In the dying years of the Soviet Union I became aware of dozens of symphonists who survived on the fringes of musical society, tolerated by the authorities but never given a proper hearing. Once I got past the immense, historic figures of Mieczyslaw Weinberg and Galina Ustvolskaya, both pivotal in the life of Dmitri Shostakovich, I kept discovering other samizdat composers who, for some reason, seemed to speak my language. At a time when western musicians were subjected to a dictatorship of style and serial ideology if they wanted to get on the BBC, these covert Russians were free to write as they pleased.
Some were, of course, more arcane than others. It has taken me a while to get to grips with the oeuvre of Alexander Lokshin (1920–1987), a composer uncompromising in his reckless independence. Lokshin refused to set Communist Party texts to music. He preferred Japanese haikus, Shakespeare sonnets, Charles Baudelaire and Goethe. His Requiem came dangerously close to indicting the Soviets of genocide. He is not always approachable.
This release, however, is an icebreaker. It contains the most scintillating clarinet quartet I have ever heard, a 1955 score that dances through the post-Stalin murk with pointed, pessimistic quotations from Mahler’s ninth symphony. Played here by Ivan Mozgovenko and the Komitas Quartet, it goes deeper into the unsaid than practically any other Russian music of its time. Why do we never get to hear this perfect masterpiece?
Also on the album are Lokshin’s 5th symphony a setting for baritone and orchestra of two Shakespeare poems translated by Pasternak – an uncanny mood anticipation of Shostakovich’s 14th – and a set of 1953 piano variations played by the brilliant Maria Grinberg, a set defined by Lokshin as Variations à la Shostakovich. I guarantee you will play this record over and over again. And, if you play clarinet, you will itch to get hands and lips on the quintet score.
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