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Edison DENISOV (1929-1996)
The First Concert in the USSR
Peinture (1970) [9:43]
Flute Concerto (1975) [20:23]
Symphony (No. 1) (1987) [46:46]
Spoken interviews (in Russian) before each work [24:44]
Bonus rehearsal sequence [11:26]
Dmitri Denisov (flute)
USSR Ministry of Culture Symphony Orchestra/Gennady Rozhdestvensky
rec. live, 6 February 1990, Grand Hall, Moscow Conservatory
MELODIYA MELCD1002604 [49:26 + 64:48]

Edison Denisov belongs to the generation of Russian composers who followed Shostakovich, which also includes Alfred Schnittke and Sofia Gubaidulina. This generation was originally brought up almost in ignorance of Western modernism, which was disapproved of in Soviet Russia, but later discovered it and drew on it to forge their own mature idioms. Denisov, like the others, went through a period of disfavour because of this, but, as the Soviet system began to collapse, he was acknowledged as a leading composer. What we have here is a reissue of a recording of a concert given in his honour in 1990. The anniversary in question is that of his birth.

This recording documents the concert, which accounts for some of its unusual features. Before each of the three works is a spoken interview of the composer by the conductor, Gennady Rozhdestvensky, a great champion of his. These interviews are, of course, in Russian, which I do not speak. However, they – I presume it is they, but I have no means of checking – are transcribed in the booklet, which rather makes the spoken version redundant. They are in any case not particularly illuminating of the works performed: it is not particularly, helpful, for example, to learn that Denisov’s favourite French poet was Baudelaire, when no vocal work appears in the programme. I cannot imagine even Russian speakers wanting to hear these interviews more than once. Fortunately, they are separately tracked and can be skipped. However, their inclusion pushes the recording onto a second disc, whereas without them it could have been accommodated on one. Applause is included.

The three works were presumably chosen to be particularly representative of the composer, though this is not discussed in the interviews or booklet text. Peinture (the title is given in French) was Denisov’s first orchestral work after writing a good deal of chamber music. Winding woodwind lines develop in an expressionist idiom owing something to Schoenberg’s free atonal period, but initially in a wistful rather than an aggressive mood. (Think the second and fifth of Schoenberg’s Five Orchestral Pieces, rather than the first and fourth.) There is a brief climax after which the work subsides. I liked this work.

Then we have the Flute Concerto, originally written for the Swiss flautist Aurèle Nicolet and here played by Dmitri Denisov, who is presumably a relative of the composer, though this is not explained. Denisov wrote some twelve concertos, for various combinations, and in the interview he expands on the thought that the flute is an unusual solo instrument. Not, of course, in the West, but the Russian experience is different. There are four movements, but they are not separately tracked, which is inconvenient. The first begins with graceful phrases on the flute. Other instruments join in and this time we are in an impressionist rather than an expressionist world. There is a scherzo with rapid rushing passages in the strings, tattoos on drums and an agitated dance on the solo instrument. This movement is unbarred and includes elements of improvisation; apparently it takes a great deal of rehearsal time, but certainly the performance sounds confident. The third movement is night music, though not of the kind we associate with Bartók. The composer associated it with having just heard of the death of Shostakovich. The finale returns to the mood of the first movement, in which the flute floats over a heaving bass. This is an attractive work.

The longest work is the symphony, actually the first of two Denisov wrote, but he completed the second only just before his death some years after this concert. This symphony was commissioned by Daniel Barenboim, who gave the première and made the first recording, on Erato and is now a collectors’ item. This is a big work, also in four movements and also not separately tracked. However, the basic idea is that of a struggle between light, represented by the strings, and darkness, represented by brass supported by the percussion. There are recurring motifs, for example a keening, questing one on the clarinet, a percussion-heavy maelstrom, a passage for muted brass and interjections on tubular bells, which return, transformed in various ways. This process replaces traditional symphonic argument and runs throughout all four movements. The work is full of excellent invention and is not hard to follow.

There is a bonus: a short rehearsal sequence, but this is just part of the symphony, without any spoken interaction with the conductor.

The performances by the USSR Ministry of Culture Symphony Orchestra under Rozhdestvensky, with Dmitri Denisov as the solo flautist, are obviously authoritative. (I have not heard Barenboim’s recording of the symphony.) The recording is clean and clear and sounds good. As well as the interview texts the booklet has a useful note, clearly written recently, but the author does not inform us that the symphony is in fact the first of two. The two discs are presented in a double-fold sleeve, but the second fold opens vertically, making an L shape. Despite the oddities of presentation this is a useful pair of discs, and if you want to represent Denisov in your collection it will do nicely.

Stephen Barber

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