"Peaceful Light" for unaccompanied mixed chorus
"Legends of the Subterranean Waters" for unaccompanied chorus New Moscow Choir, Moscow Contemporary Music Ensemble, Elena Rastvorova (cond) CdM Russian Season (Full price) (CD) RUS288 131 (58 minutes: DDD)
Edison Denisov is of the same generation as Gubaidulina and Schnittke. He has not achieved a similar level of fame in part because he lacks a hook on which to hang a public persona. He is neither a mystic like Gubaidulina nor does he have the raw, agonized response to the twentieth century that makes so much of Schnittke's music so compelling, not to mention that composer's astonishing productivity in the face of what should be overwhelming health problems. What Denisov is, more than anything else as a composer, is a professional. His output is enormous and embraces opera, concert works for forces of all size, and theatrical incidental music. The present release includes an extended selection of music written for a Russian adaptation of Medea as well as a setting of a religious text from the Orthodox Vespers and a cycle of French poetry set for twelve solo voices.
Denisov's basic style is tonal in orientation. Regardless of how dissonant the music becomes it virtually always returns to straightforward triads. This works better in some places than others. Peaceful Light, a setting of a church text in Old Slavonic, is simply gorgeous. Although one would never mistake it for anything other than a twentieth-century Russian work, there is a quality about it that recalls the peculiar radiance of English sacred music from the reign of Mary I. The choir produces a luminous sound with the firm grounding in the uniquely Russian sound of the basses.
Légendes des eaux souterraines is a cycle of eight settings of Yves Bergeret's poetry for twelve solo voices. The music is easily the most dissonant on the recording and has a good deal of very high, exposed writing for the sopranos plus a lot of dissonant counterpoint, which, again, the choir pulls off with complete assurance. It is nevertheless hard to reconcile what one actually hears with Denisov's description of the work as "written in half tints with constant and imperceptible changes in color" which seems to be describing another work entirely.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Denisov's choral works is the way the entire feel of the pieces changes with the choice of language. The church text produces a mystical, floating sound. The French cycle could be a later, angrier Poulenc. The Medea Choruses, which are settings of texts in contemporary Russian, evoke memories of Russian folk song present nowhere else in the pieces under consideration. That said, I find the Medea music the least effective on the disc. There is something about the horrors of the story that would seem to cry out for the choral ingenuity of a Ligeti or the early Penderecki. Denisov's music places us firmly on rather folksy soil which seems all wrong to me. Nevertheless the writing is never less than professional and the performance is sonorous.
Performances throughout seem very accomplished and the recorded sound is rich and full. The booklet includes notes in three languages as well as translations of the texts. Unfortunately there is not a word in Russian anywhere so one is left to guess precisely what is being sung at any given moment except in the setting of French words.
(Fanfare: November/December 1996)
The longest work on this valuable disc is unfortunately the least interesting. Denisov's Choruses for Medea were written in January 1995 for a production of Euripides' play by Yuri Lyubimov's Taganka Theatre. Obviously the spareness of texture and invention is appropriate for incidental music, but there is little intrinsic interest to it, and Denisov certainly does not have Britten's gift for memorable simplicity. Desiccated recording quality may be partly responsible for this impression.
The other two works give the choir more chance to show their true artistry. No excessive Slavonic wobble from this group of 12 young voices; they can stand comparison with all but the most select Western ensembles. Peaceful light, composed in 1988 for a festival of choral music in Tallinn, takes words from the Orthodox Vespers service. Denisov begins with imitative counterpoint replete with mock-Tudor false relations, and gradually introduces more outlandish harmonies and textural richness. This is a beautifully controlled piece, though not one that reveals all its secrets straight away.
The Legends of the subterranean waters were composed just after Peaceful light to a commission from the Groupe Vocal de France. Denisov has long been a Francophile, enjoying strong connections with Boulez. In these settings of texts by Yves Bergeret he sticks to traditional expressive textures, however, rather than re-creating the choral medium in his own image (as Ligeti, Xenakis and others have so memorably done). But he does stretch those traditional resources, and the New Moscow Choir rise impressively to the challenge. Once again Denisov progressively adds layers of material. Like Russian vine, the tendrils of his counterpoint spread everywhere.
Recording quality is far more satisfactory in the two smaller works. Texts are provided in French and English but not the original Russian for the Medea choruses or Peaceful light.
David J. Fanning
(From: Gramophone, December 1996)