Personal Touch5:03, 29th September 2017
Elena Langer introduces her world premiere commission for this year’s London Piano Festival, finding inspiration in the creative ferment of early 20th-century Russian art and breaking the boundary between music and painting
THE BEGINNING OF THE LAST century was a thrilling time in art and in art synthesis. Poets painted (Mayakovsky and Khlebnikov began their careers as artists) and painters wrote words (Larionov and Chagall published poetry). Many poets and artists were amateur musicians. Kandinsky was an accomplished pianist and translated some of Schoenberg’s Theory of Harmony. Paintings from that era were musical and words were colourful. As a student, I was fascinated by Scriabin’s ideas of colour in music: ‘What colour is E-flat major? Is it yellow? And C-sharp minor? Purple?’ – though that now seems like a childish game.
I started playing the piano when I was six years old, and throughout my studies I was lucky to have excellent piano teachers. I received private lessons from Emmanuil Monaszon, a pupil of Konstantin Igumnov and Lev Oborin, who prepared me in my mid-teens for the entrance exam to Gnessin College. He suggested that to know the music properly and avoid a memory lapse in performance, I should write down by heart the Bach fugue I was learning. I have not written much music for solo piano, but I like composing and improvising at the keys. I use the piano in my orchestrations too – it is my very good friend! In the past, however, I have been put off writing for two pianos by the feeling that one ought to write a lot of notes, almost like an orchestral score, yet without the orchestra’s variety of colour and timbre. The challenge of writing for this medium, I think, is in finding a musical idea which will make good use of the rich piano textures and ensemble possibilities. I have attempted to come up with material that will be interesting for Katya Apekisheva and Charles Owen to play – showing off their technique but also their wonderful skill of listening to each other and playing lyrically.
When Katya and Charles asked me to write a short piece for the London Piano Festival, they said they wanted something vaguely Russian, perhaps connected to the 1917 Revolution. Initially, I looked for inspiration in pictures from that year by Wassily Kandinsky: colourful, bold works which are very Russian, but also strange and unique. None of them actually depicts the Revolution, as if it weren’t happening! I wanted my piano piece to achieve something similar in spirit. Coincidentally, at around the same time that we began discussing the commission, the Royal Academy in London presented a wonderful exhibition of Russian art. I was drawn to Petrov-Vodkin’s Fantasy by its sense of rhythmic drive. The image of a red horse is rather striking – both realistic and fantastical. I also like the fact that it is a duet with two characters: the red horse is moving forward while the rider is looking backwards.
RedMare is a festival piece for two virtuoso pianists, so expect a lot of fast notes, chastushki-like tunes and horsey rhythms! It is a fun, visual piece that I hope will be accompanied by projections of paintings by Kandinsky, Malevich and Petrov-Vodkin, making it a cinematic, theatrical experience.
Elena Langer’s RedMare will be given its world premiere by Katya Apekisheva and Charles Owen at this year’s London Piano Festival, Kings Place, on Saturday 7 October