Now in his mid-70s, Vyacheslav Artyomov is best known for his six cosmic-mystical-syncretic symphonies, which together make up one of the most distinctive continuations to the post-Soviet Russian branch of the genre. Two of those symphonies make welcome appearances here in characterful performances, vividly recorded.
On the Threshold of a Bright World starts with subterranean heavings, as if reluctantly giving birth to pitch, motif and harmony. Gentle Emanation summons the listener more imperiously, with Ustvolskaya-style drum strokes followed by high-register, cloud-like drifting, likewise promising great things to come. As for fulfilling that promise, Artyomov’s favoured unbroken spans of 35 to 40 minutes certainly test the concentration. But he has the courage of his convictions. He styles each symphony ‘in continuous episodes’, evidently unconcerned that episodic, in the traditional conception, is the opposite of symphonic; and for the most part his inventive powers carry him over the divides. For ears attuned to the likes of, say, Adès or Benjamin, or symphonists such as Nørgård, Ruders, Tüür and Aho, Artyomov’s post-Berg-and-Scriabin language, with its rich chromatic harmonies cut across by flashes of expressionist lightning, may simply sound too coarse. But this is music that belongs in the frankly declamatory world of Schnittke and Gubaidulina, and it’s surely hard to deny its communicative urgency and grandiloquence. When the symphonies’ opening gambits return, there is an unmistakable sense of a journey travelled and of emotional states transfigured into spirit.
The fill-ups are not unproblematic. Tristia II, with its narration of Gogol poems (unfortunately not reproduced in the booklet), wears its spirituality so obviously on its sleeve that I suspect many will find it more embarrassing than inspiring. In the percussion concertante Ave atque vale the combination of echoes of Mahler’s Tenth with toy instruments à la Pärt’s Second Symphony (which figure also in Gentle Emanation) tests my tolerance levels to the limit. The hymn Ave, crux alba sounds as though patched together from Mahler’s Eighth (‘Blicket auf’), bits of Allan Pettersson and a pre-echo of the soundtrack to Love, Actually.
Having said that, all the performances here are terrific, and they surpass in sonic terms the Melodiya recordings (and Olympia reissues) that were my introduction to the composer. Robert Matthew-Walker’s booklet-notes argue at passionate length for Artyomov’s uniqueness and importance.