Classical Music Review: New Releases

Music from the Ether - Lydia Kavina, Theremin.  Joseph Schillinger: Melody; Mouvement électrique et pathétique. Friedrich Wilckens: Dance in the Moon. Percy Grainger: Free Music #1. Bohuslav Martinu: Fantasia. Isidor Achron: Improvisation. Lydia Kavina: Suite; In Whims of the Wind. Jorge Antunes: Mixolydia. Vladimir Komarov: Voice of Theremin.  Lydia Kavina, theremin; Joshua Pierce, piano.  Kristen Fox, oboe; Carol Eaton Elowe, piano; Portland String Quartet (Martinu Fantasia).  Elizabeth Parcells, coloratura soprano (In Whims of the Wind).  mode 76 (67'24).

The story of Leon Theremin (1896-1993) and his eponymous instrument is admirably documented in the film Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey.  Naturally, that film spends the bulk of its time on Theremin's years in New York during the 1930's, discretely draping a veil over the inventor's life in the Soviet Union.  Allegations are made of Dr. Theremin being whisked off under cover of darkness by a cadre of KGB agents at Stalin's behest.  As for the rest, ....silence.  At least until a tearful reunion is effected with virtuoso Thereminist Clara Rockmore in 1992, some sixty years after his disappearance.

The disk under review is performed by Lydia Kavina (b. 1967), a relative of Theremin and his final student.  She makes a case for the instrument quite different from the one presented by Rockmore's recording on Delos.  For one thing, the pieces here were all originally composed for theremin.  The earliest are in some ways the most interesting.  Joseph Schillinger was an early champion of electronic instruments ("What has been known for the last couple of centuries as a symphony orchestra is a heterogeneous aggregation of antiquated tools.").  The Melody is a song without words excerpted from an work for theremin and orchestra, premiered in 1929 by Leon Theremin with the Cleveland Orchestra under Nikolai Sokoloff.  The second work, Mouvement électrique et pathétique (1932), exploits the range of the instrument and reveals its limitations when tempi are set too fast.  Friedrich Wilckens's Dance in the Moon (1933) sounds like a piece of French impressionism, an idiom to which the theremin is well suited.  Percy Grainger's Free Music #1 (1936) is an intriguing experiment scored for four theremins emphasizing the free tonality of the instruments.  It's not so much microtonal as omnitonal.  One wishes Grainger had extended his ideas beyond the 1'22 recorded here.  Isidor Achron is best known as Jasha Heifetz's accompanist.  His Improvisation, a short recital piece, would sound equally at home on violin.

The Fantasia for theremin, oboe, piano and string quartet (1944) is a more substantial work.  Set in one continuous movement, it is, in effect, a chamber concerto for theremin.  Martinu brilliantly integrates the theremin into an acoustical setting by using the oboe as a bridge between the theremin and the strings.  It is an achievement akin to Mozart's Adagio and Rondo for glass harmonica, which also used an oboe to integrate a "strange" instrument with strings.  It is also a great piece of chamber music, incorporating several of Martinu's stylistic trademarks:  melodic inventiveness, abrupt changes in rhythm, and complicated harmonies.

The CD includes two compositions by Lydia Kavina, herself.  Both benefit from Kavina's obvious familiarity with the range and limitations of the instrument.  Unlike some of the compositions here, it is difficult to imagine them played by any other instrument.  The Suite (1989) is in three movements, each of which showcases a different aspect of the theremin.  The first is slow and melodious, the second is a wild scherzo, and the third is an organ-like meditation.  In Whims of the Wind (1994) contrasts the sound of the theremin with the vocalise of a coloratura soprano.  It is a rather witty piece.  At one point the theremin and soprano trade phrases in an "anything you can do, I can do better" manner.

The few works of Jorge Antunes (b. 1942) that I have heard suggest that he is one of the most interesting and inventive composers around.  The eleven-minute work recorded here, Mixolydia (1995), is scored for theremin and tape.  Antunes has the ability to keep the electronics under control so that one tends to focus on timbre, melody and harmony.  In short, the same things one focuses on in conventional music.  As the title implies, the bright-sounding mixolydian mode predominates backed up by a rhythmic, but never intrusive, tape.  Vladimir Komarov's Voice of Theremin (1996), more a sound collage than a piece of music, uses a distorted tape of Leon Theremin's voice.  Komarov traveled with the inventor when he visited the United States in 1991 and the work contains several music references to Theremin's life.

This is an intelligently programmed recital which proves that the theremin is more than a sound effects machine.  Lydia Kavina is a sensitive and expressive performer, and one hopes that this disk will inspire more composers to write for this intriguing instrument.

-Tony Gualtieri
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