Sergei Zhukov Piano Concerto (Silentium); Violin Concerto (Angel's Day)
Cameo Classics CC 9105 (2014) 75:09 mins Two out of the three ear-tweaking concertos Sergei Zhukov composed for the members of the Bekova Trio, played by their respective dedicatees with dazzling aplomb in exemplary sound. **** BBC Music Magazine
This is a reissue of a disc originally released by Cameo Classics back in 2013. It was twice reviewed on MWI at the time, by Rob Barnett (who tentatively suggests a 2010-11 recording date) and Steve Arloff. Both have written with great insight and real enthusiasm about these concerti. Lyrita recently acquired Cameo Classics and their name looms large on the redesigned leaflet, but otherwise the disc is the same. These two big pieces form two thirds of a triptych of solo concertos for the three Bekova Sisters (who recorded much for Chandos in the 1990s and 2000s including Zhukov’s ‘Triple Concerto Grosso’).
It’s difficult to add anything analytical or contextual about these works beyond the eloquent reviews of my colleagues – but I can describe my personal impressions. These pieces are absolutely not what I expected – if the listener listens to the first couple of movements of each piece and assumes they know what’s coming – they would be completely wrong. Frankly I would have expected any composer of works of this quality to have at least a ‘cult’ following, but beyond the website mentioned in the previous reviews, Sergei Zhukov is something of a mystery.
The first movement of the piano concerto (subtitled Silentium for reasons which will become apparent) begins with short, unpredictable piano phrases occasionally with a muted orchestra, which alternate with what I would describe as loud silences. The fact that Zhukov is Ukranian, and this alternation of sound and silence might invoke the name of Valentin Silvestrov to some, Zhukov’s material is more pungent and unpredictable, moving as it does from gentle, ethereal sequences to more dissonant serial-like ones that are almost Webernesque. So the compelling use of silence here evokes another modern master, Luigi Nono – it is almost confrontational – and after hearing these episodes a few times – Zhukov’s maverick impulses seem compelling and even beautiful.
As the concerto proceeds, its extreme diffuseness is likely to turn off some listeners at first listen; there were moments during my first encounter where I thought I was losing interest before Zhukov introduces a sudden melodic or harmonic twist, or some peculiar orchestral timbre (both works are full to bursting with weird colours and velvet textures – I would say Zhukov’s daringness in this regard is most unusual – and he unfailingly knows exactly when to draw the line) which demand one’s attention and retrieves the listener’s focus . These moments occurred predominantly during the second and third movements, yet by the time I’d heard the work the third time I could not believe I’d ever found these episodes hard going - they are actually superbly built and expertly weighted. The fourth movement is quite masterly; the building of tension before the final, unforgettable, shattering coda is extraordinary – whereas the final Post-scriptum (a very Silvestrovian word - here its use could not be more apposite) epilogue incorporating Eleonora Bekova’s unnerving and somehow disembodied recitation of the Mandelstam poem that gives the concerto its title creates its own music, as Steve Arloff stated.
The performance is first-rate – the Karelia Orchestra have recorded other obscure repertoire for Cameo and they are superbly recorded while those familiar with the Bekova Sisters’ impressive Chandos discography will not be surprised by Eleonora’s iridescent and thrilling playing.
If Silentium is a startling find, its violin sibling is in my view even better. The title Angel’s Day is both delightful and apt as the four movements seek to project a kind of ‘Day in the Life’ narrative. The low bass and timpani glissandi and ethereal bell-trees that combine to open the first movement Morning Touch create an infinity that the stratospherically high-lying violin line fills, seemingly the last shooting star in the sky as night becomes day, although the note suggests that this impressive episode actually represents ‘the gentle singing of the angels’. A repeated note on the celesta announces the scherzo, entitled Messenger and triggers some tentative, melodic buzzing from the soloist before Mendelssohn’s familiar fairy music from A Midsummer Night’s Dream is wittily paraphrased. It turns out of course that the repeated note represented the chimes of a clock and soon it is mid-day. This is no lazy quotation - the very spirit of Mendelssohn is superbly absorbed, never slavishly copied. This movement is dazzlingly fast and despite the full orchestra being used, winningly light on its feet. The slow movement Vespers starts with murky ambiguous evening shadows. Again Zhukov’s tone-painting is most original and extremely unpredictable. The soloist’s material lies much lower on the violin - supposedly evoking the travails of the mortals on earth – in time the movement adopts some more conventional postures, indeed the ritual of a church service is evoked in the second half of this panel, and some listeners may detect a textural similarity in the string writing with John Tavener’s masterpiece The Protecting Veil. Tavener never used percussion and woodwind like this though - this movement especially gets better with each hearing. But for me the highlight of the entire disc is Night Flight, the finale. Again the allusions are many but they are seamlessly integrated – it’s easy to pick Schoenberg and Prokofiev, but my knowledge of Glinka’s Ruslan and Ludmila extends only to its famous overture and not to the Marche Chernomor which is cited in the notes. However one also detects the gossamer spirit of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker, while Zhukov’s fluent, assured orchestration ensures that this Night Flight is quite unforgettable. Elvira Bekova is a spellbinding soloist – one has to ask why we have not heard her in more solo fare. The playing from the Moscow Orchestra more than matches that of their Karelian counterparts in Silentium while the recording is again warm, inviting and detailed.
The biggest question of all was posed by Steve Arloff in his review - given the regular exposure we get these days in the West to new music from the old Soviet states, why has Sergei Zhukov not been invited to the party? The third concerto in Zhukov’s ‘Bekova trilogy’, Gethsemanian Night looks fascinating before one has heard a note – given its eccentric scoring for amplified solo cello, six horns, three percussionists, prepared piano and choir. The Arloff review suggested it was soon to be recorded but there is no reference to this in the redesigned booklet. One hopes now that Lyrita seem to be pushing the Cameo imprint that this may come to light. In the meantime I have found a second-hand copy of the Chandos disc and ordered it - I can’t wait for it to arrive. I do hope this reissue is successful and triggers big interest in Zhukov, this superb coupling suggests he is really worth getting to know. It’s a ‘Reissue of the Month’ at the very least. Richard Hanlon, MusicWeb