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  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    


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Tikhon Nikolayevich KHRENNIKOV (b. 1915)
Symphony No. 1 Op. 4 (1936) [22:05]
Symphony No. 2 Op. 9 (1942 rev. 1944) [34:45]
Symphony No. 3 Op. 22 [17:11]
USSR State Symphony Orchestra/Evgeny Svetlanov
rec. 1973, 1978, Moscow. ADD
SCRIBENDUM SC029 [74:07]


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 unabashed vibrato.

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.

Rob Barnett



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