November 16, 2006


Stravinsky: Three Russian Sacred Choruses; Mass; Cantata; Babel; Symphony of Psalms. Robert Craft conducting soloists, the Gregg Smith Singers, the Simon Joly Chorale, the Orchestra of St. Luke’s and the Philharmonia Orchestra. Naxos. $8.99.

Shostakovich: Symphony No. 7, “Leningrad.” Kurt Masur conducting Orchestre National de France. Naïve. $16.99.

     For Russian composers of the 20th century, there were really only two choices: flee or accommodate.  Igor Stravinsky, famously, fled; Dmitri Shostakovich, equally famously, accommodated.  The contrasts between the works they produced are surely due in part to their very different relationships to their homeland, just as they are partly due to differences in temperament and training.  Yet each composer was, in his own way, Russian to the core.

     Stravinsky’s Three Russian Sacred Choruses were specifically written to be used in the Russian Orthodox Church, and are for chorus only – the church does not allow use of musical instruments.  The Mass, which does include instruments, uses the five traditional sections of the Latin mass and encapsulates this Roman Catholic religious experience in 17 minutes.  Religious music of this sort was anathema in what was then the Soviet Union, which was officially atheist.  Yet Stravinsky clearly felt the pull of religious traditions strongly, and thanks to his exile was able to explore them at length.  Nor did he stop with the New Testament: both Babel and the justly famous Symphony of Psalms draw on the Old Testament.  The first of these uses text from Genesis, while the second uses parts of Psalms 38 and 39 and all of Psalm 150.  Babel includes both a narrator (David Wilson-Johnson in the new Naxos Robert Craft CD) and a male chorus, as well as orchestra, while the Symphony of Psalms is for chorus and orchestra only.  Craft understands this music viscerally as well as intellectually, and his performances of all these works reach out successfully beyond the religious texts to the wider audience that Stravinsky sought.

     In some ways, the most interesting piece on the latest Naxos/Craft CD is the one least tied to traditional religion: Cantata for 5 Instruments, Female Chorus, Mezzo-Soprano and Tenor.  This is a seven-movement work whose central “Ricercar II: ‘Tomorrow Shall Be’” is almost as long as the other six movements put together.  Craft expertly merges and highlights the voices of mezzo Mary Ann Hart and tenor Thomas Bogdan with the Gregg Smith Singers and Fred Sherry’s cello, Stephen Taylor’s oboe, Melanie Field’s oboe and cor anglais, and the flutes of Michael Parloff and Bart Feller.  There is some straightforward religiosity here: that central “Ricercar II” involves Christ’s foretelling of his crucifixion.  But there are also four dirges, a poem of a young bride and more – the totality being an emotionally complex and highly moving work to which Craft provides forward thrust and an overall feeling of unity.

     Several of these Stravinsky pieces cluster in or around World War II: Babel dates to 1944 and the Mass was started the same year, though not finished until 1948.  But none of these pieces speaks directly to the war, as Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 7 most assuredly does.  The first three movements of the composer’s longest symphony were written in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) while the city was under siege by the Nazis in 1941; the triumphal fourth movement was written after Shostakovich and his family had been evacuated.  This symphony quickly became immensely popular in a world at war, and its final triumphalism – required in any case by Soviet rules – effectively united the Allies with Russia and obscured the fact that Stalin was a greater mass murderer than Hitler.  Yet the work has not had the staying power of some other Shostakovich symphonies or of Stravinsky’s more modestly scaled pieces (this symphony lasts longer than the entire Stravinsky CD).

     The Shostakovich Seventh actually has some relationship to Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms, which is recalled in the opening to the symphony’s Adagio.  But Shostakovich’s work is most famous for the strident and vulgar march in the first movement, which most commentators take to represent the advancing Nazis.  Shostakovich’s technique here was not new: the 11-minute crescendo recalls both Ravel’s Bolero and Rossini’s technique of raising volume by adding instruments, while the increasing menace of side drums sounds much like what Nielsen produced in his Fifth Symphony (written in 1922, shortly after the previous world war).  But Shostakovich’s willingness to let the theme be vulgar, to allow it to swallow the idealized simplicity that was portrayed earlier in the movement, was immensely effective – and still is in Kurt Masur’s performance, which pulls out all the stops here.  But even Masur’s intensity and the fine playing of Orchestre National de France cannot bring the remaining movements fully into line with the first, which practically stands on its own as a tone poem (which is actually how Shostakovich originally conceived it).  The finale, in particular, seems tacked on: it is easy to see why it was welcomed worldwide when international performances began in 1942, but if the first-movement march represents the banality of evil, this movement’s conclusion seems to show the banality of victory.  This highly Russia-focused symphony by a composer who stayed in the homeland has less to say to the world today than the more cosmopolitan productions of the exile, Stravinsky.  And although Masur’s performance rates (++++) on a strictly musical basis, the Naïve CD deserves only a (+++) overall rating, because the audience at this live recording is unusually noisy – coughing, sniffling, shuffling and crinkling throughout, with even Masur contributing to the sounds.  Maybe it’s just hard to sit still for the Shostakovich Seventh in 2006.

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