Nowadays you cannot
mention the name Khrennikov without
having his music condemned as contemptible.
The issue is rarely that of the music
but a reflection on his conduct as leader
of the Soviet Union of Composers. Our
favoured artists must, on this basis,
be saints and heroes. The fact is that
they are fallible and as prone to outrageous,
disgraceful and despicable behaviour
as the next man or woman. Well, whatever
the truth about Khrennikov's conduct
over an extraordinary period of 43 years
ending in 1991 on the shattering of
the USSR, we can now hear his symphonies
on this disc and the piano concertos
on a Relief CD.
The First Symphony
is Khrennikov's graduation exercise
from the Moscow Conservatoire. It combines
the engaging and cheery playfulness
of Prokofiev with the arching heroic
songful writing of Miaskovsky. The central
movement uses a rising and dipping theme
for strings and memorably describes
a curve typical of Miaskovsky and of
Khrennikov's teacher, Vissarion Shebalin.
A distinctive arctic heroism soaks the
serious melody that rises in the finale.
It's just a shame that he shied away
from closing the work with that noble
theme feeling it necessary to return
to the knockabout wheeziness with which
the movement begins. It is similar,
in that respect, to the vigorous movements
in Shostakovich 6 and 9.
The wartime Second
Symphony has the heroically whooping
energy we expect from a work of those
times. It gallops away, sustaining its
tension and adrenaline-soaked hortatory
tone. Its cavalry charge power in the
first movement can be likened to similar
moments in Miaskovsky's Symphonies 22,
24 and 25. The brass make a gloriously
ripe sound - tragic and heroic at the
same time. As the first movement closes
I became sure that Khrennikov's frame
of reference must have included Tchaikovsky's
Pathétique. The nostalgia-soaked
autumnal scene of 7.10 is similar to
Miaskovsky. This precedes a final convulsive
'charge' with heaven-scouring brass.
The second movement is plangently thoughtful
and is led off by a reflective clarinet
solo. There is no bitterness more a
case of a leisurely resigned tiredness
rising to Tchaikovskian nobility a la
Pathétique again (tr.
5 5:03). The thrusting and capering
clarinet and bassoon initiate the third
movement and their playfulness contrasts
with a long melody typical of early
Scriabin. The movement ends in riotous
fury and a retching profound braying
from the brass. The finale has rasping
and rolling brass but lacks the Odysseyan
sense of homecoming. It has grandeur
aplenty but is a notch or two slacker
than the first two movements. I fear
it all finishes too early but it is
still good fun and the trembling blaze
at the end is well worth hearing.
The Third Symphony
is the most Shostakovich-like of
the three. The first movement is relentlessly
active racing away with Prokofievian
humour mixed in; circus knockabout.
The second movement has a high, sleek
and quiet romantic theme for stratospheric
violins like a hybrid of the dreamy
focus-slither of Silvbestrov’s Fifth
Symphony and of the Grand Adagio
from Khachaturian's Spartacus.
The acrid chronometer 'tick' at the
end of the third movement recalls the
Shostakovich Fifteenth Symphony. The
finale is effective after some vapid
gestures. The high strings swoon fit
to burst and very high in the register.
They make connections back to the ultra-high
passages in the second movement. This
Himalaya-mystery sounds extremely filmic
- part Steiner, part Jarre, part Silvestrov.
All three symphonies
are fastidiously and tellingly orchestrated.
Khrennikov had a long and no doubt bruising
apprenticeship in the Soviet film industry.
However the orchestrational skills it
imbued served him well.
The playing is outstanding
with the USSR Symphony Orchestra at
the peak of their dizzyingly virtuosic
powers under Svetlanov's inspirational
conducting. The 1970s Russian brass
are regally commanding complete with
Khrennikov has had
a knee-jerk drubbing in many quarters.
His music, however, has its bright-eyed
virtues. Some of it is sub-Shostakovich
but much of it has a noble bearing and
is impressively laid out. The First
Symphony is excellent as are the first
two movements of the Second and much
of the Third. Give it a try.