About this Recording
9.70258 - FELZER, O.: Transforming an Ancient Tradition (Continuum)

Oleg Felzer (1939–1998)
Transforming an Ancient Tradition


Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Georgia, now sovereign nations, were originally regions south of the Caucasus Mountains that were dominated by distinctive ethnic groups, each with its own languages and traditions, and all of which, like Russia’s neighbours far into Asia, were conquered by the Russian Empire and later incorporated into the Soviet Union. During the Soviet period, in the interests of national unification (and repression of opposition), traditional cultures were powerfully repressed and a Western-style culture substituted, often complete with an orchestra, an opera house, and a conservatory. Simultaneously, true ethnic music was ‘russified’—diluted into an exotic form of western music. Studying the authentic art forms was considered anything from unpatriotic to treasonous. As public tastes also moved toward the Western, the ‘up-to-date’, traditional ethnic music fell into obscurity. Yet even before the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the study of the ancient arts gradually resumed.

Azerbaijan, has been by far the most prosperous of the Caucasus republics—thanks to its enormous reserves of oil and gas—and produced some accomplished Western-style musicians during the Soviet period, including composer Kara Karayev (1918–1982), a Shostakovich pupil. Karayev’s teaching mantle was inherited by his student Oleg Felzer (b. Baku, Azerbaijan, 1939; d. New York, 1998), who graduated from the Baku State Conservatory and the Leningrad Conservatory; he already had an engineering degree. After teaching at the Moscow Conservatory, Felzer returned home as professor of composition and music theory at the Baku Conservatory, and founded and conducted a chamber orchestra, becoming a major figure in Azerbaijan’s musical world until emigrating to New York in 1988. He lovingly directed the choir at an African-American church in Brooklyn until his untimely death from cancer.

Felzer’s career seemed to improve when Continuum’s commission Vestige won him the Stoeger Prize of the Lincoln Center Chamber Music Society. (Felzer certainly needed the money but turned it over to a colleague in Baku who had the choice of repaying money to Russian mobsters or risking the murder of his children.) Despite performances in the US, Europe, the former USSR, and South America, by Continuum, the Gregg Smith Singers, the Nieuw Ensemble (Amsterdam), and others, Felzer’s music remains little known in the West and difficult to obtain, because he hadn’t found a publisher to replace the defunct Soviet state publisher of his earlier works. His music includes solo pieces, chamber music, works for chamber orchestra, choral and vocal pieces, and a musical that was staged in Belarus. In Azerbaijan, Oleg Felzer is lovingly remembered as a composer, teacher, and mentor by his students and colleagues, who include Franghiz Ali-Zadeh and Kara Karayev’s son Faradzh, both of them composers of international stature.

After early works in Western contemporary style, Felzer began studying Mugham, the ancient Azeri ‘traditional professional music,’ as he referred to it. The inspiration of Mugham was life-changing for his music. Related to music of other Middle-Eastern cultures, this vocal-instrumental tradition was transmitted orally from master to student. A prominent part of Azerbaijani life, from weddings to connoisseurs’ concerts to official competitions, it received UNESCO world-heritage designation. The word Mugham, referring both to a composition and its components and procedures, eludes definition, partly because of regional differences among multiple traditions. Underlying features include its improvisational nature, characteristic melodic and rhythmic gestures, minor modes, microtonal vocal and instrumental techniques, and a plaintive mood. From the great Uzeyir Hajibeyov’s first national opera in 1908 to some compositions by Felzer’s teacher Karayev, composers had sought to merge Mugham and Western music.

In seeking to unite what he heard as its essence with advanced Western structures, Felzer created a highly original poetic language, drawing on Mugham’s melodic and rhythmic features, to make a music that evolves freely, as if improvised. His most distinctive achievement was to apply a singular method of selecting the sequence of pitches, and making the individual notes and their interactions the main musical narrative. There are neither ‘themes’ nor their development as found in 20th-century Western music of a more traditional nature. As a result his music requires a different kind of listening. Here, the individual tones are analogous to the spare colours in an abstract painting, interacting with each other to produce a new kind of melody. The two last violin works and Vestige clearly show this more abstract approach, especially in their openings, which may develop from only one or two pitches. Pre-figurations of this process exist in earlier works.

Sonata No. 1 for Violin and Piano (1993) was premièred by Pavel Berman and Joel Sachs in Continuum’s Aspekte Salzburg concert in 1993. In this movement, we first hear only the four open strings of the violin; no new pitches are introduced for some 35 bars. The movement proceeds very calmly, the gentle lines interweaving like a tapestry with richly coloured threads. The second movement brings an abrupt contrast of a wild toccata for violin with punctuations of sharp dissonant piano chords, both instruments restricted for some time to only three pitches, G#, A, Bb. The idea for the third movement is actually borrowed from Piano Bagatelle No. 5, where a quiet, obsessive, two-note chirping motif seems to lock the music in place.

The earliest work in this recording is Quartet “Azerbaijani” for oboe, viola, bassoon, piano (1971). The ensemble first ‘tunes up’, and then there’s one tone - G - to play with until it’s joined by the semitone F# for an extended time. The instruments react to one another, tossing motifs around like a jazz ensemble. Mugham-like lilting rhythmic bits propel a free cadenza before a final calming conclusion.

Vestige for clarinet, violin, piano (1993) was premiered by Continuum at the Chamber Music Society of Baltimore in 1993. In the spacious opening the instruments carry on a subtle conversation as new tones are gradually revealed. Mugham dance rhythms occasionally relieve the intensity. A plaintive Mugham melisma (actually from Piano Bagatelle No. 2), introduced tentatively by the clarinet, becomes a formative element in the work as a whole, eventually shrieking in a wild cadenza passage before the moving conclusion.

Renée Jolles gave the U.S. première of Sonata for Violin Solo (1978) in 1995, with the guidance of the composer. In the first movement tightly-knit motifs are repeated and varied, as they try to expand into higher registers. The intensity gains some relief from graceful waltz passages. The second movement uses Baroque process exist models, starting with a brusque quasi ground-bass tune, followed by a Chaconne, a popular Baroque variation form. The variations impose Baroque virtuoso patterns on a modern harmonic structure for a section of great intensity. An extended Coda recapitulates and shatters the obsessive repeating of the movement’s opening.

Five Bagatelles for Piano (1984) are colourful vignettes, almost child-like in their simplicity. The Mugham motifs of the second and fifth Bagatelles were borrowed and further developed in Violin Sonata No. 1 and Vestige.

The Sonata for Harp (1985) is a major addition to the harp repertoire. In the meditative, slowly-evolving opening, a three-note unit of adjacent pitches reiterates and gradually extends itself into higher tones; the rising and falling lines sound as if improvised. After the highest point, the line falls to a sharp chord, and, without any break, the chorale-like second movement appears. A torrent of bass sound introduces the third movement and leads to a playful dance. Despite dreamy, questioning phrases that try to divert the dance, it builds up to a frenzy with virtuosic cascades of high notes. As the rapid notes gradually slacken, elements of the second movement chorale intervene and bring the work to a quiet close.

Interrupted Song for violin and piano (1998), commissioned through the Library of Congress’s McKim Fund, was premiered by Renée Jolles and Cheryl Seltzer in Continuum’s concert at the Library in 1998. This, Felzer’s most abstract, rarified work, and in its spare simplicity perhaps the most affecting, is also his final work. Tragically, during its composition he was diagnosed with what was to be terminal cancer. The first movement Monodia distills the essence of Mugham into a violin monologue of long sustained notes, the piano largely shadowing and echoing. Sonata, the second movement, has a more equalised texture with intertwining of the violin and multiple voices of the piano. The pointillistic first 18 bars draw on only two pitches, scattering some notes into stratospheric realms. It is poignant to play from the score of Sonata, most likely prepared by Felzer on his laptop as he lay in bed, entering the dates of work as he was desperately trying to finish. With the end of his life looming, he instructed his friend Faradzh Karayev in Baku on how to complete the piece. The sad point is apparent just after the calm mood starts to agitate and grows to an outburst. After a silence come 33 bars of recapitulation and the ending in which, upon Felzer’s instructions, Karayev inserted Mugham-style ornamented elaborations.

Continuum is indebted to Faradzh Karayev for his completion of Felzer’s last work, and also for his comments on the role of Mugham in Felzer’s music.

Cheryl Seltzer and Joel Sachs

Close the window