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Alexander MOSOLOV (1900-1973)
Iron Foundry (1926-7) [3:23]
Piano concerto No 1 (1927) [24:51]
Tractor’s arrival at the Kolkhoz (1926-7) [3:58]
Legend for cello and piano (1924) [6:19]
Piano sonata No 1 (1924) [12:26]
Four Newspaper Announcements (1928) [4:14]
Steffen Schleiermacher (piano), Ringela Riemke (cello), Natalia Pschenitschnikova (soprano)
Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin/Johannes Kalitzke
rec. 2014, Haus des Rundfunks & Studio Brits, Berlin (chamber works)
CAPRICCIO C5241 [55:09]

Mosolov was one of a group of modernist composers who flourished briefly in Russia in the 1920s but who were suppressed as Soviet officials clamped down on challenging music and, as most people everywhere do, wanted music which was light, tuneful and cheerful. These composers, rather like the rather similar German group who were suppressed by the Nazis, are slowly and gradually being rediscovered. There was a series on Arte Nova called Russian Futurism, which did not last long as well as a single disc issued from BMG-Melodiya in the Musica non Grata series. Of the others in this group, Nikolai Roslavets is probably currently the best known, while Mosolov is mainly remembered for one piece, the three minute Iron Foundry, a work which many people have heard of but few have actually heard.

Here it is, as the first work on this enterprising collection, and it is good to see Capriccio active again after a period of dormancy. It is one of only two survivors of an otherwise lost ballet called Steel – a good deal of the work of this school has been lost – and it turns out to be a fine piece of Russian primitivism recast in modernist terms. If that sounds like The Rite of Spring, yes, that does seem to have been an important influence on Mosolov. There are pounding ostinati and skirls on the wind reminiscent of that work, but Iron Foundry is not pastiche, but rather, like, say Prokofiev’s Scythian Suite, a work in the same idiom.

The rest of the disc contains several of the works which made Mosolov briefly famous. There are two other orchestral pieces and three chamber ones. The Piano Concerto No 1 — apparently only one movement of its successor survives — continues in the same idiom, with a brooding lyricism and a sense of menace. The piano writing is resourceful and varied and this is a perfectly cogent work, comparable to Prokofiev’s piano concertos. One reason it has been so neglected is that the score was for long thought to be lost. Thankfully it turned up at the composer’s then publishers, who were no less than Universal Edition of Vienna, publishers of Schoenberg and his school. If you want to look him up with them, they spell him Mossolow.

The Tractor’s arrival at the Kolkhoz – a title very redolent of chic modernism of the time – turns out to be a pastoral work with an idyllic flute opening leading to a Russian nationalist tune. This is interrupted by parody versions of two songs. It is an intriguing though unbalanced piece, but as it was also a remnant of the Steel ballet it is impossible to know how it worked in its original context.

The three chamber works are also interesting. The Legend features a deliberate contrast between the mainly lyrical writing for the cello and complex percussive writing for the piano. The cello writing is very adventurous, using high harmonics as well as a sinuous chromaticism. The result is comparable to the first movement of Bartók’s first violin sonata and cellists looking for an interesting and short modernist work should look at this.

The first piano sonata is in one movement and was saluted by Roslavets as ‘a Bible of modernism’ since it draws on both the Russian idiom of Stravinsky and Prokofiev and also the expressionist work of the Second Viennese School. There is some thunderous writing and also a strange and haunting quiet section in the equivalent of a slow movement.

The Four Newspaper Announcements take four small ads and set them ironically for soprano and piano. Again there was a fashion for this kind of thing – Milhaud set an agricultural catalogue I remember. They are witty and do not outstay their welcome.

The performances are all committed and efficient by artists who may not be well known in the UK but who have excellent track records. The recordings from two different venues are clear and natural. The sleeve-notes are very helpful and the words of the vocal item are included in German and English.

After suffering official disapproval Mosolov apparently changed his style completely and went on to write eight symphonies, among other works, in the approved popular style. It is an irony of fate that none of these intentionally popular works have so far been recorded, while his early modernist works are being revived. I hope Capriccio continue to explore this repertoire.

Stephen Barber

Previous review: Rob Barnett



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