Herbert Henck: Alexandr Mosolov (ECM New Series 1569)

Alexandr Mosolov

Herbert Henck piano
Recorded March 1995, Festburgkirche, Frankfurt
Engineer: Andreas Neubronner

“I must compose, and my works must be performed! I must test my works against the masses; if I come to grief, I’ll know where I must go.”

These words, written by Alexandr Mosolov (1900-1973) in a 1932 letter to Joseph Stalin, reveal a composer of fierce disposition and ardent dedication to his craft. The young Mosolov, who had already fought for the Red Army but was discharged for PTSD, continued to see himself as an arm of the Revolution. After earning a living as a silent film pianist, during which time he studied music with Reinhold Glière and Nikolai Myaskovsky, Mosolov had made of himself a pastiche of trenchant modernism and preservationist grace. Of equal dedication is pianist Herbert Henck, who places Mosolov’s work squarely at the crossroads of late Scriabin and early Prokofiev, yet imbues this neglected contemporary with a shadow all his own. Despite being a staunch proletariat, Mosolov was met with resistance from the very faction in whose honor he composed. Enemies in the Soviet Composers’ Union even had him expelled for public disorder and sentenced to eight years in the Gulag. Fortunately, he was released after just as many months when his mentors vouched for his character in a bid for his freedom. During his recuperation, Mosolov extended his interest in the music of Central Asia, particularly in the folk songs in Turkmenistan and Kyrgyzstan, where he traveled to enrich his archive.

The 1920s were Mosolov’s most productive period, well represented by the selections offered here. The Sonata for piano No. 2 in B Minor op. 4 (1923-1924) gives us hints of the “futurism” for which he was most known in such orchestral works as Iron Foundry. Where Foundry is thrumming with productivity, the sonata’s contrast of high clusters and low chords reenact a failing industrial landscape. More confrontational than progressive, it treads with ever-heavier footsteps toward a goal it knows it cannot reach. A morose Adagio applies desperation as a cosmetic and admires itself in a mirror of repetition. Resolve is found only in the culmination of silence, from which the finale is reaped like a crop at the height of ripeness. The Two Nocturnes op. 15 (1925/26) constitute a ponderous, if dynamically diverse, pair, seemingly predicated on a traumatic inward glance and sketchable only in tragedy. After the heartrending opening movement of the Sonata for piano No. 5 in D Minor op. 12 (1925), we come to a whimsical aside, which dances like a childhood dream of Shostakovich before twisting ever so incrementally into a cloudy nightmare. The following Scherzo becomes a violent attempt to awaken oneself in a flurry of futile pinches, all tumbling inward into the physiological certainty that reality is so close and all the more unendurable for its lack of self-awareness. A gorgeous final movement coalesces in dense punctuations in the right hand before plunging into a pool of chords with only potential as life preserver.

Performances of Mosolov’s music were restricted until as late as 1985, since which time it has slowly crept into revival. Leading this quiet march was Detlef Gojowy (1934-2008), musicologist and tireless champion of modern Russian music, whose 1979 “Encounter with the Soviet Union” festival first exposed Henck to the previously obscured composer. Once again, Henck has turned his discovery into ours. He nourishes our ears with palpable meticulousness, playing these pieces as if for the first time, which in some ways he is, liberated as they have been from the annals of unwarranted censorship. These modest offerings are continually fascinating, for they always seem bound to a discernible core surrounded by storms of activity. The entire album is an effigy in sound, every musical gesture describing, however much in artifice, the contours, the ligamenture, the structural integrity of a human body whose only purpose is to burn in remembrance of those who once moved of their own accord. This album is truly a most splendid feather in Henck’s multifaceted cap, and a prime example of ECM’s tireless mission to give forgotten music our undivided attention.

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