Alexander Titov

Lev Knipper: Violin Concerto No. 1; Symphony No. 8

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The revelation in 2008 that Soviet composer Lev Knipper was an agent of the Russian secret police can hardly enhance his almost nonexistent reputation in the West; in Russia, he is renowned as the composer of the popular patriotic hymn "Meadowlands," but his more serious endeavors are seldom heard anyway. Likewise, Knipper's "coming in from the cold" in posterity will not help him much, either, though there is already a long list of major Russian artists who are despised for not doing enough to bring to a halt the excesses and atrocities of the Stalin regime. Knipper is a case in point, as he was seldom censured by Soviet authorities, and now we know why. So perhaps it is not with the greatest timing that Northern Flowers brings some rare works of Knipper into general circulation with the sixth volume in its Wartime Music series, devoted to Knipper.

This consists of Knipper's Violin Concerto No. 1, the first of a cycle of three and composed in 1943, paired with his Symphony No. 8, dating from 1942; overall Knipper would compose an amazing 20 symphonies. This is a very fine violin concerto, fully worthy of revival in concert; it is not retrospective in tone and easily is as modern as one of Shostakovich or Prokofiev's violin concertos, though it is not as concise. The first movement alone runs nearly 20 minutes, and its Largo -- Allegro format gives one the overall idea that this is a four-movement concerto, although it's only in three. While it is as modern as the works of his colleagues, Knipper's compositional voice is wholly his own, rich and lush in orchestration but somewhat grayer than his colleagues in his choice of modal harmony and quite direct in terms of melodic ideas. The Symphony No. 8 is a good example of what Gerald Abraham might have meant when he called Knipper a "Soviet Mahler," with its long-breathed phrases and arcing unison violin passages. However, Knipper's Eighth is somewhat less introspective and brooding than Mahler typically is. This could have resulted from the political restraints that Knipper was working under, or more so that he recognized that his people didn't need to be hearing tragic music in such war-ravaged times as those current in 1942. It's definitely a good symphony, though, and its mood well reflects the choice of cover image; if it feels a bit compromised it nevertheless bodes promise for the other 19 symphonies in Knipper's cycle.

The orchestral performances, by the St. Petersburg Academic Symphony Orchestra under Alexander Titov, are rough at the edges, but very energetic, and Mikhail Krutik's realization of the solo violin part in the Violin Concerto is full-boned and emotionally involved. The recording is a little thin, but adequate in transmitting the measure of the music. Knipper's music is so accomplished and substantive that it may well transcend his reputation as an agent of the Soviet government's most notorious police organization; for some listeners, that very aspect of his life may well increase interest in Knipper's work.

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