Boris Pigovat’s Requiem – a stunning CD presentation



– Requiem “The Holocaust” / Prayer for Violin and Piano / Silent Music for viola and harp / Nigun for String Quartet

Donald Maurice (viola)

Vector Wellington Orchestra / Marc Taddei

also with Richard Mapp (piano) / Carolyn Mills (harp) / Dominion String Quartet

Atoll ACD 114

This recording commemorates the first performance outside the Ukraine of Boris Pigovat’s Requiem, given by violist Donald Maurice, with the Vector Wellington Orchestra conducted by Marc Taddei, on November 9th, 2008 at the Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington. The composer, whose grandparents and aunt were victims of the Babiy Yar tragedy in 1941, when thousands of German Jews were massacred in cold blood by the Nazis, had wanted for a number of years to write a work dedicated to the Holocaust, thinking originally of the standard Requiem format, with soloists, choir and orchestra. Then Yuri Gandelsman, the then principal violist of the Israel Philharmonic asked Pigovat to write a work for him, and the composer decided he would tackle a piece for viola and orchestra, writing in the style of a Requiem. He completed the work in 1995, but it wasn’t premiered until 2001, as Gandelsman, who intended to give the first performance, was prevented by circumstances from doing so. However, the situation was eventually resolved, most appropriately, by a concert planned in Kiev commemorating the Babiy Yar tragedy, to which Pigovat successfully offered his score for performance.

The composer regarded the cancellation of the original performances in Israel as “the will of Providence”, as it meant the work would be performed for the first time in Kiev, near the tomb of his family members who were killed at BabiyYar. Added poignancy was generated by the co-operation between the Israeli Cultural Attache in Kiev and the city’s Goethe Institute which resulted in the famous German violist, Rainer Moog, being asked to play the solo viola part. This concert took place in October 2001. Eight years later, the work was performed here in New Zealand at a “Concert of Remembrance” (commemorating the 70th anniversary of “Kristallnacht” – The Night of Broken Glass – a pogrom carried out against German and Austrian Jews in retaliation for the assassination of a Nazi diplomat by a young German/Polish Jew in November 1938). The concert featured, along with Pigovat’s work, a performance of Brahm’s German Requiem, and was sponsored by a number of groups, among which were the respective Embassies of the Federal Republic of Germany and the State of Israel. As well, Boris Pigovat himself was able to attend the concert, thanks to the support of the Israeli Embassy.

Now, there’s a further chapter in what has become an ongoing story – this features the recent invitation made to violist Donald Maurice to give the work’s first-ever performance in Germany, on October 15th at the final gala concert of the International Viola Congress in Wuerzburg. The performance commemorates, in turn, the 70th anniversary of the Babiy Yar massacre, and will be given by Maurice with an orchestra from Duesseldorf.

However, before making this journey, Maurice will again perform the work on the actual day of the tragedy, September 29th, in the Wellington Town Hall with Kenneth Young and the New Zealand School of Music Orchestra.  Also performing will be Israeli ‘cellist Inbal Megiddo, playing Bloch’s Schelomo. As well, John Psathas’s Luminous and Anthony Ritchie’s Remember Parihaka will give a New Zealand flavour to this commemorative program. I believe the concert is included under the umbrella of a “Rugby World Cup Event” – if so, one salutes the organizers’ enterprise!

Atoll Records deserves the heartfelt thanks of people like myself who weren’t able to attend that Wellington performance of the Requiem in 2008 for making the recording commercially available. It was at the time splendidly captured by Radio New Zealand’s David McCaw and his engineer Graham Kennedy – as one might expect, the music generated plenty of visceral impact, all of which comes across with startling force in Wayne Laird’s transfer to CD. It presents soloist Donald Maurice, with conductor Marc Taddei and the Wellington Orchestra  working at what can only be described as white heat – the coruscations of parts of the Dies Irae movement are searing, to say the least – and the effects upon listeners in the hall must have been profoundly disturbing in their impact.

The Requiem has four movements, each of them given Latin subtitles, a ready context, despite their non-Jewish origins, for listeners accustomed to pieces which use similar kinds of headings for individual movements (works by Mozart, Berlioz, Verdi, and Faure for example) – the four movements are Requiem Aeternam, Dies Irae, Lacrimosa and Lux Eterna. Pigovat considered these parts the most suitable for his overall purpose in writing what he called “a tragic orchestral piece”. Despite his work being completely instrumental, some of the composer’s motifs and themes in the work are derived directly from the words of texts – for example, the first theme of the Dies Irae on trombones fits with the words of the first verse of this famous thirteenth-century Latin poem; while the Jewish Prayer, Shma Israel, Adonoi Elokeinu, Adonoi Ehad inspired a recurring theme in the work, first appearing in the epilogue of the Dies Irae, and in subsequent places, such as in the viola solo at the very end of the work.

The opening measures of Requiem Aeternam bring about vistas of space and eons of time, into the centre of which swirls an irruption of dark, threatening unease. But the solo viola takes up the chant-like line, by turns declamatory and meditative, its discourse supported by various orchestral motifs and atmospheric textures. Donald Maurice’s solo playing vividly captures the music’s gamut of supplicatory emotion, while Marc Taddei and the orchestra provide an accompaniment richly-mixed with ambiences of faith and trust, doubt and fear. From Ligeti-like string-clusters come sudden intrusions of light and energy, menacing, gutteral-throated strings and ghoulish figures on what sounds like a bass clarinet. Deep, seismic percussion ignites an outburst that galvanizes the whole orchestra, and brings the solo viola into conflict with forces of darkness. A portentous, doom-laden motif rises in the orchestra, challenged further by the viola, which is soon overwhelmed by a rising tide of pitiless-sounding, all-enveloping brutality, reinforced by crushing hammer-blows. Stoically, the viola remains steadfast, giving vent to its anguish, but still raising its voice to heaven at the close.

There are some famously apocalyptic settings by composers of the “Dies Irae” poem, and Pigovat, though not employing the actual words, certainly aligns himself with the movers and shakers of heaven and earth, such as Berlioz and Verdi. Slashing string lines introduce the “Dies Irae” movement, leading to orchestral outpourings whose force and vehemence will, later in the movement, readily suggest the imagery suggested by the term “holocaust”. After the initial maelstrom abates, the solo viola attempts to plead with the forces of darkness, but is repeatedly beaten down, its desperate energies to no avail. Pigovat was strongly influenced by a novel Life and Destiny by the Russian-Jewish writer Vasiliy Grossman, containing passages describing Jews’ last train journey from imprisonment to the gas chambers of Auschwitz. Some of Shostakovich’s more harrowing motoric orchestral sequences come to mind in places, over the top of which the brass shout cruel repetitive utterances. Out of a searing, incandescent chord-cluster thrusts a beating rhythm, the composer suggesting the pulsing of a great number of human hearts, a rhythm which loses strength and dies.

Harsh, strident bells sound the beginning of Lacrimosa, the viola sharing in the pain and horror of what has just been experienced. The composer notes, most appositely, that “It is possible to shout with strong anger, or to groan powerlessly, or to go mad, and only then appear tears……” and Maurice’s virtuosic playing at this point conveys all of these feelings and more besides. A timpani-led processional begins the process of ritualizing the grief, somewhat, but underlines the bleak nihilism of the scenario, reinforced by a doom-laden tam-tam stroke. Then the orchestral strings offer consolation amid the despair, horns as well paying tribute to those destroyed as well as acknowledging those left behind. As the music slips without a break into the Lux Eterna, lights softly begin to glow amid the sound-textures, and there’s an almost lullabyic feel to the music’s trajectories.The viola speaks again, its voice dark-toned and grief-tainted, but calling for a renewal of faith in the human spirit, and a rekindling of hope for the future. The instrument re-establishes connections and interactions with various orchestral voices, their tones no longer expressing fear, hate, and cruelty, but intertwining with the soloist’s voice in search of a better, more understanding place for everybody in the world (the final exchanges between viola and dark-browed brass and percussion speak volumes, as the work closes).

The three pieces accompanying the Requiem on this disc all have connections or commonalities of some kind with the major work. The first, Prayer, for viola and piano, probably has the closest relationship with Requiem, as it was written when the composer had finished the latter’s Lacrimosa and was preparing materials for the fourth part, Lux Eterna. The music thus breathes much the same air as does the Requiem, with one of its themes actually used in the Shma Israel section of Lux Eterna. Donald Maurice again plays the viola, and, together with pianist Richard Mapp, gives an extraordinarily intense reading of the work. Its opening measures are meditative and hypnotic, the piano resembling a tolling bell at the outset, beneath the viola’s quiet song of lament. From the darkest depths of their interaction spring impulses of lyrical flow, gentle and undulating at first, then more impassioned, Maurice’s bow biting into his strings and Mapp’s monumental chords imparting an epic quality to the mood of grief and suffering. The undulations return, their tones gradually dissolving into mists of quiet resignation and fortitude – altogether, a beautiful and moving work.

Silent Music is scored for viola and harp, a felicitous combination of complementary tones and timbres, one I’d never before imagined. Written in 1997, after the Requiem, the piece commemorates the practice in Israel of people lighting candles for burning at places where there have been fatal terrorist attacks, one such occasioning this piece. The music’s beauty almost belies the composer’s sombre intent, though towards the end of the piece some repeated agglomerations of notes on Carolyn Mills’s harp grow through a disturbing crescendo towards a moment of intense pain, whose feeling resonates throughout the concluding silences.

Intensities of a different order are unashamedly displayed throughout the final work on the CD, Nigun, for String Quartet, though the piece finished far more quickly than I expected, due presumably to an error of timing recorded with the track listings (instead of a nine-minute work, the music came to an end, a tad abruptly, at 5’00”.  Boris Pigovat originally wrote this work for string orchestra, the string quartet version appearing for the first time on this CD. The composer’s intention was “to give expression to the tragic spirit which I feel in traditional Jewish music”. It’s certainly not a happy work, being, in psychological terms, assailed by anxieties at an early stage in its progress, the composer using the quartet’s antiphonal voicings to create a kind of overlying effect, as textures pile on top of, or slide beneath, other textures. Figurations and tempi intensify as the piece proceeds, the Dominion Quartet’s players “blocking” their sounds together for some marvellously massive-sounding chords, before continuing what feels like a fraught interaction, mercifully worked-out in the time-honored manner, but leaving one or two sostenuto voices to gradually expel their last reserves of breath and melt their tones into the stillness of the ending.

Not only does this recording deserve to be heard and savored, but the oncoming Town Hall concert (September 29th – see above) featuring the Requiem, should be an entry on everybody’s calendar. If something of the spirit of this recording can be replicated (albeit with a different orchestra and conductor) the occasion will be stunning, unmissably spectacular.

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