“Forgotten music by great composers, great music by forgotten composers” that was how Robert Reilly of Crisis Magazine described Toccata Classics. I couldn’t put it any better myself for their catalogue is a genuine treasure trove of the most fascinating music that is highly unlikely to be found anywhere else.
With Ukraine so much in the news at present for all the wrong reasons it is timely to hear what wonderful music comes from there. Myroslav Skoryk was one of those people to whom fate dealt cruel blows. He had already started his musical studies in Lviv but in 1947 as a boy of 9, he and his family were exiled to deepest Siberia where he continued to learn to play the piano from an exiled pianist, a former student of Rachmaninov, and the violin from another exile. He alone was permitted to return to Ukraine in 1955 aged 17 where he continued his studies in Lviv at the Conservatoire. He showed great determination in pursuing his chosen path to become a composer since he was twice rejected by composition teachers outside of the Conservatoire where there was no such course. Finally he found a teacher who believed in his abilities and then after graduating from his class was admitted to the Moscow Conservatoire where he completed his doctoral studies with Kabalevsky. At 25 he first took up the position of Professor of Composition and Theory at Lviv Conservatory and later was appointed Professor of composition at the Conservatoire in Kiev. Since 1987 he has been chair of the composition department at Lviv Conservatoire while maintaining positions in Kiev (now Kyiv) with both the National Conservatoire and Kyiv National Opera.
The first piece on the disc is the truly haunting Melody
from the 1981 film The High Pass
which tells the story of a divided family in Carpathia during the Second World War. The heroine is a dedicated communist while her husband and children support the OUN (Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists) and the UPA (the Ukrainian Nationalist Army), lead by Stepan Bandera, which fought against the Red Army and Soviet Partisans and was also guilty of killing many Jews and Poles. Apparently Skoryk has confided to violinist Solomia Soroka that he can’t stand hearing the piece any more. Perhaps that is a result of it being over-played rather than for any other reason since it became so popular in its own right. Hearing it for the first time I was mightily impressed by its simplicity which speaks so directly to the listener. It is easy to understand why it achieved such widespread popularity. These days following the ‘rehabilitation’ of Bandera as ‘Hero of Ukraine’ by former Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko in 2010 it is interesting, though disconcerting, to read that his admirers still march in his support in Ukraine while the film is not permitted to be shown on Ukrainian television because it is considered ‘anti-Bandera’.
The booklet notes explain that the Violin Sonata No.1
is full of Hutsulian melodies. Reading up on the Hutsuls I learned that they belong to an ethnic group that lives in the Carpathians in border lands between Ukraine and Romania. It seems that folk melodies from the region are employed in many works by various composers including Bartók. They are used here to great effect especially in the last movement that incorporates elements of one of the region’s energetic and whirling dances. This morphs into a more reflective and restrained mood akin to a lullaby before reverting to end in a flourish of activity.
A year after the First Violin Sonata was composed Skoryk employed Hutsulian melodies in his Hutsulian Triptych
from which we have the Allegretto
. These are transcriptions of the orchestral music he wrote for the 1964 film Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors
which I remember seeing and being very impressed with. The music is highly effective and evocative of the region and played a major role in the film; it encouraged me to think of visiting the area myself one day.
Caprice for solo violin
was composed in 1978 as a commission to be used as part of a competition. While the first part is slow in character the last is full of more Hutsulian melodies. These require all the abilities of a violinist to be demonstrated making a piece that would certainly show the player’s mettle.
That Skoryk can’t resist using these folk tunes is further evidenced by his Carpathian Rhapsody
of 2004 which is a really catchy tune. It’s destined to become one of those ‘ear worms’ that will remain playing itself inside one’s head for some considerable time. There’s also a Carpathian Concerto
on the other hand is a straightforward piece that has a beauty of its own, devoid of external influences.
Skoryk’s Violin Sonata No.2
from 1990 was another commission, this time for a festival of Ukrainian culture held in the USA. The violinist here, Solomia Soroka who also wrote the very informative notes, gave the work’s Australian première in 1996 along with the composer. Her familiarity with the work shows in this powerful performance. The three movements are totally different in character: the first a real dialogue between violin and piano with only the merest suggestion of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata
used as a link between movements. The second is extremely reflective and melancholic while the final one entitled Burlesque: Vivo
makes a delightful and amusing finish.
The last piece here is entitled Spanish Dance
which comes from music written for a play and was originally for string orchestra. Solomia Soroka explains that her teacher encouraged Skoryk to transcribe it for violin and piano and then complained it was too easy for him to play. In response Skoryk added fingered octaves in the closing section making it difficult in the extreme. It will perhaps have taxed her teacher a little more than he intended. Its Spanish influence is effective and alluring and it makes a perfect ending to a great disc of really interesting music by a little known composer. Toccata have revealed Skoryk in the best possible light using two fantastic performers - a husband and wife team. Do be sure to check out any discs they’ve produced together.