Here, Fedor talks to the conductor Vladimir Jurowski about Denisov’s legacy.
Fedor Rudin: You come from a Russian family of musicians with a long tradition, your grandfather was also a composer. Can you remember your first contact with Edison Denisov’s music?
Vladimir Jurowski: The first conscious contact took place sometime in the 80s, I must have been around 16. Back then, my father was conducting Denisov’s one-act opera “The Four Girls” based on Picasso. Denisov was also at our home from time to time, and we met several times in Rusa (in a composers’ village near Moscow). He was also in the music school of the Moscow Conservatory, where I studied music theory, in order to give a lecture about contemporary music on the invitation of some students. Back then, there was a lot of contact between my father and Denisov, and it turned out that I got to know his two children and his first wife very well. Later I also noticed that I already knew Denisov’s music from film and radio productions, such as “Karlsson on the Roof” by Astrid Lindgren, or “Aladdin’s Magic Lamp”. I already knew these recordings as a small child. This music has always somehow magically attracted me, although it sounded a bit different from his “serious” music, but there, too, you can recognize very specific traits, his compositional handwriting. Denisov was totally consistent in this regard, whether he composed for children, adults, for film, for radio or for concert halls and opera houses, he always remained true to himself. In contrast to some other composers, who changed their style depending on what they were writing for, depending on the context of the commission, until almost completely unrecognizable. That was never the case with Denisov, he can always be recognized after two bars.
F. R. : It is often said of composers that they are “revolutionaries of their time”. What role did Edison Denisov play in the development of contemporary music in what was then the Soviet Union?
V. J. : He was a pioneer of post-war modernism, contemporary music in Russia, together with Andrei Volkonsky. He acted both as an artist and as a kind of teacher, a kind of “avatar” of this movement. He was also a bit older than the others (if you think of Alfred Schnittke or Sofia Gubaidulina, for example, she was born in 1931, Schnittke in 1934. Denisov was born in 1929, and went this way before them). He also kept in close contact with his colleagues in the West, especially in France. He was close friends with Pierre Boulez. At that time, visitors from western countries were still something relatively unusual for us. They did come from time to time, for example Luigi Nono was a relatively frequent guest because he was also a member of the Communist Party in Italy. As far as I know, Boulez came once or twice in the 1960s. Then again when I was already studying, that was in the mid-80s. Denisov’s friendship with Boulez was a very important sign, a symbol of the connection from East to West.
In contrast to other composers, Denisov was also a very active and extremely talented teacher. One can say that with his school of composition he embodies a second direction of the Moscow school. The first direction of this school arose around Nikolai Myaskovsky in the first half of the 20th century, and there were of course other very important teachers at the Conservatory, such as Vissarion Shebalin or Dmitri Shostakovich, but I would say that Denisov’s school, from its importance, comes immediately after that of Myaskovsky. Denisov is also one of the co-founders and initiators of the ACM (Association of Contemporary Music), which still existed in the Soviet Union in the 20s and early 30s, but was stunted due to the Stalinist policy for culture and was replaced by the Composers’ Association. Denisov brought it back to life together with Faradj Karayev, Alexander Vustin, Vladimir Tarnopolski, Yuri Kasparov and Viktor Yekimovski in the 80s and 90s. That was a very important step away from the Soviet ideological dictatorship.
F. R. : Edison Denisov had been studying a lot of earlier and contemporary Russian, but also French music. This includes Sergei Prokofiev and Dmitri Shostakovich, who was like a mentor to him at the beginning of his studies. Nevertheless, Denisov distanced himself from the art of both composers. Which characteristics of Shostakovich and Prokofiev, whose works can be heard on this CD, have shaped Denisov?
V. J. : Denisov’s relationship with Shostakovich was very complicated, and he took different positions on Shostakovich’s music at different times in his life. When he gave this lecture on contemporary music at the Conservatory around 1988/89, his main argument against Prokofiev and Shostakovich was not only that they followed the Soviet ideology and, so to speak, helped to shape the Soviet music dogma. He also tried to argue musically. These musical objections were directed primarily against Shostakovich, less against Prokofiev. He had gone the wrong “Hindemithian” way of two-voice polyphony.
Denisov was a great admirer of French Impressionism, especially the music of Claude Debussy, and he was also a great admirer of the music of Modest Mussorgsky, who is in some ways a forerunner of Debussy. His opinion about Prokofiev did not change in the course of his life. I have also realised that there is a lot of Shostakovich in his very late works, for example in the 2nd Symphony, which I conducted several times. Overall, in his opinion, Russian music had gone the wrong way after Scriabin, namely either the “superficial” way of Prokofiev or precisely this “wrong” way of Hindemith. When Barenboim programmed Denisov’s 1st Symphony in Paris and later in Chicago and he was planning Prokofiev’s 3rd Piano Concerto in the first part of the concert, Denisov was very upset and asked him, why he was programming this bad work.
F. R. : You are one of the most active interpreters of Edison Denisov’s works nowadays. How would you describe the access to his music and programme it today?
V. J. : This is an interesting question. When Denisov was still alive, he had his very specific, very clearly separated taste. There was music he loved and music he couldn’t stand. Mozart, Schubert, Debussy – he couldn’t get enough of them. Hindemith, Prokofiev and Shostakovich, on the other hand, upset him, and he could get very angry if his works were played together with this music. I dared such experiments, I programmed his music with Debussy, Mozart and Schubert as well as in the same program with Alban Berg and Dmitri Shostakovich. For example, I conducted a program in London with the last three works by three composers: there was Denisov’s 2nd Symphony, Berg’s Violin Concerto and Shostakovich’s Symphony No.15, and it perfectly fitted together. I think now that Denisov’s music is already part of our history, you can definitely allow yourself to program him with composers he didn’t like. Just as we often experience music by Brahms and Wagner or Tchaikovsky and Brahms in the same concert today, although the composers didn’t like each other at all, as we know.
For example, I would definitely program the Violin concerto, which I have not conducted yet, with a work by Schubert and perhaps Mozart, because I am of the opinion that, strangely, it is precisely through these composers that one understands the purity of Denisov’s music best. He was an avowed classic and classic lover. Mozart and Schubert were his two guiding stars. We had the idea together to perform the Violin concerto, which unfortunately fell through the pandemic. I very much hope that we will catch it up.