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on May 15, 2004
This disc contains two works written especially for the viola virtuoso Yuri Bashmet. The first is Giya Kancheli's "Styx (for viola, mixed choir, and orchestra)" and the second Sofia Gubaidulina's "Concerto for viola and orchestra."
I bought the disc as a fan of Gubaidulina, but Kancheli's "Styx" was a pleasant surprise. It is an ethereal choral work of quiet lulls and brief exultations. Its themes appears to be death, what it takes away and what it leaves behind, and time. The names of Kancheli's deceased friends Alfred Schnittke and Avet Terterian figure prominently towards the end. The viola in this piece is meant to symbolise the river Styx itself; the viola carries along all that is past to a tranquil end. The Choir of the Mariinsky Theatre gives an excellent performance in "Styx", respecting the nebulous nature of the text and understanding that it must stay out of the viola's way. Gergiev's sensitity is commendable.
The recording is not, however, ideal. There is some background noise from time to time; apparently this is a live concert recording. The disc is also nearly unaudible in some places, and turning the volume high enough to perceive the quiet parts will have unfortunate consequences during the louder portions. Dynamic range is good, but it's been taken too far here.
Gubaidulina's "Viola Concerto" was satisfying, though perhaps a minor work. For the most part there is not the scratchy austerity of some of her other string works, such as "Strio Trio" or "Offertorium". Rather the piece is an soft elaboration on the "DSCH" motif of her inspiration Shostakovich interspersed with some lush layers of sound somewhat reminiscent of Bartok. All in all, the piece seeks to explore the viola as the more unusual and otherworldly of the strings.
And what of Yuri Bashmet himself? His playing was very moving, and helps explain why so may critics use phrases like "finest violist of our time". There is nowhere on this disc where he seems less than perfectly sure of how to tackle the piece.
The liner notes are excellent, as they have been for most of DG's 20/21 series. It has descriptions of the two pieces, an interview with Bashmet, profiles of Bashmet and Gergeiv, and finally the text of "Styx".
This disc would probably make a poor introduction to Gubaidulina. Try her fine "Offertorium" disc on DG if you've never heard her work before, or maybe her JOHANNES-PASSION of 2000, which was also performed by the Orchestra and Choir of the Mariinsky Theatre conducted by Gergiev. I don't know enough of Kancheli's work to make a comparison. However, this disc is worth picking up and will not disappoint.
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on March 23, 2004
Kancheli's Styx is an amazingly beautiful piece of music. Sometimes, I just can't believe that someone can actually write something so beautiful. Kancheli is one of the most important composers of our time, and this he has proven in the past with Lament, Simi, a la Duduki (which I wholeheartedly recommend) and re-affirms with Styx.
The Viola work by Gubaidulina is perhaps intelectually and conceptually stimulating, but in fact plain boring. *Soul-less* is the word that describes it best.
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on April 7, 2003
Hearing this CD is almost like entering into a wholly different world. Kancheli's Styx begins very powerfully but almost immediately descends into quiet meditating music. The choir plays a key role in the piece. Together with the orchestra it creates a background of sounds, which open up a timeless space, where the viola plays. Sudden and brutal explosions constantly break the still meditative music, what is very typical to many of Kancheli's compositions. The Styx River is a place between life and death and the viola seems like a person remembering his passed life. Yuri Bashmet is just the right person to interpret this piece and the dark sound of his viola is perfectly suited to make this a magnificent piece of music. I was very surprised by the ironic music of the end. If the Styx is a place between life and death and this part of the piece is supposed to describe the approach of death, then Kancheli's attitude towards it seems to be very much like Shostakovich's. A clear source of influence for him as for Gubaidulina. I just think the piece would have been better without the big bang, which suddenly ends the piece after 20 seconds of silence. The problem with Kancheli's music is that it has its own clichés that start to irritate the listener when repeated in each work.
The basic structure of the Gubaidulina Viola Concerto is very much alike. Again the orchestra creates a background for the monologue of the viola. There are some differences and I find Gubaidulina's orchestration much richer and imaginative than Kancheli's. The string motif that occurs very often in the piece is just magnificent. Like the Styx Gubaidulina's concerto is also composed with the sound of Bashmet's viola in mind and she truly uses the entire range of possibilities of the viola and manages to show the unique character of the instrument.

I have disliked some of the meditative music that has come out from Eastern Europe during the past ten years, but I think both Kancheli and Gubaidulina manage to avoid the dangers that lie in composing this kind of music. The result can be boring music where the meditative nature is just faked and calculated. Both of these pieces are ingenious. Kancheli and Gubaidulina manage to compose a lot of music by using very few notes. A true sign of genius.
Gergiev and Bashmet seem to understand each other perfectly. These works are very Russian and I find it very unlikely that they could be performed better then on this disc.
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on July 28, 2002
Kancheli's "Styx" -- 3 stars) This 1999 composition by Kancheli has the tonality of a late Romantic work, but a postmodern structure. Rather than a smoothly flowing river, it strikes me as more like a "scary" amusement park ride, one of them where you travel through some setting in the dark and there's a monster or a splash of water behind every turn. In "Styx" these are the loud punctuations from orchestra and chorus. In between are very quiet, lyrical passages featuring Bashmet's viola. It's not a great vehicle for him, though, due to these extreme dynamics -- if you turn the volume up enough to hear him clearly, you'll damage your ears with each blast. I understand that this "eruption" device is typical of Kancheli -- curious that it is also used by post-rock bands like Mogwai and Godspeed You Black Emperor. I find it superficial and unaffecting.
Gubaidulina's "Concerto for Viola and Orchestra" -- 5 stars) This piece, from 1996, is full of anguish, grandeur, complex tonality and structural development, and virtuoso passages which Bashmet plays with the utmost power and beauty. The only Gubaidulina I had heard previously were some of her string quartets (by Kronos and Arditti) -- this concerto confirms for me that she is an outstanding composer of the 20th century! Gubaidulina and Kancheli can also be found together on the Kronos Quartet album from 1994, "Night Prayers," and there as here, I am more impressed by Gubaidulina.
The performances by Yuri Bashmet on viola, conductor Valery Gergiev, the Orchestra of the Mariinsky Theatre, and the St. Petersburg Chamber Choir are superb. DG's packaging is also gorgeous -- their 20/21 series is beginning to build some real depth.
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on May 29, 2002
"With Great Passion" were the words that came to mind when I first heard this recent masterpiece by Kancheli performed by the great Russian violist Yuri Bashmet. The work was written for and with him in mind and as such, it is loaded with some of the most romantic music ever written for viola. The viola is the tour guide for this fantastic trip down/across the river between life and death, or perhaps, it is the river itself. The veiled sound of the instrument meanders lyrically in and out of the passionate dynamics displayed by the orchestra and mixed choir. Very poetic. The thirty-five minute track ebbs and flows seamlessly down its mystical course as it ends all too quickly, though surprisingly. I would compare the style of the music to the great romantic works at the turn of the nineteenth century (Mahler, Strauss) but there truly is a timeless, lamenting quality to this beautiful work.
Also written for Bashmet, the Gubaibulina Viola Concerto is passionate and mournful as well, yet in a more sparse and technical way. The nuiance of the viola is explored in a more contemporary fashion and it took me a few listens to fully appreciate this modern concerto. Patience does pay off and if you have ever heard Offertorium (her Violin Concerto), this makes a great companion piece.
Both the DG sound production and performance will blow you away. The art and packaging is a bonus as well. Please give us more Yuri DG!!
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