"New" Music Log

Started by Todd, April 06, 2007, 07:22:52 AM

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Alexander Veprik is a name little-known in music history and little-discussed even here on GMG, where the only previous post to mention his name was the announcement of this 2019 release. Well, we need to talk about him now! I want to stand up and yell at nearly everyone on the board: listen to this guy!

Veprik's dates, 1889-1958, tell a story. He was in roughly the same generation as Prokofiev, a bit older than Shostakovich. Unfortunately, Veprik was a Ukrainian Jew, so when Stalin's anti-semitism reached its peak, he was thrown in jail and then the gulag, accused of "Jewish nationalism." (Weinberg would have known and been chilled by Veprik's example.) Veprik was released shortly before his death, a tired, broken, and malnourished man who lived on to compose only a handful of pieces.

You'd think that recent political events would make Veprik fashionable to program, especially since his pre-gulag orchestral language is overtly melodic, even Hollywoody, more crowd-pleasing than even Bloch. But this appears to be the only widely available album of his orchestral music. Multiple symphonies are unrecorded. This disc is divided into two parts: charming, Jewish-inflected miniatures from early in his career, and darker late pieces from after his years in the gulag.

First up, we get the Dances and Songs of the Ghetto (written before the Nazis added a darker meaning to that word), a sort of reverse Dances of Galanta: softer, calmer, more lyrical, with a quiet ending, but with lively dance interludes and plenty of fun. Toscanini once conducted this at Carnegie Hall. Then there are Two Symphonic Songs, of mourning and joy, with strong religious character, big tunes, and colorful orchestration (I like the ending's use of both stopped and open French horns). Finally, the Five Little Pieces form an 11-minute set of folksy dances and songs, with a touch of klezmer clarinet. In total, the fun, tuneful, traditionally Jewish stuff makes up a joyous 36 minutes of the program. The 38 minutes after it are a different story.

The first of the two late, fatalistic pieces is titled Pastorale. Its main melody is overtly lyrical, like a minor-key version of the third movement from Scheherazade, but the orchestral colors are dark and interesting, with lots of cello, viola, and bass clarinet. Lament might be a more appropriate title, but it is not a religious lament like the one in Two Symphonic Songs.

Finally, there are Two Poems. Their names are just Poem 1 and Poem 2, and they add up to 27 minutes, but despite their length they are the most enigmatic, episodic, "tough" works here. They remind me of Havergal Brian or Arnold Bax, actually, in their weird mix of tunefulness, "easy" orchestration (often severely lacking in bass or counterpoint), and deliberately opaque, obscure structure. There is a martial attitude about parts of Poem 1, from the snare drum at the start to the weird triumphant military march at 10', which sounds a lot like the end of Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony, right down to the way that the bass drum eventually joins into the one-two-one-two counting. Then everything falls right apart again and the poem ends seemingly mid-phrase.

Poem 2 opens searchingly, with despairing strings and flute reaching around trying to find a chorale-like melody to guide them. Like the first poem, it's ambiguous, enigmatic, and structured around a blaring Soviet climax with piercing trumpets. Eventually, this gets turned around into a seemingly triumphant, "I'm back!" ending. It's hard to ignore the backstory behind the work and wonder if Veprik's gulag stint had damaged not just his spirit but his attention span as well.

I'm not sure that everyone on GMG will like everything on this album. The Two Poems are a very hard sell for me. But I'm pretty sure everyone on GMG will like something from it, whether it's the moody late stuff for the doom 'n' gloom brigade or the populist dances for the more lighthearted folks. Orchestra and sound are good enough that I hope they get to recording the remaining Veprik works: two symphonies, a sinfonietta, and a suite on Kyrgyz themes.



Olli Mustonen, it turns out, has composed not just chamber music but three symphonies, a triple violin concerto, and several pieces for piano and orchestra. Here we get two recent chamber works. The String Quartet No. 1 (2016) is in a "darkness-to-light" emotional arc over four movements, from an impassioned beginning with lots of unisons (makes me think of the Weinberg piano trio) to a furious finale that deliberately evokes Mustonen's composer-hero, Bartók. There's a quick, angry second movement that will definitely make you think of the famous movement from Shostakovich's Quartet No. 8.

The third, slowest movement is the emotional heart of the work (8 of its 22 minutes), and although it threatens to get repetitive, with the musicians all stating a specific rhythm repeatedly, there's also a hopeful chorale-like melody with a religious shape to it, like a prayer, which builds to several climaxes. The color of that tune is hard to explain - it's like a mix of Orthodox chant and American blues. Overall, the quartet is an exciting piece with memorable ideas, an easy-to-digest structure, that beautiful tune, some riotous Hungarian fiddling near the end - a winner that stands a good chance of getting applause in a concert hall from any audience. Superb.

Mustonen joins the energetic Engegard Quartet for the Piano Quintet (2014), which is in three parts of equal lengths, follows a similar emotional journey, and employs a similarly old-fashioned language that is not of any particular "school." The second movement passacaglia is based on almost exactly the same passacaglia motif from Shostakovich's First Violin Concerto, though the movement proves to be more like a theme-and-variations with lots of polyphonic departures from the original idea. There's even a Glass-like trance climax of repeated figures. In the finale, the players recycle all the previous ideas, kind of squandering about 4 minutes, before launching into a fun, victorious feeling conclusion that proves, like the quartet, that Mustonen is really good at writing fast music that packs in the ideas and the excitement.

A short disc - just 44 minutes - but with a lot of good, memorable material into that timeframe. If some of it is memorable because it resembles things we've heard before, that's okay. Really accomplished, enjoyable music that whets the appetite for more of Mustonen's original work. Performances are top-notch and sound is loud but clear and undistorted.

(Edited to add: I have long known and enjoyed the Mustonen cello sonata recorded with Steven Isserlis on BIS.)


Whole lot of contrabassoon in this light, colorful 14-minute work. Not sure why Mustonen is composing half-length concertante works - a genre which is even deader than classical's average - but the result is another delight. I did not previously know of cellist Timo Veikko-Valve but he tears it up (in a good way). ACO stands for Australian Chamber Orchestra; this is a live concert broadcast excerpted on Qobuz.