Vladimir Rebikov, the self-styled inventor of whole-tone music, was born in Siberia in 1866 and studied composition with Nikolai Klenovsky, a Tchaikovsky pupil. He was an experimenter and wrote ‘musico-psycholographic dramas’ having increasingly turned to novel forms and moved in harmonically advanced directions. His ideas were not always well received and he, apparently, became embittered at the success of Scriabin – a name that springs to mind when listening to Rebikov’s music – and even Debussy, both of whom, he believed, had stolen his ideas. Some contemporary writers did, to some degree, agree that he had anticipated their seismic shifts in harmonic thinking, though it remains moot whether they did. He certainly met Debussy as well as Grieg and Janácek. And Stravinsky certainly did know about Rebikov and admitted as much, and his early influence.
Given his still-ambiguous place in the history of whole-tone adventurism it’s interesting to note that, as far as I’m aware, the first pieces of his to be recorded were songs. Not that he lacked for modernist experimentation in vocal music, either, but the songs sung by Zoia Rosovsky for Vocalion were not especially alarming for contemporary taste in the early 1920s. They can be found in a box set of discs devoted to the obbligato player, the great violist Lionel Tertis.
The piano music recorded in this Divine Art disc is part of the company’s ‘Russian Piano Music’ marque, itself an adventuresome jaunt amongst the highways and byways of the muse. It’s clear that Rebikov managed often to fuse traditional and experimental harmonies convincingly, as he does in Feuilles d’automne where Tchaikovsky-like moments – in the Pregando – vie with the far more advanced Scriabin-evoking Con tristezza movement. The ethos manages also to marry, seemingly paradoxically, remoteness and warmth.
He was also an adherent of selective precision. Une fête for instance has seven movements and lasts in total three and a half minutes. Nothing is wasted. There are Stravinskian anticipations in the rhythmic charge of the music, and this little cycle shows his vitality and striking sense of rhythm. Chansons blanche uses the white keys only and aspires to a reserved plangency – which is achieved with some success. The longest piece is the grandly named Esclavage et liberté of 1901, subtitled Tableau musical-psychologique in accepted French terminology. This is a striking piece, but mainly for its Lisztian melos, a psycho-drama of pregnant anticipation that shares a similar sense of drama and contrast as Liszt’s B minor Sonata. It gradually lightens and brightens its tone into extravagant chordal dynamism. It’s apparent by now that Rebikov looked back as well as forward. As well as anticipating the rhythmic advances of Stravinsky and the glowering expressionism of Scriabin he also stands revealed as an inheritor of mid-nineteenth century tone poetry as well, a synthesiser of ambition unvexed by the problems he thus faced.
These also included the use of clusters, where he certainly was in the vanguard, and which he employs in the 1913 Trois idylls, as well as the lightly burnished orientalism of the second of the two Episodes from Yolka . He sought Arcadian-Greek inspiration in the brief Scènes bucoliques and looked back to Schumann’s inspiration for the charmingly droll Tableaux pour enfants. His putative influence on French impressionism can perhaps best be gauged by the c.1906 settings in Parmi eux – note Elles dansent in particular. And it’s fascinating to consider his influence on the Czech composer Novák, whom Rebikov knew and to whom the third of these pieces is dedicated, and on Novák’s subsequent compositional direction, not least as a composer for the keyboard.
Anthony Goldstone is wholeheartedly to be commended on his playing. He reaches into the heart of the Rebikovian dilemma and produces performances of intensity and suggestive tonality. Maybe the Valse from Yolka could be more capricious – Shura Cherkassky once recorded this and his playing was lither and more treble glinting [Ivory Classics 72003] – but elsewhere he produces performances both sensitive and, in the opening track , Les démons s’amusant, puckish.
And with detailed notes and excellent recorded sound, this stakes a permanent claim on the listener.