Classical Music Review: New Releases

Aaron Avshalomoff - Orchestral Works, Vol. 1.  Flute Concerto*; Symphony No. 1.  Nadine Asin, Flute.  Moscow Symphony Orchestra; Jacob Avshalomov*, David Avshalomov, cond.  Marco Polo CD 8.223033 (66'53).

Aaron Avshalomoff - Orchestral Works, Vol. 2.  Violin Concerto*; Soul of the Ch'in;  Hutungs of Peking. Rodion Zamuruev, violin. Moscow Symphony Orchestra; Jacob Avshalomov*, David Avshalomov, cond.  Marco Polo CD 8.223034 (71'21).

Aaron Avshalomoff - Orchestral Works, Vol. 3.  Piano Concerto*; Symphony No. 2; David Avshalomov: Elegy for Strings. Larissa Shilovskaya, piano.  Moscow Symphony Orchestra; Jacob Avshalomov*, David Avshalomov, cond.  Marco Polo CD 8.223035 (74'42).

Aaron Avshalomoff's biography is one of the most interesting in contemporary music.  Born in 1895 in Nikolayevsk, Siberia, he escaped the Revolution of 1917 through north China before settling in San Francisco.  Previously, he had attended the Stern School of Music in Zurich.  Profoundly influenced by the music of China, he established himself as a bookseller in Beijing, where he began a systematic study of all aspects of Chinese music.  Between 1933 and 1943 he premiered numerous works, many of them recorded here, and worked to create a musical identity for China distinct from Western influences.  He spent the Second World War under house arrest and finally emigrated to the United States in 1947, where he died in 1964.

His compositions reflect his diverse background.  Chinese music prevails, but one can also hear American and Russian influences.  His concertos are his most satisfying works, the Flute Concerto (1948) being a particularly fine example of his idiom.  The flute is well-suited to the melodies Avshalomoff employs and the delicacy of its tone keeps the orchestration lighter than on some of the other works recorded here.  The flute's material seems to float above the orchestra, occasionally entering into a dialog with the oboe or the cor anglais, but never engaging the entire ensemble.  Avshalomoff's development is somewhat unorthodox, partly due to the nature of the pentatonic melodies inherent in Chinese music, which, as Jacob Avshalomoff suggests, led the composer to experiment with remote modulations and an episodic structure.  Both the Piano Concerto (1935) and the Violin Concerto (1937) rise to similar heights, although at a slightly less sustained level.  The Piano Concerto is at times a bit too busy and overtly romantic.  The Violin Concerto, however, is a beautiful work, whose peaceful, centered feeling belies its composition during the Japanese bombardment of Shanghai.

Classical Chinese music is often quite percussive and all these works have passages of great rhythmic drive, especially in the finales.  In the conclusion of the Symphony No. 1 (1940), what begins as a "grim march" slowly builds into a powerful climax, which threatens to overwhelm the orchestra.  David Avshalomoff, as well as this writer, is reminded of Tchaikovsky at his most raucous.  The symphonies are at times too loosely structured to be truly symphonic in the traditional sense.  Avshalomoff seems to be a composer who thought more in terms of narrative than thematic development, but this may have been forced on him by his material.  There are some striking passages: in the first movement of Symphony No. 2 (completed in 1949), the brass roars above a gamelan-like accompaniment, and Avshalomoff's slow movements are always exquisite.

Avshalomoff enjoyed some recognition in the United States, with performances of some of his shorter works given by Stokowski, Monteux, and Koussevitzky, who commissioned a work.  I suspect he also may have influenced a generation of Hollywood film composers.  However, he never reached the level of popularity he had in China, and even in China he seems to have become persona non grata after the revolution.  Thus, this three CD project recorded by the composer's son, Jacob, and his grandson, David, is something more than an attempt at a revival as it contains several significant works heretofore unheard in the West.  With cross-cultural fusion a contemporary trend (and something of a cottage industry for groups like Kronos), Avshalomoff has never been more relevant.

The concerto soloists are uniformly excellent, and the Moscow Symphony Orchestra gets better with each outing; gone are the awkward passages in the brass and strings that sometimes marred their early efforts, such as the Malipiero series.

Tony Gualtieri
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