Divine Art has truly struck gold with this release of piano music by the little-known Vladimir Rebikov (1866–1920). A pupil of Nikolai Klenovsky, himself one of Tchaikovsky’s pupils, Rebikov wrote music that is seldom if ever Tchaikovskian. As pianist Anthony Goldstone put it in his liner notes, “He wrote in a bewildering array of styles. Some of the composers, most of whom flowered later, whose music is brought to mind by that of Rebikov are: Satie, Poulenc, Milhaud, Bartók, Stravinsky, Copland, Chávez, Ives, Cowell, Debussy, Scriabin, Prokofiev, Messiaen, Mompou, Villa-Lobos, and Vaughan Williams. Lack of key signatures, time signatures, bar lines, ‘hanging,’ unresolved endings and fades, harmonies based on fourths, sevenths and ninths—these were some of his trademarks.”

If the above quote doesn’t intrigue you, your musical curiosity is dead and should be buried in the back yard next to your late, lamented pet dog or cat. If you don’t believe it, then simply buy this disc and hear for yourself. Rebikov was a genius of monumental proportions—one might say the Russian Alkan—who wrote in exactly the opposite dimensions. Whereas Alkan’s music is extremely long (he is sometimes described as the Mahler of the piano), Rebikov wrote in short, terse statements. Of the 42(!) pieces on this CD, none run longer than two and a half minutes with the lone exception of his “musical-psychological tableau,” Esclavage et liberté. Most of them—I kid you not—run a minute and 40 seconds or less (34 of them, to be exact). Rebikov was not a composer who wasted your time, but ironically I think it is because his musical statements are so terse that he was rarely if ever programmed in recitals. Indeed, I’d say there is another connection to Alkan, that this disc by Goldstone is as much a revelation of Rebikov’s genius—and as spectacularly played—as the late Raymond Lewenthal’s 1963 RCA Victor LP was revelatory of Alkan.

The proof is all there in the listening. Rebikov’s strange alchemy of Alkan, Debussy, Scriabin, Satie, Stravinsky, Prokofiev, et al., leaps out at the listener with stunning audacity. Describing these short, compact, almost enigmatic works is virtually impossible. Even Goldstone has trouble doing so in his liner notes, and he’s the performer! And since he appears to be an excellent note writer as well, I shall let he who has actually seen these scores, and doesn’t just analyze by ear, make a few comments:

Les Démons s’amusent: “At 19 seconds into The Devils Amuse Themselves … the central melody strikingly anticipates the sinister ostinato that begins at figure 65 of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring.”

Esclavage et liberté: “The opening section, with its idée fixe of a descending chromatic scale—a moan or cry of anguish (later becoming a scream)—ideally requires three hands. Passages of plaintive recitative express self-doubt or inner turmoil, and sudden impulses take the music off in new directions. … There are interesting similarities with Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht … which Rebikov could not have known, as, although it had been composed in 1899, it was premiered in 1902 and published only in 1905.”

Trois Idylles: “For the cover [to the sheet music] Jurgenson commissioned an illustration of fantastical creatures: a mermaid, a frog prince, Pan, a witch, and others. The contents are hardly less odd. Bar lines and time signatures are absent from all three pieces. The solemn Hymn to the Sun … features parallel motion and intervals of a fourth and makes extensive use of note clusters, the majority of which include every white note in the span of an octave, to be played ‘with the edge of the palm.’ The American Henry Cowell and the Russian-American Leo Ornstein, later credited as pioneers in this field, had yet to begin their work.”

Scènes bucoliques: “Here there is an attempt to evoke the spirit … of ancient Greece: old modes are used in the first four [pieces]; … the mercurial fifth, Round of the Elves, is built largely by stacking up minor thirds and eventually evaporates into thin air.”

Parmi eux [“Among Them”]: “portrays giant alien creatures that live in a parallel, whole-tone, world. … The first [piece], entitled The Males Dance, is heavy-footed and clumsy. Dance with a Bell features syncopated gong-like bass notes, after which a hypnotic Berceuse sends the baby off to sleep. Dance of the Quadrupeds, perhaps the aliens’ proportionately huge, lumbering equivalent to our pet dog, brings to mind the more sluggish bear in Pétrouchka.”

There’s a lot more in the notes (and music) than this, of course, but I hope this gives you a taste of what you’ll experience in listening. As for the performances, Goldstone is a pianist of formidable technique and astonishing coordination. Not only are both hands always in perfect synch, but (again) like Lewenthal, he makes the difficult sound easy without underplaying the drama in so many of these short works.

Discovering missing links in classical music is always fun as well as instructive. Rebikov is one more missing link, as once were Gossec, Spontini, and Alkan. I cannot recommend this disc highly enough. It should be in the library of any serious student of modern music, and the best part is that these pieces are as enjoyable as they are visionary.

—Lynn René Bayley