianist, conductor and composer known today primarily for his work promoting musical nationalism and his encouragement of more famous Russian composers, notably Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky.
Nikolai Petrovich Rakov (1908-1990) was a Soviet composer. Rakov was a staunchly conservative composer who exercised a solid grasp of orchestration and melody; many of his works ventured only a little beyond the style of Alexander Glazunov and Reinhold Glière, though his expressive range is far greater than the latter. Unabashed tonality, late Romantic harmonies, and flowing tunes were the hallmarks of his work
Ludomir Różycki (1883-1953) was a Polish composer and conductor. He was, with Mieczysław Karłowicz, Karol Szymanowski and Grzegorz Fitelberg, a member of the group of composers known as Young Poland, the intention of which was to invigorate the musical culture of their generation in their mother country.
He was a son of a professor at the Warsaw Conservatory, where he studied piano and composition.
Acclaimed for his profound sense of poetry and distinctive style, Sandro Russo has been in demand as a soloist in many venues around the world. He unanimously receives accolades for his sparkling virtuosity and his playing has often been referred to as a throwback to the grand tradition of elegant pianism and beautiful sound.