Liadov, slightly younger than Rimsky-Korsakov, didn't leave very much music, and most of that miniatures. In this collection, for example, items range from less than thirty seconds long to a little more than four minutes, with the overwhelming majority lasting around a minute and a half. Just about every critic agrees about Liadov's great talent and compositional technique. However, they offer conflicting explanations of the reason for his slim catalogue. This one CD, for example, represents about half of Liadov's total original output – that is, omitting items like his orchestration of Mussorgsky's Sorochintzky Fair. Liadov's most famous piece, of course, is the one he didn't write. Diaghilev originally approached him to compose the ballet Firebird, and when Liadov had come up with nothing and the première in sight, the impresario gave the commission to the new kid on the block, Igor Stravinsky, and a career was launched.
Why didn't Liadov write more? Why didn't he join the Russian symphonic tradition? As I say, everybody has a theory, ranging from Oblomovian indolence to grave self-doubt, so I might as well offer mine. To me, there are two kinds of composers – miniaturists and symphonists – and they don't often overlap. Schubert and Elgar come to mind as rare examples of composers who excelled in both – they work one way in miniatures and another in their larger works. It's not a question of writing an actual symphony. Fauré I would call a symphonist, in a general sense, even though he wrote no symphony. I mean simply someone whose musical materials are "open" rather than "closed" – who comes up with phrases that lead to a new thought, rather than round off the old one. Grieg to me is a miniaturist, even in his sonatas and concerto. He's always repeating, shutting down and starting up again, whereas someone like Brahms or Nielsen continues, transforms, and moves along. It's also a matter of pursuing a distant goal, as opposed to sidetracking for a momentary detail. One of the great lessons in composition to me comes from Brahms 1890 revision of his early Piano Trio in B. The original presents ideas of wild, powerful originality, most of which the composer ruthlessly cut, to bring out a relentless propulsion to a movement's close. The terminus lies a long way off. Liadov, on the other hand, works in small arch forms – there may be only one to a piece – each highly finished. One thing about the arch: in its beginning is its end.
I don't mean to imply a hierarchy of method. I love Grieg's music, for example. A miniaturist often provides an exciting, fantastic turn of thought unavailable to the symphonist. Liadov especially gives you the sense of the unexpected note in its perfect place. I think especially of one of his most famous piano morceaux, "The Musical Snuff-Box," where little high clockwork chimes sound at exactly the right time and at exactly the right point in the texture. Many of his contemporaries considered Liadov one of the foremost contrapuntalists of his era. Even on this deliberately restricted scale, I believe it.
Successful performers of miniatures have to slow down their sense of time and watch almost hungrily for the piquant moment. It can often come down to a matter of one note or chord progression that makes or breaks a piece. Gieseking had mastered this: his set of Grieg Lyric Pieces remains a highpoint of recording. Inna Poroshina is a fine pianist, with a powerful tone when called to use it as well as a kind of Puckish delicacy, but she doesn't seem to have a wide range of color at her command. I think she'd do better in Beethoven or Chopin than in Liadov, who in the pieces here comes across as mercurial, to say the least. There's also a link between the color inherent in the piano music and that in Liadov's orchestral pieces which I miss here. Still, I find the performances an improvement on Kuerti's (on Analekta Fleur de Lys). Poroshina has mastered the ability to make the line "breathe," a real feat on a percussion instrument. However, she seems to need length to make something of the piece. She doesn't have the necessary temperament to milk all she can from a few notes. She's at her best in the second of the Four Préludes, Op. 46, almost two minutes long. Here, she makes you believe in Liadov as a big nature unusually terse – exactly how the miniaturist succeeds. But she misses opportunities in the fourth (37 seconds) particularly at the end, where she hurries, rather than lingers over, the final phrase, and Liadov comes across as short-winded.
The recorded sound is good without calling attention to itself.
Copyright © 1997, Steve Schwartz