The music of Alexander Raskatov remains relatively little known in the United States. Smart concert programmers, though, should take note of the effectiveness of his new Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, “Night Butterflies”, as demonstrated in this performance by Tomoko Mukaiyama and the Seattle Symphony. With these concerts, Ludovic Morlot gave the work a persuasive American premiere, fully alert to the score’s psychological fascination. The SSO co-commissioned Night Butterflies with Het Residentie Orkest Den Haag, which presented the world première in the Netherlands last May.

Ludovic Morlot © Askonas Holt
Ludovic Morlot
© Askonas Holt

The situation is different in Europe. There, the Moscow native and émigré — he has resided in the West for more than 20 years and is currently based in the vicinity of Paris  — has attracted enthusiastic attention for his opera A Dog’s Heart, a work based on a long-suppressed novel by Mikhail Bulgakov. It was recently revived in Lyon after stagings in Amsterdam, ENO, and La Scala. Plans to add it to the Metropolitan Opera’s calendar in 2015 unfortunately had to be scrapped, on account of rights issues involving Bulgakov’s literary heirs.

A haunting, hallucinatory, theatrical sensibility underpins Night Butterflies as well. Raskatov, now 61, was inspired by an experience that brings to mind that celebrated lepidopterist, Vladimir Nabokov. A spontaneous visit to a French greenhouse, in which various butterfly species commingled, awoke slumbering memories of a childhood walk with his mother in the forest outside Moscow. The sight of a powder blue butterfly and the delicate vibrations of its wings recalled to him a vanished innocence, evoking “anxiety for lost youth, health, and hope”.

Raskatov reconceives the concerto’s conventional dramaturgy of soloist and orchestra as a structure of twelve relatively brief movements, each establishing its own atmosphere. These movements evince the compression and density of detail of Webern’s miniatures, while simultaneously alluding (in structure, not material) to the elusive fantasies of Schumann’s Papillons and Prokofiev’s Visions fugitives. The composer makes no attempt to develop thematic material or even to effect “realistic” transitions between the highly variegated movements. Instead, they suggest plein-air sketches, a dozen character studies reflecting the different attributes of these creatures, from their colors and sizes to their flight patterns.

None of this, let me hasten to point out, involves prettily mimetic nature painting. Tomoko Mukaiyama, for whom Raskatov tailored the concerto, homed in on the dark undercurrents of his writing. Her spectacularly vivid performance emphasized the composer’s extremities of gesture — ostinatos that crystallize into earworms, outbursts crushing in their violent force, vertiginous glissandi (for which she donned a pink protective glove) — but also conveyed the surreal cumulative effect of this abundance of contrasts.

Alexander Raskatov
Alexander Raskatov

Mukaiyama brought out the spirit of unsettling mystery that is the concerto’s true connective tissue, whether in impossibly rapid figurations that wildly jump across the keyboard or in the hieratic sonorities of its slow, brooding passages. In the culmination of Night Butterflies, Raskatov resorts to a startling sonic image of innocence, all the more effective within the context of his widely ranging vocabulary throughout the rest of the piece. He asks the soloist to begin singing along to the folk song refrain she simultaneously elaborates on the keyboard.

Along with the musical references already mentioned, Raskatov’s language is at times reminiscent of Messiaen in its rhythmic complexity as well as its symbolic suggestiveness. Yet this score in no way resembles the recycled processing of a merely “eclectic” composer; his sonic imagination is alluringly original. Presiding over an enviable level of polish and detail from the SSO, Morlot for the second time this season introduced a significant new composition that merits widespread discovery (the first being Pascal Dusapin’s Violin Concerto titled Aufgang).

The orchestra’s alertness likewise enriched its account of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony no. 6 in B minor, “Pathétique” in the second half. Electrifying string ensemble in the first movement and the swaggering brass in the third made for devastatingly potent contrasts with the inevitable gravitational pull downward, into silence. Especially outstanding were the expressively tapered solos from bassoonist Seth Krimsky and guest clarinetist Georgiy Borisov.

Morlot’s interpretation, relying on a well-defined structural sense as well as refined dynamic gradations, avoided intemperate exaggeration. Overall, he preferred a classicizing clarity to overwrought emotion and anguish. As a result, Tchaikovsky’s most animated moments gave the impression of passing fantasies, the inevitable conclusion already apparent in the pathos of the opening minutes. The only misstep came in the restraint applied to the second movement’s flowing waltz, which would have benefited from a more exuberant flow.

Russian music also graced the opening selection, the concert suite from Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera The Snow Maiden — neatly timed within days of the vernal equinox — which glistened with color and balletic ebullience in this account.

Meanwhile, throughout the weekend the SSO co-hosted a related symposium on the topic of “Creative Diaspora: Émigré Composers from the Former USSR” and exploring facets of Sofia Gubaidulina, Nikolai Korndorf, Lera Auerbach, and other peers of Raskatov. Organized by Elena Dubinets, the SSO’s VP of Artistic Planning, the Conference included a pre-concert performance of Raskatov’s chamber piece Time of Falling Flowers, which provided the audience early birds with a mesmerizing entrée into this composer’s unsettlingly beautiful world.

*****