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Leonid DESYATNIKOV (b. 1955)
Sketches to sunset (1992) [21:41]*
Russian seasons for violin, voice and strings (2000) [36:55]
Roman Mints (violin)
Alexey Goribol (piano: sketches), Yana Ivanilova (voice: seasons)
Brno Philharmonic Orchestra (sketches), Lithuanian Chamber Orchestra (seasons)/Philipp Chizhevsky
rec. December 2014, Besední dům, Brno, Czech Republic (sketches), March 2016, Lithuanian National Radio, Vilnius, Lithuania (seasons)
*world premičre recording
QUARTZ QTZ2122 [58:50]

Reading up on Leonid Desyatnikov, I learned that he is well known as a composer of film music, amongst other things, and that Sketches to sunset is a suite from his music for the film Sunset (1990), and that he has written music for at least a further 12 films. He is also celebrated as composer of the music for a Bolshoi Theatre commission The Children of Rosenthal (an opera in two acts) and three other operas, as well as The Leaden Echo, a work for voice(s) and instruments based on the poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins, chamber music, a symphony and a ballet. He describes his music as "an emancipation of consonance, transformation of banality and 'minimalism' with a human face." It came as no surprise to learn that he has made several instrumental transcriptions of themes by Ástor Piazzolla, as Piazzolla’s influence surfaces several times in Sketches to sunset. I was reminded of Shostakovich’s ballet suites while listening to it, for there was a strong impression of the knockabout circus atmosphere that they convey, making the suite an extremely jolly and enjoyable romp. I have no idea how faithful director Alexander Zeldovich’s film Sunset is to the play of the same name by Isaac Babel. Roman Mints, the violinist on the disc, says in the booklet notes that the music track’s titles seem random, to say the least, though biblical references abound and the play does concern the lives of Jews in early 20th century Odessa.

As already stated, the music is great fun once its sad opening describing Absalom’s death is over, even though it has a lovely tune. The second track that follows quickly, entitled Death in Venice, brings Ken Russell’s film about Mahler to mind. Though it is a tango, and not the only one in the suite, it is based on Mahler’s Adagietto movement from his fifth symphony. Each track seems to grow seamlessly out of the previous one, and so Jewish lambada can easily be mistaken for a development of Death in Venice, especially as its beat is essentially another tango with “circus” overtones. The fourth track is another revisit to Absalom’s death. Lot’s daughters comes next, carried principally by the woodwind. Then out of nowhere Take Five and Seven explodes onto the scene in another circus-inspired interlude before we are back to a tango atmosphere with a Jewish sound, thanks to a clarinet amongst others. Evening is a gently lilting tune of great beauty, though distorted momentarily. There follows one more echo of Absalom’s death while Love is a beautiful way to end with flutes over gentle strings and a single bell note.

The second work on the disc, entitled Russian Seasons, opens with an instrumental Easter greeting song followed by a series of sung texts interspersed by instrumental interludes, all of which follow the seasons. As the brochure explains, the overall message is that the “heroine” has it hard throughout and no joy is in evidence to lighten her plight. “Who is she?” muses Mints. “Russian women in general? Russia? The Russian people?” That is a profound and troubling thought. In the cycle, Desyatnikov shows he can handle almost everything. As Mints says, “(he) shows off his entire palette in these twelve movements: pastiche and allusion (from Du Fay to Piazzolla) different types of polyphony, different musical forms, loads of witty finds, but that is not what matters most, of course. While the instrumental movements feature moments of joy and merriment, utter hopelessness dominates the five vocal movements...” If the whole work is a metaphor for Russia, then one can perhaps understand that at present there may be reason enough to be pessimistic. One can only hope, though, that it is yet another phase in its long history and that things “can only get better”. The music is joyful and painful by turns but always enthralling. This composer has much to say and finds a unique voice to do so.

Both orchestras involved play beautifully. Conductor Philipp Chizhevsky keeps the essence of the music throughout, while the soloists do a marvellous job in bringing this composer’s music thrillingly to life. Roman Mints is obviously worth hearing in whatever solo role he takes. Yana Ivanilova is unsurprisingly highly sought-after, and Alexey Goribol does a great job in the first of the two works.

Steve Arloff



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