“Nature gives me more than useless layers of fossilized academicalism”. To whom Edison Denisov may he have referred too? Certainly not to his teacher Dmitry Shostakovich. To the “Union of Soviet Composers” who ostracized him for the influence of Western contemporary classical music on his work? Denisov’s music did not intend to charm the ear and certainly not to conform to the official doctrine of Socialist Realism. It did rather intend to express the composer’s ideas and feelings about the Socialist reality in the Soviet Union, an ambition that the Communist party could not tolerate.
Denisov was born in 1929 in the Siberian town of Tomsk where he enrolled in evening classes in order to study the piano in 1946; soon thereafter he was accepted into the Tomsk Music School. He considered music as a passtime and graduated in 1951 in mathematics before deciding to become a composer. Shostakovich taught him the basics of composition and between 1951 and 1956 he furthermore studied orchestration and analysis at the Moscow Conservatory.
He was drawn to the music of Claude Debussy, Igor Stravinsky, Bela Bartok and Pierre Boulez and compared the evolution of music to the evolution of language. He experimented with tonal possibilities and despite its very modern signature, his music still has a lyrical character with impressionist elements inspired by his fascination for natural beauty. “Work goes easily and freely when I have a direct contact with nature”, he once wrote.
Dreams and repressed irony
In 1954 Denisov wrote a Trio for violin, cello and piano in D major (Op. 5) which he dedicated to Shostakovich. And if you listen to the first bars of the trio, you may have recognized the teacher’s signature in the pupil’s work. A lyrical, dream-like introduction by the piano, a theme taken up by the strings and quickly contrasted by dissonant elements, creating an awkward feeling of repressed irony, balanced by an innocent nonchalance bordering open mockery, a direct reference to Shostakovich’s ambivalent attitude to the official Soviet style and the personal discrimination that marked Shostakovich and later also Denisov’s life.
The trio has been recorded by Mark Lubotsky (violin), Olga Dowbusch-Lubotsky (cello) and Amir Tebenikhin (piano) back to back with Rimsky-Korsakov’s Piano Trio in C minor. Mark Lubotsky got to know Edison Denisov in 1958 when he was living in a new building occupied by Moscow composers and their families. “It is not so very long ago that I added this piece to my repertoire. ¨The work […] stands out because of its charm and candour”, Lubotsky writes. “Open, pure music whose intonation is woven around Russia classics but at the same time with Dmitri Shostakovich’s musical idiom, and all the while with the individual stamp of the young and talented Edison Denisov.”
I discovered this work rather late as I had been looking for Rimsky-Korsakov’s trio for some time and once I had found this recording (no streaming seems to be available) I never got around to focus on Denisov, a composer unknown to me until then. I warmly recommend this interesting and lovely piece, it has a very specific charm and it sparked my curiosity about Denisov’s other works.
© Charles Thibo