I had no idea who Felix Blumenfeld was until this disc was recomended to me, but what a simply wonderful discovery. Coupled with the delightful Symphony by Catoire (I bought his piano concerto released by Dutton a few months ago) this disc is one I would now not want to be without. The Blumenfeld is the more substantial of the two works in a musical sense, but both works are superbly orchestrated and contain so much invention I was astounded the more I listened to them. The opening movement of the Blumenfeld sets the tone and the nature of the musical language, think early Rachmaninov and late Tchaikovsky and you will get the idea. The slow movement is absolutely delicious whilst the busy third movement sweeps you along taking you into a heart wrenching final movement that totally takes you by surprise. I found the Catoire to be a little more adventurous in it's structure than the Bluemenfeld, the scherzo is a total delight, I couldn't work out the time signature at all, and the slow movement has moments of total beauty. It is in the outer movements where Catoire really scores for me. Protracted, but not overblown, and with a structure and harmonic progressions that sound French in musical language (to my ears), although clearly Russian in heritage. Altogether a fantastic recording and the sound is wonderful, full bloodied, yet clear. Dutton clearly have totaly belief in the conductor Martin Yates, he seems to be well on the way to being their "house" conductor and in my opinion rightly so. His recent Vaughan Williams recording (early & late works) was beautifully conducted (as was his recent 5th Symphony of the same composer) and his sterling recordings of Richard Arnell are first class. This recording will only add to his growing reputation as a seriously good musician. You can tell that I loved this disc!
The primary reason I was interested in hearing this disc was the Catoire symphony, having over the years come to admire his beautifully written chamber music (particularly that with piano); I was curious about the symphony by Felix Blumenfeld too, of course, but never having heard any of his music before my interest wasn't piqued to quite the same degree. As it turns out however, while I have found much to enjoy in both works here, it is the Blumenfeld piece that strikes me as the real "find" on this disc.
Catoire's catalogue is a relatively modest one, his path as a creative artist seemingly having been a troubled one as much in his early days of musical study as in the years following the Russian revolutions, and orchestral music is perhaps the least significant part of his oeuvre if only in terms of quantity. The symphony, his only one, is an early work and a somewhat generic and atypical one without the individuality that marks his mature compositions. Echoes of the Russian nationalist school abound and the work sits comfortably and unobtrusively alongside such contemporary symphonies as Lyapunov's first or Alexander Taneyev's second. I'm not sure if any actual folk tunes are used but much of his material has the air of folk melody - the theme that opens the first movement, for example. This might sound like damning with faint praise but I don't intend it to - what the music might lack in originality it certainly makes up for in enjoyability: the scherzo has much charm and vivacity, the lovely lilting trio forming a well-judged contrast to the outer sections, and the 'Andante non tanto' is a eloquent and impassioned statement. Occasionally the symphony betrays the relative inexperience of its essentially self-taught author - the recall of the work's opening theme in the finale, for instance, is so diffidently done as to make the gesture seem almost redundant; that said, Catoire deserves credit for not writing a movement that is merely all-purpose festivity as many such movements were by his contemporaries - there is a darker undercurrent to the music here that makes for a more thought-provoking than celebratory conclusion.
Despite the obvious influence of Tchaikovsky on Blumenfeld's musical language, his solitary symphony is a far more individual sounding work, one that makes you regret he had so little interest in writing for orchestra. The symphony's subtitle - "In memory of the beloved dead" - and the general tenor of the piece suggests there may be an unspoken programme of sorts to the work (the liner notes posit the idea it may have been written in response to the failed revolution of 1905). Structurally it is quite interesting - the first two movements are played without a break; the third movement appears to combine elements of scherzo and finale; in conclusion, a relatively short concluding movement is appended to that second 'Allegro' and designated 'Epilogue' in the score. The opening and the third movements are turbulent pieces, angry even at times - especially the latter, which is marked 'con fuoco' - and both display a command of form that is testament to the solid teaching Blumenfeld received at the conservatoire; they frame a 'larghetto' of considerable beauty and tenderness, its consolatory quality all the more marked by contrast to the music that flanks it. The 'Epilogue' proves to be another slow movement that provides a noble and cathartic peroration after the drama that has preceded it. This is, I think, a much more individual work than the Catoire symphony, not just as far as the idiom is concerned but also in that there is a palpable sense of personal emotional investment in the music, whatever the actuality behind the piece's motto.
Martin Yates isn't, as far as I can recall, a conductor I have come across on disc before and I couldn't have hoped for a better introduction to him: he directs the Royal Scottish National Orchestra in splendid performances of both works and, in the Blumenfeld, really captures the range of moods that the work contains; the Catoire is, if not a piece that plays itself, perhaps one of fewer emotional challenges, and it too is played superbly. The sound quality is excellent and, in terms of production values, Malcolm MacDonald provides the sort of detailed and comprehensive booklet essay that I have come to expect from him.
This is a disc of two halves really - an enjoyable but fairly typical-sounding symphony from Catoire and work of considerable emotional power and individuality from Blumenfeld; for fans of pre-revolutionary Russian music, I'm sure this release is self-recommending but fans of Romantic music generally would also find the Blumenfeld work a worthy and satisfying addition to their collections.
I got this CD as a present and have to admit I had not heard of either composer. Having never previously discovered any Russian symphony which did that much for me outside the big names, this was quite a curiosity. The stirring climax to the Blumenfeld is the most moving thing I've heard for a while and I'd love to give this symphony and the disc as a whole an unqualified recommendation. In fact the whole of the Blumenfeld is enjoyable -- and I'm pretty hard to please -- but just felt in the end it lacked the last ounce of individuality. The slow movement is maybe just a tad twee but touching for all that.
The Catoire is a bit more interesting in terms of orchestration and treatment of ideas, particularly in the finale perhaps but after several listenings, it's the Blumenfeld I come back to and agree more with the overall conclusion of J.A Peacock (who has written a lot of valuable reviews I can see).
In summary, if being actually moved by music is more important than finding works which may be technically interesting, I'd strongly recommend this CD for the Blumenfeld to anyone interested in the late romantic symphony. I'd put it not that far behind Tchaikovsky 4,5 and Manfred, if rather different in character. And think of the Catoire as a well worthwhile bonus.
PS it's well worth noting that Golovchin (Amazon marketplace best advised due to current high price new) has also recorded the Blumenfeld and the reading is much more passionate than Yates. It's unfortunate, though, that he seems to have problems in pacing and phrasing the finale, otherwise I put this as a first choice despite, or perhaps because of, having more rawness. If only Svetlanov had recorded this!