Of former Soviet composers coming to prominence after Shostakovich, Edison Denisov (b. 1929) is probably the least known to American audiences, Alfred Schnittke, Sofia Gubaidulina, and Arvo Part have all achieved greater visibility through important recordings and performances. There are two reasons for this, both closely tied to a sort of quiet heroism on Denisov's part. First, he is the only one of these composers to remain in Russia, and he has been active since the fall of the Soviet Union in organizing the little remaining musical resources into an organization---the Association for Contemporary Music, revived in the 1990s after a long forced slumber during the Stalin years---that is dedicated to promoting the music of younger Russian composers at both home and abroad. Second, he has remained committed to his own brand of modernism, long after it was disavowed by most of his peers. Denisov was one of the first major Soviet composers to embrace serialism, and while his technique was never doctrinaire, his obvious love for the world of gestures, colors, and harmonies that it opened up for him has remained a constant in his work, even as he gradually moved to a "post-serial" practice.
This recording is particularly satisfying because it presents a clear survey of Denisov's stylistic development, seen through the filter of the single medium of his cello music. The 1961 suite is neo-classical in tone, with strong evocations of Prokofiev; in the same year, the piano variations show an embrace of twelve-tone technique in the propulsive, motoric style of the Schoenberg suite, op. 25. Afterward, these polar opposites begin to discover means of synthesis. The Three Pieces of 1967 and the cello sonata of 1971 are Denisov at full-flower, intense, compact, highly ornamented, and sensitive to how the right combination of color, register, and contour can create a string of perfect poetic moments. (Pour Daniel dates from 1989, but falls very much into this stylistic mold.)
The remaining works date from the 1980s, and show a renewed interest in classical practice. The Two Duets of 1982 show a return to more traditional harmonies and thematic motives, and the Variations on a Schubert Theme (1986) (one of the composer's most performed and recorded works, using the Schubert Impromptu, D. 925 as a source) is a skillful attempt to "re-compose" a known repertoire work. In it, Denisov first adds a cello part to the essentially unaltered piano source. At the point where the original's trio section occurs, he launches into a set of variations that move evoke the texture of the trio, but which take on ever more distant harmonies from the original. The composer eventually brings back the Schubert in a lovely gesture, by which the original harmonic progression seems to return inverted (upside down), which in turn leads to a genuine recapitulation.
My only criticism of the recording is that the hall characteristics change dramatically from piece to piece---the more "impressionistic" and spare the work, the more reverb. I do not know if this comes from different recording venues, or was later added artificially for aesthetic reasons. Whatever the reason, it is pronounced enough to be distracting. The performances are uniformly excellent and committed. Several of these works have been recorded before on different labels, but the only real competition is Le Chant du Monde LCD 288058, which includes the Schubert Variations, Sonata, and the Three Pieces (part of its wonderful Saisons Russes series, which incidentally includes one of the best contemporary recordings of the last few years, a survey of the music of the young composer Alexander Raskotov [LCD 288059]). The selling point for the Etcetera album is the wide range of Denisov's work presented, while the Chant du Monde includes a few more substantive pieces (in particular the piano quintet). Listeners certainly will not go wrong with either, though I probably favor Chant du Monde slightly. If a listener does not know Denisov's work, Etcetera's disc is a good introduction, however. While less dramatic and high-profile than his peers, this is a composer of real substance and lyricism who rewards on multiple listenings.
(Fanfare, September/October 1994)
Edison Denisov is a versatile, not to say chameleon-like composer, whose skills have been turned in many directions. Some of these can be heard here. The Cello Suite of 1961 is, loosely, neo-classical (loosely because 'neo-classical' is a very loose term). In it, he writes a suave Minuet and a dapper Fugue. The Three Pieces turn to Webern after the fashion followed by many other composers at the time they were written, namely 1967. For the Piano Variations, the exemplar is more Schoenberg's neo-classical manner of the early 1920s, as with his Piano Suite and Five Orchestral Pieces. The Duets find common ground between cello and bassoon, with an Allegro moderato that chunters away affably. With Pour Daniel (the Daniel come to this judgement being Barenboim), there is a more reflective, linear, chromatic manner that produces a well-wrought meditation.
All these pieces are very short. The longest on the record is the set of Variations on a Schubert Theme which has been recorded before, and well displays Denisov's abilities. The theme in question is the A flat Impromptu, which opens the proceedings on the piano and is gradually subsumed further and further into Denisov's own invention until it seems to have been wholly absorbed and is barely audible; at which point it returns in Schubertian form with the cello winding a garland of notes about it. The effect is touching and the piece suggests that Denisov is at his most successful when he has a technique or a model to which he can apply an invention which is stronger than his imagination, The performances are excellent and the recording clear.
(From: Gramophone, December 1994)