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Alexander VEPRIK (1899-1958)
Dances and Songs of the Ghetto, Op. 12 (1927) [9:44]
Two Symphonic Songs, Op. 20 (1932/1935) [15:37]
Five Little Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 17 (1930) [11:12]
Pastorale (1946) [11:10]
Two Poems (1956/1957) [27:05]
BBC National Orchestra of Wales/Christoph-Mathias Mueller
rec. 2019, Cardiff, UK
MDG 901 2133-6 SACD [74:51]

I am always eager to explore new territory when it comes to music, and Alexander Veprik aroused my curiosity. Hard pressed to find much of his work on CD, I noticed that Hänssler Classic had released some albums featuring his work, always in collections with other composers’ music. This newly released recording appears to be the first where the composer has been granted exclusivity. The booklet notes convey a sense that the project has been a labour of love. It has been three years since the conductor Christoph-Mathias Mueller encountered Veprik’s music – Five Little Pieces for Orchestra. What emerged from the grooves of an old Soviet vinyl record not only left him spellbound, but also set him on a mission. A project was born. Mueller had the support of Dr. Inna Klause, who made the initial introduction, and Jascha Nemtsov, whose pioneering efforts have reawakened interest in the composer, rescuing his work from oblivion.

Although Veprik was born in Balta, Ukraine, his young years were spent in Warsaw. In 1909 he travelled to Leipzig with his mother to escape anti-Semitism, and entered the Conservatory there to study piano with Karl Wendling. When World War 1 broke out, it was back to Russia and the Saint Petersburg Conservatory under the tutelage of Nikolai Myaskovsky. From 1923 to 1941 Veprik held a teaching post at the Moscow Conservatory. Other activities included his contribution to the founding of the Society for Jewish Music, a focal point for Jewish composers in Moscow,which enabled Jewish music to flourish in the city. He also met several famous people on his European travels in 1927: Arnold Schoenberg, Paul Hindemith, Maurice Ravel and Arthur Honegger. In December 1950 Veprik was arrested for alleged counter-revolutionary activities. He was tortured during interrogation, accused of composing “Zionist music” and sent to the Gulag. In 1954 he was released, and spent his remaining years in Moscow in poor health. He died in 1958.

In 1927, Veprik composed a work for orchestra entitled The Legend of the Crazy Badchan, which received its premiere under Hermann Scherchen. Two years later it appeared in print as Dances and Songs of the Ghetto, Op. 12. I am amazed how much the composer packs into this ten-minute score. As its title suggests, the music is awash with enticing dance rhythms, each betraying a Jewish accent. I was more than impressed with the vivid, colourful orchestration and contrasting moods. In March 1933, Arturo Toscanini conducted the work in Carnegie Hall. Mueller expertly steers the listener along the modulating contours of this riveting score with prowess.

It was in the early to mid-thirties that Veprik composed his Two Symphonic Songs, Op. 20: Song of Mourning in 1932 and Song of Jubilation in 1935. They were published separately, not intended as a diptych; it was only a new 1959 edition that combined them. They attracted some big names at the time. Scherchen and Mitropoulos conducted the former, and Gauk premiered the latter. Song of Mourning is poignant and melancholic, and luxuriates in some ardent lyricism. Song of Jubilation is folksy, angular and buoyantly optimistic, and showcases some ear-catching orchestration.

In 1930 Veprik composed an Orchestral Suite on Jewish Themes. Growing anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union ruled out a work bearing that title, and it was published as Five Little Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 17. The first is self-assured and outgoing. This is followed by a dreamy nocturne-like piece. Brass fanfares usher in the Tempo di Marcia, which precedes a plucky Allegro. Stillness and calm pervade the final Lento, where time seems static.

The Pastorale finds its origins in the slow movement of Veprik’s Second Symphony. The first version, from 1946, was later revised following the traumatic experiences of the Gulag. Rather than basking in bucolic charm, it is underpinned by a sense of loneliness and isolation.

The Two Poems for Orchestra post-date Veprik’s stay in the Gulag. Each reveals a flair for masterful orchestration. Once again, he turned to his Second Symphony, this time the first movement, for themes for the first Poem, where dramatic sections alternate with wistful meanderings. The second Poem echoes the torment of the composer. This time, bombast surrenders to moments of melting tranquillity and quietude. Brass fanfares announce bold and audacious gestures, bringing the work to a triumphant conclusion.

The BBC National Orchestra of Wales give their all in these compelling performances. This is both accessible and rewarding music. I am convinced that Christoph-Mathias Mueller’s probing and inspirational readings will win over many. I hope more of Veprik’s music will follow. Certainly the two Symphonies are an enticing prospect.

Stephen Greenbank

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