It must be a fantastic feeling for a musician to have works written with them specifically in mind which is the case here. Ukrainian composer Sergei Zhukov explores the relationship between sound and silence in his Piano Concerto and seems to set it in a void with 20 seconds of silence ‘recorded’ before any sounds emerge. It is often the case that the space between the notes is as important as the notes themselves if the notes are to have the impact the composer intended. That is obviously of paramount importance here which is why Zhukov had pianist Eleonora Bekova in mind when he wrote the concerto. He says of her: she can “simultaneously express sound and silence” while Martha Argerich has written that “She balances emotion, intellect, and style beautifully and her touch can transform the piano into an instrument that sings like a human voice.”
The first of the Piano Concerto’s five movements certainly creates a feeling of floating in space in a blackness surrounded by twinkling stars. The second begins with a dialogue between piano and marimba and things become ‘busier’ as a series of explosions occur to interrupt the relative silence and the orchestra becomes disturbed and anxious. The third section expresses silence as the booklet notes describe it “as an embodiment of a celestial beauty”. This is quite a feat considering that it uses piano and orchestra to do so and calls for the soloist to play exceedingly slowly. Part four opens with a much more aggressive sounding piano. This consists of patterns of repeated notes that are quite affecting and develops the ideas expressed in part two, namely the explosive aspect characterised by abrupt and violent sounds from both soloist and orchestra. It is the most disturbed of all the sections though with plenty of excitement to compensate. The final part called Post Scriptum
in the notes returns to the gentle state with which the work began. As she plays, Eleonora Bekova speaks the words of the poem that inspired the work, Osip Mandelstam’s Silentium
. She does this in beautifully enunciated Russian which creates its own music as the work fades into the void once more.
Zhukov has written three works for the Bekova sisters and the third one, for cellist Alfia Bekova, Gethsemanian Night
, for electric cello, mixed chorus, six horns, trio percussions and prepared piano is due to be recorded soon. The violin concerto written for Elvira Bekova and entitled Angel’s Day
is an extraordinarily affecting work of exceptional lyrical beauty. Compositions such as the two here take some concentrated listening before they reveal themselves completely but once achieved they are quite compelling. There is a shared theme between these two concertos since they both involve, as the booklet notes observe, “... the infinite space between heaven and earth”.
Cast in four sections standing for morning, noon, evening and night, the violin concerto opens with Morning Touch
the effect of which is gorgeously rich. As the liner note points out, “The solo violin, stratospherically high, represents the gentle singing of the angels.” The second section, Messenger
, is deliciously and refreshingly light but quite fast with the violin creating the impression of flight at times. This it does in almost fairy-like flourishes recalling as the notes observe Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream
“... until 12 sacramental chimes remind us that it is noon by the celestial angel’s clock.” Vespers
, the third section, is the concerto’s slow movement which opens mysteriously although it seems that this section represents the earth with the angel present at a church service “singing of earthly sorrow.” The music brought to mind that of John Tavener, Górecki and Pärt with their religiously inspired beauty. The final section Night Flight
is a spirited scherzo which includes a quotation from Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht
to underline its nocturnal connections. It “is essentially optimistic, an attempt to reconcile opposites and to bring about the harmonisation of man with the cosmos.” While all this might seem extremely weighty as a theme it is a wonderfully evocative picture of the subject. The end comes with a whisper.
The Bekova sisters are amazing representatives of their Kazakh heritage and have made many recordings as a trio. It is a pleasure to hear these solo excursions. It comes as no surprise that Zhukov should have composed his works with Eleonora and Elvira specifically in mind. They are exceptionally talented as the two concertos here prove beyond doubt. They treat the subject matter with due reverence delivering utterly convincing performances of these two extraordinary works.
It is also refreshing to hear a less well known orchestra in the Piano Concerto with the Karelia State Symphony Orchestra meeting the challenges perfectly. The Moscow State Symphony Orchestra in the Violin Concerto are as good as one would expect from such a world class ensemble. This is a rare disc that deserves to be heard. It shows Zhukov as a name to look out for even though he has been musically active for well over thirty years. It makes me wonder why I have not heard of him before.
Previous review: Rob Barnett