EDISON DENISOV: Chamber Symphony No. 1; Chamber Symphony No. 2; Au plus haut des cieux; Cinq romances d’Anna Akhmatova – Brigitte Peyré, sop./ Ensemble Orch. Contemporain/ Daniel Kawka – Harmonia mundi

by | Jun 29, 2013 | Classical CD Reviews

EDISON DENISOV: Chamber Symphony No. 1; Chamber Symphony No. 2; Au plus haut des cieux; Cinq romances d’Anna Akhmatova – Brigitte Peyré, sop./ Ensemble Orchestral Contemporain/ Daniel Kawka – Harmonia mundi HMC 905268, 65:06 ****:

Edison Denisov (1929-96) is named, oddly enough for that Edison, even though he was born in Siberia—his father was a big fan. He started in mathematics and finally turned to music instead, a decision that was applauded by Dmitri Shostakovich, who instructed him in composition before he entered the Moscow Conservatory. He liked and studied Mahler, and even the avant-gardists like Boulez, though the scores were difficult to obtain at the time. He received a blacklisting in the Soviet Union in 1979, eventually moving to Paris where he died.

Denisov was fairly prolific, writing a series of concertos that have become semi-standards for instruments like the saxophone, viola, oboe, and flute, while straying from the exceptionally large forms. Stravinsky admired his music and considered him a genius, though his two operas never quite made the impact many thought they should. Honors galore came his way, though now he seems a footnote to music history.

This album concentrates on his two chamber symphonies and features one song cycle. The symphonies, starting in 1982 and ending twelve years later, are striking works with a nascent neo-Romanticism about them, the first more concentrated and passionate, while the second more concertante and disparate in orchestration. Both feature his typical broad spectrum of color and coloristic interplay, while asserting sharp-edged and jaunty rhythmic motives. The First haunting while the second is a little nervous and even despairing, unrelieved sorrow that is tough for a listener to grasp because of the intensity. The Second is one of his last works, though I prefer the transparency and melodic assurance of No. 1.

But the real piece of genius on this recording is the song cycle Au plus haut des cieux (The Highest Heaven). The anti-authoritarian poems of Georges Bataille held a particular attraction to the composer, and its impassioned and symbolic language became a perfect vehicle for a composer whose own musical persona opened the veins every once in a while to make some very concentrated philosophical points. The music is superb, and the whole cycle rings with authenticity and pathos, gorgeously sung by Brigitte Peyré.

She also gets another turn in the Five Romances of Anna Akhmatova, by the composer’s wife, Ekaterina. The music is more traditional, voice-oriented, and harmonically static than that of her husband, and it is a little unfair to compare the two of them like this because the Mrs. suffers by the contrast. Nevertheless she was no hack, and her work is deserving of a recording as fine as this one though most people will notice the drop in quality midway through the CD.

The Ensemble Orchestral Contemporain is superb, reliable masters of the idiom caught to flawless perfection in the National Superior Conservatory of Music and Dance in Lyons. Recommend to all looking for a change of pace without pain.

—Steven Ritter