The profound, spiritual nature of Vyacheslav Petrovich Artyomov’s music has led the conductor Teodor Currentzis to liken the Russian composer, who was born in 1940 in Moscow and is considered Russia’s greatest living composer, to Anton Bruckner.
The critic Robert Matthew-Walker, the author of a book on Artyomov’s work and the liner notes for two new recordings released by the Divine Art Recording Group, agrees with Currentzis’s observation. He further notes that the composer considers himself a successor of the Russian Romantic tradition and cites among his influences Prokofiev, Stravinsky, and Scriabin, as well as the Swiss composer Arthur Honegger.
Listeners of “On the Threshold of a Bright World” and “Gentle Emanation,” released on separate compact discs by Divine Art, if they are familiar with these composers, will recognize the truth in the composer’s acknowledgement of his influences.
At the same time, they will encounter a composer with a unique vision who fully delivers on his stated belief that – as he writes in an essay quoted in the liner notes included with these recordings – music is “a mediator between God and man” and “should awaken man’s ethical understanding and purify his soul.”
“On the Threshold of a Bright World,” 1990/revised 2002, and “Gentle Emanation,” 1991, are the second and third symphonies respectively in the composer’s “Symphony of the Way” tetralogy. The other two symphonies are Way to Olympus, 1979/revised 1984, the first in the order of the four, and “The Morning Star Arises,” 1993, the concluding symphony.
Majestic and dramatic at times, reflective and interior at others, and some times playful, “On the Threshold of a Bright World and Gentle Emanation” seeks to depict the awe-inspiring mystery of God. This is not the music of a Russian Orthodox Divine Liturgy. It is, however, music that captures a sense of God as the mysterious, uncontainable, uncreated light, and human beings as creatures struggling to meet their God, music that has at its core a clear understanding of the Orthodox faith.
In the liner notes, Artyomov is quoted as saying that “On the Threshold of a Bright World” concerns a hero who “like his native country Russia . . . has lost his God and is trying to find him again.”
The symphony opens with the orchestra gradually building until the music that emerges is dramatic, somewhat ominous, the kind of music we might encounter in a film in which the protagonist is about to discover something that will change everything. Rolling drums, trilling piano, horns, strings, intriguing bell-like sounds – all play a part in the unfolding drama.
Given the title and Artyomov’s sensibility, as the drama builds it is as if we are listening to the hero climb up a winding staircase out of the darkness, with twists and turns and minor discoveries along the way, perhaps a fall or two, before he finally reaches the threshold to look upon a world that bursts into the promise of the penetrating light he may one day reach.
“On the Threshold of a Bright World” is a brilliant and perfectly executed 2013 performance by the National Philharmonic Orchestra of Russia with Vladimir Ashkenazy conducting. The recording also includes two additional works, “Ave Atque Vale” (Hail and Farewell) 1997, and the regal “Ave, Crux Alba” (Hail, the White Cross), 1994/revised 2012. Each is quite arresting and beautiful.
“Gentle Emanation” takes its title from the Russian translation of Job 4: 15-16, The phrase, Artyomov says, refers to the moment before God appears. Here, he says, his hero struggles interiorly as he seeks to reach the light. It opens with a resounding drum beat followed by the soft and delicate sounds of the orchestra. A second drum beat sounds, and it too is followed by the gentle sounds of the orchestra, although this time a bit louder. Then a third drum beat sounds, and the orchestra enters again with more power. Something has happened, but we sense that something more is to come.
The symphony is powerfully performed by the Russian National Orchestra conducted by the Greek-born Currentzis, who settled in Russia after studying there. Included with this recording is a recording of the delightful “Tristia II,” 1998/revised 2011, a work that includes a prose poem and prayer by Nikolai Gogol, with the conductor Vladimir Ponkin, considered one of Russia’s finest.
The Divine Art recordings of On the Threshold of a Bright World and Gentle Emanation are dedicated to the memory of the conductor Mstislav Rostropovich, who premiered both works with the National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.
For admirers of Artyomov’s works the release of these recordings of two of his finest symphonies, along with the additional works that are included and the excellence of the conductors and musicians, surely will be welcome and perhaps will lead to new insights and appreciation. For those new to Artyomov’s works, they are an excellent introduction to a composer of genius.