Soviet Russian Viola Music (Works By Kryukov/ Vasilenko/ Frid/ Krein/ Bogdanov-Berezovsky) CD
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Œuvres de Vladimir Kryukov, Sergey Vasilenko, Grigory Frid, Yulian Krein, Valerian Bogdanov-Berezovsky / Vadim Borissovski, Fedor Druzhinin, Galina Kalacheva, Yuri Kramarov & Igor Fedotov, altos - Leonid Vechkhayzer & Gary Hammond, pianos
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This release should appeal to three types of people: those that want to further explore Soviet-era music; those that want to further explore the sound of the often-neglected viola; and those (like me) who want to do both.
Violist Igor Fedotov recently completed an exhaustive study of Russian 20th Century viola music, and this release is one of the results of that research. Fedotov presents five works for viola and piano, each by a different composer, spanning a good portion of the Soviet era.
The earliest work is a sonata by Sergey Nikiforovich Vasilenko. His 1923 sonata rolls from one highly dramatic and expressive melody to another. By contrast, Vladimir Nikolayevich Kryukov's sonata, completed in 1933, betrays the composer's love of Scriabin, giving it a somewhat exotic sound.
Bridging the early and late works on the album is a 1956 sonata by Valerian Mikhaylovich Bogdanov-Berezovsky, a close friend of Shostakovich. Bodgnaov-Berezovsky's is perhaps the most traditional in structure, but he still packs many original ideas into this short work.
Two compositions from the 1970's round out the release. A sonata by Grigory Samulovich Frid (1971) and one by Yulian Grigo'yevich Krein (1973). In these works, one can hear elements of atonality and other Western compositional gestures sneak in -- held firmly in check by the overarching tonality of the works. By contextualizing some of these avant-garde elements, these compositions have both an immediate appeal, and enough depth to reward repeated listening.
Igor Fedotov performs with easy assurance. It's clear he knows these works intimately, and can play to the strengths of the music. The viola has a slightly lower range than the violin, giving it a warm, rich tone. In proper hands (like Fedotov's) it can be just as nimble and expressive as the violin, although it hasn't really been until the 20th Century that composers really started to explore the soloistic potential of the instrument. These works were written primarily to showcase the viola, and Fedotov does not disappoint.
Soviet Russian Viola Music fills in two gaps: it presents five talented Russian composers who are virtually unknown in the West, and it brings five more outstanding compositions to the solo viola repertoire. Not bad for one release.
First the good. Grigory Frid (1915-2012) is the major discovery on this disc. His Viola Sonata No. 1 (1971) is a powerful gem of expressionist hue, suspended between Shostakovich and Schnittke. Frid has a talent for packing each movement with expressive intensity. It begins abnormally slow and quiet with a “Tranquillo e molto cantabile” of deep introspection. Next is an agitated “Allegro” of serious purpose, possessing jazzy colors and mixed accents that conjure Stravinsky. The sonata concludes with a desolate and gloomy “Lento” that reminds me of Schnittke’s Cello Sonata No. 1 (last movement). The same severity and texture is employed: a quiet string instrument soliloquy surrounded by faint but stern piano chords.
Valerian Bogdanov-Berezovsky (1903-1971) was a friend of Shostakovich, whose influence seeps from the Viola Sonata (1956). A very inward “Allegro assai e poco inquieto” opens the work and features sparse writing for both instruments. This is followed by a theme and variations, some of which are quite virtuosic with demanding bowings and rhythmic patterns. I liked the terse and contemplative “Postludia,” which is more tonal and intensified by pungent chromatic color. Julian Krein (1913-1996) was a child prodigy who wrote music of startling maturity. Consider his Piano Sonata op. 7 (1924), written at the age of eleven and containing the qualities of a late Scriabin poem. Even Heinrich Neuhaus played it frequently. Unfortunately, the Viola Sonata (1973) pales next to such early works. Whiffs of Scriabin are still there, but this viola sonata is more allied to the suave and cool French aesthetic of Dukas and Faure. Very little of it piqued my interest or stayed in the mind, but I did like the spectral and mysterious “Andante” with its whispering pp viola lines.
Less interesting to me is the Viola Sonata (1933) by Vladimir Kryukov (1902-1960), a minor figure writing in a conservative fashion. While his sonata has shades of Rachmaninov, it lacks the dramatic punch and noble melodic content of the master. There is a variety of moods and textures plotted in this single-movement piece, but it is chiefly drenched in gushing emotionalism that borders on schmaltz. Occasionally darker depths are excavated, but only fleetingly. Although the piano writing is lush and confident, the sappy sentimental passages wore out their welcome. Equally disappointing is Sergei Vasilenko’s (1872-1956) single-movement sonata, a lengthy affair at nearly 19 minutes without many qualities or ideas to savor. There are sufficient contrasts of serenity and passion with a fughetta that might have pleased Shostakovich, but its themes and phrases are nondescript.
Bottom line: The big discovery of this recording is the music of Grigory Frid, an early modernist following in the footsteps of Shostakovich and brushing shoulders with Schnittke. I would just recommend the Toccata Classics volume of his viola music instead. If you’re itching for some Russian viola music, the release by Eliesha Nelson is far more fulfilling.