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Valery GAVRILIN (1939-1999)
The Russian Notebook, Song Cycle (1965, orch. Leonid Rezetdinov, 2018) [35:30]
Anyuta (excerpts) (1982) [34:25]
Mila Shkirtil (mezzo-soprano)
St Petersburg Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra/Yuri Serov
rec: September 2018, St Petersburg Radio Studio
NAXOS 8.573883 [69:58]

First, let me point out that the orchestra recorded here is not the St Petersburg Philharmonic, but the St Petersburg Academic Symphony Orchestra, playing under its ‘other’ name, and is one of the two orchestras resident in the city. It started life in 1931 as the Leningrad Radio Orchestra.

Valery Gavrilin is not a well-known name outside Russia, but was prolific in all classical forms, and was mainly known to the public for his popular songs and film work.

His ballet Anyuta was not composed specifically as such. The composer was not particularly keen on the idea, and in order to satisfy the request of the scriptwriter and TV director Alexander Belinsky for a TV ballet based on stories by Chekov, he suggested that he orchestrate several of his earlier short piano works, and also use fragments of earlier orchestral works. The booklet notes suggest that the ‘patchwork quilt’ construction of the piece accounts for the very varied choreography. The story details the life of Anyuta, a girl from a poor family who marries a well-to-do official and becomes dazzled by the ‘high society splendour. The ballet being made for TV, its director was able to use facial close-ups, thus allowing the dancers to express themselves visually, something that had not been attempted before in the USSR.

The music reminds me of a ‘softened’ Prokofiev: melodic but without much of the tang that made Prokofiev’s ballet music so memorable. It is lively and has a rather striking tarantella section. The rest is easy on the ear and became the composer’s best-known work - rather ironically, given his lack of enthusiasm for the project.

The Russian Notebook, is a song cycle originally for voice and piano, heard here in a later orchestration by another composer. Gavrilin was just 25 when he composed it, and tried to invent a ‘new musical language’ that didn’t employ folk music but used folkloric texts together with a virtuoso vocal part. The music was composed “as an artful stylisation of traditional peasant tunes combined with urban melodies.” It doesn’t sound to be particularly ‘new’ to me, but I suppose composers had to resort to all sorts of claims and styles to satisfy the notorious Soviet demand for music that the proletariat could appreciate. The detailed booklet notes point out that Gavrilin “uses diversified vocal techniques, powerful culminations within the words and unexpected artistic reincarnations as well as a diversity of sounds from the piano accompaniment.” It also claims that “the unexpected harmonies, acute modulations, polyrhythms and polymetry (the simultaneous use of two or more rhythms that are not readily perceived as deriving from one another), and the detailed polyphonic processing of the material in the cycle presented a daring and original step forward for Russian Music in the 1960’s.” To me, it sounds rather like late Prokofiev, when his music had been deodorised by the repeated assaults of the Soviet Composer’s Union, kow-towing to Stalin’s ideas of what Soviet Classical Music should be like. It seems that Gavrilin had wanted to orchestrate the song cycle himself, but for whatever reason, failed to do so. The composer Leonid Rezetdinov undertook the task, having studied Gavrilin’s orchestration in other works. The cycle is sung by mezzo Mila Shkirtil, who has a pleasant voice, not shrill or wobbly, with an impressive chest register. After listening to over 35 minutes of the songs, I began to wish for a more varied vocal palette, making the sound less monotonous. The traditional words clearly represent different women singing of their trials in love, and so a contrasting soprano voice could have been used in some of the songs. However, I don’t wish to disparage the singing here – it is fine.

The booklet is very well produced, containing a biography of the composer, the song texts in Russian and English, and articles about the singer, conductor and orchestra. The recording is clear and well balanced,

Jim Westhead



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