choir: Figuralchor Frankfurt / Alois Ickstadt: conductor
Staatsphilharmonie Rheinland-Pfalz / John Carewe: conductor
Museumsorchester Frankfurt / Constantin Alex: conductor
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Andre Volkonsky was born in 1933 into a Russian family of emigres living in Geneva. Having studied piano with J. Aubert and Dinu Lipatti, he returned to Moscow with his parents at the age of 14 in the naive hope that the Stalinist regime would restore democracy in the post-war Soviet Union. Volkonsky studied composition at the Moscow Conservatory. Before long, he lost all faith in Soviet society and politics. In his third year of study, Volkonsky was expelled from the Conservatory as part of the radical campaign to suppress all manifestations of "bourgeois ideology and modernism". Recollections of the excesses of this "ideological purge" dogged the composer all his life, affecting him deeply. In the 1950s and early 1 960s, all his activities were attended by scandal and censorship. During this period he was increasingly making his mark as a composer. He was also a much-sought-after harpsichordist, having given the first public harpsichord recital in Russia and taken a keen interest in unearthing and publicizing ancient music. In this context, he founded "Madrigal", the first Russian ensemble specializing in ancient music. As early as 1962 the Ministry of Culture definitively banned all performances and appearances. In 1973, Volkonsky decided to make his home in the West, going to France where he still lives.
Volkonsky's creative output may be divided into three periods: The first period reveals his indebtedness to neoclassical phenomena and tendencies. Influences of Stravinsky, Bartok and Hindemith are clearly discernible. The middle period begins in 1955-56. Volkonsky evolves a distinctive musical idiom of his own on the basis of the twelve-tone method, especially along the lines of serialism derived from Anton Webern's music. Webern opens the way to the ancient techniques of polyphonic writing. Volkonsky not only evinces a profound interest in early music, but also incorporates several principles of Dutch polyphonic music into his own compositional method. Despite this striking reorientation in his style, the influence of Stravinsky is still apparent in the middle period. The beginning of the third period coincides with his emigration to France in 1973. There he finds himself confronted with the avant-garde movements of the West, but also with their implicit problems. The result is a more pronounced personal style of composition. All the works assembled on his CD are from the second and third creative periods.
Western musicographers tend to dismiss Volkonsky as a composer of marginal importance for the music of his country. In actual fact, he was something of a trail-blazer in the development of Soviet music during the 1950s and 1960s, especially in defining new artistic positions against the background of the official aesthetic canons of "socialist realism", which were subservient to ideological requirements. His role was that of a locomotive setting things in motion by introducing a historical perspective and widening it continuously. For one thing, Volkonsky drew attention to Western modernism, and for another, he opened up the realm of ancient music to Soviet musical life. Many Russian composers of his generation who are now recognized as important followed him along the path of musical synthesis which he had pointed out because they saw it as the historically correct option.
Le psaume 148 [The 148th Psalm) was commissioned by Radio Suisse Romande as a work for chorus, organ and kettledrums. It was composed in Assisi under the impression of St Francis's great hymn to creation, the Canticle of the Sun. Made up of twelve sections, the work illustrates the evolution of certain principles of harmonic and formal design which already played a part in the Suite des miroirs [Mirror Suite) written in 1960. The choral writing is conceived in a modal tonal idiom. The austere and graphic quality of the music is underlined by the organ, which plays only a single chord. The 148th Psalm, the first piece of this compact disc, is repeated at the end of the CD at the special request of the composer.
Musica stricta, a work in four movements for piano, was composed in 1957. It was written for the legendary Russian pianist, Maria Yudina, who was not only concerned with the classical tradition, but did much to encourage younger composers. This piano work is of historical importance for Russian-Soviet music. It is the first piece written partly in a dodecaphonic style. However, the composer employed this technique in a rather intuitive fashion. As Volkonsky once admitted, it became clear to him later on that a work can only gain from such a free handling of technique or a particular method.
The Suite de los espejos (Mirror Suite), composed in 1960 for soprano and five instruments, is based on texts by Federico Garcia Lorca. On the one hand, the composer sought to explore all the possibilities of modern compositional technique, but, on the other, he wanted to write music that would be well received by audiences. For this purpose he chose a series marked by consonant intervals, mainly thirds, to create the impression of pseudo-tonality. In fact, Volkonsky made an important discovery while composing this work: For the first time I realized that silence is an important and necessary part of the musical discourse. From then on, coming to terms with the phenomenon of silence has been an essential component of my creative work.
Immobile for piano and orchestra, dating from 1977, is testimony to Volkonsky's revolt against the current situation of music. The work highlights tensions between the artist and the modernist school of our day. The economy of means characteristic of the preceding creative period and the grappling with the theme of silence are the hallmarks of this composition. A serial episode is evocative of the past, emerging like a shadow before the music sinks back into "immobility".
Les plaintes de Chtchaza (Shchaza's Lament), written in 1962 and scored for soprano and six instruments, assimilates the composer's experiences up to that point. The principle of permutation is no longer used at the constructive level, but handled in a very personal manner, thus assuming a new importance. Shchaza is not an imaginary figure, but a woman from the Caucasian mountains who was raped, humiliated and expelled from her village. During her short life she suffered one blow of fate after another. The work gives utterance to a woman's cry of despair in a most impressive manner.
One of the composer's most recent works is called Was noch lebt... [That Which is Still Alive). Scored for contralto and string trio, it is based on poems by Johannes Bobrowski. Adhering closely to the lyrical idiom of the poet, Volkonsky has managed to create highly intimate music which fuses completely with the textual structure and content of Bobrowski's poetry.
- Tatjana Rexroth (1994)