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Valery Alexandrovich GAVRILIN (1939-1999)
The War Letters - Song Cycle: Vocal-Symphonic Poem for soloists, children’s and mixed choirs and symphony orchestra to words by A. Shulgina (1975) [28:26]
Theatre Divertimento - Suite for symphony orchestra (1969) [17:23]
The Earth - Vocal cycle for free cast choir, soloists and instrumental ensemble to words by A. Shulgina (1975) [17:45]
Taisiya Kalinchenko (soprano), Eduard Khil (baritone), Kolya Vinogradov (treble), Kira Izotova (soprano)
Leningrad Radio & TV Children’s Choir
Boys’ Choir of the Leningrad Glinka Choir School
Symphonic Orchestra of the Leningrad Radio & TV/Stanislaw Gorkovenko (War; Theatre)
Instrumental Ensemble of the Leningrad Radio & TV/Feodor Kozlov (Earth)
rec. 1980/83, St Petersburg Recording Studio, Capella Concert Hall ADD

It's been a while since we had a new Gavrilin CD. Trust Northern Flowers to step forward with such distinction. This disc comprises the first issue on CD of three variegated and moodily unconventional works. One is an emotive song-cycle, termed a "Vocal-Symphonic Poem", another is a purely orchestral ‘Broadway’ pastiche in the form of a suite and the conclusion comes in the form of a touching populist "Vocal cycle" hymning the environment. These three are full of ideas that drift across pop and classical boundaries with refreshing abandon. The ideas themselves are those of someone still wedded to melody and rhythmic accessibility. Here is evidence of a composer blithely confident about and unwary of the chasm between sentiment and sentimentality.

Valery Gavrilin was born in Vologda. After a tragic early childhood he found a home in an orphanage. Much of his later childhood was taken up with music studies in Vologda and then Leningrad. His specialities were composition and musicology. In the 1960s Gavrilin published another the vocal cycle, the Russian Notebook that would make his name. He joined the staff of the Leningrad Conservatory and remained there for many years as a teacher. He also moved outside academe to provide music for television and film.

The War Letters has a woman and child speakers orating over a very distant humming drum-roll. Tragedy is in the air and both this juxtaposition and the thrumming drums are recurrent across the twelve tracks of this work. A storm of percussion and brass hammer the message home before the honey-voiced baritone enters. Sound effects are embraced, including a whining shell and its explosive crump. This comes before a children's choir, accompanied by tom-tom, gambols along in an Orffian echo. Screaming, wailing, keening and sobbing are heard. These accompany the rapped-out, sternly delivered and heartless musings of the ignorant soldiery. Bells precede singing both unaccompanied and accompanied. The duetting singers are Taisiya Kalinchenko and Eduard Khil. They are joined by the full orchestra with ticking percussion and a sentiment-heavy bayan (in the score the direction is for "a squeeze-box broken into pieces"). Thudding solo percussion underpin a monologue from Khil: "The soldier went off but looked back soon". After this an icily gleaming orchestra-only section precedes a jaunty marching-song for the two singers. The tenth section has the baritone singing of a letter to his darling wife. The final Green May uses the massed violins to deliver a melody of endless stamina and viral poignancy. This is then subsumed into an orchestral protest and the melancholia of a solo clarinet before the entry of the sweet tones of the children's choir. They sing a masterly melody - one worthy of the best of Stephen Sondheim. So ends this tale of "love and eternal separation"; in this I take the notes on trust. While the list of artists terms the two adult singers as "soprano" and "baritone" the artists (Kalinchenko and Khil) are, in fact, pop singers. These are the very same singers who sang in the premiere.

The Theatre Divertimento strikes in medias res straight into some hectic, indeed manic, stage action. Gavrilin makes use of the full orchestral spectrum. In the Overture he introduces some wildly toe-tapping rhythms, flourishes and scorches typical of Shostakovich in his light music and cinema scores. The Comic March uses the fruity register of the brass benches and owns the territory with raucous confidence. He is unafraid of swerving into absurdity and blows endearments in the direction of Petrushka. The little Waltz squeaks along like a vulnerable mouse (solo violin) trying to avoid being noticed by burly and hungry predators portrayed by wetly squat brass. The Gallop spits along like Prokofiev on speed - manic again. Brass fanfares spit out in whiplash vituperation. The Intermezzo, rather accurately, lampoons Russian oriental tropes and a flute sweeps and swoops across the scene; all very vernal and relaxing. The finale is called Rain. The orchestra gambols along like a Carry On film with music by Eric Rogers or Bruce Montgomery. The six movements each have their own track which is more than can be said of the two vocal works.

The Earth again sets words by A. Shulgina. The instrumental ensemble supplies a lively, almost popular, accompaniment for the Introduction. There's also a recurrent vital cantering rhythm. This is stunning and eventually morphs into a simple drum-beat alongside what sounds like a Hammond organ. The charmingly-voiced children's choir is a constant, whether Gavrilin specifies kinetic drive, mournful emotion or something approaching plainchant. The structure of the work is emphasised by a spoken, sung, whispered and sometimes vehemently shouted part for the treble Kolya Vinogradov. The boy delivers this sometimes as a solo and sometimes against the backdrop of the choir. Harp sweeps and woodwind breezes add dramatic punctuation. The soprano Kira Izotova has the stage to herself at one point but is then joined by the humming-croon of the electric organ. The lovely and lulling Lullaby is rounded out by the choir and solo treble joined by piano and organ. That melody is one to treasure and rather parallels John Rutter at his affecting best. This is a 'hit' and if there was any justice we would hear it often. The cycle is dedicated to a Ryazan youth, Anatoly Merzlov, who was killed fighting a fire in an effort to avert a field of wheat being destroyed. Although the work is in three pithily titled sections separated by silences it is presented here in a single 18-minute track.

Sadly, the booklet does not give us the words for either of the vocal scores – ideally, we could have done with the sung texts in the original Russian (transliterated) and translated into English.

This is a successor to Northern Flowers' CD of Gavrilin's song-cycles. A recording of A House on the Road can be heard, if you can find it, on Relief. An isolated song holds open a door for Gavrilin on a mixed recital on Ruvo Classic. While an excerpt from his ballet Anyuta is a filler on a DVD of Prokofiev's Stone Flower. Anyuta is a ballet, the Tarantella from which has been praised by Ian Lace as "full of fun and high spirited swagger – rather like a mix of Danny Elfman in carnival mood and commedia dell'arte atmospherics."

The notes, which cover the territory very well, are anonymous apart from showing "Northern Flowers" as the author. The English is by Sergey Suslov. The leaflet is furnished with a delightful monochrome portrait of the composer at the piano stool.

Rob Barnett



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