Leonid Desyatnikov – The Leaden Echo [Quartz]

0 of 5 stars

Du côté de chez Swan†
Variations on the Obtaining of a Dwelling‡
Wie der Alte Leiermann…§
The Leaden Echo#
Moscow Nights (Main theme) [arr. Mints]¶

*Dmitri Bulgakov (oboe), Anton Dressler (clarinet), Roman Mints (violin), Anna Panina (violin), Maxim Rysanov (viola) & Kristine Blaumane (cello)

†Alexei Goribol & Leonid Desyatnikov (pianos)

‡Boris Andrianov (cello) & Alexei Goribol (piano)

#Roman Mints (violin) & Jacob Katsnelson (piano)

¶William Purefoy (countertenor), Roman Mints (violin), Serj Poltavski (viola), Evgeny Rumyantsev (cello), Petr Kondrashin (cello), Pavel Stepin (double bass), Dmitri Sharov (trombone), Yuri Kolosov (trombone), Kirill Koloskov (trombone), Dmitri Vlassik (timpani) conducted by Fedor Lednev

Recorded 2009-2010 & 1995†, Moscow

Reviewed by: Andrew Morris

Reviewed: October 2011
Duration: 63 minutes



So much of the music of the countries of the former USSR during the last 40 years has stood in the shadow of Shostakovich, but here is a fascinating voice that fits recognisably into Russian tradition yet is rigorously individual. Ukrainian Leonid Desyatnikov (born 1955) is evidently quite familiar in Russia, but barely registers outside of it; this is the first disc dedicated exclusively to his music to be released in the West and on this evidence alone, he is a composer of considerable stature.

Desyatnikov studied at the Leningrad Conservatoire during the 1970s. The 1990s brought a series of collaborations with pioneering violinist Gidon Kremer, one of which features on this disc, and the last decade has seen him venture into opera and ballet. But it is instrumental music which forms the bulk of this collection and what emerges is a composer able to balance conceptual intrigue with musical substance.

Desyatnikov’s brilliance is his ability to illustrate an idea through musical means. In Return (2006), he suggests the irreconcilable differences of cultures by pitting live instruments tempered in the Western manner with a tape of gagaku (Japanese ceremonial music); and the two clash violently. What makes the combination so uncomfortable is that this ten-minute work begins with Japanese melody beautifully scored for a small ensemble of Western instruments, making the eventual cacophony all the more jarring.

A trilogy of works stem from music by other composers, each layered with philosophical depth beyond the appeal of the music itself. Du côté de chez Swan (1995) builds on tiny fragments of Saint-Saëns’s The Swan (Carnival of the Animals), weaving flashes of almost-recognisable texture and melody between two pianos. Of the works on the disc, this is the only one to be presented in an older recording, with Desyatnikov himself taking one of the parts, and the sound is antiquated even by twenty-year old standards; yet this only adds to the strange air of bittersweet nostalgia; the performance, which emphasises the paragraph-like nature of the music, adds to the impression that the work has been conceived as a series of tape splices. Wie der Alte Leiermann… (1997), for violin and piano, was composed for Kremer. The composer describes it as “a commentary” on the final song from Schubert’s Winterreise. It certainly ramps up the grim finality of the original; the other part of the trilogy is Variations on the Obtaining of a Dwelling (1990) for cello and piano, built on in finale of Haydn’s ‘Farewell’ Symphony and the idea of the cello moving away from comfort and back towards it. Desyatnikov exploits so many stylistic devices in these pieces but always remains consistent in tone and his clarity of texture is remarkable.

The title work, The Leaden Echo (1991), sets Gerald Manley Hopkins’s poem of despair at the advancement of age and decay. Desyatnikov’s musical response is suitably overwhelming. Thumping timpani and strumming double bass mark an ever-present march-of-time. Countertenor William Purefoy’s musical line becomes more frenzied and full of dread as Desyatnikov ratchets up the horror. If this fourteen-minute setting is not as varied or, frankly, as likeable as the pieces that precede it, it is only fitting: time and its grim trudge are, after all, the only constants in the Universe.

The disc ends with something lighter in the form of Desyatnikov’s main theme to the film Moscow Nights (1994). Violinist Roman Mints is very much the driving force behind this release, and it is in his arrangement for violin and strings that the theme is heard, though adopting some of Desyatnikov’s concern for clarity might have tightened the performance a little; this is the only reservation in an otherwise outstandingly performed programme.

This short item aside, Desyatnikov’s music offers the rarest example of musical imagination allied with probing intelligence and a concern for letting music tell a story – this is music to be explored, unwrapped and savoured.

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