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Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

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Georgy SVIRIDOV (1915-1998)
Oratorio Pathétique (1959) [34.51]
Valery GAVRILIN (1939-1999)

A House on the Road - symphonic suite on the poem by A. Tvardovsky [34.13]
Raisa Kotova (mezzo)
Alexandr Vedernikov (bass)
Grand Choir of USSR Radio and Television
Tchaikovsky Symphony Orchestra of Moscow Radio/Vladimir Fedoseyev
rec. live concert recordings, 1979 (oratorio), 1985 (suite) ADD
Recordings from Russian State Foundation of Radio and Television
RELIEF CR991053 [65.05]

 

Here are two monuments of Soviet music. I hope that we have learnt sufficient maturity not to dismiss these works out of hand because they were written closer to the Soviet ‘heart’ than the works of outright or closet dissident composers now automatically elevated because of their dissidence.

Gavrilin, who was born in Vologda, was very much a Leningrad (now St Petersburg) figure. His television folk-ballet, A House on the Road, deals with village life at the time of the Second World War. There is nothing tough or difficult to enjoy in this music. It is in some measure reminiscent of the intensely melodic music of Kara Karayev’s ballet The Seven Beauties and the more technicolour Hollywood sentimentality encountered in the music of Eshpai (e.g. in his ballet The Circle). There is the naïve delicate lyricism of Mother's Song with its xylophone and celesta dialogue. Allowing for a tape blip at tr.9 2.01 the youth movement is also highly sentimental with a touch of Delius's Hassan Serenade for flute and solo violin. At 3.43 in this track the engineers pull back on the controls to avoid distortion at the surge of the orchestra. In The Road (tr.10) first two minutes is taken up with an insistent sword-wind of strings, steady, insistent, reiterative, searching somewhat recalling Hovhaness’s writing in the Majnun Symphony (on Poseidon). The waltz (tr. 11) features an accordion and a guitar and has reminiscences of Ravel's la valse (tr.11 3.02). The music becomes by turns Mephistophelean, terse, rapped out, tart and psychological in the tradition established by Prokofiev in his grand waltzes. Gavrilin nevertheless maintains a light painterly hand evident in the Tchaikovskian flute flurries. The ‘oompah’ finale suggests an affectionate tribute to Satie and Auric - a sort of 1950s film music for a tour of Paris. Brashness redolent of Malcolm Arnold and Shostakovich’s First Piano Concerto blazes in great convulsions of unsubtle kitsch. The recording’s live provenance is betrayed by the cough at 5.12. Gavrilin’s music as represented here occupies a long lyric tradition which in modern times has also surfaced in symphonies by Boiko (2) and Silvestrov (5) and stretches back to the grand tableaux of Tchaikovsky's three symphonic ballets.

Now to the Sviridov. I have reviewed some Sviridov before. There was a Boheme CD devoted to his music. This was recorded in the year of his death. The orchestra was conducted by none other than Alexandr Vedernikov, the very singer who takes the stentorian basso role in this oratorio. For the record that disc was Boheme CDBMR 911108. It contained Music for Chamber Orchestra (1964), Time Forward! film score (1967), It is snowing - choir and orchestra (1965) and The Songs of Hard Times (1998).

Kursk-born Sviridov has been a peripheral figure for most even moderately well-informed listeners and collectors. His Oratorio Pathetique and Song of the Forests have been heard (the latter on an EMI-Melodiya LP coupled with Shostakovich) but that is about it apart from the Boheme disc. Thankfully there are now three Sviridov discs on the new and admirable CDK Music label.

The Music for Chamber Orchestra is bright and imaginative with hints of Shostakovich (with whom Sviridov studied), Finzi (massed string writing) and Bliss (Music for Strings). The six movement suite: Time Forward! Includes a raw slow brass fanfare (Copland open-air style), a chattering Prokofiev ditty and foxtrot with braying trombone and swooping flute solo, a minatory march underpinned by a hollow drumbeat, a nocturne incorporating a ppp elegiac trumpet figure of understated power and a raucous ‘ironmongery’ finale alive with the clamour of Shchedrin's Carmen ballet. Boris Pasternak's three poems are deliciously set by Sviridov in It is Snowing. The songbird-hearted flute lifts the mesmerising first poem with its slowly descending flakes. The much longer Soul moves just as slowly as the first song and its slow tolling is most affecting. The three short Blok songs (and for that matter the Pasternak settings) are indicators of Sviridov's pursuit of the finest verse in the Russian language. Apologies for this aside but I would like to remind readers of this attractive anthology.

The Oratorio Pathétique is in seven sections. Vedernikov stands at the hub, orator, stentor, goader of the people, defiant, courageous, rallying and florid. He is the very embodiment of the Russian bass. He veers consummately between sung heroism and bellowing, hectoring magnificence. He can be compared with Boris Morgunov, the narrator in Muti's Ivan the Terrible. The effect is heightened by the growling glow of the massive choir (Grand Choir of USSR Radio and TV) which also impresses through its blazing undistorted tone (tr.3 1.33, 1.48).

This music clearly caught the imaginations of the audience some of whom might well, in 1979, have quietly thought to themselves that this hymn to the dazzle of Soviet history and sacrifice might be at just past zenith. The recording is extremely capable and as secure as an Ingersoll lock. It takes in its stride both subtle pastoral pipings (as in tr.4 00.12) as well as the awesome tub-thumping of the first three tracks. That said there is a momentary dropout in the left-hand channel at 1.38 (tr.4). The tense and pinpoint singing of the dialogue of There'll be a Garden City here reflects the remorseless industry of a great and also ruthlessly achieving regime (prompting echoes of the industrious machinery of Bliss’s Things to Come):-

A hundred pithead giants here

will burrow earth's dark womb

Here rows of factories we'll raise

...

Through siren steam will run

It is breathtakingly stirring music with many subtle and instrumentally acute gestures. The massive and poetic aspects will draw inevitable comparisons with Yuri Shaporin's wartime choral/orchestral trilogy (now if only Relief would issue that trilogy). Rather like Sibelius's Kullervo you can easily get caught up in the action and want to join in the singing. The pity then is that although there is a translation into English the sung words are printed in the original Cyrillic rather than transliteration.

The words are by high-priest poet of the Soviet regime Vladimir Mayakovsky and, amongst much else, sing the praises of 'Dear Comrade Lenin'. The Sun and The Poet finale makes much play of darting, brightly excitable and celebratory writing recalling the bubbling joy of RVW's Five Mystical Songs meeting Prokofiev's Nevsky and Delius's Mass of Life in the dazzle of upland sunshine: a damn good thrash and sheerly magnificent.

I will make it a point of hearing more Sviridov whenever I can. Here is a man at peace with the affecting emotional language of the lyrical singers in Russia's artistic history.

Rob Barnett

TRACK LISTING

Sviridov - Oratorio Pathetique (1959):-
1. March
2. Tale of General Wrangel's Flight
3. To the Heroes of the Battle of Perekop
4. Our Land
5. There'll be a garden city here
6. Conversation with Comrade Lenin
7. The Sun and the Poet
Gavrilin - A House on the Road:-
1. Mother's song
2. Youth
3. The Road
4. Waltz
5. Holiday

 



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