"Occasional" Music--Occasionally Inspired
Reviewed in the United States on 31 May 2015
If you get this gloriously-recorded disc for no other reason, get it for the revelatory, ineluctably electrifying performance of Shostakovich's 1964 setting of Yevgeniy Yevtushenko's 'The Execution of Stepan Razin', the composer's opus 119. Cut from the same sardonic, darkly brilliant cloth as the 13th Symphony from two years earlier, also to texts of Yevtushenko (sometimes referred to as "The Soviet Bob Dylan"), this dramatically compelling cantata--still too little known in the West--recounts the gory details of the famous Cossack rebel's 1671 execution in Moscow, with probing--and occasionally disturbing-- emphasis on the reaction of the witnessing masses. The Estonian National Symphony Orchestra and Concert Choir under Estonian-American conductor Paavo Jarvi offer a stunningly visceral performance, capturing the score in all its lurid ferocity and gut-wrenching dynamism. The recorded sound is magnificent, aptly resonant and unapologetically full-blown.
The two earlier cantatas, well-performed and presented here in their best possible light, rate as glittering curiosities, though--make no mistake--this is impeccably crafted music with occasional flashes of anachronistic brilliance. It's just not "great" music, and certainly not great Shostakovich. Mawkishly grandiose, bombastic, saccharine paeans to Stalin and the vaunted glories of Stalinism, 'The Song of the Forests' Op. 81 from 1949, and 'The Sun Shines Over Our Motherland' Op. 90 from 1952 are settings of nationalist doggerel by the Soviet poet Yevgeniy Dolmatovsky, later revised to reflect the new political reality following Khrushchev's 1957 denunciation of his predecessor. (The original versions of the texts are presented on this recording.) The music is relentlessly consonant, and stylistically reactionary; in fact, so utterly un-Shostakovich-like that, if asked to listen to these pieces unaware of their composer, many listeners could be forgiven for an honest mistake in naming Glazunov, Rachmaninoff, or even Glinka. 'The Song of the Forests' does have its moments; the spritely Glinka-esque second movement, and the sprawling, grandiloquent fugal finale with its interesting orchestral touches make for entertaining listening. In the end, though, it's all rather empty, as if someone served up an ornate dish of cotton candy and called it a gourmet dessert. Shostakovich's youthful forays into socialist realism--the 2nd and 3rd symphonies from the 1920s or even the tunefully populist 12th from 1960--are modernist masterpieces by comparison. Unredeemed even by the composer's signature tongue-in-cheek banality, the cantatas contain no hidden anti-communist messages, no sly inside jokes, or furtive, court-jester-ish nose-thumbing. The composer reportedly retreated to his Leningrad hotel room following the November 1949 premiere of 'Song of the Forests', buried his head under a pillow, and wept before drowning his apparent embarrassment in a vodka bottle. While it's doubtful these recordings will elicit a similar response from listeners, this often forced, artificially "pretty" music wears thin fairly fast.
Erato, unfortunately, does not include original texts or translations in the booklet accompanying the disc. The essay by Andrew Huth overplays the now more-or-less discredited ideas of Simon Volkov, portraying the composer in starkly black-and-white terms as an artistic martyr, suffering relentlessly under the philistine constraints of the Soviet system. Certainly true to some degree, but persuasive arguments can be made, in light of correspondence made available to scholars since 1991, that the man who aggressively curried Stalin's favor, lobbying for every benefit available to elites within the Soviet regime, going so far as to join the Communist Party as late as 1960 (when it was no longer necessary for survival or professional advancement), and further refusing to stand in solidarity with bona fide dissidents who were supposedly his friends--Rostrapovich, Vishnevskaya etc.-- was, in all likelihood, a perfectly normal artistic pragmatist living in times that allowed very little space for compromise one way or the other.
Wholeheartedly recommended for the world-class performance and superb recording of Op. 119. Shostakovich complete-ists will want it for the earlier cantatas as well.
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