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Vyacheslav ARTYOMOV (b. 1947)
Yelena Brilyova, Inna Polianskaya, Lyubov Shamina (sopranos), Alexei Martynov (tenor), Mikhail Lanskoĭ (baritone), Andrey Azovsky (treble), Oleg Yanchenko (organ)
Kaunas State Choir, Sveshnikov Boys and Men's Choir
Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra/Dmitri Kitayenko
rec. 1988, House of Sound recording, Moscow
Latin texts included
DIVINE ART DDA25173 [76:11]

Printed verbatim in the booklet is the speech Vyacheslav Artyomov gave to the audience prior to the performance (not this recording of the work’s premiere from nine years earlier) of this mighty Requiem on 7 November 1997, the 80th anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution. It is a scathing critique of the stranglehold the Communist Party had on Russia for almost a century, of its continued existence and its legacy. One cannot but wonder what impact a public speech of this ilk would have in today’s Moscow. But like its subject matter, the speech is a fact of history, and it is instructive for listeners to read it and have some sort of a handle on Artyomov’s ambitious undertaking here. His goal was nothing short of a large scale work which would act as a vehicle for national expiation.

The barking brass and organ fanfare which begin the Kyrie let one know instantly that this is no work of unalloyed consolation. The tiny intervals that infuse the first chorus suggest ghosts. The moaning chorus is upended by eerie strings, insistent low piano octaves, woodwind and, eventually, brass and percussion, especially bells. Inevitably, the latter play a huge part in the piece. The basses inaugurate another section which builds inexorably to a huge cataclysmic choral climax underpinned by strident percussion and what I think is a flexatone. The chromaticism and violence of this music manages to out-Schnittke Schnittke himself. At times the bleakness of some of the older composer’s music sometimes seems somewhat contrived and over-cinematic to these ears, an impression that seldom occurs with Artyomov.

The second part of the Dies Irae incorporates indubitably mournful yet oddly beautiful combinations of vocal soloists. Artyomov’s harmonisation is masterly, indeed this Dies Irae in each of its sections seems to defy cliché and at times appears to project comfort rather than wrath. Such moments may be short-lived: the reveilles and hunting-horns of the Tuba Mirum for example augur tumult and chaos. Their fervour subsides with a ticking clock, high bells and the uproar subsides into whispers. The Recordare begins with a sad, traumatised chorus in the high voices which gives way to a baritone solo above which hovers a plangent, beatific (and rather distantly recorded) solo violin. Listening to this music again after a few years really brings home what a sensitive ear Artyomov has, and amplifies how carefully and tellingly he deploys his huge resources, especially piano and percussion, in this work. His vocal writing is also expert, both for soloists and chorus. Often there is a sense of note spinning in this kind of repertoire, but in its very different way this work reveals Artyomov’s adeptness in writing for voices. At times he is as directly communicative as Benjamin Britten in his more renowned (War) Requiem. For all the terror, catastrophe and violence implied in this piece, its extremity is somehow reined in. It never gets too much, and there is a profound formal elegance at play. The staccato monosyllables spat out by the singers during the Confutatis maledictis section of the Dies Irae are genuinely terrifying in their restraint. This gives way to a grim Lacrimosa, totally in keeping with what has gone before, and with our world. Grim yes, but far from ‘ugly’. A huge organ chord suggests a mighty climax, but it withdraws to reveal a subsiding passage of transcendent mourning.

As we reach the Offertorium, the Domine Jesu Christe is a magnificent, truly moving choral prayer, commented upon by strident, yet respectful instrumental phrases. This is unquestionably the emotional core of this Requiem, and is followed by a Hostias et preces section which revisits some of the earlier choral material and features rather ‘Slavic’ solos from a couple of the three sopranos. The choral portamenti/glissandi at the conclusion of this section will certainly make the hairs on listeners’ necks stand on end. It elides more or less seamlessly into a Sanctus dominated by the unusual vocal stylings of a Slavic ‘treble’. The chromatic choral effects suddenly give way to an almost jaunty ensemble of vocal soloists. The Hosanna in Excelsis that concludes the Sanctus with its tinkly percussion, high piano and harps shimmers radiantly and builds unforgettably. I find this passage profoundly affecting prior to its resolution in a radiant major chord. After a brief, questioning Benedictus, with airy solos, quasi- Ligetian choral phrases and creepy organ arpeggi we are on the home straight.

The flutes that open the Agnus Dei are the harbingers of a reflective tenor setting (the listing in the booklet has this wrong – it’s certainly not a soprano). In fact its tentative second section features a rather jagged ensemble of soloists alternating with chromatic choral harmonies and ethereal solo violin and harp figures. There is a sense of utterly sincere and heartfelt pleading here. The more strident Libera me follows, and grows with ever more intense and despairing statements of the phrase by the choir. This is by far the most tortured section of the work, but even here there is a sense that Artyomov is desperately seeking to prevent his structure from toppling into the abyss. As the percussion become more intense and dissonant brass and organ strain at the leash, the Requiem aeternam arrives, and offers qualified solace with its pained, Mahlerian strings. Its melody unfolds in canon with a sad trombone before the choir numbly intone the ten words of the requiem prayer, alongside the solo violin’s tragic, tortured serenade. It dies.

The In Paradisum acts as an epilogue/postscript. It occupies a different, ethereal plain, all celesta, strumming harp and soft strings. Some of this music projects stylistic parallels with Artyomov’s serene Gurian Hymn. But it gathers pace before the chorus reconvenes and sing in the least consolatory fashion listeners might ever have heard for this text. This time the words seem infused with anger and catastrophe before the work dissolves in swirls of strings, tuned percussion and harp.

However one responds to Artyomov’s Requiem, I think most listeners would find it hard to question the composer’s authenticity, his ‘earnestness’. This is not just another ‘Russian Requiem’ – nor is it appreciated or grasped in one hearing. I have known it for not far short of twenty years and it still grips, moves, and surprises at every turn. Divine Art’s documentation for their reissue of this work is extremely detailed, and includes a biography of the composer and an insightful introduction to the Requiem as well as the text of the speech to which I alluded earlier. There is a note to the effect that the original Melodiya tapes have somehow been compromised. The present recording therefore derives from the composer’s own masters. The sound is not perfect – this performance involved a large group of musicians recorded in a notoriously resonant hall. Artyomov uses his forces in often unconventional combinations, and at times details are inevitably lost; but that barely detracts from what I found to be a riveting performance of a moving and important work. I can only reiterate my colleague Rob Barnett's complimentary remarks directed at the Divine Art label. There are many fascinating Russian composers, (as there are from other former Soviet republics) who go completely under the radar on this side of what we used to think of as ‘Europe’, so we should be grateful that Artyomov’s compelling music at least has not met such a fate.

Richard Hanlon

Previous review: Rob Barnett

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