Contemporary Russian composers seem to have a fixation with old forms. The recent release Post-Avant-Garde Piano Music from the Ex-Soviet Union included music by Alexander Rabinovitch that freely quoted from Schubert, setting his melodies into narcotic hazes. Alfred Schnittke is only slightly less self-indulgent here, with Beethoven as the primary victim. There is nothing at all wrong with paying homage to past masters in this way, but Schnittke and several of his colleagues have trouble in constructing an integrated conception. Their use of quotes is done with a perpetual wink and a nod, displaying cleverness but little depth. This particular work is a piano transcription of an orchestral accompaniment to a staging of Gogol. In the theater, the comic-book gestures of the music might work; as a concert piece it is of limited interest.
The Shostakovich pieces find the great composer in his overtly theatrical, subtly sardonic frame of mind. Just as, on a dare, Shostakovich produced a brilliant set of variations on the melody "Tea for Two" on demand, the composer here displays clever, taut compositions of shallow emotional content. And yet, there are subtle twists that elude Schnittke, et al. Not unexpectedly for this most introspective of artists, there are deep pools of angst hidden beneath the superficially jolly surface of this quickly moving material.
The music of Reinhold Gliere is not quite so exotic as his name suggests (German name, French heritage, Russian career). This piano piece does not readily suggest the composer of the massive, brooding Third Symphony, Ilya Murometz (Gliere's best work, if not as famous as "The Sailor's Dance" from The Red Poppy), but rather the bright, simply expressive style of Rimsky- Korsakov. This is a lovely, tuneful creation, as is the Borodin nugget, and both are solid examples of Slavic Romanticism. As with other Sonora productions (featuring the young, Soviet-trained pianist Inna Heifetz), this simple, fresh enterprise succeeds by conveying a basic, joyous musicality. Even if few depths are plumbed here, there is much to enjoy.
Fanfare, January/February 1996