The decade which began in 1910 should have been the best of times. The world embraced modernity. Advances in science, technology and medicine made life easier, healthier, longer. The arts thrived, with masterpieces created in a dizzying variety of styles, from the final blossoming of Romanticism to Impressionism in its many forms, Primitivism, Expressionism and every sort of Modernism. The same was true in music. It is difficult to believe that the first three miniatures featured in this album were composed within a year or two of each other.
Sergei Prokofiev (1891 – 1953) was only 19 in 1910, and still a student at the Saint Petersburg Conservatory. In only a few years, he will develop his reputation as a rebel for the dissonance and percussiveness of his compositions. But his Prelude Opus 12 #7 (“The Harp”) is filled with good humor and the optimism of the age. It is only in light of the events that followed, both in the world and in his own life, that the optimism seems somewhat premature…
Claude Debussy (1862-1918), on the other hand, was a composer at the height of his creative powers when he wrote his magnificent Preludes. “Les collines d’Anacapri” was inspired by the beautiful island of Anacapri, its church bells tolling at a distance, its sunlight reflected in the sea, its easy grace, the songs of its taverns. “With the freedom of a popular song” is one of the score’s directions. Everything in this music evokes beauty, ease, voluptuousness even – and yet, and yet… there is just a whiff of decadence, something a little tired, a little jaded….
The Preludes Opus 32 of Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943) represent something of a distillation of his Romanticism. The language is condensed and purified of all self-indulgence of the composer’s youth. The G Major Prelude No. 5 is an oasis of calm and reflection in this passionate and stormy collection. But underneath the transcendent beauty and peace of this masterpiece, there is an undercurrent of world-weariness, an autumnal quality, a pessimism well-justified by events.
For the clouds were gathering on the horizon. In 1911, Italy declared was on the Ottoman Empire, and peace in the Balkans was shattered. In far-away China and Mexico, conflicts boil over into revolution. In 1912, the Titanic, the greatest technological creation of man, succumbs to the impersonal forces of cruel nature. Age-old conflicts in Europe exploded when a teenage anarchist murdered Archduke Ferdinand of Austria. All wars are hell, but World War I was an order of magnitude more horrible. Poison gas, trench warfare, attacks on civilians became normal. And young men died. Millions of them. In the words of A. E. Housman
Here dead lie we because we did not choose
To live and shame the land from which we sprung.
Life, to be sure, is nothing much to lose;
But young men think it is, and we were young.
Artists and musicians responded by fulfilling their patriotic duty. They died too. Franz Marc, the painter represented on this CD, Umberto Boccioni who created the most celebrated portrait of Ferruccio Busoni, Egon Shiele, and so many more. Maurice Ravel (1875-1937), the French patriot, joined the war effort, despite his age. He drove a truck evacuating the injured at the Verdun front. It did not take long for him to become passionately anti-war. One of the greatest masterpieces he completed during the war was Le Tombeau de Couperin, each movement dedicated to a fallen friend. Like many artists, Ravel responded to the horror of war by withdrawing in his mind to a glorious, and largely imaginary, past. The music evokes the harpsichord dance suites of Francois Couperin which added even more brilliance to the glorious halls of Versailles during the reign of France’s Sun King, Louis XiV. This suite has many of the standard Baroque forms, a Prelude and a Fugue, three dances, a Forlane, Menuet and Rigaudon, and a brilliant Toccata. But it is not Baroque music, not in its rich textures and exquisite harmonies, and not in the complexities of its emotional states. Rather it is reminiscent of the paintings of Watteau or Fragonard, where the Baroque style is seen through a veil of dreams.
Other artists faced the horrors of war head-on, allowing their experiences to change and reshape their language. The American composer Charles Tomlinson Griffes (1884-1920) is best known for his lush and lovely Impressionist works. In his Piano Sonata he finds a new language. Some of his earlier impressionism still remains, but it is now combined with an almost Expressionist bitterness and a post-Romantic passion, all within a classical Sonata form.
Maurice Ravel in WWI
Boronali, Impression, 1910
Rousseau, Il Sogno, 1910
Matisse, Dance, 1910
Godward, A Cool Retreat, 1910
Marc, Fighting Forms, 1914
Vasnetsov, Frog Princess, 1918
Monet, Water lilies, 1919
Boccioni, Charge of the Lancers, 1915
Lehmberuck, The Fallen, 1916
10/15/2021 Into Darkness is selected as one of Spotify's Best Classical New Releases
"I have remarked before on her technical command of the piano and musical sensibilities. This is simply a continuation of some of the best pianism to come my way over the past few years. [The Griffes Sonata] is a big, impassioned, virtuosic work that deserves to be heard more often, especially in the kind of nervous and exciting performance Belsky gives here. She misses none of the uncertain melodic twists and turns of the Molto tranquillo middle movement and the softer sections of the first and last movements. ... My piano playing would have developed quite differently if I had a teacher like this in my early years or in college. I would go out of my way to see her play a recital."
Harrington, American Record Guide January/February 2022
"Belsky’s records don’t need to be reviewed, they need to be put in places where influencers can get people to access sound pegs because Belsky knows how to let her fingers do the talking. Not just one of the top classical piano players out there, she continually shows she knows how to stay on the crest of the wave. This set that highlights brand name composers from around WWI is pure Belsky all the way and she makes me wish I took piano lesson with her when I was 5 instead of the old bat that made me hate it. Killer stuff and a ride you have to take for a great solo recital."
-Midwest Record (http://midwestrecord.com/MWR1821.html)
"I have a fondness for thematic piano recitals, and this new one from Svetlana Belsky is unusually intriguing. Few albums have thrust us into this turbulent milieu as imaginatively as Belsky does here. ... Belsky gives shimmering, evocative readings. Belsky’s lovely performance captures the Prélude’s brilliant refractions of light perfectly. ... Belsky grasps the elegance and crystalline etching of Ravel’s piano style and conveys it beautifully. Belsky’s performance displays remarkable strength and sympathy, giving the [Griffes] sonata powerful momentum and presence. The other works here bring out the pianist’s poetic imagination, so it’s good to end so forcefully. This is one of the most satisfying piano recitals of the year, unique in its imaginative conception. Warmly recommended. A sterling portrait of a historical moment, superbly played"
-Huntley Dent, Fanfare Magazine
"There is no doubt that the Griffes is the main reason for obtaining this release. It is the climax of a fascinating and well-considered program, brought off with considerable aplomb... Belsky makes a splendid case for Griffes’ masterpiece. She articulates the architecture of the first movement of Griffes’ Sonata brilliantly, thus allowing the climax to speak (and also manages not to break the sound of the piano a vital part of the equation). ... Belsky is absolutely mesmeric in the restrained Molto tranquillo" "Prokofiev [Prelude], a beautiful piece full of those characteristic twists and turns of harmony and with a deep vein of lyricism perfectly projected by Belsky. [in the Rachmaninoff prelude] Belsky projecting the melody superbly, while finding a flitting sense of spontaneity in Rachmaninoff’s more flighty moments" And more on the Tombeau de Couperin: "The tightness of the ornaments in the “Prélude" points to the precision of Ravel's writing. Belsky is very clear in her mind that Debussy and Ravel are two very different beasts. Belsky’s limpid delivery of the “Fugue” seems to emphasize the delicious flow of the “Forlane”. In the “Rigaudon Belsky’s articulation is spot-on. The sheer grace of Belsky’s “Menuet” offers much to relish while the concluding “Toccata” is a tour de force."
-Colin Clarke Fanfare Magazine
"A true work of art, Svetlana Belsky has assembled a very powerful musical statement with Into Darkness: Music of 1910-1920. I hope the world will listen and take it to heart"
-Kathy Parsons, MainlyPiano.com
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