Nikolai Roslavets

0 of 5 stars

Chamber Symphony
In the hours of the New Moon

BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra
Ilan Volkov

New Moon recorded in June 2004 in Caird Hall, Dundee; Chamber Symphony recorded in December 2005 in BBC Scotland Studio 1, Glasgow

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: October 2006
Duration: 68 minutes

Nikolai Roslavets (1881-1944) was born in the Ukraine of peasant stock and initially self-taught as a composer before he was accepted by the Moscow Conservatoire as a student of the violin and of composition. Left-wing and a musical modernist, Roslavets supported the “Second Viennese School” and elements of its composers’ styles, particularly Schoenberg, are evident in Roslavets’s large-scale, four-movement Chamber Symphony.

Astonishingly this work, from 1934-5, has only recently come to light and was published in 2005. Lasting, in this performance, nearly 56 minutes and scored for an ensemble of 18 players (nine woodwinds, two horns, trumpet, piano, string quartet and double bass), Roslavets’s Chamber Symphony is a major piece – certainly in terms of its length and also in terms of its quality.

The sound of the work, and sometimes the harmonic pungency, certainly reminds of Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony No.1; but the first word that comes to mind regarding the introductory Largo is ‘languid’, and the timbres of the work are those of a French palette, which adds an allure that might be said to be ‘beyond Schoenberg’. The Largo leads to an energetic, beautifully sculptured and lyrically refrained first movement. The 20-minute Adagio that follows seems half that length; music deep in thought, dark in expression – more Berg than Schoenberg – and very concentrated.

The succeeding scherzo is quite spectral and maybe the most ‘Russian’ of the movements; a deft telling of an indigenous fairy-tale, perhaps, and a movement in which Roslavets’s lineage to Rimsky-Korsakov, Mussorgsky and Liadov can be discerned; in the ‘trio’ Roslavets returns further to his roots by imitating Russian folksong. Just as the first movement begins with a slow introduction, so the finale also opens in exploratory fashion; when the main allegro kicks in there is a real feeling that this movement will be a true culmination. And so it proves to be – dynamically and energetically.

The work is splendidly played by members of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra under Ilan Volkov (the 18 musicians should have been named in the booklet). Volkov has secured a remarkably assured performance for the work’s first recording, and the reproduction itself is exemplary in its clarity and immediacy. It says much for Roslavets’s skills that a work of this length, and for relatively small forces, can yield so much colour and timbral variety; furthermore, the composer’s harmonic resource sustains a work that seems to be over in a far shorter time than it is.

In the hours of the New Moon is something of a student work, although its date is vague – possibly from between 1910 to 1913. This is music for large orchestra, and a kinship with Scriabin is evident. But as Calum MacDonald, in his very informative booklet note, points out, there are numerous (possible) references – not least to Stravinsky and Ravel; to this listener, though, the most striking allusions are to Debussy’s La mer. Roslavets’s command of a large orchestra is impressive, whether in passages of delicacy and atmosphere or in physical power; and, yes, as MacDonald suggests, there are passages that are close to Debussy’s Jeux, a work that it is very unlikely Roslavets could have known.

Whatever the (very interesting) history, this is a remarkable piece, which is here superbly played and recorded, and which completes a ‘best of the year’ release.

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