The lamentable departure
of Olympia from the scene has left major
gaps in the catalogue. Their coverage
of Russian music and their inspired
use of Per Skans to annotate their discs
made them a distinctive and highly active
contributor to the breadth and opulence
of today's catalogues. We can only hope
that the company will revive or that
their catalogue will be licensed wholesale
to another player. Their Miaskovsky
Symphony series stopped dead with many
discs still to be issued. I wonder if
we will ever hear those other Svetlanov
conducted CDs to complete our knowledge
of Miaskovsky's 27 symphonies. Of course
some of you may have Records International
complete intégrale box but there
were not many of those in circulation
and they were not as well documented
as the Olympia series. And so to Shebalin.
Shebalin was born in
Omsk in Siberia. His studies at the
Moscow Conservatory were with Miaskovsky.
Like Khrennikov, a composer at the head
of the Soviet Establishment, Shebalin's
graduation piece was his First Symphony,
written in 1928. He was a brilliant
pupil and a gifted communicator. Even
before graduating he could be found
teaching at the Conservatoire. By 1935
he had been appointed Professor and
by 1941 Head of Faculty. His pupils
included Edison Denisov, Veljo Tormis,
Karen Khachaturian, Sofia Gubaidulina
and Tikhon Khrennikov (later to prove
a malign thorn in the side of Shebalin
and of many other Russian composers).
Shebalin as a man of principle and it
was the Polish composer Krzysztof Meyer
who noted that Shostakovich had, in
his workroom, portraits of three composers
- Mahler, Mussorgsky and .... Shebalin.
was condemned in 1948 as one of the
principal ringleaders perpetrating that
heinous but amorphous offence: 'musical
formalism'. And the hortator was none
other than his erstwhile pupil Khrennikov.
This condemnation meant that Shebalin
was summarily removed as Director of
the Conservatory. Shebalin's candour
sealed his fate when he referred to
those who all too readily dropped into
the vacancies as 'obliging fools'. In
the wilderness he festered for three
years before revisionism absolved him
of sin. Needless to say it did not restore
him to the positions he had held. Then
in 1953 his right hand became paralysed.
He continued composing using his left
While orchestral music
forms a large part of the Shebalin output
he also made a major contribution to
chamber music. In fact this aspect of
his catalogue spans more of his creative
career than the symphonies. His First
Quartet is from 1924 and the last from
1963, the year of his death.
The First Quartet
is dedicated to Mikhail Nevitov,
Shebalin's first composition teacher
in Omsk. The music is sweetly placid,
hushed and nostalgic similar to Ravel
but rising to a densely opulent and
ecstatic complexity at 2.34 in the first
movement. Those first two movements
are very much of a piece in character.
The finale of the three movement work
was written with guidance from Miaskovsky,
Shebalin's principal composition professor
at the Moscow Conservatory. This movement
bids a warm and playful farewell - combining
gaiety with a trace of melancholy.
There was then a long
hiatus of ten years before the Second
Quartet was written. Like the First
Quartet this was premiered by the Beethoven
Quartet and dedicated to them. This
is a four movement work that is dense,
even heavy, with harmonic complexity.
Towards the end of the first movement
the music rises to a supremely confident
statement that carries echoes of Franck
and an ambivalence of mood. Ambivalence
carries over into the Andantino (tr.
5) which has the air of a night-time
journey - perhaps a forced march. The
third movement is a piercingly haunted
Andante e Cantabile. The finale
- Allegro risoluto - still does
not shake off the nocturnal mien. It
is however more grittily determined.
The final resolute punched-out gestures
work wonderfully well.
The Third Quartet
followed four years later. It was
premiered in Moscow on 28 November 1939
and carries a dedication to Miaskovsky
whose thirteen string quartets (once
recorded complete by Russian Disc but
now deleted) are similarly a major supporting
beam in the structure of Russian twentieth
century chamber music. The quartet carries
no clues to the turmoil of the war years
and of the Stalin's purges. Once again
there are four movements. The music
abandons the impressionism and moody
ambiguity of its two predecessors. Confidence
radiates in writing that is piercing,
poignant and filled with light (I, tr.
8, 3.10). The brief and dancing Vivace
is even more successful. None of
this carries the bilious disillusion
of Shostakovich. This is closer to the
world of Miaskovsky than to Shostakovich
and is, from that point of view, rather
old-fashioned. An exquisitely tender
Andante, loaded with sentiment
but always dignified, prepares the way
for another Allegro Risoluto (remember
that was the tempo marking for the Second
Quartet). The writing here is of comparably
exalted quality with that of the other
three movements. It is emotively airborne,
shudderingly intense and even seeming
to experiment at one point with microtones
(3:37). There is a hint of mood-painting
from the Second Quartet. The quartet
subtly curves to a close - leaving a
curiously unfinished feeling.
The String Quartet
No. 4 carries a dedication to the
memory of Sergei Taneyev (1856-1915).
Taneyev had, through his quartets, established
chamber music literature in Russia.
Shebalin even quotes from Taneyev in
the last movement. The themes and treatment
are firmly rooted in late nineteenth
century models. The mood is warmly gracious
- a dialogue in serenade which at times
parallels Mozart's K364 Sinfonia
Concertante. The Vivo is
a flightily plangent pizzicato which
uncannily recalls Britten's Simple
Symphony before a central episode
returns to Shebalin's serene meditative
lodestone. It is that lodestone mood
that characterises the final Andante
Per Skans (whose notes
I have unashamedly plundered for this
review) reminds us that as conservatory
director Shebalin received no plaudits
from the authorities. His colleagues
however were supportive and respected
the fine work he was doing especially
through the war years.
In 1943 Shebalin was
awarded a Stalin Prize for his String
Quartet No. 5. Known as The Slavonic,
this work celebrates Russian nationalism.
It chimed in perfectly with the patriotism
of the times in the face of Hitler's
invasion. The five movement quartet
made use of folk melodies and there
are fragmentary echoes of two Tchaikovsky
works - the Serenade for Strings
and the finale of the Fourth Symphony.
This is music in keeping with the irresistible
bucolic flavour of the Moeran quartets
and, closer to home, Prokofiev's Second
Quartet and Miaskovsky's Symphonies
23 and 26 - both heavily folk-influenced.
There are some magical coups here -
the hushed steppe whisper of the two
Andantes is memorable - the second
seems to refer to the Volga Boatmen's
song and to Tchaikovsky's Marche
String Quartet No.
6 is again from the war years which
saw Shebalin as director of the Moscow
Conservatory. Folk material, so widely
deployed in the Fifth Quartet, is here
used more abstemiously - only in the
second movement and the finale. It remains
a very celebratory, mercurial, outgoing,
lively and accessible work - very much
'as prescribed'. The beautiful second
movement - a Finzian Andante -
makes more prominent use of the baritonal
cello than any of the other quartets
and ends in a succession of theatrical
pizzicatos. Anyone who loves the quartets
of Moeran and Vaughan Williams will
love this work. Try the unfailingly
tuneful Allegro Giusto which
ends in a whistled contemplation which
is not that far removed from the valedictory
gleam found at the very end of his last
string quartet in 1963.
As we have seen, 1948
was a fateful year for Shebalin. It
saw his fall from power. The Seventh
Quartet is even more suffused with
folk material than its predecessor.
This lyrically singing work seems to
defy the inimical gloom that surrounded
the composer. Shebalin is at his most
dancingly positive and optimistic in
the first movement. There is a dashing
Scherzo played with panache by the Krasni.
A nostalgic Andante is overhung
by the shadow of a vigorous dance figure
from Tchaikovsky's Fourth Symphony.
This prepares the ground for an Allegro
assai that is shot through with
folk references and gestures - brusque
and gentle - always dignified.
Like the Ninth Quartet,
the twenty minute Eighth Quartet
was dedicated to the Borodin Quartet.
Like all works written after the onset
of paralysis in 1953 this was written
by Shebalin using his left hand only.
It betrays not a hint that it might
have been written in 1960. Would we
be surprised if someone attributed it
to 1900? I think not. Shebalin was no
enfant terrible - no revolutionary.
His poignant elegiac language, once
settled on, satisfied him in full. In
that sense there are parallels with
Finzi - another survivor out of time;
out of step. This quartet is one of
his most successful; movingly elegiac,
poignant and pointed with just a hint
of the language of his teacher Miaskovsky.
The third movement launches with a cello
accented lead voice as in the Andante
of the Sixth Quartet. The husky
final roundel surges like a sable sea
and for a moment hints at Shostakovich
at 1.03 - a gesture he was to make again
in the Ninth Quartet.
The Ninth Quartet
was written at the end of Shebalin's
life when the composer had lived for
a decade under doctor's orders and imminent
mortality. The music here is sparer
than we have become used to from the
other quartets. The music takes on a
huskily dignified consolatory air but
still rising to an impassioned peak.
It is replete with the glorious questing
confidence of the Third Quartet. The
work settles into a full-throated song
in the finale and once again the composer
momentarily assumes the caustic language
of Shostakovich. It is only transient
for the work ends in a brief valedictory
glow comparable to the contented gleam
in the epilogue to Bax's Seventh Symphony.
In summary these are
tonal works, for the most part highly
accessible and with rhythmic 'lift'.
Only in the last two quartets do we
get any hint of the acrid or pungent;
even that is momentary. For that matter
there is nothing of the gloomy expressionist
experimentation to be found in Miaskovsky's
Symphonies 7 and 13.
The Krasni is a young
quartet formed in 1998. Their photograph
appears on the back of each of the insert
booklets. They appear to be in their
teens and twenties. They play with total
engagement and although I have nothing
with which to compare one can sense
their vibrant approach and their belief
in the music. There is no feeling of
tokenism or of mere catalogue gap-filling.
The notes are in English,
French and German.
If you would like to
explore the orchestral Shebalin you
may still be able to find the following
Olympias although the Lenin recording
was deleted five or so years ago:-
Symphonies 1 and 3
Symphony 2 and 4 OCD
- Lenin (to texts by Mayakovsky)
Symphony 5 OCD 599
Despite the collapse
of Olympia as a trading entity stocks
of some of its issues can be had from
Amazon. The three CDs reviewed here
came from Amazon UK. They are likely
to be in transient supply so order now
if you are at all intrigued by the prospect.
These three CDs are
only available separately.
If you can only afford
one, go for volume 3 - those last three
quartets are full of surprises. After
that go for Volume 2.