RECORDING OF THE MONTH: Cantatas by Shostakovich

27. May 2015.

Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
The Execution of Stepan Razin, Op. 119 (1964) [29:24] The Sun Shines over our Motherland, Op. 90 (1952) [14:16] The Song of the Forests, Op. 81 (1949) [46:00] 1. The war ended in victory [5:00] 2. We will clothe our homeland with forests [2:53] 3. Memories of the past [7:00] 4. The pioneers plant the forests [2:01] 5. The people of Stalingrad go forth [3:23] 6. A walk into the future [6:32] 7. Glory [9:18] Alexei Tanovitski (bass), Konstantin Andreyev (tenor)
Narva Boys Choir, Estonian Concert Choir
Estonian National Symphony Orchestra/Paavo Järvi
rec. live, 18-20 April 2012, Estonia Concert Hall, Tallinn, Estonia
Reviewed as a 16-bit download from Qobuz
Pdf booklet does not include sung texts or translations
ERATO 2564 616666 [79:52]

Much has been written about Shostakovich’s artistic isolation in the years between the infamous denunciation of his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk in 1936 and his gradual rehabilitation in the early 1950s. They were frigid times, during which the Fourth Symphony was withdrawn and the Tenth written but not performed; also, the First Violin Concerto, composed in 1947-1948, was only premiered in 1955. Then there were the Party pieces, The Song of the Forests(1949) and The Sun Shines over our Motherland (1952), to texts by the popular poet and lyricist Evgeni Dolmatovsky (1915-1994).

After the first of these cantatas was premiered in December 1949 Shostakovich is said to have returned to his hotel room and wept. However, once Khrushchev had denounced Stalin in 1956 Dolmatovsky and Shostakovich toned down the texts of both Opp. 81 and 90. One could argue that this was as much about political expediency as it was about artistic sensibilities; even then words came back to haunt Shostakovich, with Evgeni Yevtushenko’s original texts to the Thirteenth Symphony ‘Babi Yar’ altered – for very different reasons – following the work’s premiere in 1962. The Execution of Stepan Razin, which came two years later, was not so controversial, although it does have an interesting subtext.

Speaking of controversy that’s exactly what the Estonian conductor and exile Paavo Järvi courted when he chose to programme Opp. 81 and 90 – with their original pro-Stalin texts – in his home town of Tallinn in April 2012. In a candid interview with The Guardian on 15 May 2015 Järvi dismissed accusations that he was defending Stalin; after all, his family fled the Soviet-controlled state in 1980. Instead, he believes that these unexpurgated texts are necessary to a complete understanding of the composer’s oeuvre. As a telling aside, Järvi – who received death threats when the project was announced – points to political developments in Russia that, in his view, signal the rise of a new despotism.

There are several recordings s of all three cantatas. The Execution of Stepan Razin is by far the most popular; the larger-than-life Kirill Kondrashin account (Melodiya, HDTT) is the one to beat, although Vladimir Ashkenazy’s recent Helsinki one is not without its strengths (review). As for Opp. 81 and 90, they appear together on a Praga Digitals reissue of two all-Russian performances from 1961 and 1970 (review). Apart from Evgeni Mravinsky’s pioneering 78rpm recording of Op. 81 (Melodiya) there are others from Ashkenazy (Decca), Yuri Temirkanov (RCA/Sony) and Michail Jurowski (Capriccio). The Sun Shines over our Motherland appears on another Kondrashin recording that’s been expertly re-mastered by HDTT (review).

Given that the USP of this new release is that it reverts to the original texts in Opp. 81 and 90 it’s a great shame that the Shostakovich estate refused to allow them to be reproduced in the booklet. Not surprising, I suppose, as the estate is still based in a country where such decisions cannot be taken lightly. That said, the Praga Digitals SACD doesn’t offer sung texts either, even though they’re the tamed ones; even worse, the Jurowski download has no booklet at all. Still, I don’t see why Erato couldn’t have included the Razin libretto, which you will certainly find in the Ondine booklet.

As if to counter accusations of Stalinist sympathies at the outset Järvi prefaces Opp. 81 and 90 with a lacerating version of Op. 119; the latter, a bizarre and gaudy tale, could hardly be construed as boot-licking bombast. The eponymous 17th-century hero attempts to depose the Tsar and is decapitated for his pains. The fact that the Cossack’s severed head then mocks his erstwhile master is a neat allegorical twist that would not have been lost on Shostakovich, his librettist Yevtushenko or the more perceptive Soviet listener. It doesn’t stop there, for the piece is also a powerful comment on the state of Russia today.

Having recently reviewed what I described as Paavo Järvi’s ‘deeply humanising’ account of Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony I did wonder how he’d tackle the wild and garish Razin. As it happens he manages very well; the bass Alexei Tanovitski is sonorous and wonderfully dramatic, but it’s the Estonian choirs who really impress with their febrile, highly idiomatic singing. The live recording is admirably tense and the all-important percussion is simply hair-raising. Balances are convincing and the dynamic range is very wide. Indeed, for a humble 16-bit download this is pretty spectacular.

Järvi brings out the trenchant swipes and echoes of ‘Babi Yar’, those staccato figures are as incisive and exciting as I’ve ever heard them. Goodness, I’d say Kondrashin has met his match at last, for this performance grabs the listener by the throat and never lets go. Besides, the Estonian orchestra play with a heady mix of precision and power that’s utterly right for the piece; even in the score’s quieter passages there’s a thrum of electricity that you simply would not get in a studio. Razin is a potent and persuasive score that deserves to be aired more often than it is.

In the past I’ve found Paavo Järvi meticulous but not always very communicative; I have to say hisLeningrad and Razin – both intelligently wrought and intensely dramatic – have changed all that. As if to reinforce the point Razin‘s thumping, bell-tormented finale took my breath away. There’s no applause, but I hope it brought the house down. If anything this has whetted my appetite for more Shostakovich symphonies from this conductor, the Thirteenth especially. Järvi père has long specialised in this repertoire, but it’s clear that Järvi fils promises much with his own, very individual view of this music.

Next up is the one-movement cantata The Sun Shines over our Motherland. From the start it has a simplicity of style – no rough or subversive harmonies here – that, despite its offensive texts, is as musically inoffensive as one could imagine. That said, Shostakovich was a consummate craftsman, so even a propaganda piece such as this has a certain appeal. In spite of that – and without access to the texts – one senses a frisson to the performance that surely derives, in oart at least, from the presence of audience members with very real and painful memories of life under Soviet occupation.

Whatever one thinks of Shostakovich in general or these pieces in particular I do believe we need to hear these cantatas as they were first performed to fully appreciate the complex and conflicted life and works of this extraordinary composer. Hearing Järvi’s splendid reading of Song of the Forests – written to celebrate the forestation of the steppes after the war – strengthens that view. Compared with the plainer Op. 90 it’s a much more varied and interesting piece; indeed, its darkly majestic opening has a cinematic breadth and seriousness of purpose that belies the work’s narrow, propagandising context.

Tenor Konstantin Andreyev is firm and clear, as are the Narva Boys Choir, and the adults bring an authentic weight and timbre to the proceedings that’s always thrilling. However, it’s Järvi who binds it all together with his alert and intuitive direction; under all those horrible euphemisms – Stalin is referred to as ‘the great gardener’ – there’s much to tweak the ear and engage the brain. What a pity that such an accomplished – and sometimes affecting – score is tainted by toe-curling texts. By contrast Shostakovich’s choral Second and Third symphonies, patriotic tub-thumpers both, are the products of a less menacing political/artistic milieu; they too have their memorable moments (review).

Anyone who thrills to the distinctive sound of Russian choral groups such as the once-fabled Red Army Ensemble will warm the folksy, but deeply felt writing of Op. 81’s penultimate movement, A walk into the future. There’s a naïve optimism here, a Candide-like moment in which the sight of this arboreal splendour gives rise to hope and high expectations; alas, Glory, that final hymn to Stalin, rather spoils the illusion. Still, it’s fine music that builds to an impressive and proportionate climax. More than that it’s actually quite overwhelming – in the best sense of the word – Järvi and his performers inexhaustible to the end. Now that really does deserve an ovation.

I wouldn’t want to be without Kondrashin and Gromadsky in Stepan Razin, but Järvi’s accounts of Opp. 81 and 90 must go straight to the top of the tree. If you loathe Shostakovich this recording will just add grist to your mill; however, if you’re a DSCH fan you simply cannot overlook this remarkable – and important – release.

Paavo Järvi follows up his fine Leningrad with very persuasive accounts of these cantatas; the playing, singing and sound are sensational.