Classical Music Home

Welcome to Naxos Records

Keyword Search
 Classical Music Home > Naxos Album Reviews

Album Reviews

See latest reviews of other albums...

Barry Brenesal
Fanfare, April 2007

I think the key to understanding the initial fall from grace of many Soviet composers who came of artistic age during the 1920s is to keep in mind that Stalin represented a social and political counter-revolution. Lenin desired the spread of revolution through the arts, thinking it admirable propaganda for the cause. Whether or not he himself appreciated the results (he frequently didn't), his appointees often did, and encouraged the results. By contrast, Stalin gathered in all power to himself, including artistic decision-making, and his aesthetic views were notoriously immature and parochial. If we keep this in mind, the downfall of composers affiliated with the radical Association for Contemporary Music and the rise of those in the conservatively oriented Russian Association of Proletarian Musicians seem a foregone conclusion. (This still wasn't enough control for Stalin, who ultimately abolished RAPM as well and created his own Union of Composers.)

Shostakovich at least had the buttress of prominent recognition for his talent when the hammer came down. True, this also meant his condemnation and recantation had to be public, but very few members of the political and artistic elite seemed willing or daring enough to consign the composer permanently to musical limbo. Shostakovich kept his head low when it came to debating musical principles in print or in public; a very wise move, as it turned out, when his music could speak for him. Roslavets (1880-1944), by contrast, was loud in his defense of modernism, and used the various prominent posts he occupied during the early and mid 1920s to press his case. His fall at the hands of his foes in RAPM (for "formalism" and "decadence") wasn't cushioned by any consensus over his abilities. When he vanished, few people either knew or cared. Declared an "enemy of the people" in 1929, Roslavets was sent on internal exile to Tashkent, and relegated for the rest of his life to a succession of minor positions on his return, such as training military bandleaders. Simplifying his compositional style was deemed insufficient for full rehabilitation, but then, he was far from the only creative artist to be casually tossed aside during the Stalinist era. At least he lived.

Roslavets's stylistic crime was all the more severe, in the eyes of his contemporaries, in that it took root during the final days of the Russian Empire. The Violin Sonata No.1 dates from 1913, the year after the composer's graduation (with a silver medal) from the Moscow Conservatory. Along with songs he was writing at the time, it uses what the composer called his "synthetic chord" technique: a non-diatonic tonal system whose chords contained all the rhythmic and thematic material he would use. Whatever the theory, the results at the time strongly resembled late Scriabin, with an emphasis on unstable harmonies, irregular rhythms, and soaring melodic lines. Nikolai Miaskovsky praised the work in print, but claimed it would have a hard time finding advocates due to its extreme difficulty.

By 1915, Roslavets had further developed his system to embrace 12-tone equality. This wasn't Schoenberg's system, which Roslavets didn't hear until 1923, but one that permitted the immediate reuse of tones as long as successive motivic statements employed all 12. Naxos's liner notes don't provide a date for the Violin Sonata No.4, and of my two sources, one lists 1920 for its completion, while the other states 1924. Regardless, the work sounds very like a more extreme re-make of the First Sonata. Tonality is negligible, though the piece remains unfailingly consonant. There is more reliance upon repeated intervals as a binding element, often at a very subtle level. The harmonic structure is so dense and varied that the composer employed special pedal markings to clarify it.

The Three Dances date from 1923, though they weren't published until 1925. The fact that one of the dances, "Nocturne," isn't a dance at all doesn't really matter, since the "Waltz" and "Mazurka" are only nominally dances, beginning and referring for the most part abstractly to rhythms associated with each piece. There's more of the ecstatic, soaring line found in the earlier works, and a clear preference for the extremes of emotional anguish and exaltation.

Unlike everything else on this albun, the Violin Sonata No. 6 remained unpublished prior to its 1996 discovery in manuscript. (The Second, Third and Fifth Violin Sonatas were also never published. The latter two have vanished, but the Second Sonata has recently been reconstructed from available source materials.) The liner notes state that the date written on it. 1940, is not in the composer's hand, though the piece clearly is in Roslavets's late, drastically simplified manner. All that remains of his earlier style are chromatic runs, the brief and occasional use of extended tonality (typically as a passing element within clustered figurations), and the violin's broadly arching line that traces an ascending or descending expressive course. Otherwise, we might be listening to a late 19th century violin sonata. Notwithstanding this, it is an inspired work, hardly the kind of mind-numbing compositional exercise that often appeared in those Soviet composers eager to please Stalin's crude tastes without making their dumbing down too obvious.

I have not heard Solomia Soroka's previous recording of Bolcom's chamber music (Naxos 8.559150). She's very good here, though I find her tone occasionally hard and her runs at times a bit labored -- not surprising in music of this kind, which piles difficulty on top of difficulty. Soroka has clearly made an effort to meet the temperamental as well as technical requirements of this pieces, but I would also have preferred more consistently fiery lyricisim than brief explosion of intensity she delivers on demand. Aside from this, she and Greene make a very effective team.

Sound quality is good, with natural balance between the instruments. Despite my reservations, this is a fascinating disc, and not likely to be bettered anytime soon. Recommended for its glimpse of a fascinating musical talent that was sidelined by politics.

American Record Guide, February 2007

The notes tell us Nikolai Roslavets (1880-1944) was "vilified in his day for having aspired to be a 'Russian Schoenberg"', but it's clear to me from listening to his violin music that these accusations were meaningless: the man was no Schoenberg. Whether he writes atonally or tonally, his music sounds pretty much the same. His violin parts often incorporate large linear intervals, requiring the violinist to constantly shift from position to position. This kind of writing does little to flatter the violin, because it fails to bring out any internal harmonic resonance.

Soroka manages this difficult music admirably. Her pitch is right on target, and she maintains a smooth sound through Roslavets's linear obstacle course. Greene also does a fine job of charting his way through the monochromatic waters, bringing out what he can to try to make the music interesting-finding a dash of Scriabin here, perhaps, and a splash of Schumann there.

Roderic Dunnett
The Strad, November 2006

Nikolai Roslavets ( 18880-1944) was a key figure in the early 20th-century experimental Russian music. He flourished during the immediate post-Revolution years, but fell from grace when Soviet cultural policy shifted dramatically under Stalin.

The Three Dances, published in 1923, embrace a haunting waltz, vivid nocturne and vital mazurka. Here Solomia Soroka seems utterly confident, catching a haunting, languid quality within Roslavets's elusive harmonic idiom. The Nocturne is laced with double trilling and Soroka nicely brings out an element of bravado, both in the Mazurka and in the three forceful sonatas.

Soroka especially shines near the close of sonata movements, where her lyricism pays dividends as Roslavets frequently relaxes the turbulence prevailing elsewhere. There are a few cases of awkward tuning, occasioned by the severe angularity of the composer's leading melody. On occasions her partner, Arthur Greene, seems so soundly versed in this music that the piano invariably prepares and articulates beautifully, while Soroka seems more tentative about what best to emphasise in Roslavets's wayward line.

Still, if the composer's twining, cantilena-like melody sometimes defeats her, Soroka counters with some striking dramatic effects in Sonata no. 6, and she relaxes particularly well into the spirit of the single-movement Fourth Sonata, while the experimental First Sonata, with its energetic cross-currents, yields an exciting culmination from both players. This is not easy or lightweight music, but this decently engineered recording certainly makes a handsome introduction to Roslavets.

Jonathan Woolf
MusicWeb International, October 2006

The usual critical position is to view Roslavets as a creative compound of Scriabin and Schoenberg, a visionary who worked independent of the latter and was eventually crushed by the Soviet system. Certainly the early atonal experimentation was later to be replaced after his 1929 denunciation with a far more malleable and acceptably simple style. This trajectory is reflected in this recording of the first, fourth and sixth violin sonatas.

Cannily perhaps or just to confound the listener Naxos has programmed the sonatas to reflect the opposite trajectory. We begin with the undated but late Sixth Sonata, a big rather later romantic and decidedly Brahmsian piece. It’s also quite loose and discursive with soloist Solomia Soroka employing some period devices to point up the succulence of the writing. The central movement has maybe a touch of Grieg and a reminiscence of French style in the sonata repertoire, the more lyric and effusive wing of the French repertoire rather than the Franco-Belgian hothouse of Franck and Lekeu. The fluttering arabesques of the finale coalesce with the lyrically sensuous central section. Here the piano can sound rather overpowering in the balance.

The Fourth Sonata is undated. Predicated at least structurally on Scriabin’s piano sonatas it seems to me to share as much with Szymanowski. The piano writing is emphatic and there is here unlike the Sixth (this is a considerably earlier work) a real sense of billow and passion, a hothouse drama played out with concision and power. Though the notes mention that Roslavets trained as a violinist they don’t mention that he studied with Jan Hrímaly, one of the many émigré Czech musicians who taught and played in Russia and were profoundly influential on the emergent Russian School. It was doubtless from the cosmopolitan Hrímaly, who died a couple of years after the premiere of his pupil’s shocking First Sonata, that Roslavets learned the wider violin repertoire.

That First Sonata, widely accepted as the first such atonal work produced by a Russian composer, came shortly after his graduation. He always claimed to have worked independent of Schoenbergian procedure and there seems no reason to disbelieve him. The booklet notes quote Miaskovsky in his day job as a critic admiring but puzzling over the sonata’s newness. It certainly must have come as a pungent shock. Abstract juxtapositions and terse material are here but so too is a soaring late romantic lyricism; Roslavets moves between the two in bewildering and generous openness. This naturally only adds to the queasy emotive stability of this one movement sonata.

As an envoi we have the Three Dances published in 1923. Once again there is a certain residual influence of Scriabin but in the central dance, a crepuscular Nocturne, an unmistakeable Szymanowski patina.

The recording sometimes rather favours the piano in climactic moments though one wouldn’t want to make too much of this. Both Solomia Soroka and Arthur Greene, who wrote the notes, sound inside the terse, coagulant bloodstream of Roslavets’s imagination, drawing out some portamenti and colouristic devices to point up his febrile romanticism.

Jeff Simon
The Buffalo News, September 2006

Nikolai Roslavets, Violin Sonatas 1, 4 and 6 and Three Dances performed by violinist Solomia Soroka and pianist Arthur Greene (Naxos). For years, Roslavets (1880-1944) was known as one of the great Soviet "silent composers" along with Mossolov and some others. In other words, he was a vehement modernist - "the Russian Schoenberg" he was erroneously called - who was effectively eliminated from Russian music when Stalin and "socialist realism" wiped out everything but a cagey and tormented Shostakovich and an all-but-bulletproof Prokofiev. But even more than Mossolov, Roslavets was an amazing heir to Scriabin in this music. The kind of ecstatic atonality and chromaticism you find in the best Scriabin - the piano sonatas - is also routine in this very seldom heard violin/piano music. A real find, then.

Naxos Records, a member of the Naxos Music Group