Roslavets: Chamber Symphony & In the Hours of the New Moon
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Movement 1: Largo ma non troppo – Allegro risoluto
Movement 2: Adagio
Movement 3: Scherzo: Allegro molto vivace
Movement 4: Finale: Lentoso – Allegro non troppo, energico
It was not then realized that there existed a complete—and immensely larger—Chamber Symphony by Roslavets, whose manuscript has emerged subsequently. It was not published until 2005, and this is its first recording. Also scored for eighteen players—nine solo woodwind, two horns, trumpet, piano, string quartet and double bass—this major work, undoubtedly Roslavets’s most important symphonic utterance, was composed between May 1934 and February 1935, not long after he had returned to Moscow from Uzbekistan. It is known that he showed it to Myaskovsky (who was impressed), but he was unsuccessful in securing a performance, which was probably out of the question after the notorious Pravda denunciations of Shostakovich in January 1936.
Here the opulent Impressionism and texture-centred writing of In the hours of the New Moon have entirely disappeared in favour of strong lines and almost continuous polyphonic development. The music is not marked by the pungent dissonance and vertical/ horizontal systematization of Roslavets’s ‘synthetic chord’ technique, but it is uncompromising in its motivic working—the themes of the various movements are closely related to each other—and it shows him not so much harking back to traditional tonality as arriving at an accommodation of it. (Overall, despite its fluidly chromatic language, this is a ‘Symphony in C’.)
If the Chamber Symphony has a single clearly audible precursor it is surely Schoenberg’s First Chamber Symphony, Op 9. Not only are the two scored for a very similar instrumental line-up but the harmonic idiom, the highly contrapuntal textures and the supercharged melodic expressiveness are all similar. Roslavets’s work even begins with an ascending bass-clarinet theme featuring perfect fourths, later taken over by the horn, that obviously recalls the famous ‘chain of fourths’ horn-call that is such an important leitmotif in Schoenberg’s Symphony. In the main, though, the influence of Schoenberg’s work is generalized and distilled through the fabric of Roslavets’s score, even if there are a number of places where one suspects Roslavets may be paying covert homage to it.
But whereas Schoenberg fuses the elements of a four-movement symphony into a single movement lasting about twenty minutes, Roslavets—who had used such concentrated structures in, for example, his Third String Quartet—generously (and unexpectedly) expands outwards to create an almost hour-long structure in the traditional four separate movements. The result is a major addition to the Soviet symphonic canon, to be ranked with such close, though very different contemporaries as the epic-tragic First Symphony of Gavriil Popov, Shostakovich’s blistering Fourth Symphony, and Myaskovsky’s recondite Thirteenth. Indeed along with the Schoenbergian echoes there are elements that suggest the imprint of Russian folksong, an air of fantasy (especially in the scherzo) foreign to Schoenberg, and sardonic, even occasionally jazzy elements that find parallels in such contemporaries as Kurt Weill, Hanns Eisler, and the young Shostakovich.
The first movement is a broad sonata-form with clear first and second subjects, prefaced by a slow introduction which sets out the basic materials, notably the bass-clarinet theme mentioned above and the pervasive dotted rhythms which provide so much of the movement’s propulsion. The main part of the movement (Allegro risoluto) embarks with the rising theme transferred to the horn. There is an extensive and exhaustive Allegro agitato development leading to a fairly orthodox recapitulation and coda. Throughout, Roslavets uses his ensemble with masterly feeling for tone colour and clarity of line, whether in strenuously polyphonic passages involving the entire ensemble or in lyric episodes for just a few instruments. The piano has an occasional brief solo but is wholly integrated with the other players, often merely reinforcing lines or providing harp-like arpeggio material.
The long and intensely atmospheric slow movement has a more rhapsodic form, something like a slow rondo, passing through a kaleidoscope of moods and punctuated by a sinister three-note chromatic bass motif which itself becomes the source of several themes. After an introductory passage featuring bell-like descending chords the principal theme unfolds in polyphonic imitation, heard first in the woodwind before transferring to the strings. Though the tonality is fluid there is a persistent suggestion of F minor about this idea. The transparency and expressivity of Roslavets’s scoring (which Myaskovsky praised on seeing the piece) are especially marked here. One of the few extended piano solos in the work, while incidentally revealing that Scriabin’s influence remained strong for Roslavets, introduces a brief fast episode, Allegro moderato, delicately scored. A return to the slower tempo moves to the movement’s plangent climax, and the chromatic motif has the last word in a coda that settles on an extended pedal F, resolving the previous tonal uncertainties.
The brilliant scherzo is a fantastic dance, pungently scored, that could well serve as ballet music for some cautionary Russian fairy-tale. Its initial subject is an assemblage of motifs—including a chromatic muted trumpet-call apparently developed from the previous movement—over bubbling triplets, and it features a warm contrasting horn theme in folksong style. This folk influence then becomes unmistakable in the central trio with its almost oriental melody sung by woodwind against frosty tremolando strings—perhaps a souvenir of Uzbekistan. In an unusual move, Roslavets has the scherzo’s motifs infiltrate the closing portion of the trio before the return of the scherzo music proper. The scherzo then returns in full, and there is a brief recall of the trio before the coda wittily sends its denizens scurrying off into the shadows.
Like the first movement, the finale opens with a slow introduction (they are, in fact, thematically related) leading to the main Allegro non troppo movement. This is a dynamic and resolute utterance in a march-like 3/4 time, whose main theme, treated with much contrapuntal resource, is a variant of one of the main slow-movement melodies. There is also a more hesitant and pleading subsidiary idea. After these materials have been fully worked, the strings lead off a broad self-contained central episode with a much more lyrical melody. This passage—the most ‘romantic’ music in the work—rises to an ecstatic climax and then subsides. The faster music presses in again, urgently, and is reprised with great bravura, leading to a decisive, even dismissive coda.
from notes by Calum MacDonald © 2006