Friday 21 May 2021

Unashamedly delicious: Nostalgic Russia, music for violin and piano from Hideko Udagawa and Petr Limonov

Nostalgic Russia - Tchaikovsky, Eduard Nápravník, Rachmaninov, Stravinsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Arensky, Scriabin, Shostakovich, Kabalevsky; Hideko Udagawa, Petr Limonov; Northern Flowers

Nostalgic Russia
- Tchaikovsky, Eduard Nápravník, Rachmaninov, Stravinsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Arensky, Scriabin, Shostakovich, Kabalevsky; Hideko Udagawa, Petr Limonov; Northern Flowers

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 21 May 2021 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
The London-based Japanese violinist returns to Russia with a wonderful cache of richly melodic repertoire from the late 19th and early 20th centuries

There is something unashamedly delicious about the music on this new album, Nostalgic Russia from violinist Hideko Udagawa and pianist Petr Limonov on Northern Flowers. It brings together short pieces by Russian composers from the late 19th and early 20th century, works which enjoy their melody in an unashamed way but which are sophisticated too. So we have music by Tchaikovsky, Eduard Nápravník, Rachmaninov, Stravinsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Arensky, Scriabin, Shostakovich and Kabalevsky, some written originally for violin and piano, others in arrangements by Mikhailovsky, Kreisler, Mogilevsky, Heifetz, and Tsyganov.

We begin with Tchaikovsky, arrangements of two short piano pieces; Romance is an early work, from 1868, whilst Valse Sentimentale is a late one, from 1882. Both display both Tchaikovsky's talent for melody, and his ability to express emotion in what could be a salon piece, creating bitter-sweet, soulful music. And that is very true of most of the works on this disc, they are relatively compact and would make a lovely addition to a recital programme. The music's revelling in its melodic charm veers towards to salon, but the harmonic and structural sophistication means that there is great emotional depth too.

Eduard Nápravník is the least known name on the disc, a Czech composer and conductor he worked in St Petersburg where he was principal conductor of the Mariinsky Theatre. His Four Pieces, Op. 64 (written for violin and piano) combine Russian melodic charm with instrumental textures which owe something to Schumann's character pieces. The music is wonderfully engaging, and you wonder why the pieces are not better known.

Rachmaninov's Elegie is an early work, it comes from the same set as the famous Prelude in C Sharp Minor, written the year he graduated from Moscow Conservatoire, and has all the soulful longing that we expect of the composer, with a long violin line of piano arpeggios. Rachmaninov's set of pieces is dedicated to one of his teachers, Arensky (whose work is also on the disc).  

Stravinsky's opera Mavra was written for Diaghilev in 1922, and Stravinsky worked with violinist Samuel Dushkin (for whom Stravinsky wrote the violin concerto) on an arrangement of the Chanson Russe from the opera which they used in recitals. The piece is gloriously Russian, and has less of that element of distance that Stravinsky could sometimes bring to this repertoire, but the piece does provide a nice element of spice in a rich repertoire. Stravinsky's teacher was Rimsky-Korsakov (who also taught Arensky), and Rimsky Korsakov's final opera Le coq d'or provides the Hymn to the Sun, Fritz Kreisler's transcription of the Queen of Shemanka's coloratura aria. However you hear it, voice or violin, this a glorious piece and Hidegwa throbs beautifully in the sinuous melody

Anton Arensky is a composer known more for the fact that he was in Tchaikovky's circle and taught composers such as Rachmaninov and Scriabin, but his two works on the disc Serenade and Tempo di Valse are both well worth discovering. Originally written for violin and orchestra, they come over as Tschaikovsky-like but there is another voice here too. Both have a delightfully skittish element to them and these versions for violin and piano (one by the composer himself, the other by Heifetz) work so well you wonder what the orchestral version would be like.

The Scriabin piece on the disc, Nocturne is an early work from 1890; originally for piano the piece shows Scriabin's clear link to Chopin, yet transferring the melody to the violin really brings out a surprising element of soulful longing which we associate more with Rachmaninov.

Shostakovich's teachers included Alexander Glazounov, who was taught by Rimsky-Korsakov. Shostakovich's Three Fantasic Dances date from when he was just 16, demonstrating his precocity, whilst his Five Preludes are some what later. Both works were transcribed for violin and piano by Dmitri Tsyganov, first violin with the Beethoven Quartet, the ensemble which premiered most of Shostakovich's string quartets. The Fantastic Dances are the young Shostakovich enjoying playing with melody, but there is still spikiness, humour and that edge that the mature composer brought to even his lightest works. The movements from the Five Preludes are still melodically engaging, but they have a greater sense of sophistication with the composer playing with his melodic material, often in a witty manner.

Dmitri Kabalevsky is one of those composers known for a tiny group of pieces. He also had a long, and  prolific, career during the Soviet era so we hear works from 1934 (Improvisation, originally written as incidental music for a film) and 1961 (Rondo, written as a test piece for the Second Tchaikovsky Competition). Improvisation sounds very like its title, with a freely rhapsodic violin introduction leading to a sweetly sung melody, whilst the Rondo has a subtle edge to it which makes the music occasionally evoke Shostakovich, whilst preserving a certain sweetness to the melody.

Hideko Udagawa plays this music to the manner born. She was a protégée of Russian violinist Nathan Milstein, and he was her only teacher in the West, both in London and at the Juilliard in New York. She combines sweetness with richness of tone and a lovely depth, and a delicious (but judicious) use of portamento. She is wonderfully and sympathetically partnered by Petr Limonov, so that the performances bring out all the melodic deliciousness without overdoing things. 

Pyotr Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) -  Romance Op.5 (transc. Mikhailovsky)
Pyotr Tchaikovsky - Valse Sentimentale Op.51, No.6
Eduard Nápravník (1839-1916) - Four Pieces Op.64
Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943) - Elegie Op.3 No.1(transc. Mikhailovsky)
Igor Stravinsky (1882-1972) - Chanson Russe
Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908) - Hymn to the Sun (from Le coq d’or) (transc. Kreisler)
Anton Arensky (1861-1906) - Tempo di Valse (transc. Heifetz)
Anton Arensky - Serenade Op.30, No.2
Alexander Scriabin (1872-1915) - Nocturne Op.5 No.1(transc. Mogilevsky)
Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) - Three Fantastic Dances Op.5 (transcr. Tsyganov)
Dmitri Shostakovich - Five Preludes Op.34 (transcr. Tsyganov)
Dmitri Kabalevsky (1904-1987) - Improvisation Op.21, No.1
Dmitri Kabalevsky - Rondo Op.69
Hideko Udagawa (violin)
Petr Limonov (piano)
Recorded in St.Silas Church, London, 25 & 27 November 2020

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