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Vyacheslav ARTYOMOV (b. 1940)
A Symphony of Elegies for two solo violins, percussion and strings (1977) [43:36]
Awakenings for two violins (1978) [10:59]
Incantations for soprano and percussion (1979-1981) [19:32]
Tatiana Grindenko and Oleh Krysa (violins)
Lydia Dayvdova (soprano)
Mark Pekarsky Percussion Ensemble
Lithuanian Chamber Orchestra/Saulius Sondeckis, Vyacheslav Artyomov
rec. 1983-89, Moscow, licensed from Melodiya
DIVINE ART DDA25172 [74:19]

The Russian composer Vyacheslav Artyomov was born in 1940, which makes him slightly younger than the Georgian Giya Kancheli (born 1935), the Estonian Arvo Pärt (also born 1935) and the Ukrainian Valentyn Sylvestrov (born 1937). All four grew up under the Soviet system but, despite official disapproval, each eventually discovered modernism from which each evolved a personal idiom which tends to be slow-moving, atmospheric and evocative. They are all, I think (I am not quite sure about Kancheli) religious believers, something else which was frowned on in Soviet days. They have also each attracted something of a cult, so are greatly admired by their enthusiasts while, of these four, only Pärt has been accepted into the larger international repertoire.

Kancheli, Pärt and Sylvestrov I have known for some time, but this was my first encounter with Artyomov. He acknowledges influences from Prokofiev, Stravinsky, Messiaen and the Polish avant-garde but in particular Honegger’s third symphony, the Symphonie liturgique, Berio’s Sinfonia and the works of Varèse. Here we have three works, all reissued from recordings made in the 1980s but very well transferred so that no one need fear poor sound quality. The disc is, rather touchingly, dedicated to the memory of the sound engineer Vadim Ivanov, who worked on all these recordings.

The Symphony of Elegies seems to have been Artyomov’s breakthrough work. It was composed quite rapidly during two months in 1977, while the composer was visiting Armenia. It is scored for two solo violins, a small string orchestra and a large percussion section requiring six players.

There are three movements. The first opens with very quiet, slowly shifting complex chords; think of the opening of Ligeti’s Requiem, or of Scriabin’s Prometheus. There is a very gradual increase in volume and a move from the bass into the treble. There are occasional arabesques and interjections from the two solo violins. Gradually one of them – or it might be both – spins an independent line, high, sweet and remote. If you think of a latter-day Lark Ascending you would not be far off the mark.

The second movement begins with winding lines including one soaring into the heights and hovering high above deep and dark strings. The third, almost twice the length of the first two, makes great use of the percussion, particularly gongs and bells. It evokes a vast expanse of space and time – Prometheus again – before winding down with arabesques like those in the first movement. The whole Symphony is a haunting and powerful work.

Awakening is a kind of sequel to the Symphony, written for two solo violins on their own. The similarity is enhanced by being played here by the same two soloists as played in the Symphony, and who were the dedicatees and the first performers. This is in a similar idiom, with some use of drones. A very resonant acoustic adds to the atmosphere.

Incantations is for soprano and percussion to be played by four players. It does not set normal words, in Russian or any other actual language, but phonetic sounds which evoke a primeval language. I mentioned that Artyomov admired Varèse, and it was that composer’s Equatorial which I was reminded of. The work sounds like a primitive ritual, or rather like the evocation of a primitive ritual by a sophisticated modern. Unlike the two previous works it also introduces an element of vigorous rhythmic writing, which comes as very welcome after a great deal of slow, albeit beautiful music.

The performances are by artists well established in Russia and Eastern Europe and are extremely impressive. I have wondered whether the idiom might be a bit limited but I would need to hear more Artyomov before making up my mind about that. He has certainly written a good deal, notably two cycles of symphonies: Symphony of the Way, which is a tetralogy consisting of Way to Olympus, On the Threshold of a Bright World, Gentle Emanation and The Morning Star Arises, and The Star of Exodus, a trilogy consisting of In Memoriam, In Spe and In Gloriam (the last possibly unfinished). Some parts of these have been recorded, along with other works, and the enterprising Divine Art label is in the process of reissuing them (review ~ review ~ review ~ review). There is also a Requiem, apparently the first to be written in Russia since the 1917 revolution, which has been much praised.

The disc comes with a very helpful sleeve note (in English and Russian) by Robert Matthew-Walker, who has written a book on the composer. I look forward to exploring more Artyomov.

Stephen Barber


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