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Victoria BORISOVA-OLLAS (b.1969)
Angelus (2008) [22:07]
The Kingdom of Silence (2003) [14:25]
Before the Mountains Were Born (2005) [17:58]
Creation of the Hymn (2013) [15:13]
Open Ground (2006) [10:53]
Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra/Andrey Boreyko, Martyn Brabbins, Sakari Aramo
rec. 2016-19, Stockholm Concert Hall
BIS BIS-2288 SACD [82:08]

I first heard Victoria Borisova-Ollas' name and music when her orchestral work Wings of the Wind (1997) was awarded the second prize in the British Masterpiece International Competition in 1998. This piece and the Symphony No.1 “The Triumph of Heaven” (2001), as well as three shorter works, were recorded for a Composer's Portrait CD of sorts released in 2008 as Phono Suecia PSCD 171. Now, this brand new release from BIS provides a fine opportunity to hear some of her recent orchestral works composed between 2003 and 2013 and appreciate how she may have progressed over the years even if her music does not seem to have gone through deep stylistic upheaval but rather has acquired a greater fluency displayed here in vivid orchestral terms. Judging from the five pieces recorded here, as well as the earlier orchestral works mentioned earlier in this review, it is quite clear that the composer has a strong liking for the orchestra which she handles with remarkable assurance and flair.
This is particularly evident in the longest piece here which is in some way an evocation of various church bells of Munich. The piece was commissioned by the Munich Philharmonic and the City Council of Munich to commemorate the 850th anniversary of the city. The composer visited Munich on a preliminary trip to the city where she had never been before and Angelus was more or less conceived at the time. The whole piece may be perceived as a substantial symphonic poem visiting the city from dawn to evening in which various bells from churches and other buildings such as the Rathaus mark both time and moods of the day. However, the piece eschews blunt descriptive picturesqueness and rather tends to suggest various moods and atmospheres. So, the piece opens mysteriously. A first theme slowly emerges from the misty opening which – to me – rather hints at some Gregorian hymn tune although the composer mentions a hint of a Celtic chant, which may be a bit confusing except if one accepts the idea of a primitive source (after all, Munich is now 850-years old). The music unfolds slowly and rises to a few sonorous climaxes punctuated later by slower and calmer episodes while a last climax dissolves quietly in a peaceful conclusion. As already mentioned, the music in this marvellous work is imaginative, colourful, sometimes looking back to some Impressionism although the tolling bells remind us of the Russian origins of the composer. I for one find Angelus a magnificent piece of music on all counts and this recorded performance does the music full justice.
“The mysterious country, where we will all go to after our lifetime, has many names. The Kingdom of Silence is one of them” (Victoria Borisova-Ollas). The quite beautiful work was written in memory of the Russian composer Nikolai Korndorf (1947 – 2001). The work begins as a lullaby (as the composer has it) and opens with a simple melody played by the glockenspiel and the celesta “wrapped in the echo of string instruments”. This tranquil mood is quite rapidly shattered and the expected nocturnal mood is torn apart as if by some nightmarish visions although the lullaby returns to end the piece in renewed peaceful mood.

Borisova-Ollas' interest in the Biblical Psalms is often reflected in a number of works over the years as she mentions in her insert notes. For example Psalm 104 was the inspiration for the orchestral piece Wings of the Wind (1997) and a line from Psalm 94 (freely translated from the Russian version) provided the title for The Kingdom of Silence (2003) recorded here. Similarly lines from Psalm 90 provided the impulse for the orchestral work commissioned by the RSO Stuttgart : “Lord, you have been our dwelling place/throughout all generations./ Before the mountains were born ...” However, according to the composer, the words of Psalm 90 are not as descriptive as those of Psalm 104 but rather express an insistent prayer, “where the thoughts of a human being appealing to the higher power follow each other in a rather quick tempo”. The piece starts as a 'regular' orchestral piece. However, later into the work, four woodwind players (the principal flute, oboe, clarinet and bassoon) leave their seats and move towards separate stands in front of the orchestra. After their virtuoso cadenza, they regained their seating within the orchestra. Nevertheless, if not possible for various reasons, the piece may be performed 'straight', so to say. Before the Mountains Were Born is yet again a remarkable display of orchestral mastery.
Creation of the Hymn (2013) is in fact an arrangement of a somewhat longer piece for string quartet composed in 2006 for a chamber music festival organized by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. “My intention was simply to write a virtuoso piece for string quartet – nothing more, nothing less” (the composer's words). The work is in fact a theme and variations exploring the large spectrum of the contemporary string orchestra roughly in the same way as Britten did in his Variations on a theme of Frank Bridge, to mention an example that comes to mind. The writing for strings is just masterly and remarkably resourceful and one senses the composer enjoying herself to the full in this brilliant though quite taxing work receiving here a splendid and hugely convincing reading under Andrey Boreyko. As far as I am concerned, I firmly believe that this work and Angelus are the finest pieces in this release.
As already hinted at in this review Victoria Borisova-Ollas often draws her ideas from various sources : the Psalms, a day-trip in a city or in other literary sources. This is the case of the last work in this generous collection retracing part of her recent output Open Ground (2006) inspired this time by Salman Rushdie's novel The Ground Beneath Her Feet in which one of the characters disappears under mysterious circumstances while an earthquake ravages Mexico. (I must hasten to say that I have not read Rushdie's novel.) The very title of the piece leaves much to the listener's imagination but, again, the most striking characteristic is the composer's assurance in her handling of often large orchestral forces.
All works in this generous release are played with assurance and commitment and the orchestra obviously relish Borisova-Ollas's superb orchestral writing that always brings the best out of the orchestra while never pushing its boundaries too far. This is accessible, superbly crafted and strongly expressive contemporary music that clearly deserves wider exposure. In short a splendid release with some marvellous music in excellent performances and recording that I wholeheartedly recommend.
Hubert Culot

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