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Barry Brenesal
Fanfare, July 2010

The liner notes provide a bit of background for the composers featured on this release, but nothing about the viola school that prompted their composition. So let’s take a moment, and fill in the gap.

Although violas have certainly been part of the Russian musical landscape for some time, their greatest proselytizer has been Vadim Borisovsky (1900–72). He began his studies at the Moscow Conservatory as a violinist, but soon changed over to the viola. He gave his first solo performance in 1922, and learned to play the viola d’amore in 1926. The following year he started a series of well-attended concerts of both original and transcribed compositions—ultimately arranging more than 250 on his own, everything from Caix d’Hervelois to Bartók. Borisovsky was a fine performer, a political mover, a member of the celebrated Beethoven String Quartet for more than 40 years, and a renowned teacher for roughly 50. In this last capacity he was responsible for influencing more than one generation of violists who became concert performers in their own right, rather than solely members of chamber and orchestral ensembles, and that led in turn to an interest among Soviet composers in the viola as a solo instrument. The first two works on this album, the viola sonatas of Kryukov and Vasilenko, were dedicated to Borisovsky.

In contrast to some works that pursue Scriabin’s widely ranging harmonic schemes, the conservative 1933 Sonata by Vladimir Kryukov (1902–60) aims solely at light coloration. Rachmaninoff is present, too; the second theme could have been penned by the émigré. Miaskovsky, Kryukov’s teacher, is nowhere in sight, much less Shostakovich, or anybody who chose to marry revolutionary musical concepts to revolutionary politics. Kryukov wears the 19th-century cut of his compositional clothes naturally, however, and provides a haunting work of captivating themes, good contrast, and effective development.

This isn’t the first recording of the Viola Sonata by Sergei Vasilenko (1872–1956)…The work itself is still more conservative than Kryukov, though with greater structural scope and stage presence. Like Glazunov’s Violin Concerto, the primary influences would appear to be French, including Vieuxtemps and Saint-Saëns. If the piano part weren’t so idiomatic some virtuosic violist would probably have long since converted the work over for viola and orchestra.

The Viola Sonata of Grigori Frid (b. 1915) moves forward stylistically. The liner notes mention that Frid’s manner became “more tragic and complex” in the 1960s, after years of influence by Shostakovich, but this work of 1971 is still heavily indebted to the older composer: his modalism, his interest in counterpoint, and some of his thematic fingerprints as well. Not that the Viola Sonata is any the worse for it, or for the presence of those associated with his school. The work moves from a melancholy march whose piercingly lyrical tone recalls Weinberg, to a fiercely martial toccata, to a somber threnody.

The musical ability of young Yulian Krein (1913–96) was such that it impressed the authorities at a time when Soviet politics and the arts were still relatively open and hotly debated. He benefited by being sent in 1926 to study at the Paris École Normale under Paul Dukas, where Krein learned not only musical skills but pedagogical ones the Soviet authorities desired at home. His 1973 Sonata demonstrates many years later that he’d kept the faith. It’s a solidly late French Romantic composition with extended tonality, at its best in the slow, spectral lullaby of its central movement.

The album concludes with a viola sonata by Valerian Bogdanov-Berezovsky (1903–71), a close friend during their conservatory years of Shostakovich. Composed in 1956, it strikes me as the only moderately perfunctory piece on the CD—not for its tentative stabbings at “bad boy” Shostakovich in the early variations that form the second movement, but rather for its general lack of inventiveness throughout. It offers a fine technical challenge for a virtuosic violist, however, and Igor Fedotov certainly rises to that. The unaccompanied variation is especially impressive in this regard, though the violist also displays a suavely elegant tone, and a sense of the richly expressive rhetoric that moves each Russo-Soviet work from the page across the platform and into the audience. As much can be said of both accompanists, in music that requires very active participation on their part in making each piece work. This is neither a disc of dusty academic exercises nor of pedantic performance, but of attractive music expertly played with every desire to convince.

I found the sound a bit dry overall, with the viola mechanics sometimes apparent and spotlighted in softer passages, while the piano was slightly recessed in a way that detracted from its tonal quality. However, it’s still more than listenable, and adds full timings and a budget price to its list of virtues. I can only hope that Fedotov finds the time, energy, and support to issue a second volume. Strongly recommended.

Jonathan Woolf
MusicWeb International, June 2010

One of the many strands being pursued by the omnivorous Naxos label at the moment is the viola repertoire. They have a number of outstanding exponents on their books—one thinks of Martin Outram and Heinrich Koll for instance, both of whose discs I’ve reviewed—and now we have Igor Redotov who proselytizes with fervour on behalf of twentieth century Soviet or Russian or ‘Soviet Russian’ music.

This is fine retrieval work. It’s always dangerous to quote a label’s ‘world premiere recording’ status claim because some obscure LP will be duly brandished to contradict it. I’ve done it myself in reviews, raking over some obscure American Columbia tricolour 78 made in 1923 to dispute such a claim, in that pedantic, pernickety way of mine.

But until one hears to the contrary the Kryukov, Krein and Bogdanov-Berezovsky are making their first ever appearance on disc in these first class performances. The music spans the years from 1920—when Kryukov started his Sonata, though it was revised in 1933—to Krein’s 1973 work. So there’s a good half century covered, in a birth span from 1872 (Vasilenko) to 1915; Frid, who is still alive at the time of writing.

Kryukov studied with Miaskovsky and subsequently became a professor of composition himself. His Viola Sonata was written around 1919–21 (there’s a dispute between the booklet notes and the jewel case) and definitively revised in 1933. One can feel something of Miaskovsky’s influence in its lyricism, so too something of the French school and of Scriabin. It’s a one movement work, and concise, and manages to balance the tempestuous with Romantic effusion very successfully. It was dedicated to Vadim Borisovsky, one of the giants of Russian viola players, and he was also the dedicatee of Sergei Vasilenko’s sonata. It too is cast in one movement though it’s clearly divided fast-slow-fast fugal. This is a charming work though not one that sought to grasp the nettle of modernism. It has a Grieg-like freshness and passages that could have come straight from Kreisler’s Pugnani pastiche.

Frid’s sonata was written in 1971. Melancholic and a touch remote, its central moment offers a powerful contrast by virtue of its attaca vivacity. This, itself touched by something more than a little manic, is urgent, destabilising and wholly tonal. The slow finale is very expressive with an improvisatory sense and an almost vocalised wash of lyricism, in which the viola finally ascends to a hard won silence. A couple of years later Yulian Krein wrote a sonata that has easeful warmth about it. Plenty of energetic figuration drives it on, and whilst there are some Scriabinesque moments the overriding melos is a tuneful, very traditional lyricism. It’s dance patterns however that act as the motor for the last of the quintet of viola sonatas. This is Bogdanov-Berezovsky’s three movement opus which alternates energetic and terse writing to advantage—even to the extent of causing Redotov to grunt in the fray. The theme and variations central movement has variety and elegance, and a whirlwind quality of vitality that leads onto the final, quiescent movement.

The five sonatas are played with urgent and powerful commitment by Redotov and his two colleagues, Leonid Vechkhayzer and Gary Hammond. Naxos’s recorded sound, in the two venues, is highly sympathetic. These somewhat obscure works are well worth getting to know.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, February 2010

The viola repertoire is not so full of likeable solo works as to overlook these instantly agreeable sonatas from Russian composers living in the 20th century. True, they do not break new ground, Sergey Vasilenko’s 1923 sonata reminding you in style and melodic content of César Franck’s Violin Sonata, Often substantial in the texture, his piano part seems to have come from an orchestral score. It is, like the Vladimir Kryukov sonata, in one continuous movement, both sharing a passion for the Romantic era. Grigory Frid’s sonata composed in 1971 has a passing nod to modernity, the rhythmically strong central adagio making a lasting impression, though he is searching to find memorable material elsewhere. Yulian Krein has an international profile as a composition prodigy, his first work published in 1926 was at the age of thirteen, and he was later to study in Paris with Dukas, remaining and working in the city for some years. His sonata from 1973 is conventional, its two active outer movements surrounding a soulful and typically Russian andante that has the feel of folk music. I would particularly commend the 1956 sonata by Valerian Bogdanov-Berezovsky, a friend of Shostakovich in his younger years and whose influence is much in evidence in the sonata, with a fine theme and variations for the central movement. None of the scores offer the soloist a show of virtuoso though they contain demanding passages. They are performed by Igor Fedotov, a native of Russia, but now living in the States as Professor of Music at West Michigan University. His instrument has a wonderfully full and nutty tone, his intonation perfectly focused, and there are fulsome accompaniments from Leonid Vechkhayzer and Gary Hammond which add much to an interesting release.

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