CUI: 25 Preludes, Op. 64 (Jeffrey Biegel/ USA RMC Classical Music) (Naxos: 8.555557)
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César Cui (1835-1918)
25 Preludes for piano, Op. 64
A Lieutenant General, graduate of the St Petersburg Engineering School and Academy of Military Engineering, noted authority on fortification, instructor to the last Tsar, and President of the Imperial Russian Musical Society, critic, occasional student of Moniuszko, disciple of Balakirev, by profession a military engineer, by vocation a musician, by blood not a Russian at all, César Antonovich Cui was born in Vilnius, to a French father, an officer with Napoleons ill-fated Grand Army of 1812, wounded at Smolensk, and a Lithuanian mother.
Cuis precocious musicality was re-awakened by Balakirev, whom he first met in 1856 and Dargomizhsky, one of whose pupils, Malvira Bamberg, he married in 1858. Together with Balakirev, guiding spirit of the late nineteenth century Russian nationalist movement, Rimsky-Korsakov, Borodin and Mussorgsky, he was a member of the so-called Five or Mighty Handful. His literary forays, at home and abroad, reveal the extent of his fanaticism, more than that of any of his peers, for promoting the ideals and aesthetics of this group, and, correspondingly, for destroying those not of the cause.
The critic Vladimir Stasov, writing in 1883, believed that even though what Dargomizhsky called the "Balakirev party" was closely knit and in complete accord as to its manner of thinking and artistic direction, its works did not bear the stamp of sameness and uniformity. They were as totally unlike as the natures of the composers themselves. While these young musicians shared a common purpose, each of them retained his own individuality. Of Cui he wrote that, self-taught as a musician, he had little bent for orchestration and never became a skilled orchestrator, the principal characteristics of Cuis music being poetry, passion and an extraordinary warmth of feeling and tenderness. Cui, he claimed, concerned himself almost exclusively with presenting love in all its various manifestations, displaying, therefore, a very one-sided talent, while in depth and intensity portraying this emotion in a way that surpassed anything ever achieved not only by his colleagues in the Russian school but perhaps by anyone in the whole field of music. He went on to point out that Cui had little understanding of nationalism, with gifts of his own that were too exclusively lyrical and pyschological. As a critic, principally from 1864 to 1900, he spared no- one. He despised Tchaikovsky, excoriated Rachmaninovs First Symphony, condemned Wagner and damned Richard Strauss. On occasion he could even turn on his own fellow-travellers - for instance, Mussorgsky - assessing Boris Godunov as an opera of chopped recitative and looseness of musical discourse ... the consequence of immaturity, undiscriminating, self-complacent, hasty method of composition.
Today Cui is all but forgotten, a footnote of Russian history. As a composer, Richard Anthony Leonard argues, in his History of Russian Music (1956), he was the weakest member of The Five, and by so wide a margin that we wonder at the respect and even deference which he commanded from the group ... the poorest composer... the loudest talker. By nature, Tchaikovsky felt, Cui is more drawn towards light and piquantly rhythmic French music; but the demands of the invincible band, which he has joined, compel him to do violence to his natural gifts and to follow those paths of would-be original harmony which do not suit him (1869). To his critics he was weak, mediocre, undistinguished, insipid, directionless. He wrote more than a dozen operas, including the celebrated William Ratcliff, hundreds of choruses and songs, and volumes of concentrated piano miniatures "pressed violets" of a salon age long ago. A "colourless" Violin Sonata and three string quartets lacking in inspiration (W. W. Cobbett, 1929) suggest that if he had any interest in the sonata principle or large-scale symphonic organization it must have been limited. Instrumentally he was obsessed by Chopin, Liszt and Schumann, operatically by Meyerbeer and Auber. Heine, Hugo, Dumas, Maupassant, Mickiewicz ... Pushkin, Lermontov, Tolstoy, Nekrasov, and the folk-poets of the Trans-Caucasus, provided him with his texts and libretti.
Spanning a creative lifetime, from the Scherzo, Opus 1, of 1857 to the Sonatine, Opus 106 of 1916, and comprised largely of morceaux, impromptus, waltzes, polonaises, mazurkas and variations professionally turned and crafted, Cuis piano music is not at all what one might expect from the critic or nationalist in him. Reflecting more Old Guard than Young Turk, it is a gentle utterance, looking back nostalgically to the past, intimate rather than public, favouring silken boudoir over panelled concert room. Technically undemanding, romantically clichéd, harmonically conventional, tonally unsurprising, more diatonic than chromatic, concerned with horizons of lyricism untouched by modal pathos or tragic intensity, it has more in common stylistically with Tchaikovsky or Rubinstein than Mussorgsky or Balakirev. The bravura of a Liapunov, the angst of a Rachmaninov, the headily erotic, spiritual incense of a Scriabin are domains beyond its experience.
The Twenty Five Preludes, Opus 64, of 1903, published by Jurgenson of Moscow, belong to the period of Rachmaninovs Opus 23 Preludes, the early Sonata in F minor, Opus 5, of Medtner, and Scriabins radically different Fourth Sonata, Poème tragique, Poème satanique, and nineteen Preludes, Opp. 31, 33, 35, 37, 39. Comprising Cuis largest collective work for piano, the whole is constructed tonally around a circle of fifths, from C to C. Unlike Chopin or Scriabin in his Opus 11, however, both of whom preferred relative minor relationships, Cui pairs each major key instead with its mediant minor, in the process contriving a neat pivotal scheme whereby preceding thirds become successive tonics. Structurally, most of the preludes are in ternary form, with revealingly varied reprises biased towards either registral transfer or textural/harmonic/dynamic enrichment. Expressively, many dimensions are glimpsed, from exquisitely whispered dreams (Nos. 5, 9, 15,17), through landscapes of Schumannesque horns (No. 21), "Davidsbündler" marches (Nos. 8, 25) and fantasy waltzes (Nos. 3,12, 23), to promenades (No. 1), études (Nos. 4, 10, 24), pseudo folk-dances (Nos. 19, 20) and bouquets of melancholic remembrance (Nos. 2, 6, 22). Metrically, four are unusual: No. 14 in 5/4 (2+3), a stumbling waltz; No. 15, in 7/8 (3+4), almost an example of written-out rubato in triple time; No. 17, in 3/2 but with the beat displaced to suggest a 1+3+2 accent; and No 18, where 6/8 quavers are offset against 2/4 ones. Polyphonically and pianistically, the canonic interplay of No 7 is ingeniously suave. Among the dedicatees Josef Slivinski (Nos. 17-19), Ossip Gabrilovich (Nos. 23-25), pupils of Leschetizky and Anton Rubinstein, and Paderewski (Nos. 20-22) deserve mention.