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Alexander MOSOLOV (1900-1973)
Symphony No 5 (1965) [31.28]
Harp Concerto (1939) [37.21]
Taylor Ann Fleshmann (harp)
Moscow Symphony Orchestra/Arthur Arnold
rec. Mosfilm Studio One, Moscow, 21-22 and 28-30 January 2019
NAXOS 8.574102 [68.55]

Mosolov is remembered almost exclusively today by a single work, his mini-tone-poem of Soviet hyper-realism from the 1920s extracted from a progressive ballet score and known in the West under the title Iron Foundry. He soon fell into disfavour during the Stalinist era (the result partially of his hedonistic life-style, as well as his pioneering avant-garde techniques) and by 1937 he found himself excluded from Russian cultural life and indeed condemned to eight years’ hard labour in a gulag for ‘counter-revolutionary’ activities. He was exceptionally lucky by the standards of his contemporaries in obtaining release with eight months (which probably saved his life), largely as the result of intervention by his former teachers Glière and Miaskovsky; but the experience, not surprisingly, left the composer traumatised. The works he wrote after the completion of his sentence of internal exile was eventually lifted bore no resemblance whatsoever to his early iconoclasm, falling strictly within the parameters of the state-sponsored realism espoused by party appointees such as Zhdanov and Khrennikov. Even then the two works included on this CD were never performed in their complete form during the composer’s lifetime (the Harp Concerto was pruned down to three movements, and neither score was published), and this enterprising disc therefore affords an enticing opportunity to discover the later Mosolov in two works of considerably greater stature and duration than the solitary movement of Iron Foundry.
It is therefore a great pity to have to report that the Fifth Symphony, did it not bear the name of the former iconoclast, would hardly justify revival. There are elements here of the composer’s trademark obsessive motor rhythms, but very little else. The standard procedure in each movement is as follows. A small motivic fragment is gradually elaborated, and subjected a whole array of mechanical compositional techniques – repetition in sequentially higher registers, acceleration, addition of further subsidiary lines and orchestral instruments, even simple ostinato reiteration – until a sort of climax is achieved; this is then maintained at a sonic plateau level, usually for a period that is just too extended to retain interest, before the music drops back to a near-silence whereupon the whole procedure is then repeated with new material. There is no real distinctiveness in the three movements, all of which operate on the same pattern, and only in the closing bars of the finale do we finally achieve some sort of emotional catharsis. And that too is then spoiled by the reluctance of the composer to bring the symphony to a final conclusion; instead we have an unbelievably insistent repetition of a three-note motif extended to extraordinary lengths. Those who complain about the triumphalism they detect in the more bombastic moments of Shostakovich or Khachaturian will find their worst nightmares realised in music like this, which must have proved an embarrassment even to the Party officials who were supposed to furnish their seal of approval to the work.

If the Harp Concerto is a more satisfactory piece, that is largely because the reticent nature of the instrument demands that the level of bombast and emphasis in the orchestration has to be toned down considerably if the soloist’s contribution is not to be reduced to a purely decorative status. That in fact almost happens in the third movement, a dance-like almost neo-classical gavotte which allows the harp almost no opportunity to display its versatility and seems like a semi-balletic movement shoehorned into another work altogether. But the finale, an energetic toccata, affords the soloist plenty of occasion for display; and the slow movement, an extended nocturne, finally allows us to hear music of real stature that indicates that Mosolov’s muse still slumbered fitfully even after his cathartic experiences in the 1930s. A long-breathed arpeggiated melody from the soloist expands across the whole spectrum of the large orchestra; and even the sequential repetitions acquire a sense of real engagement, as Mosolov relishes the warmth and richness of his melodic material. This is assisted by the committed playing of the soloist Taylor Ann Fleshmann; even though one suspects that the engineers give a helping boost to the sound of her instrument in the more heavily scored passages, the results are convincing and indeed very beautifully judged. There are not so many really good harp concertos in the repertory that we can afford to overlook a score like this; and I suspect that, given the right sort of promotion and exposure, the nocturne could well find itself leading an independent life as a concert item (rather like individual movements from Shostakovich ballet and film scores).

There are presumably a great many other pieces by Mosolov which remain either unperformed or totally neglected since their first performances, and the example of the Harp Concerto here does demonstrate that some of them at any rate do not deserve their total disappearance. It is indeed solely thanks to the enterprise of conductors such as Arthur Arnold and the exploratory curiosity of the Naxos label that we are given the opportunity to discover such examples as these. I could not find it in myself to lend much support to a live revival of this particular Mosolov symphony (there are others which might possess greater character), but I would go some way to hear a performance of the Harp Concerto, and I am delighted to be afforded the opportunity to listen to it occasionally on this disc. The booklet notes by Anthony Short are comprehensive and helpful, the performance of the orchestra sounds fully engaged, and the recording quality is excellently judged. This will appeal to the curious and – in the case of the nocturne – to others also.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

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