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Vasilije MOKRANJAC (1923-1984)
Complete Piano Works
Ratimir Martinovic (piano)
rec. Kolarac Hall, Belgrade, Serbia, 2018-19
GRAND PIANO GP829-30 [71:24 + 76:16]

The Mokranjacs were a musical family. It’s not just that Vasilije’s great uncle was the composer Stevan Stojanović Mokranjac (1856-1914). Stevan has considerable prominence, celebrated on various Serbian postage stamps and his choral music was much broadcast by BBC Radio 3. Vassilije was Belgrade-born and also died there by his own hand.

CPO have already weighed in on behalf of Vassilije and this site carries two reviews of CPO’s chamber music disc, which recount that Vassilije composed five symphonies: 1961, 1965, 1967, 1972 and 1979; not that I have heard any of them. Fortunately, performances can be found, in the shape of radio broadcasts, on YouTube. I gather from Rob Sykes that there is a Serbian CD set (UKS Sokoj-MIC CD 7003) that features three of Mokranjac's symphonies (2, 4 and 5).

Sources refer to Mokranjac’s music falling into three periods (1944-1961, 1961–1972, 1972–1984) but, truth to tell, the changes, at least as evidenced here, were not violent. There were no operas and I have not heard any songs or choral works of his. The entire oeuvre is given over to instrumental music.

The piano music is played here by Ratimir Martinovic with precision and ardent abandon; no half measures. Such a shame that it never came to the attention of John Ogdon, Ronald Stevenson or Hamish Milne for more often than not it seems tailor made for their pianism, leonine, visionary or gentle. Martinovic throws himself into the experience. While much of what we hear is the stuff of stormy cliffs and a contest of the more violent passions the early Menuetto is simple, pastoral and winsome; think Blezard or Mayerl. This piece is not far distant from the music on Kirsten Johnson’s two Guild Albanian collections (Rapsodi and Kenge). The Theme and Eight Variations and the Sonata Romantica take no prisoners. This is no innocent middling-temperature material but is pungently and plungingly Rachmaninovian. Incidents are on a big fervent scale. After a tolling Marcia Funèbre there’s a Finale where sparks and shrapnel fly to every corner, unflinching. Martinovioc’s instrument is fully equal to the task. In the Prelude, Dance and March dreamy shadows lengthen and the pulse slows as Mokranjac explores more exotic liquefacient twists. Some of the Seven Etudes are very, very short, with what would otherwise be a MacDowell forest pool having its surface disturbed by trilling breeze (same goes for the Uguale). There’s a motoric self-absorbed Staccato, a trilling Presto with a touch of Falla, a ruthless Presto Possibile and a concluding Presto Ritmico which evokes shadows and punched-out drama in a very muscular feat. Not for the last time would you be forgiven for thinking about Prokofiev.

On the second disc the Six Dances are from 1950-57. Their moods range from delicate, melodious and sleepy to explosive maelstroms. The middle ground in these six works recalled John Ireland’s subtlety and Arnold Bax’s devils. The two Sonatinas are from the same decade. They may be sonatinas in duration but not in sound-world. The First (in two movements) is fully grown-up and ends in a short self-absorbed and unsmiling Prestissimo-Allegro. The Second is in four very short movements: harsh tempered, icy, flooded with forward impetus and with a grand statement in the finale. The same era gave birth to the Suite 'Fragments' in six little movements: irritable, dank and cold, tolling in twilight and ending in a Grave that takes us right up to the brink of Coleridge’s “Alph, the sacred river” that ran through caverns “measureless to man …. Down to a sunless sea”. These are the products of a pianistic tiger. The Suite 'Intimate Voices' takes the listener to the Mokranjac of the early 1970s. It is as if the composer reveals a gentle heart and a stilling and consolatory voice. In its near 14 minutes we also experience intimate slow flurries of danger and violent punctuation. The Suite 'Echoes' is in a single track. Its harsh, exciting, kinetic collisions allow space for ‘blocky’, iron-hearted toil akin to Messiaen and Boulez. Even so, at the close, there are tiny silvery bell sounds.

These two discs¸ staggeringly well recorded and satisfyingly documented, at times convey the sense of a polished slatey incline. The listener is unable to hold a reliable footing and experiences unnerving realms. That said, the 1984 Prelude hesitantly steps out into some unknown region. Before that the somewhat Gallic Five Preludes (in one track) of 1975 are shocking, cool and suffused with balm. The young pianist intent on convincing his adjudicators and audiences should track down this pair of CDs, as should even mildly enterprising adherents of unusual piano music of the last century. Often very impressive as well as endearing from time to time.

Rob Barnett

CD 1 [71:24]
Menuetto (1944) [4:31]
Theme and 8 Variations (1947) [14:02]
Sonata romantica (1947) [21:44]
Prelude, Dance and March (1950) [4:57]
Etudes (7) (1951-52) [16:02]
CD 2 [76:16]
Dances (6) (1950-57) [8:40]
Sonatina no.1 in A minor (1953) [9:26]
Sonatina no.2 in C major (1954) [8:54]
Suite 'Fragments' (1955-56) [9:14]
Suite 'Intimate Voices' (1973) [13:08]
Suite 'Echoes' (1973) [15:46]
Preludes (5) (1975) [7:46]
Prelude (1984) [3:12]

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