Russian Chamber Music of the 20s
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This record gives us a survey of Russian music of the twenties in all its diversity, its complexity and all its ambivalence, and affords a glimpse of numerous phenomena with a bearing on analogous processes in western culture of the period. Russian music of the first post-revolutionary decade is here represented by the works of three composers of totally different personalities and scope: Sergey Prokofiev, the young iconoclast, the revolutionary who burst upon the traditional musical scene and, as Mayakovsky said, asserted himself "with weight, brutality and ostentation"; Vladimir Shcherbachov, the heir of the academic traditions of the Saint Petersburg school; and Nikolay Roslavets, that marvellous Russian artist who, after a period of unjust oblivion, has today become the centre of constantly growing interest on the part of music lovers and musicologists.
Prokofiev's Quintet in G minor, Op. 59 for oboe, clarinet, violin, viola and double bass dates from the composer's Parisian period. Composed in 1924, almost simultaneously with the 5th Piano Sonata and the 2nd Symphony, it reflects the avid quest for new means of expression and is infected with that experimental "virus" which was, generally speaking, typical of the artists of the twenties. When Prokofiev later assessed his works of this period he was to define them as the most "chromatic" compositions in his entire output. But Prokofiev's quest for new musical means of expression has a twofold explanation. On the one hand it stems from the immoderation of youth, excited by the various constructivist trends, and on the other it was an understandable effort to find himself and to assert himself in the Parisian musical milieu of the 1920s, a milieu that was daring, multiform and preoccupied with the desire to astonish.
There is no doubt that this Quintet is a work of virtuosity rather than one engendered by profound sentiments. It nonetheless bears the unmistakable imprint of Prokofiev's genius. It is in six short movements, often untraditional in the relationship between the tempi and the contents, and is rather like a suite : 1) Moderato. Theme with variations ; 2) Andante energico; 3) Allegro sostenuto; 4) Adagio pesante; 5) Allegro precipitato ma non troppo presto,; 6) Andantino.
On listening to it one can hardly discern the future composer of generous lyrical cantilenas and we have the impression that he is being restrained by bashfulness from showing his feelings. The lyricism, for instance in the fourth movement, is somewhat intellectualized, static, devoid of expressive breadth. The theme of the first movement, with the complexity of its chromatic inflections, undoubtedly bears the marks of authentic feeling. Prokofiev begins the Quintetin a mood tinged with melancholy, with a thematic progression distinguished by the complexity of its contours, particularly noticeable in the rather rugged scherzando episodes of the work. The style of the Quintet is characterized by rhythmic diversity, an elaborate technique of writing, with the use of contrapuntal elements, and the individualization of the instrumental parts. Even if this work is devoid of nationalistic attachments, here and there one hears the ingenuous intonations of popular tunes and at times the unsophisticated sonorities of a village band.
There is quite a different colour in the music of Vladimir Shcherbachov, who represents a relatively more traditional approach in Russian music of the period. The work of Shcherbachov (1887-1952) is inseparable from the cultural life of Saint Petersburg-Petrograd-Leningrad. An eminent composer, animator and teacher, who trained musicians like B. Arapov, V. Jelobinsky, A. Melik-Pashayev, E. Mravinsky, G. Popov and M. Chulaky, he exercised a considerable influence on the development of musical activities, especially between 1920 and 1930. He succeeded in creating a fusion between two periods, combining the best traditions of pre-revolutionary Russia with the musical tendencies of the new era. This manifested itself most fruitfully in his educational activities. Having inherited the finest aspects of the educational experience of Rimsky-Korsakov and Glazunov, he brought to it the vital breath of modernism.
His own creative efforts, on the other hand, were more laborious and often contradictory, and many of his projects remained unfinished. At the same time, independently from the extent to which his works were completed, his investigations were always marked by a breadth of conception and a dynamic vigour of thinking. His production consisted of the most varied forms: compositions for the musical stage, five symphonies, numerous suites and symphonic programme music, various works for piano (two sonatas and two suites), chamber music, songs, incidental music for plays and films, an opera, etc.
The Nonetoiov female voice, piano, flute, harp and string quartet was written in 1919 and was performed in the stage version in the same year at Petrograd by P. Gaideburov s Itinerant Theatre Studio of which Shcherbachov was musical director at the time. The work was originally intended to accompany a choreographic stage piece. Its first performances in this form with the famous dancer, Olga Preobrajenskaya, were an enormous success. Afterwards the Noneto was performed in a concert version, and it was in this form that it was given in Western Europe at the Venice Music Festival in 1932, and in the programme of the ISCM at Liege.
The plastic aspect of the original concept is undisputably reflected in the style of this work written for an unusually large chamber music ensemble, and which reveals a certain post-romantic nostalgia. The cycle in two pans is constructed on the lines of a succession of episodes and only the introduction and the conclusion give it a certain unity of form. The dramatic contents contrast a motley, often tormented universe that is sometimes carried away by the impetuousness of its emotions, with the serene sweetness of the outer movements, with their particularly refined instrumentation. The intonations of the romance, a genre the composer was fond of, in a free and continuous development of the song, are amply present in the Noneto. The soprano's vocalizations are at times pan of the orchestral timbre, and at others have the pathos-laden qualities of a solo pan. The Noneto contains quite a number of solo episodes, and the piano pan, especially at the beginning of the second movement, is striking in its range and virtuosity that remind one of the style of Rachmaninov.
Cast in the form of a poem, the work combines a rather broad spectrum of stylistic features, ranging from the hints of Russian folk-music, the free romance, to delicately tinted panels and the tormented emotions of powerful tutti. But despite this diversity of styles, and a certain verboseness and a tendency to overemphasized emotionalism, one cannot but admire the mastery of the composer's writing and the sincerity of his message.
The destiny of Nikolay Roslavets (1880-1944) was not only out of the ordinary, but also deeply tragic. His creative life that covered three decades (1912-1942) reflects the painful social and stylistic collisions of the period and bore the destructive scars of official proletarian cultural policy that broke more than one artistic existence. Roslavets, the innovative composer, one of the founders of the Pan-Russian Society of Contemporary Music, who promulgated the search for new, untraditional forms during the 1920s, and who opened up vast new creative perspectives, was eventually compelled to deny himself, to "repent" and to wear the "straitjacket" of narrow academic traditionalism that was alien to every fibre of his being.
After having been totally forgotten for over two decades, Roslavets was rediscovered in Western Europe in the early 60s by the musicologist, Detlef Gojowy, a professor at the University of Gottingen. This was the beginning of a renaissance of the work of this important and original composer - first in the West and then in Russia, his own native country.
Born, according to him, "in Dushatino, a godforsaken, half-Ukrainian, half-Byelorussian hole" in the former province of Chernigov, he began to study music seriously in the 1890s at Kursk, in the "Music Classes" recently established by the Russian Musical Society. Then, at the beginning of the century, he entered the Moscow Conservatory. After having received a solid, traditional education, Roslavets, like Prokofiev and Stravinsky, Kandinsky and Chagall, Khlebnikov and Mayakovsky, felt the imperative necessity to react, to break away from pre-established stylistic canons, to seek and to find independent artistic forms: "The knowledge and the technical procedures that were imparted to me at the Conservatory were of no use to me in my practical work, because, consisting essentially of cliches, in no way could they serve my urge to express my inner Self that dreamed of unprecedented worlds of sound," (N. Roslavets, Contemporary Music, 1924, No. 5).
The quest for a personal language, begun in 1909 and lasting a decade, led in 1913 to the working out of a new harmonic system. "In the spring of 1913", he wrote, "I saw the curtain gradually open beyond which, after six years of sedulous work, I definitively found my own personal technique that afforded me every latitude for the expression of my artistic personality."
The new harmonic system and personal technique of composition that were born are based on the "synthetic chord" (or "Synthetakkord"). Roslavets's method is close to the technique of serialism. The "synthetic chord" consists of a group of sounds out of which both the horizontal and the vertical elements of a work are constructed. Similar to a tonerow, this group of sounds constitutes both the melody and the chord. It is a new manner of filling the sound space. These experimental investigations of Roslavets to a large extent overlap with similar procedures in Russia (late Scriabin) and in the West (Schoenberg and Webern).
D. Gojowy justly called Roslavets "one of the pioneers of new musical thinking". At the same time as presenting resemblances with the world of Schoenberg and the sound-colour relationships of Scriabin (it is interesting to note that Roslavets left manuscripts with notes written in different colours), his system is nonetheless highly individual. He manifests the creation of a specifically "Russian orientation" in serial music. What seemed at first a vital necessity, the manifestation of the unconscious in music, this technique became a natural means of expression to Roslavets. As regards the emotional contents of his mature work (in the 1920s), one discerns a particular fascination with the lyrical-dramatic aesthetics, which is well represented by the work presented on this record.
The recording of Roslavets's Chamber Symphony is a noteworthy event and a world premiere. It was discovered in the Central Archives of Literature and Art in Moscow in the form of an incomplete piano score. Le Chant du Monde commissioned the Moscow composer, Alexander Raskatov, to complete and to orchestrate the work. Raskatov had been working on Roslavet's archives since 1980 and was able to complete eight of his other works. The piano score of the Symphony breaks off at the recapitulation and contains no more than a few sparse indications of its intended instrumentation in the first pages. A complex and painstaking study and the greatest possible faithfulness to the original were therefore demanded.
The Symphony is in one movement and scored for a chamber orchestra of eighteen musicians, with abundant use of various percussion instruments, and includes a piano, a harp and a celesta. It is essentially a dramatic work with an intensely dynamic development and, in its own way, belongs to the tradition of the dramatic Russian symphonic style. It is in sonata form with an introduction and a coda and a rather freely treated recapitulation section. Between the first and second themes a relatively extended episode is in the nature of a second development. Roslavets s manuscript breaks off in the final recapitulation. The coda added by Raskatov is short, delicately nuanced and sparsely orchestrated (in comparison with the rest of the work); it consists of a synthesis of the main thematic ideas, with hinted reminiscences and forms a conclusion in keeping with the overall logic of the work.
The Chamber Symphony, written during the period of Roslavets's creative maturity, is a clear reflection of his artistic personality, his thought processes and his compositional technique. At the base of its thematic construction we find the "synthetic chord" that determines the horizontal and the vertical development of a polyphonic style of writing formed of expressive lines and planes. There are moments that remind us of Scriabin's last manner, both in the images (that combine his favourite symbols: flight and dream) and in the treatment of the musical fabric. The two composers have an equally exalted level of polyphonic thought in common. But in Roslavets there is a greater degree of external simplicity as well as more easily assimilated intonations. In the end the Chamber Symphony presents an interesting combination of the atonal principle of the "synthetic chord" with several features of the tonal system, thereby re-creating a kind of tonality in an expanded sense of the term.
(translated by Derek Yeld)