A Tribute to Alexander Cholminov (b.1925)
On His 80th Birthday by Friedrich Lips
It was an amazing fact: although Alexander Nikolayevich Cholminov was widely regarded as one of the most brilliant and admired composers in the world of the bayan, he had virtually only written one work for the instrument — the famous Suite for Bayan. This suite, produced in 1951, is firmly established in accordionists repertoire and has been played by generations of students and soloists in their programmes.
Nearly half a century after his splendid debut, Alexander Cholminov, now one of the most eminent Russian composers of operatic, symphonic and chamber music of the second half of the 20th century, came back to the bayan in 1998 to create his Concerto Symphony for Bayan. How did this work come about?
Getting to know the composer
In the spring of 1996 I happened to come across S.M. Kolobkov, Rector of the Russian Gnessin Academy of Music, in his office. With him sat an elderly white-haired man of medium height. Kolobkov introduced us to each other:
“May I present Alexander Nikolayevich Cholminov…Friedrich Lips.”
I was so surprised that I could hardly utter a word. I had already played his Suite for Bayan, which he wrote at the age of 26 in 1951, at the International Competition in Klingenthal in 1969, and as a result counted him as one of the best bayan composers of the mid-20th century. But since then Alexander Nikolayevich had been working very hard in the field of opera, symphonic and choral music (in particular, on a whole series of operas performed in the Bolshoi and Chamber Theatres in Moscow and also abroad), and had gained international recognition. He had disappeared from the bayan scene and become part of the Russian musical elite. And now I found myself sitting next to this living legend of classical music. Silent, but mentally alert, he gave the impression of being a highly intelligent, modest person, for whom time seems to pass without trace. Obviously my question was: why had he written nothing more for the bayan since the Suite. It would be great if he could give bayanists something else to bridge the extraordinary gap from 1951 to the present day. I was of course always willing to familiarise him with the new possibilities of the modern melody bass bayan. Alexander Nikolayevich was apparently extremely well informed about contemporary bayan playing.
“You have a completely different instrument from the earlier one. I know you very well as a performer. I know Kusakov, Vostryelov, Sharov, Semyonov, and I also knew Anatoly Surkov even better. I wrote a Suite a long time ago, but now something quite different must be written for you. The Instrument has changed; there has been a big development in its artistic possibilities.”
We arranged a meeting at which I gave him some notes on notation marks and the instrument’s possibilities and a CD of “De Profundis” by S. Gubaidulina.
“I would like to hear you playing live. Please invite me to one of your concerts!” asked Cholminov.
My next recital took place in December as part of the “Bayan and Bayanists Festival.” The programme contained music for bayan by 20thcentury composers such as Schnittke, Berinsky, Derbenko, Precz, Ganzer, Takahashi, Piazzolla etc. Alexander Nikolayevich came with his wife. After the concert he paid me many compliments. At the banquet, which followed, the teaching staff were simply speechless: Cholminov had come to the concert! After this meeting we often telephoned each other, but Cholminov was not one of those people who will let himself be put under pressure to write something in a hurry.
“You must understand that for you I must write something substantial with deep content. I have to think about it.”
Nearly a year passed by. On 16th November 1997 I gave a recital in the concert hall of the Gnessin Academy of Music with works by Sergei Berinsky. Cholminov came again with his wife Veleriya Ivanovna. The hall was full and, although the programme was devoted to the works of a single composer, the concert was a great success. Once again we talked a lot for nearly a whole year, but only by telephone. I even began to give up hope, especially as he had given no hint that he had started composing a work for bayan. Then suddenly in late September 1998 the telephone rang, which stirred my soul. “Friedrich, on 18th November you will be celebrating a jubilee — your 50th birthday. I have prepared a present for you. I would like to show it to you at a convenient time.”
A new work is delivered
We met at the Academy and sat at the piano in the small hall. Alexander Nikolayevich laid the score down: “Concerto Symphony for Bayan”. Above the title there was a dedication to Friedrich Lips. The work is in one movement, begins pianissimo (ppp) and finished fortissimo (fff).
Cholminov played the whole symphony in slow tempo for me. Even in this performance by the composer, from the first few bars I became familiar with the composer’s sound world and aware of the extraordinary depth and greatness of his thinking, the clear thematic beginning in conjunction with his splendid mastery, revealed both in the development of the material and in the clear structure of the whole composition. In a word, it was quite clear to me that the bayan repertoire would be enriched by a beautiful, innovative work by this prominent Russian composer, Alexander Cholminov, whose mastery emerged under the influence of the great music of Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov and Myaskovsky. Their powerful spirit appears several times in the repetition of bells, which has always played a big role in the Russian psyche and in Russian history. In the course of the performance by the composer I developed a real feel for the music. “Here one can feel the Russian soul and the spell of old Russia!”
Whilst working on the Concerto Symphony I remembered on more than one occasion the thought of the well-known Professor of the St Petersburg Conservatory, Leopold Auer, that:”…the inspiration for the violin sonatas and partitas of Bach, unlike those of Corelli and Tartini, did not come straight from the violin. The violin was not their source, they were the fruit of pure musical inspiration and great artistic thinking. Sometimes not enough consideration is given to the limited possibilities of the instrument, and therefore the violinist is often required to solve complex technical problems” (L Auer, My School of Violin Playing, 1965, Moscow).
Whilst relying on the broad breath of a Russian melody, Cholminov obviously composed his Concerto Symphony for bayan whilst thinking of a whole orchestra. Quite unmistakably this large-scale sound painting could be a symphonic score (like the famous chaconne by J.S. Bach from the Partita No2 for violin), although Alexander Nikolayevich wrote his passionate statement within the framework of the artistic possibilities of the modern bayan. Performance of the Concerto Symphony requires enormous energy and emotion. It is a gigantic fresco, where one experiences the most important episodes of life from the subtlest pianissimo to fortissimo at the same time – not only the performer, but also the listener.
What was the reaction to the Concerto Symphony? It was received with enthusiasm, but it seemed to me that this was rather more about paying homage to a legendary figure. Many people saw Cholminov for the first time. Opinions among staff colleagues were divided. As Alexander Nikolayevich told me, after the concert one famous bayanist asked him reproachfully:
“Why have you written this for Lips, when I have been asking you for so long, and you wrote nothing for me?”
The reaction of some other musicians also hurt him, who said more or less: “What was the point of writing something like this?” Comments however were mainly favourable, but with reservations, which I found quite understandable: the vast majority of bayanists were expecting to hear music in the style of the well-known Suite of 1951, a sort of “new Cholminov Suite”. But everything has changed in the past half-century: the instrument itself, the art of performing and, most importantly, the composer himself, whose roots are found in the great musical culture of the past and whose fresh musical language was strongly reflected in the present world vision of mankind and fitted into the modern era. What would prevent us remembering sometimes the well-known saying from the classical period: “But please remember, dear colleagues, in what period we are now living”
In the course of the year I played the Concerto Symphony again in two concerts in Moscow, and the reaction was already much more favourable. It was clear to me as I was practising the work more thoroughly, and as I performed it a few times on concert tours, that the general public already knew what to expect. Moreover, the more often one hears a complicated work, the more comprehensible it becomes. That is a principle.
I count myself as very fortunate that I was given the opportunity of acquaintance and creative contact with one of the greatest Russian composers of the 20th century, a noble man of music, unusually kind and yet diffident in company – Alexander Nikolayevich Cholminov.
This English translation has been drafted by Miss Barbara Harrison and edited by Roland Williams.
Readers can hear a performance by Friedrich Lips of the Concerto Symphony on the CD “Russian Bells” where it is coupled with Mussorgsky’s “Pictures from an Exhibition”.