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Grigori FRID (1915-2012)
Double Concerto for viola, piano and string orchestra, Op. 73 (1981) [34:48]
Symphony No. 3 for string orchestra and timpani, Op. 50 (1964) [25:36]
Two Inventions for string orchestra, Op. 46a (1962) [8:07]
Isabelle van Keulen (viola)
Oliver Triendl (piano)
Georgian Chamber Orchestra Ingolstadt/Ruben Gazarian
rec. live, May 2018, Festsaal, Ingolstadt, Germany
CAPRICCIO C5353 [68:31]

A slightly younger contemporary of Weinberg, Grigori Samuilowitsch Frid lived a long life that encompassed the entire history of the Soviet Union. Born in St Petersburg in 1915, it is no surprise that the first half of his life was unimaginably tough given his Jewish background and his familial affiliation with the intellectual bourgeoisie. Many of his relatives were killed during Stalin’s purges, while his father was sentenced to five years hard labour in Siberia. In due course his remaining immediate family settled there, enabling young Grigori to study music in Irkutsk before his admission to the Moscow Conservatory whence he graduated in 1939. His privations didn’t stop there; he was called up by the Soviet military and served at the front as a medic. He managed to survive the war, unlike his younger brother who perished during the siege of his home city in 1942.

It is thus rather inevitable that Frid’s music, on the evidence of the three works on this disc at least, projects an identifiably Slavic strain of melancholy and despair, albeit in a language which may ultimately have evolved sufficiently to ruffle official feathers. The earliest of the two major works here is his Symphony No 3, premiered by Svetlanov in 1965. The advocacy of such an established figure is perhaps surprising, given that around this time Frid was in the process of setting up the Moscow Youth Music Club, a kind of underground establishment which enabled young firebrands such as Alfred Schnittke and Sofia Gubaidulina to hear their own, confrontational early works away from the critical scrutiny of Soviet authority. The symphony is cast in three movements. The opening Allegro is from the outset suffused with busy, motoric rhythms which yield in time to a gnomic, lyrical idea which has at least the tang of Shostakovich. Its mood is appropriately fraught and agitated, but Frid’s content seems rather generic and is defiantly unmemorable. The concluding section aims at a compromised lightness but compared to the biting sarcasm of his more celebrated peer Shostakovich its impact is rather blunt. The central Lento is built upon a long, sad melody which proves to be surprisingly affecting, and notwithstanding its residual gloom this slow movement at least demonstrates more sustained levels of inspiration than its formulaic predecessor. As the movement subsides towards its conclusion, hints of Tchaikovsky or Arensky hover above the surface, until gentle drum taps usher in the all-too-brief sobbing of a solo violin. The propulsive spirit of the symphony’s opening is recaptured in the driving Allegro energico finale, which despite the best efforts of the Georgian Chamber Orchestra, proves to be as toe-tappingly derivative as the first movement. The fugal content that emerges halfway through is competent, short-lived and somewhat academic. On the other hand the quiet ending is unexpectedly effective.

The disc opens with Frid’s more substantial Double Concerto of 1981, scored for viola and piano soloists with string orchestra. Its opening Lento begins with a brooding, mysterious piano motif which triggers furtive, whispered imitation by the rustling strings. The solo viola entry is yet more frigid, but it rapidly becomes apparent that Frid has adopted a riskier, more confrontational approach in the composition of this concerto. Its astringent music proves immeasurably more interesting than that of the symphony. The concerto’s first movement is thus is far closer to the tortured ambiguity of a Schnittke or a Denisov. It won’t make you smile, but you will listen, for sure. Isabelle van Keulen’s sensitive, responsive playing injects a touch of class into proceedings, her stylings enabling the viola line to hover ghost-like above Frid’s strange orchestral textures, while that insatiable evangelist for unknown repertoire Oliver Triendl conveys the creepy chord sequences with deadpan solemnity. The central Allegro moderato is like a quick march, its pulsing, sour chords oddly militaristic. The soloists’ interplay in mid-movement throws up some unpredictably jazzy syncopations; for example, a passage from 4:01 almost suggests a spontaneous improvised jam. In the final minutes of the movement the soloists meander aimlessly through a dense thicket of shadowy, murmuring strings. The concluding movement is marked Sostenuto and at 17 minutes is of equal duration to the first two movements combined. From the outset it projects as weighty yet enigmatic and seems to reference the piano’s opening material from the first movement, although by now the viola provides a brooding, simultaneous commentary. I have to say there is a spare, peculiar beauty throughout this long movement, but I suspect it takes soloists of the quality of van Keulen and Triendl to draw it out. Moments of bitter intensity emerge, register and quickly disappear. Frid clarifies the mechanics of his material at around the 7:00 mark, counterintuitively allowing his music to appear more overtly expressive and yearning. The climax at 8:50 is tortured and segues into gruff, repeated notes in the orchestra, which van Keulen paraphrases on her viola before undertaking an extended, grief-drenched solo of startling and quite unexpected beauty. At times this constitutes a monologue; elsewhere the accompaniment provided by piano or strings or both is haunting and other-worldly. The concerto’s death is prolonged, gentle and really rather touching. After listening to the symphony first (I like to listen to discs of unknown music in chronological order of composition), I really wasn’t expecting the concerto to be as accomplished as this, despite its much later provenance. Frankly it’s riveting. The soloists are beyond excellent, the orchestra give their all and Capriccio’s sound is subtly detailed unlike the symphony which seems rather harsh and too much in-one’s-face.

Included as fillers, the two brief Inventions are drawn from a set of 19 piano pieces that Frid completed a year or so before the Symphony No 3. He orchestrated a selection of these. The first of this pair is languid and nostalgic, competently laid out in a comfortable neo-baroque style and again very typical of the Soviet music that was being churned out in the two decades following the war. Its successor, after a pompous Maestoso opening settles into a prickly Bachian groove until an abrupt, decisive conclusion. Both Inventions are defiantly uninventive, alas.

The Georgian Chamber Orchestra relocated from their homeland to Germany in the early 1990s – I assume this had something to do with political tensions in Tblisi at the time. One thing is certain – Frid’s more recent Double Concerto is of far superior quality compared to his Symphony No 3 and indubitably draws playing of greater focus and subtlety from these players.

Richard Hanlon

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