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Giya KANCHELI (born 1935)
Styx (1999)a [35:46]
John TAVENER (born 1944)

The Myrrh-Bearer (1993)b [41:56]
Maxim Rysanov (viola); Rihards Zaļupe (percussion)b; Kamēr... Choirab; Men of the State Choir Latvijab; Liepāja Symphony Orchestraa; Māris Sirmais
rec. Dome Cathedral, Riga, Latvia, September 2006
Words and translations included
ONYX 4023 [77:42]

Sound Sample Opening of Styx

Kancheli’s Styx for viola, choir and orchestra was composed at the request of Yuri Bashmet who had already championed Kancheli’s earlier Liturgy for Viola and Orchestra. In Greek mythology, the River Styx must be crossed by dead souls when on their way to Hades, the world of the dead. The viola incarnates the ferryman Charon who mediates between past and present, life and death, light and darkness. So, to a certain extent, Styx may be considered as another "liturgy" of some sort, in which the composer also evokes Georgia and his recently deceased friends Alfred Schnittke (1934-1998) and Avet Terterian (1929-1994). He does so, too, through the text that he devised using a number of allusions to Georgia, its landscapes, its churches, its folklore and the like. The music is thus lyrical, elegiac, dance-like, angry, joyful and consolatory. Although Kancheli’s main fingerprints are present throughout this substantial score, some greater emphasis is laid on long melodic lines (this was a request of Bashmet). The score is in seven contrasted sections, the concluding one setting a text in English. The whole amounts to what may be one of Kancheli’s most personal achievements, and one of his most deeply moving works. I must confess that I am still nourishing doubts concerning some of Kancheli’s recent works, in which I find the material a bit too thin and not particularly attractive and in which the deliberate shocking contrast between loud and soft, nearly inaudible sections sounds rather single-minded. Not so indeed in Styx, I am glad to say.

It is interesting to compare Rysanov’s reading with Bashmet’s. Bashmet’s recording with Gergiev and his Russian forces (St. Petersburg Chamber Choir and Orchestra of the Mariinsky Theatre – DG 471 494-2) is of course technically superb, and everyone concerned plays immaculately throughout; but, when compared to the version under review, it slightly lacks in warmth. Rysanov’s recording was made with a provincial Latvian orchestra and a Latvian chorus for whom the work - maybe because of the text - obviously means much, and they give a formidably committed reading. The recorded sound, too, benefits from the rather reverberating acoustics of the Dome Cathedral in Riga, that lend some considerable presence and immediacy of sound, somewhat absent in the Russian recording.

John Tavener’s The Myrrh-Bearer, too, was written for Yuri Bashmet who gave the first performance in London in October 1994. This fairly substantial work is scored for viola, percussion (one player), semi-chorus of male voices and mixed chorus. The piece is inspired by Cassiane’s Troparion, an early text conceived as a confession by Mary Magdalene as she pours myrrh over Christ’s head before the Passion. This text, however, is not set, but rather is laid over the solo part, whereas the male semi-chorus sings a drone to the words of Kyrie eleison throughout the entire work and the mixed chorus a text, apparently by the composer, representing "the inane and mindless cries of ugliness and violence which represent the world" (the composer’s words). Nevertheless, what comes strongly through is the sheer beauty of the music, even in episodes evoking "the inane and mindless cries of ugliness" - Tavener is actually incapable of any musical ugliness - although these "cries" may be briefly justified by some dissonance. The music thus unfolds continuously on three different levels, with the viola embodying Mary Magdalene’s complex personality, in turn warmly sensual or repentant. Tavener’s The Myrrh-Bearer is a quite beautiful and often moving piece of music, although I suspect that some might find it a tad too long; but, now, this is music that needs to unfold at its own pace to emphasise the predominantly meditative nature of the work. The music, however, has enough variety to sustain its long time span.

Both pieces are magnificently performed by all concerned. Rysanov is a beautifully equipped musician with both impeccable technique and subtle musicality that these often exacting works call for. The Latvian choruses and orchestra commit themselves wholeheartedly in these demanding but strongly expressive scores. The present recording of Tavener’s work is a first, whereas Rysanov’s competes with Bashmet’s. Both are marvellous musicians; but, as I mentioned earlier in this review, Rysanov’s and the Latvian’s reading of Styx is gripping and strongly moving. Theirs is, I think, the recording to have, if Styx is the work you are interested in. The coupling might be the deciding factor. I would not be without Gubaidulina’s beautiful Viola Concerto either.

Hubert Culot

ONYX Catalogue



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