Friday, April 30, 2021

some general thoughts and observations about Igor Rekhin's 24 Preludes and Fugues for solo guitar--I'm afraid I have to say I respect it more than I enjoy it

So I've had Bands 1 and 2 of this cycle for years and for years I couldn't find any recordings of a performance of the entire cycle.  I recall Matanya Ophee wrote that Rekhin approached him about publishing the cycle and Ophee passed.  The cycle  was eventually published.  

I've now had time to listen to the entire cycle, which you can hear over here.

Now for some thoughts ...
I respect the cycle overall more than I enjoy it.  I admire the ambition it took for a non-guitarist to compose 24 preludes and fugues accounting for every major and minor key.  

But I find I never come back to this cycle like I do an earlier cycle of preludes and fugues for two guitars by, of course, Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco.  I think that Castelnuovo-Tedesco's music deserves more attention.  Yes, he mentored John Williams and Henry Mancini and his music is really "Hollywood" but I mean "Hollywood" in the best sense, rousing tunes that are beautifully crafted.  Which is to say, pertinent to Rekhin's cycle, that I'm afraid Rekhin's cycle has a lot of cyclical unity but that it often lacks for what are colloquially known as tunes.  The finest moments have been recorded already, the D minor, D flat major and B flat major prelude and fugue pairings.  You can get about half of the cycle in audio file format through Classical Archives, which preserved some of Vladimir Tervo's performances.

I'd like to have more positive things to say than I do about this cycle but overall I'd say it's interest is first and foremost historical.  Rekhin got there first but in terms of a prelude and fugue cycle for solo guitar I recommend as a listening experience I'm firmly on the side of German Dzhaparidze and Nikita Koshkin as having written fugal cycles for solo guitar that I keep coming back to listen to again.  I am unable to comment about the Gerard Drozd cycle yet because no one in the West has recorded it and it seems to be published in Poland (there's an opus number, after all) but I haven't heard the work or seen the scores.  If someone knows how to get the published Drozd cycle I am all ears.  

One of the things that lurches out for me about Rekhin's cycle that I feel obliged to mention is that the musical style of the prelude can often have little to do with the style of the fugue. Leonard Meyer once wrote that what a prelude should "do" is be a prelude to something, to whatever comes after it.  Igor Rekhin's Prelude in B flat major has a jazzy charming mood but what that has to do with the neo-Handelian fugue subject and associated exposition for the Fugue in B flat is not especially clear.  

Fellow blogger Bryan Townsend and I compared notes on the Rekhin relatively recently and Bryan couldn't get past the first few preludes and fugues of the cycle.  I have, in fact, listened to the whole thing myself but even I didn't, and couldn't, listen to it from start to finish.  Twenty-four preludes and fugues by any composer, even J. S. Bach, is a gauntlet of listening.  But when I heard Angela Hewitt play Book 1 of Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier in a single concert it was a gauntlet where I enjoyed every minute.  Rekhin's work has left me zoning out from time to time.  I can tell that subjects across the cycle come back to the descending perfect fourth as a unifying gesture and my brain can register that as a potentially shrewd way to generate cycle-wide unity ...

but a prelude and fugue cycle is better composed with an ear for a unity between each prelude and fugue and to pay no heed to whether there are leitmotifs unifying the work across all the keys.  Castelnuovo-Tedesco may have leaned hard on having a prelude use a melody that subsequently becomes the subject but it was maybe Angelo Gilardino or Matanya  Ophee or both who said that while Castelnuovo-Tedesco made guitar-writing mistakes constantly he never made any musical mistakes.  There are few guitarists who can crank out a fugue for guitar duet in a single day (C-T was a formidable pianist indeed).  So in a sense Rekhin should be cut quite a bit of slack.  There's nothing about making musical history writing for an instrument that says it's always "the" touchstone work. 

In all the ways that matter (whether by way of memorable melodies, grooves, textures and harmonies) Rekhin's cycle just doesn't stick with me.  The sheer ambition and confidence needed to write a two-hour cycle I can respect but I can name other composers whose cycles I think have more tunes.  Prelude and fugue cycles, as Matanya Ophee warned years ago, risk coming across like academic exercises. They can come across as though written to pass an exam.  Now there were all kinds of moments in musial life where writing a prelude and a fugue was really a requirement, so much so that George Oldroyd made a point of writing The Technique and Spirit of Fugue to help music students tackle that exam process.  Despite the mid-20th century flowery language the book is a fantastic guide to fugal composition if you can find it.  In my study of fugue a guideline that has stuck with me goes as follows ... .

When you've written your subject move on to writing a countersubject and so on for however many countersubjects you want to add.  Let's say you have a subject and two countersubjects.  You should be able to take your subject, your first countersubject, and your second countersubject and sing them all in one successive line.  Did you have fun singing through that and feel like you can't wait to try out the possibilities for writing episodes and middle entries?  Great, that's how you should proceed.  Being a former choral singer I found this explanation immensely helpful, especially since I was always singing Tenor II or Baritone.  If I were to try to apply the above guideline to Rekhin's cycle it would not be much fun, honestly.  When I was first blogging through the Koshkin cycle a few years ago I knew I didn't have quite the chops to just sit down and play his work and this despite the fact that I have myself composed a cycle of preludes and fugues for solo guitar.  But being the ex-choral singer that I am, I'd read through the Koshkin scores and sing different lines and you know what? Koshkin's lines can be hard but they are singable.  Sure, they're singable for someone who has  tackled Byrd, Tallis, Gibbons, Bach, Buxtehude, Mendelssohn, Poulenc and Messiaen ... but I hope you get the basic idea, here--Koshkin's counterpoint does "sing".  Rekhin's, I'm afraid, doesn't.  

So if you want to tackle a two-hour cycle of preludes and fugues and listen to Rekhin's cycle I do encourage you to go for it.  :)  I gave it a shot, obviously, and I have gone through the scores for the whole cycle and listened to the thing in large doses.  But I must also say, despite my respect for the work as the first of its kind, that I now understand why Matanya Ophee passed on the cycle rather than publish it and I can appreciate why it took so many decades since the work's premiere for it to get a full possible hearing here in the West.  

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