Friday, 23 January 2015

All Russian music enthusiasts will surely want this new release from Melodiya that covers so much of Tikhon Khrennikov orchestral output in excellent performances

Tikhon Khrennikov (1913-2007) Honoured Artist of Russia, Honoured Artist of the USSR, awarded the Order of The Red Banner of Labour, the National Prize of the USSR, the Order of Lenin and Gold Star of Socialist Labour Hero, the State Award of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic and the President Prize as well as many Lenin Prizes.

He was Secretary General of the Union of Composers, member of the Supreme Soviet, a candidate to the Central Committee of Communist Party, vice-chairman of Lenin and State Prizes Committee, president of the Music department in All-Union Society of Cultural Contacts with Foreign Countries, President of the Music department in the Soviet Association of Friendship and Cultural Contacts with Foreign Countries. Most of all he is remembered as the man behind the criticism of many leading Soviet composers of the day.

Yet who was the man and what was his music like? Tikhon Khrennikov was born in Yelets, in central Russia and began composing as soon as he became proficient as a pianist. He went on to study at the Gnessin School in Moscow and, later at the Moscow Conservatory composing his First Symphony (1935) as his graduation work. During the 1930s his reputation increased with performances of his Symphony No. 2 and his First Piano Concerto (1933).

In 1936 he married Klara Arnoldovna Vaks, a journalist, head of press-centre in the Union of Composers. They first met at a party through Aram Khachaturian who was a close friend of the Khrennikov family. 1937 saw the arrest of two of Khrennikov’s brothers, Nikolay and Boris. Whilst Krennikov’s efforts to have his brothers freed succeeded in the case of Nikolay, Boris vanished in the GULAG. In reality it seems that Khrennikov walked something of a tight rope managing to assist Soviet composers whilst continuing to keep to the party line. An example of this is when the great Russian cellist Rostropovich approached him in 1948, after the first congress of the Union of Composers when Prokofiev was one of those accused of formalism, he was able to financially help the composer.

Apart from his official duties Khrennikov went on to write a third symphony, four piano concertos, two violin concertos, two cello concertos as well as five operas, five ballets and music for more than twenty films.

Melodiya have just released a three CD set featuring all of Khrennikov’s symphonies and concertos for violin, cello and piano. All are stereo recordings from 1973 until 1993 and are performed by a terrific line up of artists including the USSR State Symphony Orchestra conducted by Evgeny Svetlanov, the Moscow Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Maxim Shostakovich with soloists including Vadim Repin (violin), Mikhail Khomitser (cello) and Khrennikov himself as pianist.

It is instructive that Maxim Shostakovich should have seen fit to conduct Khrennikov’s First Cello Concerto given the animosity between the older Shostakovich and Khrennikov. Also instructive is the fact that the cellist Mstislav Rostropovich was the recipient of this work and gave the first performance in Moscow in 1964 thus proving that the issues surrounding Soviet music were not always straightforward.

MEL CD 10 02086
Tikhon Khrennikov’s music has also come in for a lot of criticism over the years despite the fact that it has received little in the way of performances and recordings in the West. In view of this I came to these discs with a completely open mind.

The first disc is given over to the three symphonies all performed here by Evgeny Svetlanov and the USSR State Symphony Orchestra and recorded in 1973, 1978 and 1974 respectively.

The opening Allegro of Symphony No.1 in B flat minor, Op.4 (1932) opens with a jaunty theme, first on bassoon with pizzicato basses then throughout the orchestra, not unlike Shostakovich in his lighter vein. The music rushes ahead full of life and fun and even in the slower sections there is still a lighter mood. The Adagio. Molto espressivo brings a greater depth with a fine clarinet melody soon after the opening as well as some very Russian brass passages. The music rises centrally to a fine dramatic peak before the subdued coda. High spirits return in the concluding Allegro molto with a lively clarinet theme taken up by the whole orchestra. There is much invention to hold the attention as well as a lovely quiet section for various individual instruments. The music has a fine orchestral sweep that is most attractive before the return of the lively opening and a whirlwind of a coda.

These players receive a surprisingly good recording from 1973 with little of the scrawny sound one often gets from earlier Melodiya recordings, no doubt due to some skilful re-mastering.

Symphony No. 2 in C minor, Op.9 (1940 rev. 1944) opens with a fast moving brass motif, marked Allegro con fuoco, which is taken up by the woodwind before being shared with the rest of the orchestra. There are some lovely quiet moments often full of a lovely forward sweep in a movement that is full of drama. A clarinet theme over pizzicato basses slowly takes the Adagio forward with a heavy tread before rising in the orchestra. There is a pervading sense of tragedy and weariness throughout this movement as it pushes forward, rising centrally to a dramatic peak. In the Allegro molto a bouncing clarinet theme is soon taken by the orchestra as it dashes ahead, skilfully orchestrated and full of rhythmic bounce. There are some catchy themes that are hard to resist. The Allegro marciale opens with a serious air, soon moving forward with a determined steady drive. There are some fine passages for woodwind and distinctively orchestrated quieter moments with a triumphant coda.

The recording is very good.

A flourish of strings heads the opening of the Fugue. Allegro con fuoco of Symphony No.3 in A major, Op.22 (1973) to which timpani and woodwind join as the music hurtles ahead in a lively and often grotesque fugue with many individual instrumental touches. A melancholy bassoon opens the Intermezzo. Andante Sostenuto with support from the over basses before the woodwind and the rest of the orchestra take over. There are some beautiful string passages before the music rises centrally to a dramatic peak after which there is a beautiful passage that recalls the earlier melancholy feel. There is some strikingly fine orchestration in this movement. The Finale. Allegro con fuoco has a fast moving, scurrying opening that leads to a dialogue between brass and woodwind before going around the whole orchestra. Later there is a quiet passage for low brass and strings, distinctively conceived and orchestrated before the clarinet leads off as the orchestra dashes to the coda. Again the recording from 1974 is surprisingly good.

All of these symphonies receive very fine performances, as one would expect from Svetlanov and the USSR State Symphony Orchestra.

With the second disc comes the two violin concertos and the two cello concertos. Vadim Repin (violin) joins the USSR State Symphony Orchestra under Evgeny Svetlanov for the violin concertos both written for the Russian violinist Leonid Kogan.

After pizzicato chords from the orchestral strings the soloist immediately enters in the Allegro con fuoco of the Concerto No. 1 for violin and orchestra in C major, Op.14 (1958-59) in a fast moving theme with the orchestra providing something of a gallop. The music slows to a broader melody with attractive orchestral details before the music skips along, again with much virtuoso writing and some good humoured galumphing orchestral passages. Later there is a cadenza full of distinctive ideas with some fine writing for the violin before the flourishing coda. The Andante espressivo brings a fine melody as Khrennikov weaves a lovely orchestral tapestry in this impressive movement, beautifully conceived. High spirits return in the rumbustious Allegro agitato with some terrific playing from Vadim Repin and some riotous playing from the USSR State Symphony Orchestra with an unexpected brief contribution from a piano to add to the texture towards a riotous coda.

In the Allegro con fuoco opening of the Concerto No.2 for violin and orchestra in C major, Op.23 (1975) the soloist opens with a rather astringent theme soon joined by the orchestra. Here Khrennikov adopts a rather more dissonant language, still lively and breezy but with an edge and a colourful orchestration. The Moderato moves around freely before the soloist enters to join the same theme, slowly firming up to a real melody, developing into a bittersweet melody of some beauty with some lovely violinistic moments.  The Allegro moderato con fuoco opens decisively in a rhythmically buoyant theme with a winning theme and much fine playing in this often intricate and virtuosic music, an enjoyable conclusion to this concerto.

Khrennikov certainly moved forward in the 16 years between his two violin concertos. Though he cannot avoid some brash passage in the climaxes, this is a work I shall certainly return to.

The violin concertos receive excellent recordings from 1984 and are very finely played in beautifully taut performances.

Concerto No.1 for cello and orchestra, Op.16 (1964) was composed especially for Mstislav Rostropovich who gave the first performance. Here the cellist Valentin Feigin joins the Moscow Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Maxim Shostakovich.

In the Prelude. Andante (alla breve) the cello opens deep in its register over a quiet orchestra with a bassoon prominent. There is a dialogue with the orchestra before the whole orchestra takes over, rising up, the music having a wonderful sense of unwinding and blossoming. The second movement is a rich soulful Aria. Andante espressivo that gently develops and flows, finely played by Valentin Feigin. There is a faster passage centrally before the music falls with some lovely orchestral moments. The final Sonata. Allegro con fuoco dances along full of good humour with some really fine playing from this cellist and some subtle dissonances in the orchestra. There are some broad passages reminiscent of Khachaturian before a fine cadenza. There are some infectious themes, quiet at times, before the dynamic coda.

The recording from 1978 is slightly reverberant but otherwise very good.

Concerto No.2 for cello and orchestra, Op.30 (1986) was premiered by Mikhail Khomitser, the soloist on this recording with the USSR State Symphony Orchestra conducted by Evgeny Svetlanov. Cello opens with a winding, melancholy theme in the opening of the Adagio soon joined by a bassoon. The orchestra enters as the soloist takes the glorious melody forward with woodwind providing a lovely accompaniment. Mikhail Khomitser brings a real passion to the music. The second and concluding movement, Con moto, has a rhythmically bouncing theme with the orchestra nicely pointing up the cello. The music soon adopts a more riotous theme that alternates with the more flowing melody. Soon there is an extended cadenza that opens gently but soon becomes tortuously difficult, full of invention. When the orchestra re-enters the music pushes forward, full of energy with more riotous passages through to the coda.

These artists receive a very good recording from 1987.

The last disc gives us all four of Khrennikov’s piano concertos with the composer as pianist in the first three.

With the Concerto No.1 for piano and orchestra in F major, Op.1 (1932-33) the composer is joined by the USSR State Symphony Orchestra conducted by Evgeny Svetlanov.  The Allegro opens with a sudden orchestral flourish quickly joined by the piano in a fast moving, inventive theme, full of attractive ideas. The rhythmical variety keeps the interest and momentum, finely played by the composer. Bassoon and the pizzicato basses open the Andante with a characterful melody. When the piano enters it brings a more expansive variant of the theme in this most attractive movement that rises to a fine climax centrally before timpani lead into the Allegro where a frenetic theme is introduced by the piano before being taken up by the orchestra. Again Khrennikov’s rhythms bring a great sense of forward movement. There are languid slow sections attractively orchestrated. A clarinet opens the Andante with a reflective theme before the piano suddenly leaps in for the Molto allegro scurrying forward. The opening theme returns with some attractive variants of the theme, rising to some virtuosic passages for the soloist, extremely well played here.

Again the 1974 recoding has been very well re-mastered.

Concerto No.2 for piano and orchestra in C major, Op.21 (1971-72) again features the composer with Evgeny Svetlanov and the USSR State Symphony Orchestra. The Introduction. Moderato brings an expansive theme from the soloist which is then developed, becoming more complex before the orchestra eventually joins with a fine melody over the piano part. There are dissonances here with percussion to point up the music as it leads into the Sonata. Allegro con fuoco full of rhythm and buoyancy with Khrennikov handling the solo part with great virtuosity as the theme is moved around and subjected to much variation. This is another intoxicatingly attractive movement. The spiky rhythms of the Rondo. Giocoso – Andantino recall Prokofiev as does Khrennikov’s free tonality and dissonances. There is some terrific invention and, indeed, playing in this terrific movement.

This is an impressive work full of interest. The recording, again from 1973 is excellent.

The Concerto No.3 for piano and orchestra in C major, Op.28 (1983) was completed just before the composer’s 70th birthday. In this recording Khrennikov is accompanied by the Academic Symphony Orchestra of the Moscow Philharmonic Society conducted by Dmitri Kitayenko. The Moderato – Allegro opens with a bell like piano motif that is slowly broadened and decorated before the orchestra takes up the theme which is then varied.  The music slowly rises with firm piano chords before a quieter passage where the woodwind add some fine and distinctive touches. The music eventually develops into a jaunty marching theme, building with some incisive and virtuosic passages before the quiet coda. In the Moderato a leisurely rhythmic theme gives way to a freer development from the piano with broad piano chords, building to a deliberate climax before easing back to a more leisurely flowing piano passage and a hesitant coda. Florid chords open on the piano opening the Allegro molto before the orchestra and piano move through some sprawling, often dissonant passages, some pretty virtuosic. A jaunty dissonant theme appears which is great fun, the 69 year old composer had lost none of his playfulness, before a slow considered lead into the decisive coda.

The live 1985 recording is very fine with no obvious audience noise though the enthusiastic applause is kept in.  

For the Concerto No.4 for piano with string orchestra and percussion, Op.37 (1991) the composer gives way to pianist Anatoly Sheludyakov for this recording made with the ARCO Chamber Orchestra conducted by Levon Ambartsumian. Sheludyakov weaves a motif before the orchestra enter in the Moderato – Allegro, suddenly leaping up when the piano re-enters in a flowing vibrant melody. There is some unusual orchestration with bell chimes delicately pointing up the music as well as some lovely broad phrases pointed up by the xylophone before the hushed, beautifully conceived coda. The Moderato giocoso takes off at a fine pace with some flamboyant and virtuosic piano work and some colourful orchestral accompaniment. There are runs up and down the piano before the music steadfastly heads forward with some skittish piano passages. Tubular bells sound again and the xylophone is heard before the heady coda.

The recording from 1993 is rather close with a rather plummy piano sound but otherwise is very good.

Khrennikov’s music often has a directness of utterance but with many moments of poetry, beauty and fine orchestration. It is true that sometimes he cannot resist a certain grandiloquent brashness but there are works here that deserve a hearing. It is the second violin concerto and second cello concerto as well as the second and third piano concertos that I will return to the most. All Russian music enthusiasts will surely want this set that covers so much of Khrennikov’s orchestral output.

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