Eradicated from history
Nikolai Roslavets Piano trios Nos 2-4 Trio Fontenay, Teldec, £10 (full price), 72 minutes, DDD
When the history of early 20th century avant-garde is finally written, do not be surprised if the name of Nikolai Roslavets is missing from the role of honour. He and the vast majority of his compositions were literally erased from Soviet musical history during the Stalin reign.
While the struggle for artistic freedom of Shostakovich has been documented in numerous historical, political and musical accounts, Roslavets has not been so fortunate. No doubt because of the failure of the composer to achieve some kind of accommodation with the post-revolutionary Soviet bureaucracy, his music is little known outside of specialist musicologist circles. Shostakovich, for all his persecution at the hands of the state, at least managed to emerge with a formidable international reputation.
Early revolutionary Russia was an artistic melting pot of radical expressionism. The eclectic Scriabin was becoming increasingly esoteric and it is no exaggeration to say that he blazed a trail that inspired a whole generation of brave, young Soviet musicians. Among their number was Nikolai Roslavets.
Critic and journalist Andrew J Horton recounts how the music of Roslavets has been likened to "Scriabin on acid" and that his system of "sound centres", "synthetic chords" and "rhythmoforms" was responsible for earning him the title of "the Russian Schoenberg" (AJ Horton The New Presence July 1999).
While Roslavets certainly admired Schoenberg and championed his work inside the increasingly repressive atmosphere of Soviet artistic circles, he had actually been conducting his own experiments with serial forms (whereby all 12 notes in an octave carry equal weight) some considerable time earlier.
During the 1920s, Roslavets achieved what was to be his finest, and all too brief, hour. European audiences enthusiastically received his industrial ballet, The Foundry, and he quickly rose to become one of the leading and most influential figures in Soviet music. Director of the Kharkov Conservatory, board member of the All-Russian Society for Contemporary Music, amongst other positions - it all seemed to point to a glittering future. Unlike Shostakovich, however, it seems that Nikolai Roslavets lacked that great composer's well developed sense of survival. Arrogant and dismissive of critics, he soon fell foul of the Association of Proletarian Musicians with his intransigent support of the serialists.
Obviously serialism, with its departure from hierarchical forms, was a serious deviation from the diktats of 'socialist realism', and its origins as a "putrefied product of bourgeois society" (sleeve notes) marked Roslavets' card in no uncertain terms. Eschewing the maxim, 'discretion is the better part of valour', he savaged his critics with a series of vitriolic polemics. Describing himself as an "intellectually creative proletarian" and an "extreme leftwinger" (ibid.), he had this to say to those that labelled his art 'petty bourgeois' and 'formalistic': " Neither my origins nor my activities justify labelling me a member of the exploiting classes ... Of course, I am not a 'proletarian' composer in the sense that I write bad music 'for the masses' in the style of Bortnyansky or Galupin" (ibid.).
Unlike the arch-opportunist Prokofiev, he was in his heart a loyal Soviet citizen and convinced communist. Despite numerous warnings he refused to leave the country and finally, in spite - i.e., because - of his undoubted commitment to the revolution, he was stripped of public office, eventually dying in 1944 in mysterious circumstances.
The works on this recording all date from the 20s, by which time Roslavets had developed the unique style that ensured his music could not be dismissed as the work of just another serialist hack. In fact, for all the undoubted and obvious avant-garde trademarks, there is a definite 'romanticism' to the works. In parts it strikes me as inhabiting a similar sound world to Shostakovich's 24 preludes and fugues. However, even harder than finding biographical details of Roslavets were my futile attempts to procure a copy of the score! Consequently, and as I was previously unfamiliar with these three works, it is impossible to give a detailed analysis of the subjective interpretations given by the Trio Fontenay.
Nevertheless, this is beautifully disquieting music. At turns disturbingly agitated then dreamily haunting, the composer's unique language, so much more human than the mechanical soullessness of western serialists, is irresistible.
The Trio Fontenay are a formidable outfit. After studying with the Amadeus Quartet they achieved deserved artistic acclaim in a short space of time. Now, some 20 years after their formation, they are clearly a well oiled and professional ensemble.
There is, however, no lack of energy and spontaneity in these fine recordings. The sound is quite impressive with well defined balances and a nice depth, particularly the dark cello of Jens Peter Maintz.
To sum up, a fine recording of some of the most unique music you are likely to hear for quite some time. Another winner for Teldec. Enthusiastically recommended.