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Gavriil POPOV (1904-1972)
Symphony No.1, op.7 (1934)
(Allegro energico [23:35]; Largo con moto e moto cantabile [16:32]; Finale: scherzo e coda. Prestissimo [9:15])
Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)

Theme and variations, op.3 (1922)
(Tema. Andantino [0:52]; Variation I: Andantino [0:51]; Variation II: Piu mosso (vivace) [0:46]; Variation III: Andante [1:03]; Variation IV: Allegretto [0:28]; Variation V: Andante [1:27]; Variation VI: Allegro [0:31]; Variation VII: Moderato [0:48]; Variation VIII: Largo [1:10]; Variation IX: Allegro [0:45]; Variation X: Allegro Molto [0:43]; Variation XI [2:10]; Finale: Allegro [1:37]; Adagio [0:43]; Coda: Presto [1:43])
London Symphony Orchestra/ Botstein
Recorded in Watford Town Hall, Watford, England, April 5-8, 2004. DDD
TELARC CD 80642 [65:24]


This disc highlights yet another of the many talented composers from Soviet times whose careers or creative urge was stifled by the State. This suffocation was driven by the misguided concept that Art could only be of value if it accurately reflected the forward struggle of working people in the building of Socialism and Communism. Any artists that could not or would not hone their works to fit this goal were marginalised at best or suppressed altogether. We are lucky, therefore, that people such as Shostakovich, whilst appearing to conform, still managed to compose works of lasting worth. In his chamber music, he created a private world in which he so often mirrored the disappointment and bitterness he felt, and which resonated with the concert-going public in his country as part of their collective experience.

The interesting and informative liner notes with this CD describe how closely the lives of Popov and Shostakovich resembled each other. They were both born within two years and died three years apart. Both began as pianists, later on choosing composition as their main career. Both composed much music for the theatre and for films. Both were branded as "formalists" by the authorities that oversaw things artistic. This ridiculous term was made to cover anything they considered non-conformist and which did not fit the concept of "socialist realism". It was used against dozens of composers as well as writers, graphic artists, stage directors, film-makers. For many that was the end of their careers, since, without official sanction their works would neither be published nor performed.

Popovís Symphony No.1 was one such casualty of this anti-artistic notion. Unlike Shostakovich and Prokofiev, Popov was pushed to the very margins of society. Though he completed six symphonies in later years he never fulfilled the promise that the present work demonstrates. Yet with typical irony this work had a description by Popov that struck just the right note: "I dedicate this symphony to my dear father, a worker and fighter on the front of proletarian culture (educating young workers). Itís about 1) Struggle and failure 2) Humanity and 3) The energy, will and joy of the victorís work". In 1932, with only the finale to complete the symphony won second prize in a competition for a symphony to commemorate the 15th anniversary of the October Revolution. This had been organised jointly by the Bolshoi Theatre and the Young Communist League newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda. The orchestration took Popov a further two years and the symphony finally had its premiere in Leningrad on March 22, 1935. It was banned the very next day on the grounds that it reflected "the ideology of classes hostile to us". Although the ban was withdrawn a month later Popov was affected by Pravdaís denunciation of Shostakovich and the symphony was pronounced as "formalist". It was never performed again in his lifetime.

A weak beat reminiscent of the start of Stravinskyís "Rite of Spring", gets the first movement off to a cracking start. The main theme is driven along but then meets a sad second subject that gives way to a kaleidoscope of sound rushing forward in a thrilling and demonic way. All three ideas are then fused into a vast central development section and later on there is a return to the first theme before the movement simply evaporates. The slow movement begins in a tranquil enough way. There was even an English pastoral feel to part of it that reminded me of Vaughan Williams. In the background however there is a sense of impending turbulence that eventually inches its way in to dominate much of the rest of this movement. This rises to a peak characterised by a hailstorm of notes before the movement comes to rest in the peaceful way it began. The final movement throws us back into chaos with braying brass contrasted with cheeky themes on piccolos and xylophone. If you think you recognise them then thatís because Shostakovich borrows from it for the finale of his Fifth Symphony and the second movement of his Seventh Symphony. The central section of the finale is a tumultuous powerhouse where ideas are spat out white hot from Popovís musical furnace. Remember that this is the movement that Popov described as "the energy, will and joy of the victorís work", as you listen to this immense force culminating in the ringing of bells as it reaches its conclusion.

This is an extremely satisfying work and poignant when you know the background. It is difficult to understand why it is still hardly known. It has so many echoes of Shostakovich and Prokofiev and of other Soviet composers. Many Soviet works have this mind-set in common. Very probably it reflects a shared experience of turbulent post-revolutionary times for artists from the late 1920s. It make for exciting listening and this Symphony is thoroughly recommended.

Shostakovichís Theme and Variations, op.3 (1921-2) is a delightful and hugely accomplished work dating from the composerís third. year at the conservatoire. It shows the fantastic promise of the sixteen year old and is a great contrast to the thunder and lightning of Popovís symphony. The deconstruction of the theme simply stated at the outset then gently played with is brilliantly successful. Whilst it is less than typical Shostakovich - not surprisingly for such a young man at the very start of his career - it is nevertheless reminiscent of his ballet and some of his film music. The Theme and Variations are brimful of luscious melodies and an inventiveness that was to become the hallmark of the greatest composer to have come out of the Soviet era. Everyone should hear it. There are no records of it ever having been performed in his lifetime so it is very exciting to have come across, if, like me you are a Shostakovich aficionado.

Steve Arloff



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