Russians Alexey Stanchinsky and Alexander Scriabin are featured on Darkness Illuminated, a new disc on the Ulysses Arts label by Uzbek pianist Nafis Umerkulova. Here she seeks to put the obscure Stanchinsky in the spotlight alongside his far more famous contemporary, Scriabin, and the album comprises works by both composers written over a 17-year time period from 1894/5 until 1912, allowing the listener to appreciate how each composer’s oeuvre developed over time while also comparing and contrasting their music.
Such was Stanchinsky’s artistic gift that many believed he was destined to follow in the footsteps of that other great Russian Romantic composer Rachmaninov (he studied with Taneyev, who also taught Rachmaninov). But with his premature death at the age of 26, and the turmoil of the First World War, the Russian Revolution and the subsequent Soviet Regime, Stanchinsky fell into obscurity, and has since been thoroughly overshadowed by his more famous contemporary, Scriabin.
Both composers come from the great nineteenth-century European Romantic tradition, and the influence of Chopin is especially clear in their piano miniatures (one could easily mistake some of Stanchinsky’s Preludes and the Nocturne on this disc for Chopin). These are deeply lyrical, sensitive works, often introspective and intimate, and the later sets reveal more experimental writing, with forays into counterpoint, unexpected harmonies, modality and idioms drawn from Russian folk music. But perhaps the most striking work is the Piano Sonata in E-flat minor which opens this album. Cast in a single movement, with all the richness and virtuosity of Rachmaninov, it is a homage to Scriabin and shares many of the features of Scriabin’s piano sonatas with its fantasy-like structure, colourful harmonic palette and wide-ranging ideas, including a slow section in the major key which could be influenced by American folk music. It’s an impressive opening and Nafis gives this big-boned work full rein, allowing its myriad concepts to flow with a vibrant spontaneity.
Scriabin’s Preludes, Op 16 and 22, are wonderfully intricate, replete with Romantic elegance and lavish lyricism, each Prelude with its own distinctive character. Hints of experimentation are already present, especially in his use of harmony and dissonance to suggest specific moods, and his mastery of tension and release. By the time we reach the two Poems, Op 32, in the latter part of the album, his experimental approach to texture and harmonic shading is clear; these are works which look forward to the atonality of Schoenberg.
This is a most satisfying album which works rather in the manner of a recital disc, and Nafis makes a strong case for both composers in her highly accomplished playing, a spontaneity and freshness which really suits this music, and a rich, warm direct sound, combined with her evident affection for this music.
‘Darkness Illuminated’ is released on the Ulysses Arts label