Recorded in Moscow at the Large Hall of the Conservatory in November 1992
Edison Denissov: Chamber Music
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Edison Denissov was known in the West as one of the only Russian composers - together with Andrey Volkonsky, Sofia Gubaidulina and Alfred Schnittke - to have braved the fulminations of the Soviet musical officialdom by writing music in the avant-garde manner, the language of which bored certain analogies with the atonal procedures of Schoenberg and Boulez.
And yet, when one talks to Denissov he insists that his music is above all a confession of the soul and that his lyricism has close spiritual links with that of Mussorgsky without, however, emulating 19th century techniques of writing.
The quest for a synthesis - often conflicting - of these two aspects in his music : the mastery of a new language and expressive lyricism, is particularly evident in his large number of chamber music works. Those to be heard on diis record reflect bodi the development of the composer and die constant concern with inventing for each new work a form and a style corresponding to a particular internal architecture and lyrical expression. For the performer and the listener this means that each element of the abstract tone-row is to be played or heard as a series of melodic cells and that each tonal allusion is to be perceived as a simple colour in the structured framework of the whole. All of Denissov's music manifests this conflict between the desire to break away from a language of the past that is alien to what a contemporary composer is attempting to express, and the urge to return, by means of new models, to the eternal archetypes of Russian music.
In the first place his message is a spiritual one, a quest beset with ordeals, passions and dazzling perceptions, leading towards an internal fadioming, towards the "light". He bears within himself a kind of musical fulfilment, a generating sacrifice of a new form that imposes itself on the musical substance itself. The works presented here belong to Denissov's first great creative period as well as to a more recent one and offer us an opportunity of forming an idea of the composer's evolution.
Three pieces for cello and piano (1967) were written for Natalia Gutman. These three short pieces form a single whole, although they contain allusions to the different movements of a sonata. A single series of twelve tones unifies the whole work, with a first piece that is both lyrical and "Webernian", a second more "pointillistic" and contrasting, and a third filled with passages of silence and in which the cello part is often placed in the extreme top register, in quest of an "assumption" in sound, which will reveal itself as typical of Denissov's aesthetic.
Sonata for cello and piano (1971) was commissioned by the Festival of Royan for the cellist, Pierre Penas-sou. The two movements are unified by the same obsessive lyrical theme which appears throughout in different lights. The pivotal note of D, the symbol of "light", here appears for the first time in Denissov's work.
The first movement, Recitativo, serves as a kind of overture : the cello strives to sing to an essentially chromatic motif while the piano surrounds it with high serial volutes. The two instruments are on two different planets.
The second movement, Toccata, opposes two different styles of writing, one of them rhythmic, the other melodic, as in the later violin concerto. It is dominated by the demonic pursuit of the rhythmic motif taken, almost unchanged, from the low-register ascending figures in the first movement. Sometimes the harmonic intervals are reminiscent of Bartok and Debussy, but the movement contains violent chromatic dissonances, rhythmic distortions and oppositions of lyrical tension and dream-like weighdessness, all of which places a severe strain on the performers...
Variations on a theme by Schubert (1986) was composed at the request of the cellist, Alexander Rudin to be performed in a programme entirely devoted to Schubert whose music Denissov regards as "the symbol of eternity, purity and profound sadness".
Already quoted in the violin and the viola concertos, Schubert appears here in the first bars of his Impromptu in A flat, which are gradually swamped by different musical material, chromatic in nature and turning in upon itself, but with a reflective simplicity that is evocative of certain pages of Shostakovich's Preludes. There is a sort of quasi-improvised abandon, a slackening of tension that heralds a new period in Denissov's work.
Quintet for piano and strings (1987) is part of an important new series of chamber music works written between 1986 and 1989, among which we find the Quintet for clarinet and strings, the Quartet with flute, and the Sextet.
It is essentially a lyrical, pictorial work in which the writing harks back to the "overprinting" technique of the Aquarelle for 24 strings and the Peinturefor orchestra.
The piano is treated in a highly original manner, on an equal footing with the other instruments, and is entangled in the lines of the strings with motifs that are almost identical with those of the other voices which, by means of an alternation of a fusion and a saturation of sounds create a shading off of colour in which the identity of the timbre of each instrument has been obliterated. In the first movement a choral element in the strings is contrasted with melodic festoons in the piano, enriched with trills in counterpoint as if to cause the sonorous material itself to tremble.
The second movement is a sort of scherzo alternating gusts of chromatic fugato elements - "images of the wind, as in the finale of Chopin's Funeral March Sonata", Denissov observes - with atonal and pointillist passages of aggressive pizzicati.
The melodic third movement returns to the manner of the first; it has links with Brahms, Denissov claims, not in the writing, but in the model of its internal structure.
The last pages of the Quintet are highly characteristic of the manner in which Denissov ends many of his pieces with a slow ascent of the strings towards the topmost register in the midst of the imitation of fragile bell-sounds in the piano. This assumption, this evaporation of the music is symbolic of a reaching towards the light that dominates all the composer's work.
Reflcts for piano (1989) was commissioned by Susan Bradshaw for the Glasgow Festival. After Variations, Signes en blanczn.& Variations on a theme by HandelTor piano, Reflets is a kind of dream-like fantasy presented as an impressive sonorous progression symbolizing a spiritual quest. The stages and contrasts are marked by the exploitation of the full range of Denissov's musical palette : the opposition of static chorale-like writing and more fluent melodic elements, the alternation of flowing lines of sound particles and expressionistic lyricism, polyphonic chorales fading away in the highest register amidst the tinklings of broken glass, the recapitulation of the melodic theme in thirds, then in sixths, thereby endowing the same motif stated in an atonal nudity with a dimension of mystical sen-suousness evocative of Scriabin or Messiaen.
The range and evocative power of this work place it among the great visionary works in the piano repertory.