Russian Trumpet Sonatas
Iskander Akhmadullin (trumpet)
Natalia Bolshakova (piano)
rec. 2016, Whitmore Recital Hall, University of Missouri, USA MSR CLASSICS MS1697 [73:53]
How’s your knowledge of the mid-20th century Russian trumpet sonata? I know - mine too! Had I asked the same of the piano sonata, or even the violin or cello sonata, you could probably have listed a few fine works by the giants of that nation and era. But here is an overview of that genre which once absorbed, will enable you to triumph if that question ever arises as a quiz tie-breaker. (Well, maybe you engage in very high level music quizzes…)
I should state right at the outset my gratitude to trumpeter Iskander Akhmadullin, first for his excellent playing, second for curating – a modish term I know but it really applies for once – this collection, and third for his excellent notes on each composition. For not one of these eight names was known to me, a reasonably knowledgeable music lover of the Russian mainstream. But we are not concerned here with that mainstream, so without the illuminating background Akhmadullin gives, on both composers and compositions, this review would have required quite a lot of time with Grove Online.
Not that the solo trumpet did not feature before in Russian music. It seems that in the first half of the 20th century, Russian composers wrote concertos and character pieces for it but rarely sonatas for trumpet and piano. This changed, as so often, because one musician led the charge. He was Georgi Antonovich Orvid (1904-1980), who popularized the trumpet sonata genre in Russia first by playing some works of Western composers, and then by commissioning new works from his compatriots for his own use in performance. This CD offers eight sonatas for trumpet from Soviet Russia, all world premiere recordings, of which the four by Platonov, Milman, Aleksandrov and Lyubovsky, were written in collaboration with Georgi Orvid. So in some ways this album also serves as an hommage to Orvid.
The sonatas are all brief, roughly between 5 and 11 minutes until the final one on the disc which runs over 16 minutes. Whether this reflects the relative uniformity of colour of the instrument’s timbre, which is a bit wider than you might think (unless you know the work of the great jazz trumpeters), or the sheer difficulty of playing a brass instrument almost continuously, I am not sure. But it makes for a very attractive disc to dip in and out of, but always hearing a complete work by a composer perhaps unknown to you. Of course this is music under the Soviets, so the style is relatively consistent, and never avant-garde (or ‘formalist’). That said, there is still plenty of room within those constraints for a variety of approaches to the challenge of writing a piece that can be properly called a sonata (or a sonatina in three cases) for the combination of trumpet and piano.
Chichkov’s Sonatina is a student work, but a listener would never know that, so accomplished is it. It is though written in an awkward key for the trumpet Akhmadullin tells us, and has several technical hurdles along its short span. It begins with a catchy march and continues with a folk-like theme, and I could not help thinking at times of the trumpet parts in Stravinsky’s Pulcinella or the Soldier’s Tale. Platonov’s Sonata was described by a leading orchestral trumpeter as a “little Poem of Ecstacy” and there is something of Scriabin’s harmonic manner about it. Alexandrov’s work is busy, even motoric in the finale, a Prokofiev-like toccata, very brilliant and virtuosic. But high virtuosity is required to some degree in each of these pieces, not least in Milman’s Sonata, in which Akhmadullin notes “ a number of challenges for the performer: wide leaps (up to major ninth), extended sections in the instrument’s upper range, ascending fanfares, numerous sixteenth note runs slurred in pairs, triple-tongued repetitions, rapid double-tongued runs, and a very awkward sequence in tri-tones in the cadenza.“ Now even if you have never picked up a trumpet and tried to produce a noise from it, that sounds hard. For the listener of course, it is all just a considerable source of fun, when played as it is here, with impetus and élan.
Lyubovsky’s Sonata has similar challenges, while Okunev’s work struck me more for its evocative opening and the songful slow movement. Baryshev’s piece is folk-influenced hence its subtitle “in the Russian style”, and both players have to imitate folk instruments at
times. The final work is the most recent (1986) and the only one by a woman composer. It is also one of the most interesting as its greater length allows a bit more time for variety, including variety of timbre – it requires the player to use three different types of mutes. It opens with more than a hint of Debussy’s The Submerged Cathedral in the piano part and a long trumpet melody filled with foreboding. It is the work I most wanted to play again at once.
Iskander Akhmadullin, as well as being a distinguished orchestral and chamber musician, is an Associate Professor of Trumpet at the University of Missouri. One thinks of Missouri and Moscow as very far apart (at present, in every sense). But he tells us he is “continuously introducing new works for trumpet by American composers to Russian audiences, while also presenting the American premieres of works from the Russian trumpet repertoire.” So he is a true musical ambassador, and one who relishes the challenge of programming new and unfamiliar music. His playing is quite outstanding throughout. His pianist Natalia Bolshakova also has both Moscow and Missouri connections, and is no less accomplished. Indeed Akhmadullin observes that these sonatas often have very demanding piano parts because so many Soviet trained composers were also virtuoso pianists. It is all pretty dazzling at times in both instruments, but also poetic too whenever the music calls for it.
The sound is excellent, excitingly present and tactile for the solo trumpet. I wondered if the recorded balance did not at times favour the trumpet over the piano, but maybe that is merely a matter of the instrument from the drawing room being pitted against an instrument from the battlefield, and I was just hearing what we would in the recital hall. The full and detailed notes are obviously an indispensable part of this excellent production.
So who is this disc for? Trumpeters of course – the details of the instrument used are given in the booklet. Those interested in the music of the Soviet era will almost certainly expand their knowledge in a way yet another disc of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony will not achieve. But mostly it is for the musically curious, and even the musically gregarious. If you like to amaze your friends when they visit, there are plenty of jaw-dropping moments of virtuoso musicianship here. And now I think I will play through that Isakova Sonata once more.
Roy Westbrook [RWe] Contents
Yuri Mikhailovich CHICHKOV (1929–1990) Sonatina For Trumpet And Piano (1950) [5:30]
First recording of version in G major [Transposed: I. Akhmadullin]
Nikolai Ivanovich PLATONOV (1894–1967) Sonata For Trumpet And Piano (c.1962) [11:08]
Yuri Mikhailovich ALEKSANDROV (1914–2001)
Sonata For Trumpet And Piano (c.1964) first recording of original version for trumpet and piano [9:25]
Mark Vladimirovich MILMAN (1910-1995) Sonata For Trumpet And Piano, OP.40 (1962) [9:25]
Leonid Zinovievich LYUBOVSKY (b.1937) Sonata For Trumpet And Piano (1969) [8:34]
Gherman Grigorievich OKUNEV (1931-1973) Sonatina For Trumpet And Piano (1970) [5:34]
Alexander Ivanovich BARYSHEV (b.1940) Sonatina In The Russian Style For Trumpet And Piano (1970) [8:00]
Aida Petrovna ISAKOVA (1940-2012) Sonata For Trumpet And Piano (1986) [16:25]
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