At work. Time suspended. A revelation, once more. Edison Denisov’s music. Three Pieces for Cello and Piano, written in 1967. Clarity. Darkness. The legacy of the Soviet Union, the dogma of Socialist Realism and the intrusion of serialism*. Wrap your arms around me. A water drop is falling. Memories of Birtwistle’s piece … What a fascinating piece! Seven minutes of a musical meditation. How weird it must have sounded in a Moscow concert hall in the 1960s.
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?
“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.
Smirnov took me by surprise. I had bought that record a while ago when I did some research about the Moldavian-Austrian violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaya, but hadn’t listened to it actually. So, on a frosty, foggy winter morning, I selected that record while driving to the office. It usually takes me half an hour or so and when I had left the valley and cleared the fog the sun was just about to rise over the horizon. I admired the spectacular colors of the sky and at the same time I heard the first bars of Smirnov’s Elegy for Cello Solo, op. 97a. At first I didn’t quite understand what was happening, but somehow I had to leave the main road, stop the car and watch and listen. And get out and shoot that picture.