'I am attached to music that speaks to you and does not just manipulate your sophistication. The point is not only to say something unheard of before but to say it in a language of emotion. Music can be a mirror of ourselves. It offers us the opportunity for reflection', so wrote violinist Gidon Kremer and I think that very succinctly sums up the music on this disc. For that matter it also sums up the kind of music that I find most satisfying: music that doesn’t try to jolly me along but that makes me think. That is what you get here in spades and once again it has been from a composer I hadn’t heard of before. That’s not so surprising though as he was a Soviet composer and there were dozens of them and they were mostly unheard of in the West for a variety of reasons. With the passage of time and the political changes that have occurred in Russia a more rational and dispassionate view is being taken in the rest of the world and many of these composers are emerging from obscurity.
Someone once described English music as “cowpat music” implying that it was easily recognisable because of its pastoral themes as if that was reason enough to slate it. How silly! Is it not similarly easy to recognise music from the Nordic countries like Finland, Sweden, or French music? It is certainly the case that music from Eastern Europe is easy to recognise, particularly that from the Soviet Union whether Russian, Ukrainian, Georgian. My theory is, as I’ve stated before, that this is due in part to the shared experience of growing up and being educated in a country that had some particular ideas about what composer’s duties were. There was also the fact that often, especially during the 1930s and 1940s, they couldn’t experience music from outside the bloc so couldn’t draw any influence from it, as a result of which, led to a unique musical style.
Yevgeni Mravinsky had this to say about Salmanov “... I can say confidently that Salmanov’s heritage is a vibrating evidence of the epoch that brought him forth”. Thus it is often the case that similarities are to be found in music from this country and this epoch and because the name of Shostakovich looms so large musically in this respect people are forever pointing to this or that other Soviet composer and finding elements of his music in theirs. I think this is a futile exercise that tends to blind the listener (mixed metaphor?) to what they’re listening to. It’s better simply to let the music speak to you and find out what it has to say.
The thing that I found immediately surprising was that the first string quartet begins with a short movement marked grave
the like of which one would usually expect to find later on in such a work. It strikes a sombre and serious note and the theme which is recalled in the finale is a unifying motif. It is laden with anguish and I wondered if, as it was written in 1945, it was in any way descriptive of the feelings of people of what the Second World War had cost in human terms. The second movement is also dramatic whilst the third, though more lyrical, is still not without serious overtones with the finale another powerful statement imbued with sadness. It is an extremely impressive work for a first venture into string quartet writing.
Salmanov’s second quartet was written in 1958 and dedicated to a friend with whom he studied at the conservatory and who died tragically young. Its opening movement marked Andante molto poetico e libero
is a restrained hymn-like tribute. This motif is repeated in the second movement where it breaks up a beginning that is agitated and tragic in its depiction of death. That aspect returns soon enough albeit interrupted again later by a return of the leitmotif though this time it is treated to a more sad interpretation. The finale has the main theme reappearing and, once again, it is now laden with sadness, the cello playing a particular part in creating the tragic overtone. The violins however often bring a feeling of calm and seem to be saying that the achievements of a person live on after death and we should never lose sight of that.
The third quartet which was written in 1961 shows us that Salmanov was experimenting with dissonance but not at the expense of melody and though the rhythms are spiky and harsh there is still a tune in there. The opening movement is very dissonant but the second is very lyrical and darkly beautiful. The finale is a synthesis of the other two movements and the conclusion is as dramatic as it is final.
Salmanov wrote six string quartets and I’m now eager to hear the last three since I have very much enjoyed getting to know these which confirm that this composer is a major one with much to say – see also the MusicWeb International review of his symphonies
The recordings are excellent and despite being recorded between 1963 and 1980 sound as if they could have been recorded on the same day. Clearly someone uncredited has done some good work on cleaning the originals up. The playing is impeccable showing the S.I. Taneyev Quartet to be on a par with other great string quartets such as the Beethoven and Borodin quartets. Indeed it was the Taneyev Quartet that gave the première of Shostakovich’s 15th
string quartet after one of the Beethoven Quartet’s violinists died.
The only criticism I have is that the notes on the works are written in a turgid style rather typical of the Soviet era. On the other hand it may have something to do with the translation which was by a Russian proving that it is always best to have someone translating into
rather than from
their own language.
That said this is a valuable disc of great music from a little known but seriously good composer.