About this Recording
GP703-04 - MOSOLOV, A.: Piano Works (Complete)
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Alexander Mosolov (1900–1973)
Complete Works for Solo Piano

 

At some point during their creative lives, almost all composers must be forced to confront the unpalatable truth that their music—the product of years of toil—will, in all probability, follow them to the grave. Fairly or not, their efforts will gather dust and for the most part will seldom, if ever, be performed. An occasional name within this mass of disappointed hopes may be lucky enough to feature as a footnote in musical history because of a single memorable or notorious piece. One such composer is Alexander Mosolov, whose futurist orchestral piece The Iron Foundry is still performed from time to time.

Mosolov was one of the driving forces in experimental Soviet music during the 1920s, when for a brief period ‘constructivism’ was encouraged as a musical manifestation of the new, forward-looking Russia. The Iron Foundry explores the expressive potential of motoric rhythms, melodic angularity, percussive attacks and pungent dissonance. It was almost inevitable that an experimentalist such as Mosolov would sooner or later fall foul of the authorities once the strictures of Socialist Realism began to stifle independent thought. Sure enough, in 1936 he was expelled from the Composers’ Union, ostensibly for treating waiters badly during a drunken brawl at a restaurant.

Alexander Vasilyevich Mosolov was born in Kiev in 1900, but moved with his family to Moscow three years later. When he was five, his father died, but his widowed mother, a professional singer who worked at the Bolshoi Theatre until 1905, was left comfortably well off. After her husband’s death, she married the painter and designer Michael W. Leblan (1875–1940). She cultivated a cosmopolitan outlook, and the young Alexander was brought up speaking French and German in addition to Russian. The family regularly visited the cultural capitals of western Europe, especially Paris, Berlin and London. During the October Revolution he volunteered to serve in the Red Army, but in 1921 he was medically discharged, suffering from what we would now call post-traumatic stress disorder. He then entered the Moscow Conservatoire and studied composition with Glière and Myaskovsky. In 1927 Prokofiev, who was then living in the West, returned for a concert tour of the Soviet Union. He became acquainted with the music of Mosolov, whom he praised as the most interesting of Russia’s new talents.

In the years following the appearance of The Iron Foundry in 1927 Mosolov was attacked for his pessimism and modernist leanings. He consequently simplified his style, making it more readily accessible, and he abandoned potentially awkward proletarian subject matter. Instead, he developed a keen interest in the folk music of the Soviet Central Asian republics of Turkmenistan and Kyrgystan. The Phantasy for Piano, Turkmenian Nights, published in Vienna in 1929, is a product of this time, although some tough ‘constructivist’ elements do remain in it. Eventually Mosolov’s concern with folk music took over his approach to composition, though not necessarily through choice. For as long as Stalin’s henchmen held Soviet artists in their iron grip, there would be no more tolerance of ‘futurism’, which was considered elitist and not serving the interests of the state. In 1937 Mosolov was arrested for ‘counter-revolutionary activities’ and had an eight-year sentence handed down. Through the offices of some well-connected colleagues, he was released after only eight months, but he was never again able to experiment in his musical work. His youthful prospects as a leading Soviet composer with a rosy future were never fulfilled, and he sank into obscurity. By the time of his death in 1973 he was more or less forgotten, save for The Iron Foundry, which remained his signature piece.

In 1998 the Cambridge academic Marina Frolova-Walker wrote in The Journal of the American Musicological Society that so far as Mosolov was concerned it was ‘impossible to discern the former avant-gardist in the works written from the late thirties onward’. She also observed how his style had been irreversibly ‘corrected’ by his experiences in the Gulag, and concluded how ‘enormously sad it is to listen to the many bland pieces in the style of The Five, or to scan the list of his works based on the folk music of a dozen regions of the USSR, indistinguishable from the output of his colleagues engaged in the same project’.

All the works performed on these recordings were composed during the 1920s while Mosolov was still a free agent. The dominant musical figure in Russia at that time was Alexander Scriabin, who had died some years earlier in 1915. His music still exerted a powerful influence on numerous up-and-coming young composers, who admired his hothouse exoticisms. Mosolov was no exception, and his liking for huge static blocks of harmony decorated by impressive waves of keyboard virtuosity attest to his fascination for the sweltering heat of Scriabin’s music. Mosolov’s two Nocturnes, Op. 15, composed in 1925 and 1926, reveal a clear debt to Scriabin through their impressionistic figuration and dissonant climaxes. They are dedicated to the prominent writer and critic Vladimir Derzhanovsky. The series of Three Small Pieces, Op. 23a, and Two Dances, Op. 23b, followed soon afterwards, in 1927.

In his piano sonatas, Mosolov shows himself to be one of the boldest and most complex composers of his time. Their dramatic power and sombre tone colours make these works almost symphonic in texture, and each sonata presents formidable technical challenges that are a test for any pianist. Unfortunately, the unpublished Third Sonata, Op. 6, was among several manuscripts that were lost when Mosolov had some of his belongings stolen while moving house. The Second Sonata, Op. 4, of 1923–1924 is chronologically the earliest of the four surviving sonatas. This very lugubrious and despairing work bears the inscription ‘From Old Notebooks’, a nod in the direction of Prokofiev, who had already used this subtitle. The single-movement First Sonata, Op. 3, dates from 1924. It bears certain stylistic similarities to Stravinsky and even more, perhaps, to Prokofiev. Mosolov’s Ukrainian contemporary Nikolay Roslavets described this sonata as ‘a Bible of modernism’. The dark and sinister Fourth Sonata, Op. 11, written in 1925, is also in one movement and is almost improvisatory in character. The deeply expressive, yet coldly dissonant, Fifth Sonata, Op. 12, also dates from 1925. There is a forlorn atmosphere to the funereal second movement, which bears the title Elegia.

If Mosolov’s original audiences of the 1920s were overwhelmed by his unrelenting modernism, their children were prone to regard it as irrelevant and old-hat. Perhaps we have now reached an ideal time for reappraising the significance of Mosolov’s role in shaping the future of Russian music during the early years of the Soviet Union.

Anthony Short


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