Wednesday, 29 July 2015

Alissa Firsova brings a freshness to Rachmaninov that is quite beguiling on her debut disc for VIVAT

The account of Sergei Rachmaninov’s (1873-1943) departure from his native Russia on 23rd December 1917 is rather poignant. Ostensibly in order to undertake a concert tour he had managed to obtain the necessary documents to enable him and his family to leave the revolution torn country. He and his family were seen off at Petrograd railway station by the composer’s best friend, Nikolai Struve (1875-1920). Rachmaninov’s other great friend, the opera singer Feodor Chaliapin (1873-1938) sent a note together with a package of caviar and homemade bread. The sound of gunfire could be heard in the distance.

At the crossing of the Finnish border the customs inspector who checked their luggage apparently only showed interest in the children’s schoolbooks before wishing the composer good luck on his concert tour. The road from the Finnish to the Swedish border was undertaken by open sledge from which they could see the sparks from the train disappearing in the distance. It was after midnight before they caught the train to Stockholm where they spent Christmas Eve in their hotel room. Luckily Nikolai Struve joined his family in Denmark where a rented house was soon found for the émigré family. Rachmaninov was never to return to the country of his birth, a loss that he never recovered from.

Luckily some émigrés feel the loss of their country a little less intensely. Pianist and composer, Alissa Firsova tells us in her interesting booklet note accompanying her debut recording that her family’s nostalgia for Russia did not affect them so deeply, England becoming their true home. 

This new release from Vivat is appropriately entitled Russian Émigrés and features piano works by Rachmaninov from before and after his exile from his native country coupled with works by her parents Elena Firsova and Dmitri Smirnov as well as by Alissa Firsova herself.

On this her debut disc, Alissa Firsova plays Rachmaninov’s original 1913 version of his Piano Sonata No. 2 Op. 36. She brings a slightly quieter opening to the Allegro Agitato, creating a brief sense of anticipation before the cascading bars that follow. Firsova carefully builds some tremendous passages, offset with some very fine quieter moments. It is her beautiful phrasing and flexible tempi and, indeed, fine rubato that lend so much to this music bringing a freshness that is quite beguiling. By choosing the original version, the music gains a more organic development with room to breathe. Half way through, those descending bell-like phrases have a real Russian flavour. There are many lovely details, such limpid, delicate, quieter phrases and the run up to the coda is beautifully done.

This pianist gives us a lovely slow Non Allegro to which she brings a haunting quality. Though Firsova takes this section slower than many, it works beautifully, revealing many lovely details. She builds the music wonderfully towards the middle with some fine fluent passages.  Firsova’s way of pacing and building this movement is terrific, the more passionate passages gaining so much from the surrounding calm.

The gentle introduction to the L'istesso Tempo - Allegro Molto soon gives way to playing of stormy virtuosity, again wonderfully paced, allowing the music to develop naturally. There are moments of tranquillity and beautifully detailed calm with this pianist shading and colouring phrases exquisitely before the music rises dramatically with some wonderfully transparent textures. Firsova brings a stunningly virtuosic coda, displaying a wonderful touch.

Whatever Rachmaninov’s reasons for making cuts, I cannot help always wishing that pianists would play the original version more often. Here Alissa Firsova does so in a wholly refreshing way.

Born in Leningrad composer Elena Firsova (b. 1950) studied music in Moscow with Alexander Pirumov, Yuri Kholopov and Nikolai Rakov and established contact of a crucial musical importance with composers Edison Denisov and Philip Herschkowitz, a pupil of Anton von Webern. In August 1972 she married the composer Dmitri Smirnov. In 1979, along with Edison Denisov and Sofia Gubaidulina, she was blacklisted at the Sixth Congress of the Union of Soviet Composers. Since 1979 she has had many performances in Europe and the USA and received many commissions including the BBC Proms.

Elena Firsova’s For Alissa, Op. 102 is obviously a very personal piece where she slowly reveals a gentle theme which Alissa Firsova, using her fine touch and phrasing, develops through a variety of passages from gentle and limpid through livelier and more florid moments, an intensely stormy passage as well as a hushed ponderous section where a line in the bass is overlaid with a theme for the right hand, before we are led to the coda.

This is a most attractive work that always holds the attention.

Dmitri Smirnov (b. 1948) was born in Minsk into a family of opera singers. He entered the Moscow Conservatoire in 1967 studying with Nikolai Sidelnikov, Edison Denisov, and Yury Kholopov as well as Webern's pupil Philip Herschkowitz. Since 1991, Smirnov and his wife, Elena Firsova have been resident in England. Here they have shared the position of Composer-in-Residence at Cambridge University (St John's College), spent a year at Dartington (1992) and were Visiting Professors at Keele University. In 1998 Smirnov and his family settled in St Albans, near London. Since 2003 he has taught at Goldsmiths College of Music in London.  His compositions have been played by many international conductors and orchestras.

Dmitri Smirnov’s Sonata No. 6 ‘Blake Sonata’ Op. 157 is in two movements, opening with a Lento, a set of variations on William Blake’s name using a musical alphabet or encryption code created by the composer. It begins with a hushed motif gently picked out before deep chords appear under the delicate motif as the music becomes agitated. The violent chords fall away to allow the gentler theme to continue, developing through some fine passages with this pianist providing some lovely clarity of phrasing. The music builds in tempo with lower chords bringing back a stormy nature before progressing through a gentle passage with a sorrowful emotional edge. There are some lovely free flowing gentler passages, rising to the top of the keyboard before moving slowly and quietly to the coda.

Rachmaninov can almost be heard in the opening bars of the second movement, Capriccioso before it develops through some fast and dramatic passages. Lighter, faster passages alternate and tussle with the dramatic music with, throughout, Alissa Firsova bringing exceptionally fine clarity, phrasing, subtlety of colour and texture. There are more reflective moments before the music rises with clashing bell-like phrases but it is the quieter, gentler music that leads to the coda.

This is an impressive sonata which deserves repeated listening.

Rachmaninov wrote his Variations on a Theme of Corelli Op. 42 whilst staying in Clairefontaine, France. Firsova manages to bring a rather desolate, melancholy feel to the opening Andante.  As the textures become fuller there is a warming that brings a lovely contrast. As she takes us through these variations, she brings passages of terrific clarity, finely sprung rhythmical phrases and often a lovely delicate touch as well as moments of powerful incisiveness. Her phrasing is superb, illuminating so much of this music. As she progresses through these variations, there are moments of withdrawn melancholy as well as a terrific assurance in the broader, more confident passages.

Firsova gives us a lovely nostalgic Intermezzo before leading to a simple, yet heartrending, variation managed with a simple directness. Later there are moments of fine tautness before she takes us back to Rachmaninov’s exquisite nostalgia before the final statement of the theme.

Again this pianist brings a freshness to her performance with pacing and phrasing that reveals much.

Alissa Firsova (b. 1986) is a composer in her own right. After winning the BBC Proms/Guardian Young Composer competition in 2001 she received numerous commissions including a Bach transcription for the 2010 Proms and performed by Andrew Litton and Royal Philharmonic Orchestra live on BBC 2 and BBC Radio 3. Her music has also been performed and toured by Imogen Cooper, Henning Kraggerud, Dante Quartet, Netherlands Blazer Ensemble, Seattle Chamber Players, Philharmonia Soloists, Northwest Sinfonietta and Britten Sinfonia. She was recently invited to Verbier Festival as a composer-in-residence and future commissions include an orchestral piece for Bergen Philharmonic.

As a pianist, Alissa gave her Wigmore Hall and Proms debuts in 2009 and has appeared in Dartington, Cheltenham, Presteigne, Messiaen at Southbank, Fuerstensaal Classix and Seattle festivals. She has enjoyed collaborations with distinguished artists such as Stephen Kovacevich, Stephen Isserlis and the Dante Quartet. Alissa recently completed the postgraduate conducting course at the Royal Academy of Music under Colin Metters where she also had the opportunity to work with Martyn Brabbins, Jac van Steen and Mark Shanahan. She founded her own Meladina Ensemble in 2010 for the 60th Birthday celebration of her mother Elena Firsova's music. In January 2012 she expanded this into the Meladina Symphony Orchestra for a concert in Duke's Hall, where she directed Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 23 from the keyboard and conducted Mahler's 4th Symphony as well as her own clarinet concerto.

Alissa Firsova’s Lune Rouge, Op. 13 was commissioned by the Cheltenham Festival in 2005 for Imogen Cooper and is based on her own initials and those of her parents. It opens with a gentle tinkling phrase to which the left hand slowly adds to the theme. Soon a fuller texture arrives, a glorious moment as the tinkling right hand motif continues and this lovely theme moves forward, becoming ever more florid with lovely harmonies. Later lower chords combine before the music falls back with the tinkling phrases now over a gentle left hand that picks out the theme. But it is the right hand motif that gently concludes.

This is a quite lovely work.

Here is a musician that has the measure of Rachmaninov, so much so that she is able to bring a refreshing approach. The other works on this disc show clearly what a gifted family this is. The recording is tip top and there are excellent booklet notes from the pianist. As usual with VIVAT, the presentation is first rate. 

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