Sunday 27 September 2015

An exciting new release from Meridian of impressive chamber works by Elena Firsova that are full of expression, emotion, passion, poetry and not a little virtuosity

Composer Elena Firsova (Елена Фирсова) (b.1950) was born in Leningrad into a family of scientists. The family moved to Moscow in 1956. She made her first attempt at composition at the age of eleven going on to study at music school and college before entering the Moscow Conservatory where her teachers were Alexander Pirumov (composition), Yuri Kholopov (analysis) and Nikolai Rakov (orchestration).

She came into contact with composers Edison Denisov (1929-1996) and Philip Herschkowitz (1906-1989), the pupil of Anton von Webern. In August 1972, she married the composer Dmitri Smirnov and went on to have two children, artist Philip Firsov (b. 1985) and pianist and composer Alissa Firsova (b. 1986)

Since 1979 she had many performances in Europe and the USA and received many commissions including BBC, PROMS, and WRD and has been published by Boosey & Hawkes, Sikorski, Schirmer, Schott and Sovetsky Kompozitor.

She has been composer in residence in Bard College, USA (1990), in St John’s College, Cambridge, UK (1992) and later in the same year at Dartington Hall, Devon. From 1993 to 1997 she was visiting professor and composer in residence at Keele University. From 1999 until 2001 she taught composition at the Royal Northern College of Music, Manchester. The premiere of her major work Requiem took place at the Berlin Konzerthouse in 2003. She has written around a hundred compositions in many different genres including operas, oratorios, cantatas, orchestral works, concertos, chamber works and instrumental works.

An important new recording has been released by Meridian Records featuring chamber works by Elena Firsova played by the Marsyas Trio whose members are Helen Vidovich (flute), Valerie Welbanks (cello) and Fei Ren (piano). In some of the works they are joined by violinist Patrick Dawkins, violist Morgan Goff, soprano Maacha Deubner and mezzo-soprano Hannah Pedley.

CDE 84635
Homage to Canisy, Op.129 for Cello & Piano refers to the Château de Canisy in Normandy, France where the composer stays each year. It was premiered in 2010 by the cellist Anatole Libermann and pianist Alissa Firsova at the castle’s music festival Fête de la Musique.

In the opening the cello brings a deep, rich theme interrupted by drooping and pizzicato notes. Soon the piano enters around the cello line that becomes ever more expansive and emotional before pizzicato notes on the cello bring a quiet moment with a delicate piano passage. Out of the hush, deep piano chords and a slow rhythmic pizzicato cello theme appear. A rising piano motif leads to plaintive harmonics from cello as the coda arrives.

This is a strikingly effective piece that receives a particularly sensitive performance.

Lost Vision, Op. 137 for Piano Solo expresses the composer’s anxiety at a sudden vision impairment, incorrectly diagnosed as permanent. It was written in 2012 and first performed by Alissa Firsova in 2013. It opens with a gentle, hushed theme, gently finding its way forward, rising up the keyboard, slowly offset by firm lower notes. Soon a bold, dynamic, fast moving theme is introduced, building on the substance of the initial motif.  Chords are left to resonate before the music is slowly and gently picked up again, rising slowly to the upper reaches whilst lower chords are gently played. As the coda is reached the music fades to the depths.

Fei Ren brings much poetry and not a little virtuosity to this piece.

A Triple Portrait, Op.132 was commissioned by the Marsyas Trio and premiered in London in 2012. The title reflects the idea of three individuals who enter one after the other before trying to communicate, playing together.

The Andante rubato is for flute alone. It brings a beautiful theme with Helen Vidovich providing a lovely characterful tone as the melody rises with some lovely trills and textures.

The piano enters at the beginning of the Adagio, slowly laying out a theme before rising to a momentary flourish. The cello then enters bringing a slow rich deep melancholy feel to which the piano adds its lovely, slightly dissonant accompaniment. The cello rises up as the end arrives.

A piano chord announces the Andante as the cello adds a little rising motif to which the piano soon joins. Flute enters to delicate piano accompaniment before a remarkably fine duet between flute and cello over which the piano provides a delicate accompaniment. The tempo suddenly picks up with some terrific passages for each player, these fine artists weaving some tremendous sounds around each other.  A moment of intense passion is reached before the music drops to a sombre cello passage. Eventually a delicate piano line is added with the flute also joining, finding a plaintive melody as though bringing balm to the cello’s anguish. The cello plays a quiet, sad little theme accompanied by a delicate piano motif as the longer line of the flute leads to the coda, the cello having a final say with pizzicato chord.

The Marsyas Trio must have been thrilled to receive such a fine work, full of wonderful ideas and beautifully written for each player. They give this work a terrific performance finding out all of its depth and emotion.

Night Songs, Op.125 for Mezzo-Soprano, Flute & Cello sets poems by Osip Mandelstam (1891-1938) who died in a Stalinist camp. The songs reflect the fear and anguish of the texts. Written in 2009 it was premiered in London in 2010.

The Andante con moto opens with flute and pizzicato cello. Mezzo soprano, Hannah Pedley soon enters to sing the strangely evocative text around which flute and cello weave, complementing the mezzo’s fine tone. The way these performers carefully blend the textures and timbres is terrific.

In the Vivace the cello brings a fast moving theme to which the mezzo adds a passionate voice, the flute providing lovely textures. The interplay of instruments and soloist is remarkable, particularly as they move to the coda.

Mezzo, Hannah Pedley opens alone in the Andante but is soon joined by the cello above which the flute soon adds its sad plaintive theme. Here is a song full of sorrow, with some lovely instrumental moments and Pedley in superb voice. This is a most affecting song with moments of extreme passion. It rises to a climax before falling back with surely a hint of the ancient Dies Irae plainchant, flute and piano now providing a spare accompaniment before a flute flourish brings about the conclusion.

These are remarkably fine songs given a very fine performance.  

Spring Sonata, Op.27 for Flute & Piano (1982) expresses the feelings associated by the coming of spring. It was written for and dedicated to the Russian flautist, Irina Lozben first performed by her with pianist Vassili Lobanov in Moscow.

A delicate piano motif followed by the flute opens the sonata. The flute and piano both develop trills and decorations, developing a fast dialogue between each other before rolling piano phrases bring more of a flow. The piano brings more trills and delicate accompaniment as the flute plays a lovely melody, the piano part often having the flavour of Messiaen. The piano builds on the trills, soon joined by the flute as the music rises up. Some really terrific dialogue again ensues before a solo passage for flute arrives, bringing little staccato phrases before the return of the melody. The piano joins and the music leads on and it is trills that lead to the coda, ending on a flute motif.

This is a particularly impressive piece where melody sits comfortably with more unusual ideas. Again the performance is terrific.

Elena Firsova had a long association with the great cellist and conductor, Mstislav Rostropovich (1927-2007). For Slava, Op.120 for Solo Cello (2007) was written as an emotional response to Rostropovich’s funeral.

There is a rich, deep, resonant opening with pizzicato phrases before some lovely mournful harmonies appear, full of anguish. This is a piece one could imagine Slava playing so much does it seem to suit the man. Here Valerie Welbanks proves to be a terrific advocate of this virtuosic yet passionate work, one in which Firsova seems to have poured all of her feelings. Eventually pizzicato resonances are heard before a mournful, hushed harmonic melody appears. There are hints of Shostakovich before the coda arrives.

This is a wonderful tribute to a great musician.

Meditation in the Japanese Garden, Op.54 for Flute, Cello & Piano (1991) was commissioned by and dedicated to the flautist Aurèle Nicolet. Originally for flute viola and piano is was transcribed by the composer for the Marsyas Trio in 2011. The title refers to a small Japanese garden in Dartington where the composer completed the piece.

A long held flute note leads into a flowing melody. Soon the piano adds a delicate accompaniment before both build the melody. The cello arrives to add a richer tone to the music with Firsova brings a hauntingly Eastern feeling of mediation. Soon the tempo becomes livelier as the Marsyas Trio weave a lovely tapestry of sounds, building to an excitable passage full of dynamic phrases with more terrific playing from this trio. Eventually the concentrated contemplation returns as they weave the exquisite theme gently towards the coda.

Three Poems of Osip Mandelstam, Op.23 for Soprano & Piano was written in 1980 and premiered by soprano Lydia Davydova and pianist Rusudan Hunzaria in Moscow in 1981. It takes poems by Mandelstam written in 1909 and 1930.

The Andante con moto opens with soprano Maacha Deubne’s fine soprano voice, with some exquisitely decorated passages from pianist, Fei Ren. There are moments throughout where there are plucked and strummed piano strings adding texture and atmosphere showing Firsova’s fine ear for texture and sonority.  

There is a limpid piano introduction to the Adagio before Deubne enters bringing superb feeling to the words ‘More tender than tender is your face...’ There is a wonderfully spare and simple beauty to this song.

Maacha Deubne and Fei Ren give a spectacularly fine performance of Lento. After an initial outpouring of feeling there are some lovely little piano details accompanying the passionate singing of the soprano. It rises to a peak before the sad conclusion.

The Marsyas Trio are joined by violinist, Patrick Dawkins and violist, Morgan Goff for the final work on this disc Tender is the Sorrow, Op.130 for Flute, String Trio and Piano. Written in 2010 it is dedicated to the memory of the composer’s aunt. It was commissioned by the Greek Ensemble Idée Fixe and first performed in Thessaloniki, Greece in 2012.

Piano chords open together with a hesitant string motif before a fluttering flute joins.  The music develops some strikingly fine string textures as the music rises, the flute taking the melody gently on. It builds in tempo and anxiety until a solo flute passage weaves the melody further. Strings enter alone with subtle piano chords, building in passion until the flute takes the theme and recalls the fluttering phrases of the opening to lead to a hushed coda.

This is another really fine work that receives a first class performance from this ensemble.

This is an exciting new release with impressive works that are full of expression, emotion, passion, poetry and not a little virtuosity. They are full of wonderful ideas and beautifully written, often quite affecting, sometimes haunting, with a fine ear for texture and sonority.

The recording is clear and detailed and there are useful notes from Helen Vidovich as well as full Russian texts and English translations. The booklet and disc have striking artwork by Philip Firsova.

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