Chamber music implies a particular kind of intimacy, and that’s overwhelmingly the case on a new album of music by Russian-born composer Lera Auerbach. Part of its intensity comes from the fact that the performers are Avita Duo, comprising pianist Ksenia Nosikova and her violinist daughter Katya Moeller. This in itself brings a closeness to these recordings that’s not merely palpable but personal and highly tactile. The source of the intimacy is the main work on the disc, Auerbach’s 24 Preludes for Violin and Piano, composed in 1999. Being preludes, they’re all relatively brief (ranging from 1 to 5 minutes’ duration), but what’s especially remarkable about them is the way Auerbach makes each one a fully-formed, self-contained miniature narrative. An important aspect of the music that renders these narratives so intimate is the empathetic relationship shared by the instruments. They play together, mourn together, run and drift together, always simpatico in the way they take turns, pass ideas back and forth, and even when they allow the other time alone. At all times there’s the sense of two agents united by a single outlook, motivation, behaviour and objective.
Very little about these pieces feels like conventional chamber music (and so much contemporary chamber music is so dismally conventional); not only do the Preludes convey discrete narratives, but the nature of these narratives is such that they pull us in, making us question what’s happening and why. This is reinforced by the music often adopting a restrained, even withdrawn demeanour, set back from us in a way that implies a kind of semi-private wrangling. The very first Prelude is a case in point, the piano gently repeating an iambic beat like a heart monitor while the violin slowly unfolds a melody. Through the centre of the piece the violin pushes outwards, while remaining held in check by its own limited range of notes / movement and droning bass notes from the piano. When both instruments end up quieter again in higher registers, it’s impossible to hear it as something transcendent; on the contrary, though beautiful the violin’s melody seems qualified and uncertain. It’s a superbly unexpected way to begin the set of Preludes, and an excellent example of the dramatic scope and potency they possess.
The way No. 1 presents an attempt at forcefulness leading to a far from triumphant outcome is typical of many of the Preludes. In No. 7 the violin obsesses over a single phrase as if it’s life depended on it; over the course of 60 seconds these repetitions sound more and more confused, the piano’s initial reinforcement becoming out of focus. No. 10 is driven along by bass octaves in the piano, the violin’s busyness becoming lyrical but then turning inward and seemingly freezing solid. Even more glacial is No. 16, where the violin moves with stiff regularity, without vibrato, while the piano offers nothing more than a single deep note, sounding sporadically; it’s music filled with discomfort and disorientation, continuing without knowing where or why. No. 22 opens with the same phrase in both instruments, progressing slowly and steadily, as if the players were moving with great care and caution while simultaneously trying to be fully expressive. Again, the violin doesn’t so much ascend as retreat to its upper registers at the end, as if hiding away in an imagined safe space, leaving the piano in the depths not quite knowing what to do.
Sometimes these uncertain outcomes arise from even more demonstrative starting points. Cheerful pizzicato strumming is the opening gambit for No. 9, remaining as a playful duet until the closing moments when it unexpectedly becomes a mess. No. 17 seems at first to be a game, rushing harum-scarum through cascades and crashes, but after less than half a minute the fun is forgotten, the music sunken into a black dirge; an echo of cascade in the piano leads to an unsettling, utterly blank response from the violin. The basis for No. 5 is a mixture of confidence and flamboyance, laid out by the piano in big chords and rising runs, answered by the violin in an equally big arpeggio sequence, whereupon they slot these two ideas together, the combined effect resulting not in increased but diminished power, quickly pulling back and petering out. No. 13 follows a similar trajectory, this time laid out by the violin in assertive lyricism; in due course the piano joins in, rhythmically grounding them both, but everything swiftly becomes internalised, all its strength evaporated.
One of the most impressive of these narrative progressions comes in the combination of Preludes 14 and 15, which run together (and are presented as a single track on the album). No. 14 is all flash and rapidity until its weird coda, where everything falls apart at the seams; No. 15 continues in its wake – the sound of deep reverberation heard throughout – as a ghostly lullaby, the melody singing precariously on high harmonics. No. 8 goes a similar way from a starting point of folk-like melancholy, its tune robbed of cadences in favour of recurring, ever-larger downward glissandi; the tune returns towards the end as a wraith-like apparition. This wonderful prelude is one of two to have an additional “P.S.” prelude, which returns instantly to the same mood and environment as No. 8, the tune even more slip-sliding and here transformed into a grotesque zombified waltz, though once again ending up in a ghostly form. Lullabies and waltzes appear in several other preludes, manifesting as a grouchy kind of folk music in No. 2, a gentle nocturne that abruptly comes off the rails in No. 3, and something akin to a cabaret tune in No. 6. Just occasionally there are apparent traces of influence from Shostakovich, most clearly in the jaunty tune running through No. 11, and also in the middle section of No. 19, where the impression of a pretty but harmonically oblique music box tune materialises as its confident pounding chords fizzle out.
In comparison to the Preludes, Auerbach’s later work Oskolki (composed in 2001), seems altogether more ephemeral. The title translates to “broken pieces”, so it’s reasonable to expect these 10 miniatures to sound fragmentary. Nonetheless, only a few of them live up to the engrossing quality of the Preludes; the rest sound more like sketches or offcuts than fully-fledged small-scale narratives.
But it hardly matters, as the Preludes are such a superb, substantial series. It’s fascinating how each one conveys such a distinctive – and, often, inscrutable – dramatic sensibility, inviting one to engage with them again and again to revel in and figure out both its unique characteristics and those that it shares with the others in the set. Katya Moeller and Ksenia Nosikova articulate these dramas with complete immediacy and conviction; from both composing and performing perspectives, this is chamber music at its absolute best.
Released by Hänssler Classic, 24 Preludes for Violin and Piano & Oskolki is available on CD and download.