When the Soviet Avant-garde Raised its Voice

Denisov Sonata Cello Piano
Mediation about life. © Charles Thibo

Dmitry Shostakovich was his teacher and mentor, but the student went beyond the limits Shostakovich had helped to define. In the Soviet Union this was quite an achievement. Edison Denisov moves into the realm of sound clusters and minimal music that others have explored before, albeit in an environment where creativity and expressivity were less restricted: György Ligeti in West Germany, Luciano Berio in Italy, Steve Reich in the United States. How did this square with the doctrine of “Socialist Realism” that Soviet music was to follow?

Well, even the Soviet Union could not isolate itself from the rest of the world and certainly not from the evolution of music. General biographic elements for Denisov can be found in an earlier post, today I will focus on the 1970s and beyond since Denisov wrote this piece in 1971: the Sonata for Cello and Piano, commissioned by the Festival of Royan and written for the cellist Pierre Penassou. From 1968 to 1970 Denisov had led the Experimental Studio for Electronic Music in Moscow, which gave him the freedom to experiment. In his Three Pieces for Cello and Piano, witten in 1967, Denisov had used serial techniques to expressive ends, while a theme linked the two movements of this brief work. The sonata follows the same architectural principle.

The first movement starts with a dark melody played quietly at the low end of the cello’s range, interspersed with piano “splashings” at the high end, serial chords as accompaniment. The cello’s mood moves from gentle to passionate, but the piano  remains detached, unemotional, as if Denisov wanted to oppose the two voices. Still, the movement is perfectly balanced and the overarching harmony is remarkable.

The second movement juxtaposes two very different styles. It begins with a light melody  played on only one string on the cello and only one key at a time on the piano. The line switches back and forth. Strange and beautiful! Finally, as one reviewer put it, “[…] both instruments launch into a demonic rush. Rhythmic distortions abound, and cello and piano seem to be trying to outdo each other in volume and passion.” A brutal piano chord ends the work.

I find it astonishing that such a work could see the light in the Soviet Union. Stalin was long dead by 1971, but the Cold War had not yet reached its culmination point. Nor had the internal repression ended. But at least the cultural dogma cast in iron by Stalin were no longer enforced. Creativity, modernism was possible, and Denisov led this new Soviet and later Russian avant-garde into the future. With the end of the Soviet Union, Denisov became the Secretary General of the Association of Russian Composers  and oversaw the rebirth of the Association for Contemporary Music that had been dissolved  in 1932. In 1992 he came a professor at the Moscow Conservatory, in 1990/91 he worked at the IRCAM in Paris, the hot spot of European contemporary classical music. Denisov emigrated in 1994 to France where he died in 1996.

The Sonata for Cello and Piano has been recorded by Alexander Klechevsky and Alexander Zagorinsky.

© Charles Thibo

Editors’s note:

I apologize for the many typos in the early version of this post. It was written under challenging circumstances: a house full of workers, dust and noise.

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de Chareli

Writer, photographer, piano student, music enthusiast. And a lot more. You are welcome to follow my blog.