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Music : Continuum Samples Soviet Modernism

The Stalinist period excepted, social realism was not the necessary end of all Soviet art. Modernist and avant-garde impulses flourished in unlikely places, certainly beyond the pale of official art but not exactly underground either.

Friday evening, the Continuum ensemble from New York offered a sampler of Soviet musical modernism--though nothing by anyone under 55--at the Schoenberg Institute on the USC campus.

First came a set from the 1920s, beginning with piano character pieces by Nicolai Roslavets and Alexander Mosolov, nervously played by Cheryl Seltzer. At this point, the unexceptional pieces--diluted Scriabin and Schoenberg--have more historical than purely musical interest.

Mosolov’s “Three Scenes from Childhood” proved much more striking in pictorial invention, and were sung by mezzo Ellen Lang with pouting charm and humor.

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Names such as Alfred Schnittke are now becoming familiar to us, and his shatteringly original Second Violin Sonata--fierce abstract bangs and chitters exploding from tense silences--has been heard in this hall before. Violinist Mia Wu and pianist Joel Sachs delivered it this time with scary zeal.

Leonid Hrabovsky’s recent “Kogda” was a Continuum commission, and provides expressive work for the group--Lang, Wu, Seltzer and clarinetist Nathan Williams, conducted by Sachs. The settings of nine poems by Velimir Khlebnikov are acutely sensitive to the ironies and imagery of the texts, though the playing into the piano in the introduction completely failed in its effects.

Part of that may have been due to the acoustical environment, filled with extracurricular noises that suggested to attendant wits many variants on the title of Edison Denisov’s “Pain and Silence.” Lang projected the wry, haunted gloom of that song cycle with austerity and authority, fluently supported by the ensemble.

Williams demonstrated remarkably pure sound throughout and comprehensive resources in his firmly pointed account of Elena Firsova’s wild Berio-esque solo Sonata. He also combined with Wu and Sachs in a dry reading of Galina Ustvolskaya’s Trio, two movements of an odd sort of linear proto-minimalism followed by an emphatic neo-Baroque finale.

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