Our latest CD release:
Yevgeny Zemtsov: Chamber and Instrumental Music and Arrangements
All in all, the work makes quite an impact on the auditor, an impression magnified by the magnificent playing of the Utrecht String Quartet.
....this disc .... becomes absolutely irresistible.
Fanfare Magazine CD Review by David DeBoor Canfield
ZEMTSOV String Quartet.1 Ballada.2 Violin Sonata No. 1.3 3 Inventions.4 Ohnemass.5 5 Japanese Poems.6 PIAZZOLLA (arr. Zemtsov) Las Cuatro Estaciones Porteñas.7 Le grand Tango8 • 6Ekaterina Levental (sop); 2Daniel Rowland, 3David Zemtsov (vn); 8Mikhail Zemtsov, 8Julia Dinerstein (va); 2, 4, 5Anna Fedorova, 3Björn Lehmann (pn); 1, 6–8Utrecht Str Qrt • TOCCATA 0564 (89:02)
Yevgeny Zemtsov falls squarely into Martin Anderson’s category of “as-yet-unknown composers who deserve to be a lot better known” rather than his other main category of “unknown or unrecorded works by known composers.” Additions to both groups are always welcome in my house, and I would guess to any other repertory collectors out there.
Zemtsov (1940–2016) came from a large family of Russian musicians, many of them violists. He himself seemed destined to be a violinist until an injury to his left hand forced him into the new focus of composition. His early music was highly influenced by that of Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev, while his later works trod new musical paths into atonality, including works based on Japanese haikus and Argentinian tangos. These periods and styles are well represented in the present diverse recital which spans the years 1959 to 2005, the better part of the composer’s life. Scanning the tray card, the reader cannot help but notice the high percentage of works that the composer revisited years after originally composing them. Indeed, of the six original works on the disc, five of them were revised as many as 56 years after their initial date of completion. Doffing my critic’s hat for a moment to replace it with that of a composer, I can understand the desire of any composer wanting to make a work as good as he possibly can. Sometimes with the passing of time it is quite easy to see flaws that one missed initially. At least, that’s my experience, although I cannot impute such a rationale to Zemtsov, whose revisions seem more connected to his emigration to Germany and for the publication of these works there.
The String Quartet that opens the recital is one of these, originally dating from 1962, and the revised version herein a product of 2004. The work begins with a conflation of the driving rhythms of Shostakovich with the astringent harmonies of the quartets of Bartók, a synthesis guaranteed to make the listener sit up and take notice. Less than two minutes into the work, however, a gentler harmonic idiom comes to the fore. Throughout the work, then, one hears a relentless struggle between tonality and atonality with the former sometimes gaining the upper hand, and at other times, the latter. Needless to say, this struggle produces a work of high interest and equally high unpredictability. The second movement is novel in another way, with much use of sul ponticello writing, largely at a pianissimo dynamic level. I also hear some use of microtones in this unsettled, ghostly movement, as well as passages of lyric beauty. The equally restless but rhythmically driven third movement follows without pause. This movement gives the effect of rhythmic irregularity, but I’m not sure if it’s written that way through frequent changes in meter signature or accentuation in an unchanging meter such as 4/4. All in all, the work makes quite an impact on the auditor, an impression magnified by the magnificent playing of the Utrecht String Quartet.
In the Ballada, originally written in 1959, tonality remains secure throughout, and the work could almost be an unknown violin and piano work by Sergei Prokofiev, or perhaps even more, Karol Szymanowski, with writing no less inspired than that of either composer. In any case, the piece is nothing short of gorgeous. The following three-movement Violin Sonata No. 1 is written “in memoriam Sergei Prokofiev,” apparently as an overt attempt to imitate the style of Zemtsov’s Russian musical forbear, an attempt that is eminently successful. Indeed, this work could pass as a third sonata by Prokofiev. All of his fingerprints are there: the mercurial shifts of tonal center, the memorable melodic lines, and the occasional passionate outbursts, all combined in a masterful fashion. Only towards the end of the third movement does Zemtsov introduce some chords that his predecessor would never have written, sufficient to convince the listener that this is not Prokofiev after all.
What a difference a few years can make! Three Inventions, a piano work dating from 1965, sheds all the influences I’ve noted from the first three works on this disc, and Zemtsov has by this point developed an arresting and original voice, containing dissonant sonorities but with shards of tonality scattered about. Ohnemass continues the development of Zemtsov’s dissonant and original voice. The title can be translated as without measure (i.e., tempo), and the piece has no discernable rhythmic pulse that I can perceive. It also makes heavy use of tone clusters and extremes of register, especially the lower one. Five Japanese Poems combines soprano voice with a string trio of two violins and cello. The texts are drawn from Russian translations of four haikus by Matsuo BashÅ and one by Ryota Oshima, all five settings evocative of the East aided by uncompromising atonality and special effects in the strings.
The recital closes with two arrangements of tangos by master tangoist Astor Piazzolla, whose music infected Zemtsov just as it did millions of other non-Argentinians, including this writer. Since the original works were scored for the instruments of Piazzolla’s own quintet, it was presumably not a major undertaking to rework them for string quartet (or quintet, in the case of Le grand Tango). They work marvelously in this new garb, and serve to give a grand close to the concert, even if they are radically different in style from anything that preceded them. The performances of this music serve to present it very well indeed. I hear nothing but first-class musicianship from each person involved. Mikhail Zemtsov, son of the composer, wrote the informative and personal program notes. The stylistically broad program has something for every musical taste, and if yours are as broad as mine, you’ll thoroughly enjoy every work as much as I did. Add to that the remarkable length (note the timing!) of this disc and it becomes absolutely irresistible. David DeBoor Canfield
This article originally appeared in Issue 45:3 (Jan/Feb 2022) of Fanfare Magazin