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GP743-44 - ROSLAVETS, N.A.: Piano Works (Complete) (Andryushchenko)
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“The most interesting Russian composer of the 20th century.” This is how Igor Stravinsky characterised the previously unknown Russian classical composer Nikolay Andreyevich Roslavets (1881–1944). The socio-political situation in Russia after the October Revolution of 1917 forced Roslavets to adopt a strategy of social mimicry: in order to survive, he had to keep a number of facts about his life secret or to present them only in abstract and general terms. For example, in his published autobiography, he emphasised that he was born into a poor, peasant family. In reality, Roslavets’ relatives were wealthy. His first wife, Natalia Langovaya, who was to die in the Gulag, came from a prominent Moscow family which patronised the arts. They supported Roslavets generously before the October Revolution of 1917 and promoted his work. After the February Revolution of 1917, Roslavets became the leader of one of the sections of a party of leftist “Socialist Revolutionaries” (SR). This party was proscribed by the Bolsheviks, and a number of its members were labelled as enemies of the Soviet regime and brutally persecuted. That Roslavets spoke as a committed global citizen, maintained numerous links with Western musical culture and campaigned against ideological cultural control was equally significant. All this inevitably led to conflict with the Soviet authorities.

In the 1920s the Proletarian Musicians—especially representatives of the APM (Association of Proletarian Musicians) / RAPM (Russian Association of Proletarian Musicians) / VAPM (All-Russian Association of Proletarian Musicians) and of “Prokoll” (the Production Collective of the Students at the Moscow Conservatory) conducted a cruel witch hunt against their enemies and opponents. The struggle for “a genuine proletarian culture” began with the suppression of “fellow-travellers”, primarily those belonging to the ASM (Association of Contemporary Music) which was headed up by Roslavets, and ended with a battle to control Soviet music. In the late 1920s and early 1930s any resistance to the Proletarian Musicians was interpreted as “hostile class activity”, “Trotskyism” or “opportunism”. As a victim of ideological cleansing, Nikolay Roslavets was forced to repent of his “political mistakes”. His enemies prepared a political trial against him and spread rumours that Roslavets was a “parasite who had been punished”. With the connivance of the secret police they stole and destroyed Roslavets’ manuscripts: immediately after his death, his apartment was searched by former Proletarian Musicians and representatives of the secret police, as a result of which a number of manuscripts disappeared.

All this explains why it was completely impossible to play Roslavets’ music in the Soviet Union for several decades. Any attempt to play his works was labelled as “propaganda promoting the work of an unrehabilitated enemy of the people” by some officials belonging to the Union of Soviet Composers, former Proletarian Musicians and their successors. Even under Perestroika, reconstructing Roslavets’ oeuvre was made extremely difficult: for example, plans to première the present writer‘s reconstruction of his symphonic poem In the Hours of the New Moon in Moscow in 1989 were sabotaged, and the first performance did not take place until June 1990, in Saarbrücken, conducted by Heinz Holliger. At the same time, Soviet officials were systematically violating Roslavets’ copyright, and countless attempts were made to falsify his works.

All this also influenced the fate of Roslavets’ works for piano. The following piano pieces were published during his lifetime: Trois compositions (1914), Trois études (1914), Deux compositions (Quasi prélude, Quasi poème, 1915), Prélude (1915), Deux poèmes (1920) und Cinq préludes (1919–22). Some of them demonstrate Roslavets’ close links to the Russian futurists: the cover artwork for the Trois études was by Aristarkh Lentulov, for example, while David Burlyuk designed a cover for the Deux compositions. Roslavets’ Piano Sonatas No. 1 (1914) and No. 2 (1916) were kept in the archives of TsGALI (now RGALI, the Russian State Archive for Literature and Art) in Moscow for several decades and first published in 1990. It is still not known when Roslavets’ Piano Sonata No. 3 was written, nor what happened to the manuscript. Sonata No. 4 was completed in 1923, and the first performance was given in Moscow on 12 April 1924 by Pavel Kovalyov, but no copy has yet been traced; the Poème-berceuse, which is dated 1939 in the Archive, is also presumed lost. The fragment of Piano Sonata No. 6 and the sketches of several piano pieces that are preserved in the Archive are not amenable to authentic reconstruction. Roslavets’ piano pieces Berceuse, Danse and Valse were composed in 1919. The manuscripts are in RGALI, including a sketch of Valse that allowed the present writer to make an authentic reconstruction in 1988. Around that time, Roslavets was intending to write a cycle, Quatre compositions pour piano, comprising three préludes and a poème. Only two of these pieces are stored in RGALI: a Prélude (Kharkiv, June 1921) and a Poème (Kharkiv, April 1921). The sketch of a further Prélude (c.1919–21), which the present writer reconstructed in 1988, is also preserved in RGALI; it is possible that it belongs to the Quatre compositions pour piano cycle, as it bears stylistic similarities to the other components. All the piano compositions included on this CD are published by Schott Music (Schott ED 7907, 7941, 8391, 8392, 20760).

Nikolay Roslavets has long been known for having invented a “new system of tone organisation” or “synthetic chords“, and his experiments with harmony in particular fed into this system. He wanted to develop strict principles of construction in order to master the “chaos of chromaticism”. Some critics have compared Roslavets’ system with dodecaphonic music, but his system was developed earlier, completely independently of the classic dodecaphonic composers, and was based on different and considerably more flexible ideas. Roslavets did not just intend to create a new harmonic system, but also to develop “new rhythmic formulae” and a “new counterpoint”, etc.

In his works for piano, Roslavets experimented both with large-scale sonata form and with miniatures. In his Piano Sonata No. 1 (1914) he took his lead from Scriabin’s single-movement sonatas with cyclic characteristics, transforming his model into a singular dramatic composition that combines elements of stasis and dynamism. The sonata is dominated by slow or moderate tempi with detailed gradations and by changing moods that are extremely finely nuanced. Quiet, delicate sounds and the dynamic morendo are particularly important, and the dense textures are always transparent. In style, the work is clearly influenced by Art Nouveau; the focus on decorative elements reaches its climax in an extraordinary kaleidoscope of rhythms and themes which produces a rainbow effect. At the same time, the composer deploys variable, free, non-classical rhythmic patterns, formulae and groupings, showing a tendency to develop not just a new harmonic system, but also “new rhythmic formulae”, which were to characterise his mature “new system of tone organisation”.

Analysis shows tempo in Piano Sonata No. 2 (1916) to be very experimental. Here Roslavets creates more “new rhythmic formulae” and an unusual metre: although a conventional 4/8 time signature is still there on the surface, there is a 5/8 metre operating at a deeper level. Rhythm and agogic are brought still closer together in Roslavets’ work when he uses various rhythmic formulae such as triplets and quintuplets in their original and in diminished forms to produce the effect of a written-out accelerando.

Roslavets continues to produce “new rhythmic formulae” and patterns in the Trois compositions (1914), Trois études (1914), Prélude (1915) and Deux compositions (1915) for piano. The Trois études, in which Roslavets works with multi-layered textures, is highly decorative. The cycle is devoted to an exploration of soft to extremely faint sounds. His search for new colours, in the spirit of Art Nouveau, also extends to the Deux compositions for piano. In Prélude and in the Trois compositions Roslavets’ writing is far more transparent, comprehensible and bright. This manner anticipates a certain simplification of his style in the 1920s, which can be heard, for example, in his Cinq préludes for piano, among other works. At the same time, he was developing new genres and either renouncing traditional generic definitions in favour of the neutral term “Composition” or using alienating titles such as “Quasi poème” and “Quasi prélude”, which clearly distance them from tradition.

Roslavets is rigorous in implementing his work on the “new system of tone organisation” in his late piano works. Danse, Valse and Berceuse contain only traces of their chosen categories; the traditional genres become allusions. The Piano Sonata No. 5, composed in May–June 1923, illustrates the treatment of the piano as a virtuoso solo instrument with orchestral characteristics that is typical of Roslavets’ mature work. The writing combines brevity and even bareness of utterance with rich decoration: a transparent web and polyphonic figuration contrast with a massive sound encompassing all registers. The slow sections and the climaxes, which illustrate the static and dynamic in Roslavets’ poesy, are very inventively and skilfully conceived. In the Piano Sonata No. 5 further “new rhythmic formulae” are developed; gradual and simultaneous combinations of various rhythmic patterns and figures are of particular interest.

For each of his Cinq préludes (1919–22), too, Roslavets chooses a sound constellation, a state of being, a unique “moment form”, imaginatively but rigorously unlocking the expressive possibilities of his chosen material. His point of departure is microthemes, microdynamics, microfacture, microarticulation—Roslavets composes using barely discernible gradations of time and movement, tempo and rhythm. These pieces, in which he proves himself the master of the musical microworld, are fascinating for their concentration and depth, venturing into an unknown dimension of musical material. The composer finds his way to formulating an extremely compressed time that always exists in the moment and can only be measured out in tiny modifications. The subtle analysis of temporal structures and sensitivity to colour in these pieces is strongly reminiscent of the art of Anton Webern.

Marina Lobanova
Translation by Susan Baxter

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