May 04, 2006


Shostakovich: The Execution of Stepan Razin; October; Five Fragments. Charles-Robert Austin, bass-baritone; Seattle Symphony Chorale; Gerard Schwarz conducting the Seattle Symphony. Naxos. $8.99.

Kabalevsky: Piano Concertos Nos. 1 and 2. In-Ju Bang, piano. Dmitry Yablonsky conducting the Russian Philharmonic Orchestra. Naxos. $8.99.

      Artists in the Soviet Union were required to serve the state – and if they did not do so through their art, they could do so with their bodies, which were summarily sent into Siberian exile. For decades – most notably during the heyday of Joseph Stalin, the greatest mass murderer of the 20th century, but continuing for decades after Stalin’s death – artists had to toe the line carefully enough be to allowed to continue to create. The greatest of them – Prokofiev and Shostakovich – had the most creativity bottled up, and found the most innovative ways to bring out as much of it as they safely could. Lesser composers simply did as they were required to do, sacrificing as many creative impulses as necessary.

      Shostakovich’s The Execution of Stepan Razin, a symphonic poem for baritone solo, mixed chorus and orchestra, is a nearly perfect pirouette in the Soviet system. It commemorates the death of a 17th-century Cossack who rebelled against Czar Alexis I and was captured, tortured and executed. Thus, it condemns Czarist Russia and celebrates its eventual overthrow – the Communists’ great victory. But the poem that Shostakovich set is by Yevgeny Yevtushenko, a controversial figure in the Soviet hierarchy for writing Babi Yar, a condemnation of Russian anti-Semitism – itself a poem used by Shostakovich (for his Symphony No. 13). Razin can easily be read as a tale of rebellion against just the sort of repressive regime that the Soviets themselves were perpetuating. Shostakovich walks this tightrope with musical aplomb, creating an intensely energetic tone poem filled with orchestral color, in which the soloist is both narrator and the voice of Razin himself.

      October was a more overtly pleasing piece for official Soviet purposes. Written in 1967 – three years after Razin – it commemorates the 50th anniversary of the October Revolution. It is a short tone poem containing an intense march and quotations from earlier Shostakovich works.

      The Five Fragments of 1935 are brief studies for the composer’s Symphony No. 4. They function on this CD as a sort of encore, but have some musical interest in themselves, thanks to interesting orchestrations: for instance, in No. 5, the snare drum plays against a solo violin. Gerard Schwarz is not an ideal interpreter of Shostakovich’s music: he gets the bombast right but tends to miss the subtleties. These works, though, contain enough forthright, intense expression so that they work well under his direction. And Charles-Robert Austin is impressive in Razin.

      There is little subtlety in the music of Dmitry Kabalevsky (1904-1987), and that was just fine with Soviet authorities: he was one of the few composers to get along reasonably well with the censors and apparatchiks throughout his career. The first two of Kabalevsky’s four piano concertos date from 1928 and 1935 respectively, though the second was revised in 1973. These are pleasant works that are less challenging to the ear than to the performer – Kabalevsky keeps dissonance, of which Soviet authorities were distrustful, well in hand. Both concertos are reminiscent of Prokofiev, and both are quite well played by In-Ju Bang, who was only 14 when this recording was made in 2004. Very young pianists often bring dash and intensity to their performances, but they tend not to notice carefully crafted details. Since there are few of those here, these works are ideal for someone like Bang, who certainly has technique to spare. The concertos are neither inspired nor inspirational in these post-Soviet days, but they are well designed and surprisingly bright-spirited, even though both are in minor keys. This is not great music, but it is certainly worth an occasional hearing when as well played as it is here.

No comments:

Post a Comment