Saturday, 18 August 2012

Rebikov: What a composer!

“Rebikov was already a forgotten figure by the time of his death at age 54. He was bitter and disillusioned, convinced wrongly that composers such as Debussy, Scriabin, and Stravinsky had made their way into public prominence through stealing his ideas. Ironically Rebikov is best known by way of his insubstantial music in salon genres. Rebikov's role as an important early instigator of twentieth-century techniques deserves to be more widely recognized.” (Uncle Dave Lewis, Allmusic)

That's an intriguing portrait of a forgotten figure of Russian music, Vladimir Rebikov (1866-1920). True to Uncle Dave's words, quite a bit of his "insubstantial music in salon genres" is available for listening but I've also been able to hear some of his experimental works where Wikipedia tells us he used "seventh and ninth chords, unresolved cadences, polytonality, and harmony based upon open fourths and fifths," many of which are beautifully-crafted and highly pleasurable to listen to. They also back up Dave's claims for his significance. Ladies and gentlemen, we have a real discovery on our hands here!

One of the wonders of YouTube is the dedication of many of its channel owners. One such is the pianist Phillip Sear whose channel is a treasure-trove for lovers of forgotten composers, including Rebikov. Phillip's dedicated performances will feature a lot in this post.

The best place to begin is with his Tondichtungen (Tone poems), Op.13 (Pt2, Pt3) of 1897, where titles like 'Fate', 'Wish', 'Troubled Atmosphere' and 'Daydreams' show the collection's roots in Schumann and Tchaikovsky, with a touch of Russian Nationalism in 'In the Caucasus'. I have to say I think lovers of Romantic piano music will find the Tone Poems highly attractive. There are, however, increasing signs as the set progresses of the more experimental composer to come. I will pick out a few numbers. The first piece, Fatalité ('Fate') has a winning melody of the kind you find in the piano works of Tchaikovsky and builds to a powerful climax, aided by bell-like notes and chords. It sounds thoroughly Russian. Au Caucase ('In the  Caucasus'), the second piece, juxtaposes a melancholy tune over alternating chords with a faster Caucasian-style folk theme (full of triplet figures) over a bagpipe-like drone. It is as charming as a Grieg Lyric Piece. The fifth piece, Au berceau ('At the cradle'), makes charming use of parallel fourths in its melody and uses sevenths in its accompaniment - creating a gently dissonant chiming effect. The seventh piece Reveries ('Daydreams') - or Träumerei in German - gives its rather conventional melody more little touches of freshening dissonance, beginning with the clash of a major second in the right hand followed by a clash of a major seventh in the left and ends, after a charming chiming effect, on an unresolved cadence. You might even hear momentary glimpses of Scriabin-like harmony in the (recurring) opening chord of the main melody of the eight piece, Appel ('Appeal') (not a favourite of mine though) and the opening theme of  the following Morceau Lyrique ('Lyric Piece') opens with a sequence of rising fourths and uses fourths in its harmony too, ending on another unresolved cadence. The closing tone poem Doute ('Doubt') pushes Rebikov's harmony to its furthest limits, though the chromaticism clearly has Wagnerian roots, and also ends on an unresolved cadence. 

Moving on in time to 1900 and Dans leur pays (In their Land), Op.27 (Pt2) we find Rebikov's style has advanced quite some way, with a charming opening number called Les géants dansent ('The giants dance') that has touches of what might be called Debussyan harmony. The harmonies and some of the textures of its  attractive successor Il chante (He sings') are also somewhat Debussyan, though its lyricism is rather Lisztian.  These opening numbers give promise of a fine set of piano pieces, and that promise is delivered. The third piece Les enfants dansent ('The children dance') is as irresistible as a Schumann Scene from Childhood, as is Elle danse ('She dances') - a number that bursts in with élan and whole-tone harmony. The fifth number, Ils passent ('They pass by'), builds up a quite remarkable amount of tension in the lead-up to the return of the dancing main theme. For a piano miniature this is one exciting piece! Ronde ('Round dance') returns us to he world of the whole-tone scale for a dance over ostinato figures, while the seventh piece, Les vielles femmes dansent ('The old women dance'), has a little of the harshness of sonority found in late Scriabin (before its time) and the closing Les vielliards dansent ('The old men dance') brings Dans leur pays to a bracing close with the biting interval of the tritone ('the devil in music') playing a major part in the number. What wonderful, imaginative pieces these are!! 

The tie-ins between this music and the advanced soundworld of Debussy (and Ravel for that matter) are intriguing to say the least. I suspect all Debussy-lovers out there will find the piano reduction of Dance of the Chinese Puppets from the composer's 1903 opera Yolka ('The Christmas Tree') a source of surprise and delight. (The Waltz from the opera is, however, far closer to Tchaikovsky in style). 

Moving forward to 1907 and the set of miniature miniatures Une Fête (A festival), Op.38, we find Rebikov consolidating his genial, colourful style in music that sounds remarkably advanced for the time. Try the opening Vivo and see if it doesn't make you think of Béla Bartók - a composer who was just then embarking on his evolution into modernity. These seven numbers are vibrant, tuneful and full of dissonant harmony - and the jaw-dropping parallels with Bartók keep on coming (the fifth piece especially). Fabulous music!  

There's even an anticipation of the 'white-on-white' Stravinsky in the Chansons blanches, Op.48 of 1913 - four pieces played entirely on the white notes of the piano. The closing sequence of chords in the final piece is highly Stravinskyan. (Did Stravinsky know these pieces?) They are again soaked in fourths, though you might not notice their presence as much as they are concentrated in the harmonies and the accompanying figuration more than in the melodies of the pieces (with the strong exception of the third piece). My favourite is the second, with a tune that could have been written by Ned Rorem.

Where has Vladimir Rebikov been all my life?

Further listening:
Rêves de bonheur (1890)
Valse Mélancolique  
Conseil Inutile ('Useless Advice')
3 Ballades (1901)
Feuilles d'automne (1904)
Fleurs d'Automne (1910)
Les Feux du Soir (1910) (Pt2)

No comments:

Post a Comment