Classical Music Review: New Releases

Nikolai Roslavets & Dmitri Shostakovich - Sonatas for Viola & Piano.  Roslavets: First Sonata; Second Sonata.  Shostakovich: Sonata for Viola and Piano, Op. 147.  Victoria Chiang, viola; Randall Hodgkinson, piano.  Centaur CRC 2450 (62'41).

Nikolai Andreyevich Roslavets (1881-1944) should have been the link between the emotional experimentalism of Alexander Scriabin and the intellectual experimentalism of Arnold Schoenberg.  Certainly, his compositions are rife with the intense atmospheric chromaticism of late-period Scriabin; however, Roslavets claimed to have systematized what Scriabin achieved by intuition and mysticism.  Around 1913, he developed a method of composition based on "Synthesis-Chords," six to eight notes which could be moved up or down the chromatic scale.  By 1915, he had refined these chords into tone rows which could be inverted or used in retrograde, passing through all twelve notes of the scale before the original tonal base could be used again.  It was remarkably similar to Schoenberg's twelve-tone row system, but it anticipated it by six years.  Other Russian Futurist composers of the 1910s experimented with atonalism (Arthur Lourié, Nikolay Obukhov, Leo Ornstein, Ivan Vyshnegradsky, Yefim Golyshev -- to name those cited by Detlef Gojowy); however, Roslavets went the farthest in developing his ideas.

Unfortunately, by 1920 all this experimentation was eradicated by emigration and the call for "New Objectivity."  Roslavets responded by toning down some of his more radical innovations, composing music less expressionistic and more polyphonic (a move epitomized by his use of the B-A-C-H motive in his Third Quartet written in 1920).  The two viola sonatas recorded here date from this period.  Roslavets was incapable of writing austerely, even at his most experimental, and the music of this period remains complex, engaging and profound.  Despite claiming to be a convinced Marxist, his position as editor of the journal Musical Culture and spokesman for the "Association for Contemporary Music," a group which actively supported such out-of-favor composers as Stravinsky and Prokofiev, led to his downfall.  He was banished to Tashkent in 1931, where he wrote "folk-style" ballets, and died, forgotten, in Moscow in 1944.

His manuscripts were stored in the Central State Archives of Literature and Art in Moscow and did not emerge until the late 1980s thanks to the efforts of scholars such as Marina Lobanova and Alexander Raskatov.  Needless to say, they are in considerable disarray.  The viola sonatas recorded on the present disk as "Nos. 1 and 2" are not the same as those recorded on Le Chant du Monde LDC 288 047.  "No. 1" on the Centaur disk is "No. 2" on Le Chant du Monde.  To further complicate matters, the Sonata for Viola and Piano recorded by Yuri Bashmet on RCA 61273 is "No. 1" on Le Chant du Monde and not on the Centaur disk at all (it is mentioned as being in fragmentary form in the notes to that disk).

The First Sonata for Viola and Piano (we shall adhere to Centaur's designations in what follows) is a single-movement work written in 1926.  It opens with a yearning nine-note which forms a seed for all that follows.  The idiom is highly chromatic but never overtly dissonant; the music reaches a strident crescendo followed by a lush yet restrained recapitulation.  Like much of Roslavets' work from this period, the sheer beauty of the piece predominates.  Unlike, say, Webern or Schoenberg, Roslavets always used his compositional methods as a means to an end.

The Second Sonata for Viola and Piano -- the date of composition is unknown -- is in three movements.  A more conventional work than the First Sonata, it nonetheless contains some brilliant interplay between the two instruments as well as some marvelous writing for the piano.  The same idea of using a motivic seed is employed here, but the work is harmonically less adventurous.  It sounds a bit like the Sonata No. 6 for Violin and Piano written in 1940 (also in three movements, the only other multi-movement sonata by Roslavets that I know of), when Roslavets was making a last, successful attempt to join the Composer's Union.

The performance of Shostakovich's last composition, the Sonata for Viola and Piano, Op. 147, lacks the intensity and drama of Yuri Bashmet and Mikhail Muntian's famous 1991 recording on RCA; however, Victoria Chiang and Randall Hodgkinson's more straightforward and restrained account gives an alternative reading of the work.  Bashmet often sounds as if he is railing against the abyss; Chiang's performance suggests, in the words of Nancy Basmajian, "resignation and acceptance of the inevitable, without a trace of bitterness."

Tony Gualtieri
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