Sunday, 6 January 2013

Putting the Catoire among the Pigeons

A symphony is a piece of music that should carry you away, body and soul, into its own unique world. Any symphony that fails to do that hasn't really worked for the listener. 

Such a truism sprang to mind while listening to a symphony by the Russian Silver Age composer Gyorgy Catoire (1861-1926). The Symphony in C minor, Op.7 from 1899 was completely new to me but it soon swept me up and carried me along, happily. 

It is a remarkable thing just how many Russian symphonies there are, most of them unfamiliar to us. Yes, the Tchaikovsky and Borodin symphonies get regular airings, as do two (or three) of the Prokofiev canon, Scriabin's Poem of Ecstasy, the very occasional post-Soviet/post-Schnittke effort and - of course - many of the Shostakovich symphonies, plus the Rachmaninov three and Stravinsky's various masterpieces bearing the word 'symphony' in their title. Still, that really is the tip of the iceberg. 

Several of those from around the end of the 19th Century share a number of features, and this spacious symphony by Catoire is quite typical of them. It sounds like a loving extension of the great Golden Age Russian symphonies - principally those of Borodin -, with more than a dash of Rimsky Korsakov and Tchaikovsky chucked in for good measure. The heroic first movement mines a couple of short phrases with something approaching obsessiveness, spinning them out through sequences into broad, singing paragraphs. Just as Tchaikovsky's symphonies fell foul of Germanophile critics who described their structures as being weak at the joints, so Catoire's symphony often seems to come near to grinding to a complete standstill at the transition from one section to another. I have to say that I find it in endearing quality, though if you're after rigorous symphonic logic throughout you might find the habit a little disconcerting. Many of the melodies found in the symphony are of that lyrical, folk-inflected variety which lovers of Russian music so treasure, with touches of unpredictably in their phrasing and occasional metrical irregularities too. As occasionally happens in the Tchaikovsky symphonies, you could easily get caught out were you ever tempted to conduct the beat whilst listening along. The main theme of the scherzo is one such theme and I think you'll enjoy it. The lyrical theme of the trio section of this same movement is particularly lovely and will, I suspect, prove most popular with you. It has a warm, waltzing lilt at times that I found rather irresistible. The slow movement also has a strong lyrical appeal, with the melancholy of winter daydreams seeming to breathe through its main theme and consoling optimism coursing through its broad second subject. The symphony is scored throughout with considerable concern for colour and you would have to have a strong puritanical streak not to relish the Rimsky-like fantasy of the orchestration found in parts of the finale - a movement that mingles Russian Romantic fairy dust with Russian Romantic symphonic drama. It's perhaps not wholly convincing in its attempts to fuse them together but it's enjoyable nonetheless. I'm sure you'll notice the return of a familiar theme as this movement's second theme - an instance of cyclical form, long popular with Russian composers. As you approach the end, please also try to guess whether the symphony is going to end quietly or loudly. 

Is this lush, colourful and very Russian-sounding late-Romantic symphony representative of the music of Gyorgy Catoire? Not as far as I can tell. Catoire's music has begun to obtain a little more purchase in recent years, primarily thanks to the Hyperion label's championing of his chamber and solo piano music. These reveals different facets of the composer's rich and fascinating art. I'm not sure (were I to have listened to them blind) that I'd have connected the composer of the Symphony in C minor with any of them.

The place to plunge in next is with the Piano Quartet, Op.31. Would you have taken it to be by the same composer?

This is a work that fans of French Wagnerian music - the likes of Franck, Lekeu and Chausson - will take to most readily. Catoire was very keen on Wagner (not that you'd know it from his symphony) and, as you can probably tell from his name, he had a bit of a French streak too, so his music's ability to sound like French Wagnerian music shouldn't be too unexpected. This is serious, heady, chromatically-inclined stuff, not meant for light listening but capable of bearing you aloft on its flow of perfumed passion. The first movement best captures such a characterisation, though the central Andante breathes only slightly less hothouse air. It has a lyricism allied to harmonic interest that makes it the quartet's star movement. That said, the delicious delicacy of the closing movement is hard to resist either. In this movement especially, you can hear the exquisite intricacy of the the composer's piano music...

...wherein may be found a commingling of virtuosity and lyricism that will bring great delight to many a lover of late-Romantic keyboard heroics. The Caprice, Op.3 is towering in its demands on the performer and in also being a confection grounded in essential simplicity. 

Genre pieces abound in this area of the composer's art. The Valse, Op.36 shows Catoire entering Chopin's territory, albeit a Chopin viewed through the eyes of a composer enthusiastic about the innovations of early and middle period Scriabin. Scriabin is a key figure in the music of our composer.  The Poeme is a very Scriabinesque genre. and Catoire's Poeme, Op.34/2 is a very Scriabinesque piece. The delectability of Scriabin allied, I think, with the sensibility of late Brahms may also be glimpsed in in the Réverie from Catoires's Op.10, though fans of Tchaikovsky's much-maligned but, in fact, magnificent piano music may also recognise their man they might in the lovely, poetic Nocturne, Op.12/3 

Such is the confusing nature of wonderful minor composers - a plethora of influences and sound-alikes! Add Liadov, Rachmaninov, Medtner and Debussy to Scriabin, Wagner, Tchaikovsky, Franck, Rimsky Korsakov, Brahms, Borodin (etc) and you might get the picture. 

Further listening

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