BUTSKO Diary of a Madman. Lacrimosa for String Orchestra. The Canon to the Menacing Angel
Arnold Kats, Gennady Cherkasov, Stanislav Kalinin, cond; Sergei Spiridonov (ten); Sergei Yakovenko (bar); Anton Zarayev (bs); Moscow Conservatory Ch & C O; Novosibirsk PO
Melodiya 10 02556 (2 CDs: 129:32)
Yuri Butsko (1938–2015) was a prolific and influential composer in the last decades of the Soviet Union, but his reputation hasn’t travelled far beyond his homeland. When the 60s generation of “unofficial” composers began voicing their dissidence through religious themes, rather than outright Modernism, in the 1970s, Butsko was one of the pioneers of Orthodox music rendered as instrumental concert music. His experiments with harmonies from Orthodox chant, especially tetrachordal modes, were influential to Schnittke, a school friend of Butsko, and also undoubtedly to Rodion Shchedrin, whose Polyphonic Notebook is similar in spirit and technique to many of Butsko’s keyboard cycles. But, as this release demonstrates, religious works were just one aspect of his diverse output.
The set opens with a “mono-opera,” Diary of a Madman, based on a short story by Gogol. Frustratingly, no libretto, or even ploy synopsis, is included, but Gogol’s story, as its title suggests is written as a personal diary, so suits this treatment as a one-voice opera. Butsko was still a teenager when he wrote the work, making its subtle and dynamic dramatic style all the more impressive. The opera is more often performed with just piano accompaniment, but this recording presents the full orchestral version. In fact, this too features a very prominent piano part, and the other orchestral instruments are always used sparingly. The style is tonal and very Russian. Comparisons with Shostakovich are tempting, and no doubt the work show some influence. But there is less angst here, for all the dramatic impetus—Butsko may be working in the same cultural milieu as Shostakovich, but his personality is completely different. Baritone Sergei Yakovenko is a convincing madman, sometimes erratic, but always expressive, and with a leading, narrative quality, ideal for the work. The recording was made in 1976, but the sound quality is excellent, consonants a little fuzzy but otherwise close to modern standards.
The second CD begins with Lacrimosa for string orchestra from 1982. The work is dedicated to a family of Old Believers who were discovered by a geographical expedition in the foothills of the Altai in the late 70s. It is an excellent example of Butsko’s liturgically inspired instrumental writing: the music built on complex polyphony but always clear in texture and harmony. Unfortunately, both the performance and the sound recording let the work down. The orchestra is a student ensemble, so concessions can perhaps be made, but not for the audio, which sounds several decades earlier than its recording date of 1988.
Much better is the final performance, of The Canon to the Menacing Angel, one of Butsko’s final works, from 2009 and recorded in 2011. The oratorio sets texts by Ivan the Terrible, again frustratingly omitted from the literature. Given the late date, Butsko’s style now sounds conservative, though it hasn’t changed significantly. The work is more closely aligned with the sound of Orthodox liturgy, employing tenor and bass soloists, choir, and an ensemble of keyboards and percussion (a typical Butsko combination). The two soloists, tenor Sergei Spiridonov and bass Anton Zarayev, excel, both clearly conversant with Orthodox chant customs. The choir (another student group) is also very fine, singing with that combination of lyricism and unforced power that characterizes the best Russian vocal ensembles.
Lack of texts aside, the presentation is excellent. Melodiya include several evocative watercolor portraits of Butsko himself, and he appears to have styled himself a religious ascetic type, with long white hair and goatee. The liner notes are translated into a reasonable English (with German too, and the original Russian), and provide more information about the composer than any other English-language source to date. The album has been released to commemorate the 80th anniversary of Butsko’s birth, and serves as a fitting memorial, even if it only scratches the surface of a hugely diverse life’s work.
This review appears in Fanfare magazine issue 42:4.