Born in Tomsk, Siberia, his father was an engineer and his mother a doctor. At first he studied mathematics but, after receiving encouragement from Shostakovich he enrolled at the Moscow Conservatory. After graduation in 1959, he began to teach musical analysis and orchestration.
The state prevented him from teaching composition for 30 years but he nevertheless gathered around him a following of younger students in order to study new music from both Russia and abroad, his work having a vital influence on modern Soviet music.
He was influenced by French music, the Second Viennese School, and the post-war avant-garde of Boulez and Stockhausen. In 1964 he wrote a stridently modernist chamber cantata The Sun of the Incas. There followed Three pieces for piano four hands (1967) and a String Trio (1969), but it was only in 1970, when Denisov wrote Peinture for orchestra, that he felt he had found his own musical language.
This led to a large number of scores, including a lyrical Flute Concerto (1975) for Aurèle Nicolet, a Violin Concerto (1977) for Gidon Kremer, a Concerto for Flute and Oboe (1979) for Nicolet and Heinz Holliger, Tod ist ein langer Schlaf for cello and strings(1982), and the Requiem (1980), which Denisov himself considered one of his most successful achievements.
Denisov wrote several song-cycles for voice and piano, including Your Sweet Face (after Pushkin - 1980) and On the Snowy Bonfire (after Blok - 1981), in which he revived the 19th century song-traditions of Glinka and Mussorgsky, albeit in his own unique way. Despite ill health, he continued to compose prolifically in his last years, completing a second symphony only months before his death in Paris in1996.
A new release from Harmonia Mundi www.harmoniamundi.com makes an excellent introduction to Denisov’s music with his Chamber Symphony No.1 (1982), his song cycle Au plus haut des cieux (1986) and his Chamber Symphony No.2 (1994) giving a good cross section of his work. Also on this new CD is the song cycle Cinq romances d’Anna Akhmatova (1988) written by Denisov’s wife Ekaterina Kouprovskaia-Denisova orchestrated by Edison Denisov.
The Ensemble Orchestral Contemporain www.mc2grenoble.fr/mc2_programme_reservation/zoom.php?spec=1663 is directed by Daniel Kawka www.daniel-kawka.com with the soprano Briggite Peyré www.cirm-manca.org/fiche-artiste.php?ar=28
Edison’s Chamber Symphony No.1 has much of the influence of Schoenberg yet with a distinctive touch. There are attractive contributions from the piano, clarinet and other individual instruments all heard with the upmost clarity. Denisov creates interesting harmonies and there is always a sense of forward momentum maintained. At times the music approaches tonal but then seems to drift away into Denisov’s own particular take on atonality.
Woodwind dominate the opening of the second movement in a scurrying theme based, according to the booklet notes by Ekaterina Kouprovskaia, on the idea of shifting clusters. There is some terrific playing here with some brilliant ensemble in this tricky music. Occasionally the rapid woodwind passages reminded me of Rautavaara, though this music is quiet a distance from the late melodic style of that composer.
Drama greets the finale movement with the piano again to the fore. A solo cello and vibraphone add to the texture. At times one is reminded a little of Messiaen. The music develops into a quiet dialogue for woodwind and vibraphone leading to a coda where the music suddenly fades away. It is obvious that Denisov put much care into creating the subtle sounds here, which are brilliantly performed by the Ensemble Orchestral Contemporain.
The song cycle Au Plus Haut des Cieux is a setting of texts by Georges Bataille around the theme of death. Five fleetingly elusive instrumental intermezzi divide the songs. The soprano, Brigette Peyré, gives a spell binding performance of real intensity. She blends extremely well with the instrumental ensemble in these wonderful settings of these texts. Torche éteinte is a particularly powerful setting with the soprano accompanied by cor anglais, as is Dieu with bells and hushed ensemble making for a quite haunting atmosphere.
There is such passion and control from Brigette Peyré in Ma prison with wonderful instrumental timbres. The last song, Sous le soleil, the longest at nearly four minutes, with Peyré superb in the soaring passages, is a wonderful setting surely showing Denisov as a master of song.
Ekaterina Kouprovskaia-Denisova ‘s Cinq Romances d’Anna Akhmatova are beautiful settings of poems by the Russian writer Anna Akhmatova, sensitively orchestrated by Edison Denisov for small ensemble. There is mystery, passion and drama here with the settings pointing up the emotions of the original poems. Once again these are terrific performances.
Denisov’s Chamber Symphony No.2 comes from near the end of his life but it is nevertheless full of energy and invention. Consisting of one movement, this work is shorter than the first chamber symphony. It opens with a riot of instruments before settling down to a quieter section but with occasional outbursts from various instruments. Untuned percussion features heavily. Though the music does settle to a degree it always feels as if an eruption is ready to break out from the scurrying music – as it often does. It is this tension and the underlying rhythms that drive the music. Later on a solo flute provides some respite though the music is still rhythmically unsettled. After this quieter section, the music grows with unturned percussion leading to frantic music and a tremendously violent end.
Listeners new to Denisov will probably find that his first Chamber Symphony is an easier work to digest than the second Chamber Symphony. I cannot see anyone not finding both the song cycles attractive. Sadly the texts provided are only in Russian and French but the notes by Ekaterina Kouprovskaia are excellent. With wonderful performances and a first rate recording this disc is ideal for those who would like to get to know Edison Denisov’s often exquisite music.