Nikolai Roslavets: Piano Sonata no. 1

performed by an unknown pianist from some recording I acquired somehow, or below by Irina Emeliantseva

Nikolai Andreevich Roslavets was born on January 4 1881 (23 December, 1880 in the Julian Calendar) (possibly) in the Chernigov Governorate (a day less than exactly a year after Medtner was born, for reference). We shan’t go too much into his biography, mostly because I don’t know much and because there apparently very different (or rather conflicting) sources about the composer’s life.

Wikipedia describes Roslavets as “a convinced modernist and cosmopolitan thinker” and in the Life section of his article, outlines the three main sources of information about the composer’s life, which “differ considerably from one another,” with even his birthplace and the details of his family in question.

Regardless, the composer began to study violin and in 1902 began his studies at the Moscow Conservatory, graduating a decade later with a silver metal for a cantata he wrote. The most notable, and unfortunate, feature of his career, however, was the political persecution he endured. In the first paragraph of his Wiki article, it states that “his music was officially suppressed from 1930 onwards.” The story is similar to others of the time (and later). The composer was scolded by the government for his inappropriate art, forced to repent publicly for his error, and even spent some time in Uzbekistan, eventually returning to Moscow in 1933 to endure more opposition and never really again seeing any kind of official post or job again in his career, with ‘disinformation’ being spread about him. He suffered a debilitating stroke in 1939 and another in 1944 that took his life.

At least some of his works have been lost, but there is a revival apparently underway, with interest growing in a man whose music was basically considered illegal for most of his own life. His Wikipedia article gives some quite thorough (relatively speaking) detail about his musical style, and even an organized methodical approach to all 12 tones of the chromatic scale, but he also (very obviously) showed a large influence from Scriabin and his synthetic chords. In fact, it was through Scriabin’s work that I discovered this piece of Roslavets.

The first piano sonata dates from 1914 but wasn’t published until 1990 (or maybe just a certain edition of the work; that seems a bit extreme). It is in a single movement, and lasts about 11 minutes. It’s wonderful to have a look at the score, because you can see all the detail you might not pay attention to otherwise.

It begins with a repeated figure that sounds like someone struggling to roll over a huge boulder a few times, but after the first… second…. third roll, it has momentum and is going on its own, like a train building speed out of the station. I mean, this is clearly inspired by Scriabin, no? And that’s not a bad thing; it isn’t to say it’s derivative, but the gestures and the sounds and colors produced, the density of the piano writing, it’s spectacular.

There’s a similar passion and vibrance, but without some of the disturbed (spiritual) introspection of Scriabin. After the rolling swells of music that make up the introduction, there’s a choppy staccato passage, and with these few gestures, Roslavets has opened up a new world to us, like discovering a gorgeous rooftop garden on a building you’d been inside a million times, a little solitary enclave of magical beauty.

The music is sensual, smokey, darkly, richly colored, expresses freeness and yet restraint. You really have to know something about the sentiments that were considered ‘proper’ in Russia at the time, because nothing about this music sounds illegal. It isn’t jarring, cacophonous; it’s not Mosolov, or Prokofiev’s ‘war sonatas’. That all being said, the single movement reaches its own climaxes, and gives us a pretty clearly identifiable development section, undulating and trickling and writhing in a perfectly-executed juxtaposition of the content presented earlier in the work.

You also can’t miss the boulder-rolling, unfurling opening figure when it returns in all its glory. For all its modernness, chromaticism, Roslavets tips his hat to the tradition of the sonata and its significance to piano literature, much as Scriabin did, and while there are clear influences to be had here, I’d also argue Roslavets stands on his own, with a distinct voice, and if only that voice could begin to crawl out from the shadows cast on it by decades of political meddling and interference, the Roslavets and his work may finally, after a century, begin to recover from undeserved abuse and neglect it got for far too long.

I have very little of Roslavets’ music, but if this piece is any indication of the kind of thing we can look forward to from his other (surviving) works, there is much more to enjoy, but not for the moment. There’s much more music to enjoy, but only one more Russian piano work for the month, so stay tuned for that, and go dig up some obscure Russian composers. They deserve your attention.

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