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Yevhen STANKOVYCH (b.1942)
Symphony No. 2, Heroic (1975) [28:44]
Symphony No. 1, Sinfonia larga (1973) [15:13]
Symphony No. 4, Sinfonia lirica (1977) [26:10]
National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine/Theodore Kuchar
rec. The Concert Hall, Ukrainian Radio, Kiev, Ukraine, 27-31 January 1995
First released on Marco Polo 8.223792
NAXOS 8.555741 [70:07]

Since the demise of the Soviet Union many composers whose lives were difficult there during the late twentieth century have begun to emerge from the shadows. Among these Mieczysław Weinberg has achieved some prominence. He is mentioned in Boris Schwarz’s excellent Music and musical life in Soviet Russia 1917-70 as being ‘worth hearing’ although it was noted that hardly any of his music had been heard outside the country at that time. Today that situation is entirely different with much of his music now available on disc.

Other composers who now have some profile but who were not even mentioned in the Schwarz book are Vladas Jakubėnas, Myroslav Skoryk, Ivan Karabits, Oleg Komarnitsky and the subject of this disc Yevhen Stankovych. Today Stankovych is regarded as the most important Ukrainian composer since Boris Lyatoshynsky (1895-1968), one of the greatest composers to come out of Ukraine in the twentieth century. Schwarz did not mention him either. Few of those who challenged the requirements of the State to produce music that ‘served the people’ became known in the West so it was not Schwarz’s fault that those names did not figure in his survey.

It is interesting for music-lovers to have the chance now to discover so many excellent composers who come to us as mature musicians whose corpus of compositions is often considerable but about whom we knew little or nothing.

Andriy Kochur’s liner-notes say that the Soviet arbiters of music were often at a loss to categorise Stankovych’s music. Sometimes he was criticised for being too ‘avant-garde’ and at others for harking back to what they considered an outdated mode of composition. Kochur points to his defiant individualism as being the reason for his conflict with authority. Coming to his music without any prior knowledge is a fascinating and rewarding experience. The three symphonies here are a good introduction since they are quite different in their scope and content. The first on the disc is his Second entitled Heroic which he composed in 1975. It is a protest against war, a salute to the bravery of those who fight and to the memory of those who perish. It is scored for a very large orchestra that among its many and different instruments includes celesta and piano and as many as five percussionists. Beginning with sharp raps on the snare drum that sound like gun-shots we seem to be placed in the midst of a battle from the outset. Around three minutes in this atmosphere changes to a gloomy and mournful section in which the strings slowly weave a colourful tapestry against which the music rises in intensity. A new theme is then introduced which is reminiscent of the opening of Shostakovich’s Eleventh Symphony with its description of the calm before the storm of ‘bloody Sunday’. Here it is perhaps a lull in the fighting which is short-lived and soon the battle seems to be raging all around us once more. Suddenly all this heightened activity dissolves into a quiet passage that ends the first movement.

The second movement opens with the ringing of bells leading to a slow, quietly reflective string section that is full of pathos. This is finally, around six minutes in, interrupted by trumpets and horns that introduce a most affecting Ukrainian folk-song. This Stankovych subjects to variations and distortions before he allows the core theme to return to close the movement. The short compact finale mixes elements of the first and second movements finally recalling the ferocity of the symphony’s opening. Stankovych closes the work without any resolution as if to say that Man will never learn.

It was only two years before he wrote his Second Symphony that he composed his First which follows. Subtitled Sinfonia larga it is a compact work involving only fifteen solo strings. What it lacks in orchestral forces it certainly makes up for in richness. Kochur’s notes are thorough in their explanation as to what happens and how the various sections are constructed so I’ll confine myself to saying that there is a huge amount of material here for a symphony that lasts a mere quarter of an hour. It demands close attention by the listener.

There was only a gap of two years between the First and Second Symphony and the same again before his Fourth subtitled Sinfonia lirica. This reverts to the spare use of instruments, this time using only 16 solo strings. At times most of them are left to play independently of the conductor who is called upon to direct only one or two. Each musician has his or her own melody and is often called upon to play without attempting to thread it into the rest of the ensemble. As Kochur explains “... this careful layering of simultaneous (horizontal) musical lines produces a beautiful, rich harmonic (vertical) texture”. As with the First this symphony, which lasts 26 minutes, requires intense listening for there is so much going on it is easy to miss important elements. It is certainly a work that will grow on the listener and will continue to reveal new aspects of itself over time.

With the increasingly worrying news that comes out of Ukraine one wonders how cultural life is affected and particularly how an orchestra can manage to function against such a backdrop. In happier times when this disc was recorded the orchestra was going from strength to strength. It has a long pedigree, having been originally founded as the Ukrainian State Symphony Orchestra in 1918. It has enjoyed a number of great conductors at its helm including Nathan Rachlin and Fedor Glushchenko as well as Theodore Kuchar who conducts on this disc. The list of soloists who have featured in its concerts is long and varied, including Rubinstein and Oistrakh, Richter and Rostropovich. Its rich sound is admirable and Kuchar leads it to produce a wonderfully integrated texture that is so important in repertoire such as this.

Steve Arloff



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