Sergei VASILENKO (1872-1956)

Viola Sonata op. 46 [18:44]
Lullaby [4:01]
Four Pieces on Old Lute Music op. 35 [14:43]
Sleeping River [2:18]
Oriental Dance op. 47 arr. Artamonova [5:33]
Suite Zodiakus IAS after Unknown Authors of the Eighteenth Century [13:20]
Four Pieces (1953) [8:09]
Elena Artamonova (viola)
Nicholas Walker (piano)
rec. Dukes Hall, RAM, London, 26, 31 March 2010. DDD
Martin Anderson's determination and unerring judgement are well kent. I first remember meeting him as long ago as the Ole Schmidt Havergal Brian Gothic concert at the Royal Albert Hall in 1980. After that his activities within the Havergal Brian Society kept us very fitfully in touch. I continue to follow and celebrate his Toccata Press which has a deeply distinctive catalogue including studies of Franz Schmidt, Percy Grainger, Ronald Stevenson and Havergal Brian not to mention producing (to date) two extraordinary anthologies of the music journalism of Havergal Brian. Some years ago Toccata moved into recording. They now have a catalogue as individual, challenging even astonishing as the written word side of the venture.
Typically the essay for this Vasilenko disc is well written, diligently referenced with footnotes and extend across 12 pages in English only. These are by the violist here and are the exact antithesis of the sort of perfunctory journalese to which some discs resort.
Vasilenko is another neglected figure active during the Soviet years. He has a long catalogue to his name. Two of his pictorial nationalist suites were recorded on Marco Polo. The Viola Sonata has been recorded before, once by Georgy Bezrukhov. It was he who extraordinarily also gave us a Melodiya LP of one of the York Bowen viola sonatas. How did that come about? The second recording is on Naxos played by Igor Fedotov. Vasilenko are five symphonies, concertos for balalaika, trumpet, cello, harp, clarinet, piano and horn, operas and ballets, seven each and much else.
The Viola Sonata is not length but across its four movements it is a work of great and sometimes astonishing fervour which often makes you sit bolt upright with some surprising compositional coups. It is well up there with the Arthur Benjamin Viola Sonata (Dutton have the three Benjamin string concertos in the works). The four Lute pieces and six comprising Zodiakus reflect the tangy antiquity of the originals sometimes genteel but at other times impressively virtuosic as in the inspirational and somewhat Bachian Knights (tr. 9). The pin-bright Bach influence can also be sampled throughout Zodiakus along with various ancient dance forms. These are always fluently and freshly done. The 1952 Four Pieces are similarly nicely done but with none of the retrospection of the Lute and Zodiakus sequences. The Etude, for example, wittily picks up on Rimsky's Bumble-Bee.
Lullaby and Sleeping River are typical of their titles and in their steadily swung quasi-Delian progress are touching and telling. Oriental Dance brings us into contact with the long Russian tradition of the music of their near Asian republics - Gliere, Borodin and Ippolitov-Ivanov are the forebears but Vasilenko is freshly inventive. This is not a reheated confection.
Whether or not through Toccata's cleverly devised Discoveries Club you should track down this stylishly done disc. It will more than suit if you have any interest in the multiple torrents of musical activity over which the USSR presided. Do not be too quick to deride it all as communist tosh no matter how ‘reassuring’ such labelling generalisations may be in the face of such a huge world closed to the West for so many years yet now bewilderingly open for exploration.
Rob Barnett
Great and sometimes astonishing fervour in the sonata makes you sit upright with some surprising coups.