Looking at the cover of the disc at hand, one might assume that these are emigré composers who ended up settling in the United Kingdom (one of the brightest jewels in Dutton's crown is their ongoing exploration of obscure and lesser-known British composers-specifically recorded on Dutton's 'Epoch' series as you all know).
The two composers marching confidently out of the dust here however, are from an earlier, post-Tchaikovskian generation whose lives bridged Imperial and Soviet times. The Blumenfeld Symphony has actually been recorded before (on Russian Disc from 1995, it also included music by Shebalin and Banshchikov), though not in such resplendent sound as we get here. The Catoire (French spelling of 'Katuar') Symphony is a completely new contender however, and a quite satisfyingly Russian affair it is indeed imo.
Felix Mikhailovich (April 19th, 1863-January 21st, 1931) was born in Kovalevka, Kherson Governorate, Russian Empire (today part of Kirovohrad, Ukraine), the son of Austrian Mikhail Frantsevich Blumenfeld and the Polish Marie Szymanowska. He studied composition at the St. Petersburg Conservatory under Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and piano under Fedor Stein between 1881 and 1885. He then taught piano there himself from 1885 until 1905 and again from 1911 to 1917, having been appointed professor in 1897-while also serving as conductor of the Mariinsky Theatre from 1885 until 1911. He conducted the first Russian performance of Wagner's "Tristan and Isolde" in 1899. In 1908, he conducted the Paris premiere of Modest Mussorgsky's opera Boris Godunov and conducted Diaghilev's Ballets Russes there as well.
When the Revolution of 1905 broke out, Rimsky-Korsakov was dismissed for having revolutionary sympathies, and Blumenfeld resigned his professorship, too, in sympathy. From 1918 to 1922, he was the director of the Music-drama school of Mykola Lysenko in Kiev, where, amongst others, Vladimir Horowitz was a pupil in his masterclasses. He returned to the Moscow Conservatory in 1922, teaching there until his death. He was the second uncle of Karol Szymanowski (Felix and Karol's father, Stanislav Szymanowski, were cousins). His many students included Vladimir Horowitz, film composer Dmitri Tiomkin, Simon Barere, Maria Yudina and Maria Grinberg.
Blumenfeld was much better known as a performer than a composer in his lifetime, but he still managed to write quite a few works, among which the "Symphony in C minor" must be counted as the most ambitious and successful. It was premiered at a subscription concert in St. Petersburg in 1907, conducted from the manuscript by the composer. It was published as Symphony-Fantasie in 1909, the subtitle "To the memory of the dearly departed" only being rediscovered later. No doubt it wouldn't have been too healthy to express too much revolutionary zeal by 1909 after the centralized Security Section of the Department of Police was created in 1907 in St. Petersburg.
The first and second movements of the symphony, as well as the third and the fourth, are played without a break, creating a rather unusual bipartite symphonic form. As indicated, the beginning of the symphony is quite lugubrious, perhaps an anticipation of coming violence and death. The following Allegro is turbulent, as one might expect from a composer contemplating a revolutionary uprising through his music.
We are dealing with rather theatrical music here, and one does not wonder that Dmitri Tiomkin would have felt drawn to the compositional style of Blumenfeld. Tiomkin would later emigrate to Hollywood where he would go on to compose the scores for Frank Capra's films "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," "Meet John Doe" and "It's a Wonderful Life." In 1952 he composed the score to "High Noon," with the theme song, "Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darlin'" ("The Ballad of High Noon"). The film went on to receive seven Academy Award nominations and four wins, including two for Tiomkin: Best Original Music and Best Song. Arguably this Oscar bonanza happened because Tiomkin bought the rights to the song and released it as a single for the popular music market. The record became an immediate success worldwide, one of the few hits that year. This prompted a studio, which had previously held back the release due to bad preliminary reviews, to release the movie. The rest is film noir history.
So much for Blumenfeld's impact on Hollywood. The dramatic sonata-form Allegro is followed by a moving Larghetto, which starts out with a clarinet-solo hovering above a chorale played in the strings, until the melodic line passes through the rest of the high woodwinds. This sets the stage for a thoroughly Russian-style surge of the string instruments and broad themes that pass through each instrumental group until the Larghetto disappears into the highest notes available to a composer in the most delicious pianissimo. Most beautiful and moving music.
The third movement already combines its own themes with those of the finale, resuming the darkly violent music we heard in the second movement, though here alternated with some more lyrical passages. The Epilogue (Largo) is in a thoroughly Wagnerian apotheosis in slow tempo. Blumenfeld may have had Tchaikovsky's "Pathethique" symphony as a formal model, but the harmonization and orchestration of the Epilogue is quite thoroughly inspired by Wagner, and very effectively, too. In this connection it must be said that Blumenfeld sounds thoroughly un-Wagnerian in the rest of the symphony, though it is obvious he has subsumed both Rimsky-Korsakov's and Wagner's orchestral palettes and integrated them into his own whole. This is particularly noticeable in that Russian specialty, shared by Wagner, of writing concert hall shattering fully harmonized brass passages, which today doubtlessly make orchestral musicians sitting towards the back orchestra put in double their allotment of ear plugs.
One cannot call Blumenfeld's symphony "Russian" by virtue of its thematic material either. We do not hear any Russian folk music incorporated into the symphonic fabric (the opposite being true of Catoire's symphony) like one hears in Rimsky-Korsakov or Ippolitov-Ivanov. The tone is cosmopolitan, though in a way which Rachmaninov is both cosmopolitan yet Russian in many of his piano concertos and symphonic works, e.g., through the unique thematic breadth so typical of late-romantic Russian symphonic works.
Georgy Katuar/Catoire (April 17th, 1861-May 21st, 1926) was born in Moscow, to parents of French extraction. Georgy's beginnings as a composer read like the usual romantic story about the boy who wanted to be a musician, but whose father said "Learn a real profession first so you can make a living when you fail as a musician so we won't have to support you or risk that you'll end up living under a bridge." The latter would decidedly have been unpleasant during winters in Moscow, and as the apocryphal story about Tchaikovsky goes, taking baths under such circumstances could be a serious threat to one's health. So the young Georgy graduated with honors from the mathematics department of Moscow University in 1884.
If this were a movie script, it would read "Flashback to Catoire's early teens when he is stealing horse-drawn buggies, stealing apples from carts and generally being a juvenile delinquent" Such biographical liberties would surely have been taken if a film had been made about him in Hollywood in the 30s-40s, but it would have been completely inaccurate - though probably more fun than spending endless hours at the piano.
When he was fourteen, Catoire took his first piano lessons from Karl Klindworth in Berlin, a pupil and later close friend of Liszt who through Liszt also became a friend of Richard Wagner. In the early 1880s he started his own music school, which later merged with Scharwenka's school into the Klindworth-Scharwenka Conservatory. All of these connections had an influence on Catoire, who became a member of the Wagner Society at age 18 in 1879. In 1885 he Catoire attended the Bayreuth Festival, having become one of the first musicians in Russia-certainly in Moscow-to recognize Wagner's genius. As a burgeoning composer he probably didn't fall asleep during the second act of Götterdämmerung like most other people would.
It didn't take too long before Catoire again started taking piano lessons.Not satisfied with his teacher in Moscow, Catoire slammed the door on his father's business in 1885 and travelled back to Berlin to take lessons with Klindworth again. In 1886 he Met Tchaikovsky, who encouraged Catoire to continue composing after he heard a set of piano variations by Catoire. No doubt it helped that Catoire had sucked up to Tchaikovsky by transcribing Tchaikovsky's Introduction and Fugue from the First Orchestral Suite for piano, which was published at Tchaikovsky's instigation (it makes sense: Tchaikovsky didn't have to work at it and no doubt collected some royalties from the sales).
Catoire soon befriended the most famous Russian composers of his day, including Taneyev, Lyapunov, Lyadov, Arensky and Rimsky-Korsakov. Catoire took one composition and theory lesson from Rimsky-K, who then passed him on to Lyadov. Do we see a pattern here that Catoire was such a genius that Rimsky-Korsakov felt he couldn't teach him anything or that he thought Catoire was thoroughly hopeless so he just wanted to get rid of him as fast as possible?. Most likely it was the latter, since Catoire became an autodidact composer while mostly studying the piano.
In Catoire's case, we encounter an original musical mind, one set free by two important creative characteristics: a command of pianistic technique in which anything is possible, evolved in its own way from Liszt and Alkan; and an individual, inquiring freedom which comes from a self-taught composer unafraid to explore the recesses of his imagination.
After some ups and downs in his career, he became professor of theory and composition at the Moscow Conservatory in 1916, garnering much respect from Myaskovsky in the process and producing Kabalevsky as his student. Catoire published several important treatises, which are said to have laid the foundation for much composition teaching in the USSR. In spite of such achievements, Catoire was quickly forgotten after his death in 1926, and has on re-emerged in recordings in the 21st century.
The Allegro moderato e poco maestoso opening of Catoire's "Symphony in C minor" couldn't be more Russian in its thematic material short of the composer inserting the Russian Easter Festival Overture or a movement from Tchaikovsky's String Serenade as the symphony's beginning just to get us in the right Volga boatmen and a bottle of Smirnoff vodka mood. It should be remembered that Catoire sketched out the symphony in 1889-91, a good 15 years before Blumenfeld wrote his, and the contrasting the two symphonies shows the shift in style which occurred during that relatively short period of time even though Catoire didn't complete and orchestrate his work until 1899.
The build-up from the Allegro moderato e poco maestoso - Molto allegro is very much a la Tchaikovsky's Pathetique symphony, though there is more vacillation back and forth between retaining a lyrical feel and unleashing the full symphonic drama of the entire orchestra firing on all cylinders in an outburst of Ivan Grozny-like pain and suffering.
Though it is in C minor as well, Catoire is not nearly as "dark" as Blumenfeld (or Beethoven) are in this key. The Allegretto is a charming and capricious scherzo, which once again suffuses us in Borodinesque thematical material. Every lover of Russian symphonic writing will be in heaven here, especially in the cantabile sostenuto parts of the B section of the movement.
In the slow movement, Catoire conveys the uniquely Russian sense of melancholy interspersed with moments when it seems as if the orchestra says "it's not so bad...I may be suffering, but I'll die and be at peace some day."
The last movement, Allegro moderato ma con spirito, is-as Blumenfeld's last movement was to be as well-an apotheosis from the darkness of C minor. But once again, Catoire's touch is much lighter, with some playful interludes that sound like they could have come from a Tchaikovsky ballet. Here we do not find apotheosis through death and suffering, but rather a "settling of how things ought to be" instilled either by a higher power or nature-whichever one prefers.