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Vyacheslav ARTYOMOV (b. 1940)
A Sonata of Meditations (1978) [28:05]
A Garland of Recitations (1975-1981) [29:29]
Totem (1976) [11:58]
Mark Pekarsky Percussion Ensemble (Sonata and Totem), Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra/Virko Baley (Garland)
rec. 1983-1991, House of Sound Recording (Sonata and Totem) and Melodiya Studio (Garland), Moscow
DIVINE ART DDA25174 [69:41]

Star Wind (1981) [14:26]
Variations: Nestling Antsali [6:51]
Moonlight Dreams (1982) [17:50]
Romantic Capriccio (1976) [7:12]
Mattinate (Morning Songs) [15:28]
Scenes (Grand Pas) (1971) [13:08]
Ensemble/Murad Annnamamedov (Star Wind and Scenes only)
rec. 1976-1994, House of Sound Recording, Moscow
English text included
DIVINE ART DDA25176 [74:56]

In Spe: A symphony with violin and cello solos (2014) [47:07]
Latin Hymns (1989-1993) [30:22]
Ivan Pochekin (violin), Aleksandr Buzlov (cello) (Symphony), Nadezhda Pavlova (soprano), Yurlov State Capella (Latin Hymns), Russian National Orchestra/Valentin Uriupin
rec. 2018, ‘Mosfilm’ Sound Studio, Moscow
Latin text included
DIVINE ART DDA25184 [77:29]

Artyomov is one of a group of Russian and East European composers – others include Kancheli, Silvestrov and Pärt – who grow up in the days of the Soviet empire, discovered European modernism and went on to forge individual and distinctive idioms. They also each tend to be the object of a cult. I was very taken with a disc of Artyomov I had for review last year (review) so am glad to have been able to hear more of him.

The first disc here features two works for percussion alone. One of the modernist composers Artyomov admires is Varèse, and in these works we can hear the influence of Varèse’s Ionisation of 1931, one of the first works in the Western tradition for percussion alone. A Sonata of meditations is in four movements and requires four players (Varèse required thirteen). Morning meditation features fragmentary phrases and bell sounds. Afternoon meditation concentrates on rhythm and has some impressive timpani glissandi. Evening meditation sounds like a recreation of Bartók’s night music in which a marimba is prominent; there are also some striking spatial effects. Midnight meditation is an irregular dance. The whole work takes you through a cycle of moods linked to the times of the day and I found it compelling.

The other percussion work here, Totem, is for six players and is much shorter. It is also earlier. This has terrific rhythmic drive. I was surprised at one point to hear our old friend the Dies irae appearing. However, the work seemed to me not completely coherent and the longer Sonata is preferable.

Between these two comes A Garland of Recitations. Four soloists, on, respectively flute, oboe, saxophones (of various sizes) and bassoon take it in turns to deliver a long solo in front of the orchestra, whose role is largely confined to sustaining long-held chords. For me, this was an interesting idea which long outstayed its welcome.

The second disc is made of chamber works, all for unusual combinations and sounding to me very much as if Artyomov had just discovered the works of Stravinsky and the second Viennese school and was trying his hand at their idioms. Star Wind is a sextet for violin, cello, flute, horn, piano and glockenspiel and requires a conductor. It is a one-movement work, romantic and expressionist in a manner slightly reminiscent of Berg and without the emotional weight of Artyomov’s orchestral works. I found it beautiful and approachable.

Variations: Nestling Antshall is a set of variations for flute and piano – the latter here played by Artyomov himself. The title comes from a Madagascar folk tale and the technique sounds serial. The opening flute melody is strongly reminiscent of Varèse’s solo flute piece Density 21.5 and the variations are very varied. Though more jagged than Star Wind, this was also an attractive work.

Moonlight Dreams is a song-cycle for soprano with alto flute, cello and piano. The words are four Chinese poems in English translation by David Cheetham, sung in English. This may sound like an influence from Mahler, whose Das Lied von der Erde also sets translated Chinese poems, but a closer parallel would be with Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire, as the accompaniment is for alto flute, cello and piano, similar to, though smaller than, the Pierrot ensemble. Additionally, all four poems contain references to the moon. There are instrumental passages before and after each poem. I had better say at once that Artyomov makes much more beguiling sounds than Schoenberg’s rebarbative masterpiece, though there are some quasi-expressionist solos for the instruments. Nelly Lee sings the songs with a lovely tone and accurate intonation, though her words are not very clear. Fortunately, they are included in the booklet.

Romantic Capriccio rather belies its name. It was, in fact, composed for the twentieth anniversary of the death of Sibelius, and is in turns elegiac and angry. The scoring is for horn – which takes a lead role throughout – piano and string quartet. There are echoes of his violin concerto and also snatches of the stamping chord from Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. There is a general move from protest to resignation, but I found the work too episodic to be satisfying.

Mattinate (Morning Songs) is a set of two pieces for violin, flute and guitar, which turns out to be a very happy combination, with the two melody instruments throwing arabesques while the guitar twangs away sympathetically below. A soprano has a brief vocalise at the beginning and ending of the second movement. I count this one as a success.

As I do the last work on the disc: Scenes (Grand Pas). This came as a complete surprise. It is a short suite composed for the combination of violin, clarinet, bass, piano and percussion (two players); it needs a conductor. I think Artyomov must have been listening to Stravinsky’s Soldier’s Tale, since his is a similar ensemble and the perky and witty music – not at all what I expect from him – is very much in that style. There is one slower number, which is more like Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet, but otherwise Stravinsky is very much the presiding spirit and the work as a whole is a jolly romp. I greatly enjoyed it.

Artyomov has given much of his career to writing big dramatic symphonies. These he likes to link into cycles. There is Symphony of the Way, a tetralogy, of which three parts have been recorded (review review review review). In spe (In hope), on my third disc, is the second part of a trilogy collectively titled The Star of Exodus, of which the first part is In Memoriam, subtitled A symphony with violin solo, which was completed in 1984 and has been recorded (review). In Spe had its origin in a request by Rostropovich in 1993 for a cello concerto, but the composer did not begin work on it until 2002 and only finished it in 2014, by which time it had become a symphony, not a concerto, and with two soloists rather than one, with the subtitle A symphony with violin and cello solos. It is therefore much the most recent work on all these discs. It is a massive work, in one movement but twenty-one sections which play continuously. The idiom is more reminiscent of Scriabin’s Prometheus than anything else, but is considerably more turbulent though shot through with moments of calm and beauty. There is a very flowery sleeve note by Valeriya Lyubetskaya, who is the composer’s wife, from which I gather there is a programme which follows the vicissitudes of a hero. I think most listeners will simply follow the changing moods without trying to link them to the story. It is much more of a symphonic poem than a symphony – at any rate, I did not find a symphonic argument I could easily follow. The violin and cello soloists have occasional prominent passages but the work is not a concerto. The third part of the trilogy does not yet seem to have appeared.

The Latin hymns are four in number: a passage from what in the Vulgate is Psalm 50, but in English Bibles is Psalm 51; the short prayer known in English as the Hail Mary; the Marian antiphon Salve Regina; and the vespers hymn Ave Maris Stella (Sea Star, we acclaim thee). Strictly speaking, only the last of these is a hymn, but no matter. They are set in very rich, indeed lush, late romantic-expressionist idiom, with very full writing for the choir and a solo soprano. I was reminded at times of Szymanowski’s Stabat Mater. From moment to moment they are often beautiful, but there is a certain lack of variety in them. The Latin texts are given but without translations; however, these texts are easy to find online.

This third disc is newly recorded and very well too, in a reverberant acoustic which suits the music. The other two discs were originally recorded in the 1980s but have been expertly remastered and sound well. Most of them were previously issued by Melodiya, but two of them are said to have come from private recordings held by the composer. There is no discernible difference in quality with these. The sleeve notes for the first two discs are by Robert Matthew-Walker, who has written a book on the composer and is the leading English authority on him. These are helpful, but they are a bit lacking in some basic facts, such as dates. The very striking covers are an attractive feature of this series.

While I am both pleased and grateful to have this opportunity to hear more Artyomov, I do have two requests to make of Divine Art Records. First is that they put on their website a proper list of his works with dates, as some of this information is sadly lacking in the sleeve notes. And secondly, that they raise the funds to complete the recording of Artyomov’s two major projects: of the tetralogy with the overall title Symphony of the Way, three parts have been recorded, on three different discs, but not the fourth, The morning star arises. And of the trilogy The Star of Exodus, two parts have now been recorded, again on different discs, but not the third, whose title I have not been able to find out, nor, indeed, whether it has been completed.

Artyomov is an interesting, indeed impressive composer, though I would resist some of the claims made for him. He is certainly worthy to be considered alongside the three other composers I mentioned at the start. I have yet to hear his Requiem, which is the work which made his reputation (review review). But all these discs are well worth exploring. I would start with Star Wind.

Stephen Barber

Previous review (Sonata): Rob Barnett

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