I'm generally suspicious of national stereotypes but a new CD recording of cello and piano works by Russian composers illuminates and gives life to the concept known as the "Russian soul." The recording by Chicago-based Cedille Records brings together cellist Wendy Warner and pianist Irina Nuzova in a collection by Rachmaninov, Prokofiev, Scriabin and Schnittke. But it's the opening work by a composer I had never heard of, Nikolai Miaskovsky (1881-1950) that was the real headliner for me.
Miaskovsky, who served on the faculty of the Moscow Conservatory from 1921 until his death, composed 27 symphonies, however he never won the fame of his contemporaries, Rachmaninov, Prokofiev and Shostakovich. His work is little performed today. But from the first notes of his Sonata No. 2 for Cello and Piano, Op 81, which opens this CD, one is struck by the lyrical beauty and deep melancholy of the piece which seems to express something quintessentially Russian. It's simply a gorgeous and moving piece of music that has never before been recorded on American soil by an American artist by an American label. How exciting to discover a new landmark of late Russian romanticism, which alone is worth the price of this recording!
The very useful program notes which accompany this CD includes an essay by the pianist, Nuzova who grew up in Russia but moved to the United States as a teenager to escape anti-Semitism. The sonata, she says, has a pervasive, nostalgic quality that is subtle and subdued in its expression. Nuzova says the music reminds her of a poem by Konstantin Balmont (1867-1942) called "Wordlessness" and she includes an English translation.
Let me just quotes one stanza:
"The reeds are unstirring, the sedge doesnn't quiver.
Deep quiet. And wordlessness, utterly peaceful.
The meadows spread out faraway and forever.
In everything - weariness, muteness and bleakness."
The poem is a perfect fit for the music.
Cellist Wendy Warner, also has a Russian connection. As a student at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, she had the rare opportunity to learn from the legendary Russian virtuoso and human rights activist Mstislav Rostropovich.
She and Nuzova, both strikingly attractive in the cover photo, meld together seamlessly in this CD. They also give us a witty, minor-key minuet by Schnittke, a Prokofiev transcription from "Cinderella," an encore piece by Scriabin and Rachmaninov's sprawling Cello Sonata, which to my mind is not one of his most inspired creations but which is delivered with utter conviction and intensity.
Cedille has been around for 20 years, devoted to showcasing classical artists from the Chicago area. We must be thankful to the company for bringing us two undiscovered gems - the Miaskovsky and the beautiful poem by Bal'mont.