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Maxim Rysanov - Kancheli Styx & Tavener

Ted Libbey, Absolute Sound (US)
Rysanov is an outstanding violist... one is left with a new appreciation for the exquisite matching of solo viola to small orchestra...
BBC Music Magazine - Erik Levi ****
Both the works on this disc were composed for Yuri Bashmet, the charismatic Russian viola-player whose enrichment of his instrument’s repertoire is beginning to rival the endeavours of the late Mstislav Rostropovich on behalf of the cello. Of the two pieces Kancheli’s Styx (1999), which pits the viola against a remarkable ensemble of mixed choir and orchestra, is the more immediately compelling, its yearning melodies and lush harmonies and orchestration offering many moments of ravishing beauty.
The young Russian violist Maxim Rysanov is to be commended for providing this alternative to the pioneering recording on Deutsche Grammophon (DG) featuring Bashmet with Valery Gergiev and the Chorus and Orchestra of the Mariinsky Theatre. Rysanov yields little to Bashmet in terms of intensity of expression and the capacity to sustain an atmospheric melodic line.
Where the two performances differ radically is in terms of the acoustic, the ample reverberation of Riga Cathedral in Rysanov’s recording providing a stark contrast to the relatively dry sound on DG. Inevitably some inner detail is lost in Rysanov’s recording, the choir’s words being less clearly articulated than on the DG recording. On the other hand, Onyx’s recording manages to convey a much greater sense of space which is ideally suited to Kancheli’s musical style. The ultimate decision as to which recording is preferable may well rest with the coupling. Bashmet features the Viola Concerto of Sofia Gubaidulina, a very strong and impressive work, while Rysanov offers John Tavener’s The Myrrh-Bearer (1993); its lengthy dialogue between a slow moving ululatory solo line, once again eloquently delineated by Rysanov, and mystical sequences of choral writing, is the kind of piece that will appeal to fans of this composer, but to my mind is rather thin in musical substance.
Music Web International - Recording of the Month 28.11.07 - Hubert Culot
Kancheli’s Styx for viola, choir and orchestra was composed at the request of Yuri Bashmet who had already championed Kancheli’s earlier Liturgy for Viola and Orchestra. In Greek mythology, the River Styx must be crossed by dead souls when on their way to Hades, the world of the dead. The viola incarnates the ferryman Charon who mediates between past and present, life and death, light and darkness. So, to a certain extent, Styx may be considered as another "liturgy" of some sort, in which the composer also evokes Georgia and his recently deceased friends Alfred Schnittke (1934-1998) and Avet Terterian (1929-1994). He does so, too, through the text that he devised using a number of allusions to Georgia, its landscapes, its churches, its folklore and the like. The music is thus lyrical, elegiac, dance-like, angry, joyful and consolatory. Although Kancheli’s main fingerprints are present throughout this substantial score, some greater emphasis is laid on long melodic lines (this was a request of Bashmet). The score is in seven contrasted sections, the concluding one setting a text in English. The whole amounts to what may be one of Kancheli’s most personal achievements, and one of his most deeply moving works. I must confess that I am still nourishing doubts concerning some of Kancheli’s recent works, in which I find the material a bit too thin and not particularly attractive and in which the deliberate shocking contrast between loud and soft, nearly inaudible sections sounds rather single-minded. Not so indeed in Styx, I am glad to say.
It is interesting to compare Rysanov’s reading with Bashmet’s. Bashmet’s recording with Gergiev and his Russian forces (St. Petersburg Chamber Choir and Orchestra of the Mariinsky Theatre – DG 471 494-2) is of course technically superb, and everyone concerned plays immaculately throughout; but, when compared to the version under review, it slightly lacks in warmth. Rysanov’s recording was made with a provincial Latvian orchestra and a Latvian chorus for whom the work - maybe because of the text - obviously means much, and they give a formidably committed reading. The recorded sound, too, benefits from the rather reverberating acoustics of the Dome Cathedral in Riga, that lend some considerable presence and immediacy of sound, somewhat absent in the Russian recording.

John Tavener’s The Myrrh-Bearer, too, was written for Yuri Bashmet who gave the first performance in London in October 1994. This fairly substantial work is scored for viola, percussion (one player), semi-chorus of male voices and mixed chorus. The piece is inspired by Cassiane’s Troparion, an early text conceived as a confession by Mary Magdalene as she pours myrrh over Christ’s head before the Passion. This text, however, is not set, but rather is laid over the solo part, whereas the male semi-chorus sings a drone to the words of Kyrie eleison throughout the entire work and the mixed chorus a text, apparently by the composer, representing "the inane and mindless cries of ugliness and violence which represent the world" (the composer’s words). Nevertheless, what comes strongly through is the sheer beauty of the music, even in episodes evoking "the inane and mindless cries of ugliness" - Tavener is actually incapable of any musical ugliness - although these "cries" may be briefly justified by some dissonance. The music thus unfolds continuously on three different levels, with the viola embodying Mary Magdalene’s complex personality, in turn warmly sensual or repentant. Tavener’s The Myrrh-Bearer is a quite beautiful and often moving piece of music, although I suspect that some might find it a tad too long; but, now, this is music that needs to unfold at its own pace to emphasise the predominantly meditative nature of the work. The music, however, has enough variety to sustain its long time span.

Both pieces are magnificently performed by all concerned. Rysanov is a beautifully equipped musician with both impeccable technique and subtle musicality that these often exacting works call for. The Latvian choruses and orchestra commit themselves wholeheartedly in these demanding but strongly expressive scores. The present recording of Tavener’s work is a first, whereas Rysanov’s competes with Bashmet’s. Both are marvellous musicians; but, as I mentioned earlier in this review, Rysanov’s and the Latvian’s reading of Styx is gripping and strongly moving. Theirs is, I think, the recording to have, if Styx is the work you are interested in. The coupling might be the deciding factor. I would not be without Gubaidulina’s beautiful Viola Concerto either.

Hubert Culot
Gramophone Magazine - November 2007 Editor's Choice David Fanning
The Latvians topple the mighty in music that transfixes, scalds, then consoles

 Another recording of Kancheli’s Styx while so many of his recent works await their first appearance on CD, and when the competition is from such big-name artists? Well, there are two justifications. First, the coupling is even more illuminating than DG’s Gubaidulina Concerto in terms of stylistic and spiritual affinity. Secondly, the performance itself is superior.
Maxim Rysanov’s viola has an inward, lamenting quality that Yuri Bashmet’s more conventionally projected manner misses. And it feels as though the chorus and orchestra (from Latvia’s third city) are living and breathing every note, whereas Gergiev and his Petersburgers are merely (!) giving a superb performance. Crucially, the acoustic of Riga’s Dome Cathedral has a rich resonance, wonderfully captured. The sound stage is as wide and deep as the music demands. Expressive extremes register as more abrupt, more startling and more challenging – harder-edged in their ecstasy. The music first transfixes, then scalds, and when consolation intervenes it feels multi-faceted and somehow palpably wise. The texts of Styx consist of a succession of names and words, all of profound and intimate significance to the composer. This performance made me really feel that significance.
The extraordinary qualities of Latvian choral singing – fullness of tone, legato and intense stillness – have been often extolled. In The Myrrh-Bearer there is the added advantage of the kind of basso profundo richness that I would imagine Tavener can only rarely have found in the UK. Whether his piece is perhaps a little too reliant on those subterranean tones, and whether the pairing with Kancheli reveals a slight thinness of invention, are suspicions that may either firm or fade with further acquaintance. In the meantime, all that seems important is to surrender to the urgency and fervour of another extraordinary performance.
In short, here is a disc to blow the mind of anyone already in tune with these composers, and possibly one that may even lead a few sceptics towards a Damascene conversion. It was a privilege to review.
Musical Criticism.com  Chris Dromey ****
Giya Kancheli (b. 1935) is probably Georgia's most famous musical export, but if his profile in the UK is relatively low then this new disc from Onyx ought to raise it a notch or two. Styx (1999) is a 35-minute epic for solo viola, choir and orchestra, but these facts do little to prepare the listener for its strident display of motivic flashes and cadential outbursts.
Occasional folk-dance references, entertaining though they are, only punctuate an ethereal but engaging sound-world that recalls the best moments of Feldman’s viola in my life quadrilogy. Against this backdrop, their exaggerated performance by the otherwise excellently controlled Liepāja Symphony Orchestra has a touch of the surreal about it. Whether this is a compliment or criticism will depend on your interpretation of Kancheli’s narrative: Styx was conceived at the same time as the death of his friend Alfred Schnittke, to whom he pays homage through not only the disjointed text that names him, but also the dramaticisation of the viola as both the underworld guardian Charon and the River Styx (which in Greek mythology separates the living from the dead). While this may well pass most listeners by, Maxim Rysanov’s impressive debut for Onyx will not. Mediating between chorus and orchestra, sometimes almost peripherally, the young violist’s clarity and succinct expression keeps him firmly at the centre of the work.
Styx is paired with another major choral work of the 1990s, Sir John Tavener’s The Myrrh-Bearer (1993), which, remarkably, has taken over a decade since its Barbican premiere to reach disc. Kancheli and Tavener may be superficially connected by those that commonly malign the quasi-cinematic sounds of such contemporary composers, but their first appearance together on disc only highlights the unhelpfulness of the comparison. Rysanov enjoys a much fuller role here than in Styx and realises the work’s more improvisational moments especially well. True, the programme is more convoluted than Kancheli’s – Cassiane's Troparion was Tavener’s inspiration but as with The Protecting Veil famously, and Laila (his music for Random Dance’s award-winning Amu) more recently, he sets the text line-by-line over the viola part. But the performance is convincing nonetheless, and the expanse of Riga's Dome Cathedral lends itself particularly well to a recording warmly recommended to all.
The Guardian - 21.09.07 Andrew Clements
What links these works is not only their inordinate length - Giya Kancheli's piece lasts 35 minutes, John Tavener's seven minutes more - but also the fact that both were commissioned for the viola player Yuri Bashmet, and both counterpoint the solo string instrument with a chorus. In 1999's Styx, Kancheli portrays the viola as the intermediary between the lands of the living and the dead; and in musical terms, between the chorus - which sings a patchwork text made up of the names of churches, and the titles of folksongs and lullabies from the composer's native Georgia - and the orchestra, whose interjections are generally more assertive, and threaten the predominantly meditative and directionless mood of the viola's ruminations.
Tavener uses only percussion alongside the viola and choir in his setting of the ninth-century Byzantine Lament of Cassiane in The Myrrh-Bearer, with the viola "singing" the lament in a melodic line, while the chorus interjects "inane and mindless cries of ugliness and violence", to quote the composer, in a way that unexpectedly harks back to some of his earliest choral pieces. The viola player Maxim Rysanov is compelling in both works.
The Times - 15.9.07 - Geoff Brown
Maxim Rysanov’s viola sings expressively; the problem lies in what it sings, especially Giya Kancheli’s Styx – 35 minutes of drift and clamour masquerading as profundity. There’s more meat to Tavener’s The Myrrh-Bearer, likewise accompanied by Latvian voices and percussion, though its cumulative power is intermittent. The reverberant spaces of the Dome Cathedral, Riga, help to spin the music further out into eternity.