Semyon Barmotin: Mysterious Preludes

If you’ve never heard of the Russian composer Semyon Barmotin (1877-1939), then you’re not alone. Neither had I, until I discovered Christopher Williams’s new recording of his Op.12 piano preludes for Grand Piano Records – a world premiere recording, no less

Two mysteries are described in the liner notes. One is the date of the composer’s death, which eluded Western scholars until the discovery of a handwritten obituary from 1939 in the St. Petersburg city archives – the location he died in still remains unknown.

The second mystery lies in the structure of the work itself. The history of the prelude form is a strange one – while it began as an introductory warm-up piece, it evolved into a self-contained composition, which no longer ‘led’ anywhere.

By Barmotin’s time, composers such as Chopin had popularised a different role for the prelude: publishing sets which traversed all major and minor keys, much like Bach had done, twice over, with his Forty-Eight Preludes And Fugues.

But as Gérald Hugon writes in the booklet, what is confounding about Barmotin’s Op. 12 set is that each prelude is in a different key, but at twenty preludes, he stops just four short of completing a full chromatic cycle. They were published, so presumably it can’t be a case of them being left unfinished. Why didn’t he go all the way?

We don’t know, but it’s interesting that they were published in a different numerical structure, issued in four books of five preludes each. And with plenty of contrast within each book, they sound rather like four little suites run together.

One bonafide feature of the prelude that Barmotin retained is its brevity. All of them come in at under five minutes in this recording. While some of them employ a sectional form, often he will simply take a short idea for a wander around modulations, seeing how far it will go.

Particularly striking is his graceful way with melody, and moments of disarming directness. The first prelude could be a Gondolier’s song – just a wistful tune over rolling chords, but very memorable at that. No. 13, marked Andante religioso, suggests a tranquil chorale in call-and-response, while no. 3 – Moderato con morbidezza – uses an offbeat echo with a creeping bass line to ghostly effect.

Others are charmingly decorated. No. 8, Allegro con grazia, takes a strait-laced melody and elaborates it with in chromatic triplets. The similarly light and airy opening of no. 2 bends its material through the sort of subtle modulations you’d expect in a Schubert scherzo.

All told, these preludes reveal the querying of keys to be not much more than an academic distraction. As a listener, what stands out is how well-crafted and delightful these little works are. And so comes the third and most important mystery: how on earth it is that they only now have their world premiere recording?

Visit the album website at Grand Piano Records.

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