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Hyperion Records

CDA67637 - Roslavets: Violin Concertos
Landscape near Troize-Sergiev (1920) by Aristarkh Vasilievic Lentulov (1882-1943)
Private Collection / Bridgeman Art Library, London

Recording details: January 2008
City Halls, Candleriggs, Glasgow, Scotland
Produced by Andrew Keener
Engineered by Simon Eadon
Release date: November 2008
Total duration: 57 minutes 26 seconds

Preis der Deutsche Schallplattenkritik

'Ibragimova plays like a dream, and Volkov and the BBC Scottish SO accompany superbly throughout. Simon Eadon's sound is first-rate. Anyone interested in rare 20th century repertoire need not hesitate' (Gramophone)

'Soloist Alina Ibragimova delivers a highly persuasive interpretation, her meltingly lovely tone especially effective in encapsulating the mystery and romance of the central slow movement. Equally compelling is the incisive and imaginative orchestral accompaniment from Volkov and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, captured here in outstandingly clear-recorded sound' (BBC Music Magazine)

'Both concertos are given superb, telling performances here by Alina Ibragimova and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and Ilan Volkov, on a disc that is valuable both historically and musically' (The Daily Telegraph)

'Both concertos are beautifully played by Alina Ibragimova, whose slightly wiry, deceptively fragile sound seems ideal for this music's ambiguities, with Volkov and his orchestra providing the perfect foil' (The Guardian)

'This knock-out Hyperion release … the First Violin Concerto is a major achievement … Ibragimova delivers her solo part with communicative passion. You can imagine Ilan Volkov listening to her in the sessions, shaping the whipcrack response from the BBC Scottish players as the music evolves: there's a marvellous sense of spontaneity in both pieces … a terrific disc' (International Record Review)

'The First Violin Concerto reveals a composer deeply influenced by the expressionism of early Schoenberg, Scriabin and Berg, but also one who has found his own voice. The violinist Alina Ibragimova gives an impassioned performance with the ripe-sounding BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra under Volkov. She and they are equally committed in the Second Concerto, composed in 1936, but unperformed until this very recording—an unequivocally Romantic work' (The Times)

'Ibragimova has the bravura technique and coloristic range … she posses as elegance of tone … Volkov brings out tall the polyphonic strands with ease and leads a performance of striking color, power, and discipline. More eloquent advocates for Roslavets abilities would be hard to imagine' (Fanfare, USA)

Violin Concertos
Adagio sostenuto  [14'42]
Allegro moderato  [10'02]
Adagio  [4'55]

As late as 1982 Soviet musicologists claiming any significance for Nikolay Roslavets were vigorously suppressed. Only in 1990 was his unmarked grave identified. How many scores were lost when his flat was ransacked just after his death in 1944? The ruthless vengeance of a reactionary proletariat—branding Roslavets, himself born of peasant stock and a fervent 1917 revolutionary, a mere pedlar of bourgeois ‘art for art’s sake’—has fortunately now given way to a gradual recognition of the very real significance of this ‘Russian Schoenberg’. Hyperion has played an important part in the composer’s contemporary rehabilitation, with a benchmark recording of some orchestral works performed by Ilan Volkov and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. The same performers are joined here by the brilliant young violinist Alina Ibragimova.

Roslavets’s Violin Concerto No 1 was thought to exist only in piano reduction form until 1989 when the full score was unearthed in the archives of the State Music Publishers in Moscow. It is an ambitious work, laid out on a large scale. Roslavets’s mastery of a leaner symphonic idiom, virtuosic and elegant, is immediately apparent. It ranks as one of the most important Russian works of its era.

Violin Concerto No 2 was completed in 1936, and was written shortly after the composer’s remarkable Chamber Symphony of 1934–5 (recorded on Hyperion CDA67484). Thus it belongs to the period following Roslavets’s return to Moscow from Uzbekistan, when he seems to have been trying to re-establish his reputation as a composer of substantial works, but after the notorious Pravda denunciations of Shostakovich and musical modernism in January 1936 he probably felt it stood little chance of performance. Since then it has remained in total obscurity until very recently, and these notes were heard for the first time in Glasgow’s City Hall in January 2008—the performance on the present disc is in fact the world premiere.

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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
Nikolay Andreyevitch Roslavets has emerged as one of the most fascinating figures in Russian music in the first half of the twentieth century. Unlike most of his composer contemporaries in the early Soviet period, he genuinely came from a peasant background. In autobiographical jottings dating from 1924, he described his birthplace—Dushatino in the Ukraine, where he first drew breath on 4 January 1881 (Old Style 23 December 1880)—as ‘a godforsaken, half-Ukrainian, half-Byelorussian hole’. At first self-taught, Roslavets began to study music during the 1890s by attending classes in Kursk, the nearest large city, and was eventually accepted as a student at the Moscow Conservatory, where he studied violin as well as composition under Sergei Vassilenko and Mikhail Ippolitov-Ivanov. He graduated in 1912, gaining the Grand Silver Medal for his cantata Heaven and Earth, inspired by Lord Byron’s poetic drama. Even this early Roslavets was associated, along with Alexander Mossolov and Vincent Lourié, with Russia’s artistic avant-garde. He engaged in the vigorous artistic debates occasioned by Futurism, Symbolism and other new ideas, and was close to visual artists such as Malevich.

Roslavets welcomed the revolutions of 1917 and after the Bolshevik Revolution in October he was made director of Kharkov Conservatory, remaining until 1924, when he returned to Moscow and took up a position in the State Publishing House. Describing himself as ‘extreme left-wing’ and ‘an intellectually creative proletarian’, Roslavets directed its Political Department, edited the journal Muzykalnaya Kultura, and was one of the leaders (with his contemporary and friend Nikolay Miaskovsky) of the most progressive of the various new musical bodies competing for attention in the USSR, the Association for Contemporary Music. His colleagues included Miaskovsky, Mossolov, Popov and Shostakovich. The tenth anniversary of the October Revolution was celebrated in 1927 with a concert featuring the premiere of Roslavets’s cantata October in the same programme as that of Shostakovich’s Symphony No 2, ‘Dedication to October’, and Mossolov’s Iron Foundry.

Nevertheless Roslavets was a committed modernist. The direction of his artistic sympathies is apparent from his support for performances of music by the Second Viennese School and his authorship of articles including one entitled ‘On pseudo-proletarian music’. For several years already his works had been under attack from the adherents of ‘proletarian music’, especially members of the RAPM (the Russian Association of Proletarian Musicians), who claimed them as counter-revolutionary and bourgeois art for art’s sake. The endless political warfare sapped Roslavets’s strength. In 1929 he was denounced as an ‘enemy of the People’ and in 1930 was forced to publicly repent of his former artistic convictions. He spent some years in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, as musical adviser of the Opera and Ballet Theatre. However he returned to Moscow in 1933 where he lectured at the Polytechnic Institute and was later required to train military band leaders. He made a living out of this and other comparatively menial tasks until he was finally admitted to the Composers’ Union in 1940. He suffered a severe stroke in the same year and was semi-invalid until his death from a second stroke in 1944.

Immediately after his death his flat was ransacked by a group of former ‘proletarian musicians’ who confiscated many manuscripts, though others were saved by his widow. For thirty years afterwards Roslavets’s name, expunged from the music dictionaries, was hardly mentioned in Soviet musical literature. In the wake of perestroika, however, Roslavets was among the creative figures who were substantially rehabilitated. His grave in the Vagankovo Cemetery, which had remained unmarked, was identified in 1990, and many of his compositions have now been revived, published and recorded.

While still a student Roslavets was already producing music that was very daring for its time and place (see for example In the hours of the New Moon, recorded on Hyperion CDA67484). Deeply influenced by the later works of Scriabin, his harmonic idiom tended towards extreme chromaticism. His quest for a personal language began in 1909 and led in 1913 to his propounding a new harmonic system based on ‘synthetic chords’ that contain both the horizontal and vertical sound-material for a work (a concept close to that of Schoenberg’s early serialism). These principles are enshrined in the remarkable sets of Études, Poems, Preludes and Compositions for solo piano that he composed during the immediately pre-Revolutionary years. (A selection of these have been recorded by Marc-André Hamelin on Hyperion CDA66926.) After his fall from grace, while in Tashkent, he turned for a while to working with folk material, producing among other works the first Uzbek ballet, Pachta (‘Cotton’). The works of his last years in Moscow show a simplification of his characteristic language to admit a more classical conception of tonality, but are still individual in orientation, such as the late cycle of 24 Preludes for violin and piano (1941–2).

Roslavets composed his Violin Concerto No 1 in 1925 while he was working as an editor for the State Publishing House. It was published two years later in a reduction for violin and piano, which was first performed in Moscow, on 29 May 1929, by P Ilchenko and P Nykitin at a concert sponsored by the Association for Contemporary Music. It was not heard again in Roslavets’s lifetime, and after his death the full score was believed to have been lost—if indeed it had existed at all, for all that could be found were sketches and Roslavets in his own catalogue of his music had listed the reduction only. As a result, in the last decades of the Soviet Union the reduction was occasionally played, and was even performed at IRCAM in Paris in October 1979. The composer Edison Denisov, who was in the forefront of the re-awakening interest in Roslavets’s compositions and regarded this Violin Concerto as the finest twentieth-century concerto after Alban Berg’s, planned to make an orchestral score of his own on the basis of the reduction. Fortunately, before he had carried out his intention, Roslavets’s full score was unearthed in the archives of the State Music Publishers in Moscow. As a result, it was one of the first works of the ‘Roslavets revival’ to be brought before the public, on 19 November 1989, performed by Tatiana Grindenko and the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra under Feodor Gluschenko; Grindenko later gave many performances in and outside Russia.

The Concerto is an ambitious work (Roslavets uses a large orchestra with triple woodwind, full brass section and percussion, as well as a harp and a piano), laid out on a large scale. It develops the technique of ‘synthetic’ (or ‘thematic’) chords that Roslavets had initially developed from his understanding of the late works of Scriabin and perfected in his piano and chamber works of the immediately preceding years. There are still traces of his earlier Scriabinesque style, but Roslavets’s mastery of a leaner symphonic idiom, virtuosic and elegant, is immediately apparent. His harmonic and melodic innovations are here set within a relatively traditional three-movement form, with an energetic first movement and finale enclosing a central slow movement that is linked to the first movement by a solo cadenza.

Roslavets’s personal applications of principles akin to the Schoenbergian twelve-note method are apparent at the outset, where pizzicato cellos and basses repeat a figure comprising six notes of the chromatic scale and are answered by the violins with a repeated ascending figure using the other six. This foreshadows many situations throughout the concerto where the orchestra confines itself to one set of pitches and the violin uses another, the combination of the two spanning the total chromatic scale.

The opening of the Allegretto grazioso first movement, with its pizzicato bass ostinato, has a mechanistic character, but as soon as the violin has soared up to the heights in its first entry we are transported to an ecstatic sound-world more reminiscent of Scriabin or Szymanowski. The pull between taut, regular rhythms and ecstatic languor creates an unusual polarity that is central to the work. A more polyphonic Più mosso section, formally a second subject, is introduced by tenebrous chromatic writing in piano and low strings, rises to a climax and then sinks to the depths before the violin is heard again, in dialogue with a few instruments. The tempo shifts to a scherzo-like Allegro vivace for a swift-moving development which works up the material so far heard and then gives the violin, grazioso e capriccioso, the most lyrically diatonic music so far heard, though spun above a form of the opening bass ostinato.

That ostinato then returns in its original shape, transposed, to signal the start of the recapitulation. Soon the violin is soaring above the orchestra in passionate octaves that Roslavets marks entusiastico. After a giocoso episode of almost continuous violin figuration the piano-dominated Più mosso returns. Once again it sinks down into the depths, but then the orchestral texture opens out upwards into a radiant, wide-spread chord from which the violinist launches a brilliantly convoluted ‘Quasi cadenza’ in free tempo, an elegant and eloquent bravura outpouring full of double- and quadruple-stopping, free polyphony, roulades and trills that connects directly into the slow movement.

This is a large-scale Adagio sostenuto beginning with wintry tremolandi in the strings and melancholic wind solos (the five-note clarinet figure heard right at the beginning remains a thematic focus for much of what ensues). The violin rhapsodizes against insistently repeated motivic figures passed from instrument to instrument. The intensity, supercharged harmony and polyphonic density, soon issuing in an orchestral climax, make very clear why some of his compatriots regarded Roslavets as a Russian Schoenberg—though it is Schoenberg’s early works that are most obviously paralleled in this music. Like some of Roslavets’s other slow movements the form is exploratory, constantly evolving: almost like a tone-poem with obbligato violin. A faster-moving con moto pits the violin mainly against solo woodwind, despite fuller con passione outbursts. After a lyric duet between violin and harp the music returns to the Adagio tempo for a radiantly romantic orchestral tutti marked molto tranquillo, to which the violin responds in more skittish, fantastic style. All the materials so far heard return in varied forms and different instrumental colourings. (One is constantly aware that in the Concerto’s reduction for violin and piano it would simply be impossible to grasp Roslavets’s sheer mastery of orchestral timbres.) In the delicate coda, harp and solo strings spell out a wide-spread ten-note chord, against which the violin descends, like a sigh, to its lowest G.

The finale (Allegro moderato, risoluto) is a movement of insistent rhythms, hunted and haunted but with an exciting onward drive. The main theme, announced by the violin, is a vaunting, fanfare-like idea driven by insistent dotted rhythms. A more lyrical theme, espressivo, is heard against triplet figurations in horns and trumpets. These two ideas alternate in headlong juxtaposition. A more chromatic third idea in the violin is soon swept aside by the return of the dotted rhythms, con agitazione, which precipitates an emotional climax with the violin struggling to be heard against the power of the full orchestra. Over a bass drum roll, the chase is resumed, in fresh instrumental colours. It is the dotted-rhythm idea which dominates to the end, con fuoco, the fanfare character becoming a real fanfare for trumpets before the convulsive final chords.

While the Violin Concerto No 1 was among the first works to help re-establish Roslavets’s reputation, for a long time the very existence of a second concerto was a matter of speculation; the score is a comparatively recent rediscovery. The Violin Concerto No 2 was completed in 1936, and was therefore written shortly after his remarkable Chamber Symphony of 1934–5 (recorded on Hyperion CDA67484). Thus it belongs to the period following Roslavets’s return to Moscow from Uzbekistan, when he seems to have been trying to re-establish his reputation as a composer of substantial works, but after the notorious Pravda denunciations of Shostakovich and musical modernism in January 1936 he probably felt it stood little chance of performance. The performance on the present disc is in fact the world premiere.

While Roslavets’s first violin concerto must rank among the most important Russian works of its era, the second concerto seems in some respects a slighter piece. It uses the same three-movement form, but is altogether shorter (the second and third movements are quite brief), and calls for a somewhat smaller orchestra. Compared to Concerto No 1 it is written—like the last two movements of the Chamber Symphony—in a harmonically simplified, more strongly tonal style, with a clear tonal centre of D major. Its forms are rather laconic: there is less development of material, but underlying its major-key pretensions there is a persistent darker undertow characteristic of the earlier Roslavets.

It seems almost certain, moreover, that in the second concerto (as in the Scherzo of the Chamber Symphony) Roslavets evokes Uzbek, or at least Central Asian, folk melodies, whether quoted or imitated. Unquestionably the opening theme of the first movement has that character, and (after the interposition of a dotted-rhythm figure apt for development) is given almost technicolour treatment before the initial tutti dies away. The violin’s striking, recitative-like first entry, accompanied by timpani roll and harp glissandi, proceeds to a florid decoration of a lyrical second theme: this is repeated and elaborated and leads into a faster development in which the violin presently takes over the opening theme but seems more intent on giving out fragments in harmonics and decorative elements. Indeed one fascination of this movement is the comparative simplicity of its melodic materials set against the convolution and bravura of the solo violin writing. The bold recitative returns, but this time leads into a sprightly Vivo coda.

The Adagio slow movement is in a comparatively simple ternary form. It begins in F with a substantial orchestral introduction in which an initial folk-like theme soon becomes only one strand in orchestral polyphony. The violin then takes it up, again in much-decorated form. A contrasting theme appears in A minor, at the same tempo, to form the central section, and a short unaccompanied solo leads into an elaborated version of the opening section, with a brief coda in which the violin eventually soars up to end on a high F. Throughout, the mood is elegiac and oppressed, but richly harmonized.

The finale, Allegro giocoso, starts off with a cheerful main theme whose chief motif is a triadic idea of two-note figures leaping up and down in thirds. As this figure gravitates to the bass the tonality changes to F sharp minor and the violin, accompanied by harp and clarinets, gives out a long-breathed espressivo theme closely related to the folksong-like melody with which the concerto began. A mysterious transition works back to the ebullient idea that opened the finale after which a second episode, in E flat, evolves with another folk-like dolce theme—into which the giocoso theme intrudes, and then hustles all before it into a breakneck coda. Brilliantly effective though they are, both this finale and the slow movement feel rather vestigial, as if Roslavets was unwilling to explore the full expressive potential of his materials. Or perhaps he intended a comment on a time that demanded optimism and had no time for reflection. Whatever the reason, this concerto remains a superb vehicle for the solo violin, and has certainly not deserved the obscurity that has so far been its fate.

Calum MacDonald © 2008

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