Valery Alexandrovich GAVRILIN (1939–1999)
The Russian Notebook (1965) [34:54]
Two Ophelia Songs (1971) [6:55]
The City’s Asleep (1978) [4:23]
Forgive Me (1983) [3:17]
The Seasons (1969) [8:45]
Mila Shkirtil (mezzo); Yuri Serov (piano)
rec. St. Catherine Lutheran Church St. Petersburg, Russia, 28-29 July 2007
I have not been overly enamoured of Northern Flowers’ forays into the realms of Soviet orchestral music; the quality of both the repertoire and crucially the performances and recordings have been variable to say the least. Happily, the other strands of their programming have produced much better and more rewarding results. Here is another example of this. Composer Valery Gavrilin was completely unknown to me previously. The liner outlines what would seem a rather tragic childhood; his father died defending Leningrad when he was only three and then, at eleven, his mother was imprisoned – for unspecified crimes - and he was sent to a children’s home. Clearly he had talent because within a year he was enrolled in a specialist music school and by fourteen had been enrolled in the Leningrad Conservatory’s Special Music School. Apparently his body of work includes four ballet, thirty eight theatrical productions and eleven films as well as symphonic works. However, his main claim to fame is in the sphere of vocal music and his break-through work was The Russian Notebook which opens this disc.
This cycle of eight songs setting traditional Russian words is both individual and immediately appealing. In a 1968 magazine article Gavrilin explained the inspiration as follows; “… a handsome clever boy loved by everyone, died from a tragic disease in Leningrad … he did not live to learn, to see, to love many things. But there must be a girl somewhere who would love him if he were alive. So I decided to write about the missed love on behalf of that girl. I wanted to write a poem of love and death.” The recurring theme of lost or unrequited love is not exactly unknown in song-cycles but the interesting fusion here is an unmistakeably Russian mood with something both post-modern and subtly folk-influenced. Full English-only song texts are provided although in singularly unappealing vernacular versions. The singer is the vibrant and dramatic Mila Shkirtil. Her sound is unmistakeably Slavonic but suitably youthful and ardent. I enjoyed her singing throughout very much and she is well served by the recording too. It is close enough to pick up on the many nuances and colourings she imbues the text with without being artificially close. Just occasionally I wondered if her expressive trick of bending into a note using the vibrato to centre the pitch was overused and also verging on the out of tune rather than purely a musical device although when it works well it is extremely effective. Her accompanist Yuri Serov is balanced behind the voice and his allotted role is one of accompanying rather than being an equal partner. Gavrilin has written a piano part that – I guess – reflects a relative simplicity appropriate to folk influenced material. Serov is credited with being the Artistic Director of the Northern Flowers International Chamber Music Festival as well as being the driving force behind this series of CDs. Certainly his playing here is neat and attentive. Every song in this cycle has real character and interest – it is easy to understand the work’s immediate impact. This is the listener-friendly face of modern song-cycles and I do not mean that as an insult. I particularly enjoyed track 4 Winter. This comes across as a compressed scena and as such is performed with compelling intensity by Shkirtil – here her vibrato-less ‘white’ tone is superb - over chilled icicle chords from Serov. This is actually the longest single item on the disc (just) at 6:49 and it is a dramatic tour de force. Shkirtil allows her voice to range from ravishingly beautiful to histrionic. How cleverly Gavrilin then places the innocent spring-like Sowing Flowers next. After the bleakness of the previous song the cheery simplicity here is dramatically jarring – and effective. Not for the only time listening to this the Songs of the Auvergne popped into my head with the occasional Orff-like ostinato. More a kinship than any direct ‘lift’ but Gavrilin chooses to convey more and more complex moods within the same song than Canteloube for sure. Running to over thirty minutes this is a substantial cycle and one that would grace any recital. The great skill it displays is by being immediately accessible and compelling while revealing subtle depths and nuances on repeated listening. Yes it is resolutely tonal music for 1965 but a work of major interest for any with a penchant for modern Russian song.
One of the ways Gavrilin would have managed to avoid too much political controversy was by using old or traditional words. Indeed the whole CD – with the exception of tracks 11 and 12 The City’s Asleep and Forgive Me does just that. The two songs by Shakespeare [tracks 9 and 10] are given in translations into Russian by Boris Pasternak – which suffer from more rather grim translations back into English; “Tomorrow is Saint Valentine’s Day, yeah yeah yeah” makes it sound like it should be a little known song by the Beatles. These were written as part of the incidental music to a production of Hamlet in 1971. The musical idiom here is again neo-folk with a glowering reference to the Dies Irae in the piano. This reference goes even further in the second of this pair of songs He is dead and gone - where the vocal line is little more than the chant for the dead complete. This is another of the disc’s highlights; Shkirtil choir-boy like in her frozen purity with Serov’s piano obsessing over a simple rocking accompaniment. Then, in another moment of simple musical brilliance, the singer hums to herself a very nursery-rhyme like ditty while the pianist doodles away with a deliberately banal melody. Juxtaposed against the text and the Dies Irae melodic material this is really very striking and proof of how sometimes the simplest material can have the greatest impact. As does the manic laugh with which the second song concludes.
The aforementioned The City’s Asleep dates from 1978 and is winningly simple and direct in its approach. The sound world here is more of the cabaret than the concert hall – this is a very high quality popular song with an ear-ticklingly memorable tune. The companion song Forgive Me hovers more between concert hall and stage but again is naggingly memorable. In both songs Shkirtil is excellent at producing a beautifully expressive sound. The mood of loss and regret extends beyond the opening cycle to colour the entire disc. A second shorter cycle The Seasons closes the programme. This is similar in mood to The Russian Notebook but brief where the other is extended. As evidenced on this disc there is a certain sameness in expressive and musical mood by Gavrilin but what he does he does so well that that seems a little churlish. Not knowing any other music by him at all it is of course impossible for me to place this in context with his other work. Enough to say this has provided me with a fascinating and moving introduction to his writing. I see that thanks are extended to the composer’s widow for her support in getting the disc recorded – I am sure she has been thrilled with the result. Other discs from Northern Flowers have not been able to offer this winning combination of interesting repertoire well performed and recorded but I am pleased to be able to say this one certainly does.
Nick Barnard
A winning combination of interesting repertoire well performed and recorded ... see Full Review