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Elena FIRSOVA (b.1950)
A Triple Portrait
Homage to Canisy, Op.129 for cello and piano [4:06]
Lost Vision, Op.137 for piano Solo [7:19]
A Triple Portrait, Op.132 for flute, cello and piano (2011) [11:21]
Night Songs, Op.125 for mezzo-soprano, flute and cello [9:17]
Spring Sonata, Op.27 for flute and piano [9:40]
For Slava, Op.120 for Solo cello [4:51]
Meditation in the Japanese Garden, Op.54 for flute, cello and piano [7:19]
Three Poems of Osip Mandelstam, Op.23 for soprano and piano [9:49]
Tender is the Sorrow, Op.130 for flute, string trio and piano [8:06]
Marsyas Trio: Helen Vidovich (flute), Valerie Welbanks (cello), Fei Ren (piano)
Maacha Deubner (soprano), Hannah Pedley (mezzo-soprano), Patrick Dawkins (violin) and Morgan Goff (viola)
rec. All Saints’ Church, Orpington, Kent, UK, date not given
All items are first recordings
MERIDIAN CDE84635 [72:00]

Not long after reviewing Vivat’s disc Russian Emigrés (Vivat 109 - review) which featured music by Elena Firsova, her husband Dmitri Smirnov and her pianist/composer daughter Alissa Firsova, comes this Meridian disc. It celebrates Firsova’s sixty-fifth birthday and is a well balanced conspectus of the composer’s chamber works that cover a wide range. It certainly whets my appetite to hear any orchestral works she may have written. In an admirable effort to get the family’s music to the public it seems they have created their own label, Meladina, which has released 65 discs so far. All of them have escaped my radar so I’m pleased that both Meridian and Vivat have released these two discs which will hopefully allow for greater exposure for the music certainly merits all it can get.

Homage to Canisy pays tribute to the Château de Canisy in Normandy where the composer is an annual guest and seeks to reflect the busy comings and goings of both musicians and audience as they move between the activities of the music festival held there each year. However, when listening, it sounds as if the people must move very slowly and I couldn’t detect the hustle and bustle that are indicated in the liner notes, so it’s best to listen without any preconceptions as the music is lovely in any case. Lost Vision for piano solo concerns the composer’s mounting anxiety as she cycles to a hospital appointment at which she receives news, later dismissed as incorrect, that she has a permanent problem with her vision and her rage mounts as she gets closer finally subsiding back to the calm, measured atmosphere that began the piece.

The Marsyas trio, which performs the majority of the works on the disc, commissioned A Triple Portrait in 2011 which began the trio’s association with the composer. The idea is a meeting of three musicians who begin to try tentatively to communicate by playing together finding a rapport that is only gradually revealed towards the end. Night Songs sets poems by Osip Mandelstam and in their starkly beautiful nature reflect the nightly fear that many Russians felt during the darkest days of Stalinist terror in the 1930s. Famously, Shostakovich kept a packed suitcase by the door in terrified anticipation of the dreaded visit by OGPU, precursor of the KGB.

Spring sonata for flute and piano dates from 1982 and is one of Elena Firsova’s lighter compositions inspired by the onset of spring. She clearly has an affinity with the flute which she uses to articulate many of her feelings and the natural delight that Russians must feel once the harsh winter is over is amply displayed in this piece.

The death of Mstislav Rostropovich was acutely felt by all Russian musicians since he was such a champion of freedom of expression in music and a friend to so many composers and musicians who struggled to be true to their art in the face of State diktats. Firsova’s For Slava was written in a few hours following his death in 2007 and is a poignantly felt and deeply expressed work that reflects her deep gratitude for a life that inspired many of her compositions for cello.
Meditation in the Japanese Garden is a wonderfully atmospheric piece that again demonstrates Elena Firsova’s love of, and skill in writing for the flute. It is a transcription by the Marsyas Trio of the original that was scored for flute, viola and piano and works extremely well with the replaced cello.

More settings of songs to poems by Mandelstam follow and very beautiful, they are too and it’s just as well that they stand alone as such and don’t rely too much on understanding the words, whether the Russian or the English translation, for if you are like me they often mean very little; poetry can be very obscure don’t you find?

Tender is the Sorrow is set for flute, string trio and piano and is dedicated to Elena Firsova’s aunt who died in 2010 and was commissioned by the Greek ensemble Idée Fixe. Getting its inspiration for the title from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night it is a piece full of fragile beauty with the writing for flute particularly fine.

As an introduction to the music of this fascinating composer,> this disc is a splendid offering with superlative performances from all concerned and I shall be looking out for more releases of her music with whetted interest. The artwork on the booklet is an intriguing glimpse at the painting of Elena Firsova’s son Philip which represents the satyr Marsyas from Greek mythology who picked up the double flute abandoned by Athena, challenged Apollo to a musical contest and paid for such irreverence with his life. What a talented family the Firsova/Smirnovs are!

Steve Arloff



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