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Vyacheslav ARTYOMOV (b. 1940)
Symphony – The Way to Olympus (1978/1986) [33:18]
Gurian Hymn (1986) [13:46]
Preludes to Sonnets, for piano (1981) [9:45]
Concert of the 13 (1967) [13:17]
Anton Batagov (piano: Preludes)
USSR State Academic Symphony Orchestra/Timur Mynbayev (Symphony)
Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra/Dmitri Kitayenko (Gurian Hymn)
USSR State Academic Symphony Orchestra/ Gennady Rozhdestvensky (Concert)
rec. 1977-90, Grand Hall of Moscow Conservatory
DIVINE ART DDA25171 [70:06]

Artyomov’s name at least has hovered around the peripheral consciousness of many lovers of Russian contemporary music – in the 1990s when this repertoire started to crop up on newly available Melodiya CDs I picked up a copy of his massive Requiem, which made a big impression on me. I suppose his relative anonymity (compared to Schnittke, Denisov and Gubaidulina to name three close contemporaries) has something to do with the eagerness of Western record companies (and concert programmers) to take advantage of Perestroika and market the music of these composers, not least due to their regular adherence to a perceived polystylistic aesthetic which sat well with local audiences who at least found elements in the music with which they could readily identify (I vividly recall, for example, the impact that the tango in Schnittke’s ‘Faust’ Cantata had on the audience when that was performed at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival in the early 90s.)So perhaps the perception of an innate ‘Russian-ness’ in Artyomov’s music has militated against it as far as the recording companies are concerned. As John France observed in his perceptive review of the present disc, the composer’s website lists 25 discs of his music that have been available at one time or another; revealingly only one of these appeared on what might be regarded as a Western ‘major’ label – a compilation that was briefly available on BMG which co-incidentally included the very performances of the Symphony and the Gurian Hymn that feature here.

So kudos indeed to Divine Art for giving a considerable leg-up to a composer whose music I believe deserves much wider currency. Over the last few years they have been issuing an Artyomov Retrospective which includes some of the best of the old Melodiya items as well as some newly-recorded fare. The present disc starts with the symphony The Way to Olympus. This quite literally emerges from a single bell-stroke and an extended drone on the flutes, one gradually becomes aware of other, more indistinct timbres, namely sporadic tremelando string figures and a commentary from a distant violin. The implacable D flat of the drone is never far away - this is slow-moving, slow-burning music. The listener knows something is about to happen. Eventually the strings gnaw at the drone, while the flutes begin to squabble; a sonic storm seems to threaten, subside and threaten again, before an assertive trumpet blasts out a strident motif against dissonant brass. The air clears and the orchestra makes a more conventional presence felt. Shards of melody, and occasional cracks of the whip peek through its thick textures. There is a prominent riffing saxophone. At about 9’30 the orchestra adopts a march -like tread. This is weird, elusive music and it’s challenging even for an experienced listener to place. At points, as it proceeds, Honegger begins to emerge as a likely influence – further research on Artyomov’s website confirms that the Symphonie Liturgique (Honegger’s Third) is indeed one of the composer’s desert island pieces. At roughly the half way point an organ emerges from the texture and takes over.

The programme of the work seems to involve the unquenchable human spirit striving to conquer unattainable heights. Artyomov is basically saying, ‘Win or lose, The Way is all we have, the route to the spirit involves enjoying the ride’ The music continues on its unpredictable quest, briefly evoking lounge-jazz and Varèse en route. This account of the Symphony was its third recording, and is evidently the one preferred by the composer. It is quite impossible to take in all of its garish whimsy at one hearing, while the recording to me sounds cluttered and boxy at regular points. But chaotic or not The Way to Olympus is singularly compelling, and certainly a piece to which I shall return.

Gurian Hymn is a real keeper. It seems to adopt a strategy not unlike the one Charles Ives used in The Unanswered Question. Essentially four different instrumental groups seem to interact completely independently. Low strings repeatedly play a Georgian Easter Hymn, the ‘Gurian’, which acts as a cantus firmus. Isolated bell notes suggest the divine – their high sounds merge with the cantus firmus to create a foreground which is filled by three solo violins – the ‘everyman’ of the narrative, whose interactions with a deindividuated society, here represented by the rest of the string orchestra create the external and spiritual conflicts which inform the whole work. Needless to say the individual in this story survives Earthly destruction to attain spiritual immortality. The layers of sound gently rise and subside in a beatific arch of orchestral sound; this is music of profound consolation. If the concept sounds a little hackneyed its execution is an absolute triumph. Gurian Hymn is an enthralling composition and one that deserves to be far better known. It is sublimely played and recorded.

The airy and elusive Preludes to Sonnets for solo piano occupy similar aesthetic territory to late Scriabin or perhaps early Roslavets. The three pieces are slow-fast-slow, they are quietly mystical; pleasant and contemplative as they certainly are they break little in the way of fresh ground. They are expressively played by Anton Bagatov, while the 1990 recording is appropriately atmospheric.

The final work on the disc is the earliest; the astringent Concert of the 13. Scored for wind, brass and percussion, with a solo piano most obviously prominent in its final movement it combines the confrontational and the playful. The first movement employs brief fanfare like material in the wind and brass set against rather abrasive percussion. While it is not hard to imagine this music being written in the Soviet Union of 1967 it is more difficult to envisage performances at the time, but performed it was –it was even recorded in 1970. (This recording under the direction of the late, great Gennady Rozdhestvensky dates from seven years later) After a more restrained slow movement, the third is a spiky allegretto while finale is a jazz-inflected tour-de-force featuring some mean and maniacal piano playing. It’s an interesting, rather noisy piece and it provides a fascinating contrast to what precedes it on this disc, while providing an insight into the music of Artyomov’s twenties. The instrumental textures of the first three movements evoked Messiaen although the melodic and harmonic material most certainly did not.

This fascinating disc provides a decent starting point for listeners keen to investigate the strangely diffuse but parallel worlds of a Russian composer whose oeuvre seems consistently unpredictable. While the riotous Symphony gets the top billing, I would actually dare to suggest that the deeply impressive Gurian Hymn is well worth the disc’s asking price on its own.

Richard Hanlon

Previous review: John France

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