Violinist Roman Mints was recently in the somewhat unusual position of being able to ask for the composer’s opinion on a piece he was performing. Leonid Desyatnikov is a major figure in post-World War II Russian music but practically unknown in the West. Mints is detemined to change that.
Desyatnikov’s music is not well-known in the West – could you tell us a bit about his style and influences?
It’s hard to describe because although on the one hand it could be viewed as quite accessible, very consonant, at the same time it’s full of layers of meaning. But he frequently uses allusions and quotations so it’s also very intellectual music. Some of his work could be viewed as post-modern but you can’t really put a label on his overall output.
Why, in your opinion, has his work not been played widely in the West?
He can’t be easily pigeon-holed: he’s neither avant-garde nor minimalist so I think it takes time for people to get to know him. I don’t think that enough has been done focusing on him personally: because his music has been performed by such great performers – such as violinist Gidon Kremer – people tend to focus on the performer, rather than the composer.
Why are you championing Desyatnikov’s music outside of Russia?
His thinking is quite original: every time you listen to a piece, you expect one thing but he surprises you with something new. I think it’s important that you really identify with the music that you decide to play. And Desyatnikov’s music is a pleasure to play – that’s the main reason I champion it, I have to say.
You recently performed on the first all-Desyatnikov album to be released in the UK, The Leaden Echo. The composer himself supervised the recording – did that add any pressure?
Of course there is pressure because you feel that you are representing him and you want the audience to understand the music, as you have done. But at the same time, it’s such a rare opportunity that you can actually talk to the composer: you don’t have to guess what he meant, you can ask him. That’s a privilege because usually a lot of the work of a musician involves making educated guesses.
Do you have a favourite track on this album?
The title track, The Leaden Echo, is one of the most important works in his output as well as on this album, it’s considered his magnum opus – and that’s why it was chosen, as a sort of flagship work. I think not only the music but also the text, by Gerard Manley Hopkins, is very close to Desyatnikov’s ideas. But the whole album is so rich and varied, I just hope that people listen to it and see for themselves that he’s a very important composer.
The Leaden Echo, released on the Quartz label, is reviewed in our August issue, out now.
Interview by Elizabeth Davis