Le Chant du Monde (Full price) LDC 278 951 (76 minutes: DDD)
Edison Denisov, like other Russian composers of his generation (he was born in 1929), was already approaching maturity when he first became acquainted with the Western avant-garde (by then, of course, almost the Western 'establishment'). He seems to have realized at once that this late-acquired knowledge could not be ignored but that his response to it had to be a Russian one. In setting the poems of Aleksandr Blok (24 of them are used in Denisov's enormous song-cycle The Bonfire of Snow) he was confronted with another modernism: that of Blok's generation, the generation who made early twentieth-century Russia such an extraordinary artistic ferment (in poetry alone that generation's importance is as great as that of any artistic movement of this century). He also had to find a way of setting Blok's subtle, allusive verses, and for any sensitive Russian that would mean a further confrontation: with those composers who had fashioned a musical diction superbly fitted to the prosody of Russian verse: with Mussorgsky, that is; even with Rachmaninov. Blok's poetry has deep roots in old Russia, also, one of its recurring dualities (fire amidst snow, fierce attachment to life and longing for death) is the obsessive wanderer's passionate yearning for his own place, his own soil.
No, not neo-Mussorgsky (nor yet neo-Scriabin, Blok's composer-contemporary), nor even an attempt to marry two long-separated modernisms. And yet something of all these is present in Denisov's late twentieth century, but Russian sensibility. The chemistry is a rich and fascinating one, and it makes powerful, demanding listening. It is indeed intensely Russian, and Le Chant du Monde have done Western listeners no particular favours by supplying French and English translations which at certain crucial points do not agree; the Russian texts are not provided. But Denisov's recurring images are as graphic and as resonant as Blok's. They include not only the onomatopoeic whirling of flame and of icy wind, the flurrying of snow, but strongly unifying melodic motives also, and by following these as well as the texts a gripping sense of unfolding drama emerges (the cycle is non-narrative but powerfully cumulative).
Denisov's repertoire of word-setting gesture is impressive, from impassioned declamation to poised arioso and delicate reticence, and his use of the keyboard (now providing 'scenery' for the vocal line, now enigmatically detached from it) is no less resourceful. On the strength of this cycle alone (and the two earlier and much shorter collections confirm it) he is a major song-writer. If you want convincing, try the poised simplicity of the ninth song, an exquisite image of vain love frozen into a snow-flower, or the twentieth, a grandly eloquent confrontation with cold despair. For obvious reasons I have so far avoided calling The Bonfire of Snow a 'Russian Winterreise', but with all due warnings against foolish value judgements that comparison is the obvious one (with the accent on the word 'Russian', of course).
The performances are vehement and involving. Vassilieva, a French soprano of Russian descent, has a vibrant intensity (slightly shrill under pressure) which is admirably suited to this music, and her pianist is accomplished and responsive. The recording is a touch recessed but in no way unacceptable.
(From: Gramophone, April 1990)