An interesting endeavor by the ever-entreprising Kremer and friends, recorded in December 2001. After Vivaldi and Piazzolla: Eight Seasons, his Nonesuch disc mixing Vivaldi's Four Seaons and Astor Piazzola's "The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires" in an arrangement by Leonid Desyatnikov (2000), he further explores here the concept of The Seasons, now Russian, with more arrangements by Desyantikov and Alexander Raskatov.
Desyatnikov's "The Russian Seasons" are based on texts and songs from the collection "Traditional Music from the Russian Lake District". He uses the Vivaldi scoring for string orchestra and violin solo, to which he adds a soprano voice. According to the liner notes, "as the composer explains, the orchestra is transformed into a sort of peasant chorus, to which he gives an unperformerd text that is sung only towards the end of the work. The violin assumes the role of the solo singer emerging from the chorus". As in Vivaldi's Seasons, Desyatnikov arranges his in a cycle of four three-movement micro-cycles "whose meaning emerges in the verbal texts. Unlike Vivaldi's concertos, though, the movement headings and the background text are less concerned with the natural cycle of the seasons than with the rituals of the Orthodox church year, and revolve around such themes as love, separation and death. According to Desyatnikov, one of the work's hidden subjects is memento mori".
The music is quite beautiful and atmospheric. Its style draws on minimalism, it reminded me at times of Cage's - how appropriate - String Quartet "The Seasons", sometimes of the world-music-inspired string quartets of Terry Riley, sometimes of Stravinsky's Soldier's Tale (track 11 "Song for Shrovetide"). It isn't the masterpiece Kremer says it is, but it is entertaining and enjoyable.
"The Seaons Digest", Alexander Raskatov's elaboration on Tchaikovsky's intimate piano piano cycle "The Seasons", isn't as convincing. It isn't just an orchestration: that would have been too banal. Rather than "elaboration", "spoof" might migh an appropriate description. Tchaikovsky's cycle was published in a monthly magazine, accompanied (like Vivaldi's Four Seasons with his own sonnets) by short poems of various authors. The spirit in which Rastakov approached it is shown by his own commenting lines (alas just a few samples are given in the liner notes):
"March: Song of the Lark"
Original poem by A. Maykov: "Light and radiance from heaven / Cover the sleeping flowers; / The song of a spring lark / Rings out in the bright blue vault".
Raskatov's Commentary: "Dreary thaw weather, An old lark, still alive by a miracle, greets the death of nature. The shades of other, dead larks join unseen in his song."
So, it sounds like the sonic equivalent of painting moustaches to the Mona Lisa (although Tchaikovsky's cycle can't anywhere be compared to the Mona Lisa), or even more like pissing on the Mona Lisa.
What Raskatov did with Tchaikovsky's cycle would remind you perhaps of Schnittke with baroque music, except that the original material of Tchaikovsky is more trite - sentimental romantic salon music - and what remains of it in Rastakov's elaboration remains that way (Grieg also comes to mind), and Rastakov doesn't even try to treat it seriously and dramatically as Schnittke did with his own, but just in the sprit of a spoof. It is entertaining and fun, but it sounds really like a sophisticated version of what every music student likes to do once in a while: clowning with serious music.
It's two stars for Raskatov, four for Desyatnikov, and a one-star nudge up to salut Kremer's spirit of entreprise.