Even before you start to listen to Gentle Emanation (1991, rev. 2008), you know what to expect. The title itself, of course, is a give-away: it is taken, we are told, from a phrase in the Russian Bible describing the pregnant moment just before God appears to one of Job’s comforters (the King James equivalent is “there was silence”). But there’s also the booklet cover, featuring a breathtaking photo of the Whirlpool Galaxy; the program notes’ description of the composer’s preference for music that is “deeply spiritiual, Christian-based at times, against the public demonstration of large-scale orches¬tral music”; the notes’ further reference to the work’s “spacious nobility” and “unhurried contempla¬tion”; the description by Octavio Roca, from a Washington Times review, that this is “music that dares simply to exist, shining like the sun, allowing us to bask in its warmth”; and the even stronger quotation from conductor Teodor Currentzis, “Artyomov now is the only composer creating serious monumental compositions of tremendous strength and beauty.” We are clearly in for transcendent, even hypnotic music, slowly moving in vast spans.
In fact, from the painful opening drum whacks (reminiscent of the Mahler 10th), the work is so radically different that you might legitimately think the disc had been mislabeled. Vyacheslav Artyomov apparently dislikes traditional musical labels, preferring instead the trans-historical term “musica perennis” (a term also associated with John Tavener and translated here as “eternal music”). But for those seeking some point of orientation, this large-scale work—with its huge dynamic range, its bouts of gnarled Bergian harmonies, its vehement percussion outbursts, its anguished strivings, its Messiaenic bird-chattering in the woodwinds, its Schoenbergian flutter-tonguing—is far closer to neo-Expressionism than it is to anything by the so-called New Spiritualists. It’s also—despite the reference to “unhurried contemplation”—a surprisingly hyperactive piece, one in which quick and striking ges¬tures carry the primary aesthetic weight. Although it’s a continuous work of 42 minutes, it falls into three larger sections, each divided into anywhere from eight to 11 “episodes,” most of them less than two minutes long—and it shifts direction with bewildering frequency. The final section is more reflec¬tive than the first two, but even here, uneasy quiet is more prevalent than serenity. Overall, to the extent that this work is tied to Job, it seems more a reflection of his sufferings and his doubts than of his faith.
Gentle Emanation is the third in a four-part symphonic tetralogy called Symphony of the Way. Reviewing the first section, The Way to Olympus, nearly 30 years ago (Fanfare 12:2), I suggested that the “the road to Olympus twists through the Pines of the Appian Way”; and while this later installment is less garishly Respighian, it emanates (if I can use that word) the same love of spectacle. Over the years, I’ve become less of a snob, more susceptible to the rowdier sections of the Roman Trilogy. But if anything, that has made me less susceptible to Artyomov, where—even in the bizarre passage of the second movement where the music sounds like a post-modern response to Leopold Mozart’s “Toy Symphony”—the Respighian spirit of good fun is crushed in the name of piety. Still, you should probably treat my objections with a strong dose of skepticism: Artyomov seems to have garnered the enthusiastic support of Rostropovich, Ashkenazy, Rozhdestvensky, Currentzis, and other performers—and Raymond Tuttle waxed enthusiastic over his Requiem (30:2). Certainly, if you’re interested in large-scale contemporary orchestral music, you should give this a listen.
Tristia II, for piano, speaker, and orchestra (1998, rev. 2011), is shorter, gentler, and more hyp-notic, a piece that’s apt to whisper as often as Gentle Emanations is to scream, and (even though it too is divided into shortish “episodes”), more willing to work in longer spans. It’s not quite a piano concerto—the pianist’s role is closer to that in Scriabin’s Prometheus than it is to that in traditional concertos; and it’s got the added oddity of being bracketed by the reading of two brief bits by Gogol. although for some unaccountable reason, we’re not offered either the texts or the translations. It’s a far less striking piece, but it may, for precisely that reason, have greater staying power.
Both works get what sound like committed performances—and the sound is no obstacle. Warily recommended.
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