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Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

 

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Tikhon Nikolayevich KHRENNIKOV (b. 1913)
Three Symphonies

Symphony No. 1 in B flat minor Op. 4 (1933-35) [22:02]
Symphony No. 2 in C minor Op. 9 (1940-44) [34:41]
Symphony No. 3 in A major Op. 22 (1973) [17:27]
USSR State Symphony Orchestra/Evgeny Svetlanov
rec. 1973, 1978, Moscow. ADD
KAPELMEISTER KAP 008 [74:07]

Khrennikov was named a Hero of Socialist Labour in 1973, the year in which his First Symphony was recorded and in which his Third and last Symphony was completed. He studied composition with Shebalin and piano with Neuhaus - combing the two when he premiered his First Piano Concerto in 1933. He was much occupied with the political life of the USSR and rose to high office. In May 1945 he entered Berlin with the Soviet Army. In 1947 he joined the Communist party and became a deputy of the Supreme Soviet. This Elets-born, tenth child of a modest provincial family became secretary-general of the Union of Soviet Composers. His compositional output includes six operas, a ballet and an operetta as well as film music and incidental music alongside chamber pieces, songs and choruses. There are two of the three piano concertos on the Swiss Relief label review, two violin concertos review , a cello concerto and much else.

The First Symphony is Khrennikov's graduation exercise from the Moscow Conservatoire premiered in Moscow on 10 October 1955. 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 saturates the serious melody that rises in the finale. It's just a shame that the composer shied from closing the work with that noble theme. Clearly he felt it necessary to return to the knockabout wheeziness with which the movement begins. It is similar, in that respect, to the clowning movements in Shostakovich 6 and 9.

The wartime Second Symphony expresses ‘the irresistible will to defeat the Fascist foe’. It has the heroically whooping energy we expect from a work of those times, galloping away, sustained, tense, adrenaline-soaked and hortatory. 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 'assault’ with heaven-scouring brass. The second movement is plangently thoughtful and is led off by a reflective clarinet solo. There is no bitterness here, more a case of a leisurely resigned tiredness rising to Tchaikovskian nobility à la Pathétique (tr. 5 5:03). The thrusting and capering clarinet and bassoon initiate the third movement. 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 brass but lacks an Odysseyan sense of homecoming. It has grandeur aplenty but is a notch or two slacker than the first two movements. It all finishes too early but it is still good fun and the trembling blaze at the end is well worth hearing. This work was premiered in Moscow on 10 January 1943. The present recording was issued on a Vox-Melodiya CD coupled with the Second Violin Concerto but that disc has now disappeared from sight (do any of you have a copy?).

The Third Symphony is the most Shostakovich-like of the three. The first movement is relentlessly active, racing away with acid humour mixed in; circus knockabout stuff. The second movement has a high, sleek and quiet romantic theme for stratospheric violins like a hybrid of the dreamy focus-slither of Silvestrov’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 Jarré, part Silvestrov.

All three symphonies are fastidiously constructed and tellingly orchestrated. Khrennikov had a long and no doubt bruising apprenticeship in the Soviet film industry. However the orchestrational skills it imparted 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.

This coupling has appeared before on the Scribendum label review but the present version is to be preferred not least because of the extensive notes.

The same label has also recorded other Khrennikov: there’s a disc apiece for his chamber music, three piano concertos and film music. I only hope that DI Music (who handle this label in the UK) are able to source review copies and if Kapelmeister read this I would be grateful if they would contact me.

Khrennikov has had a knee-jerk drubbing in many quarters - seemingly richly merited in relation to his activities as a bureaucrat. His music, however, has its bright-eyed virtues. Some of it is sub-Shostakovich but much 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. Sniffy and politically correct friends may yet get a surprise if you play one of these symphonies to them without telling them who wrote it until after it has finished. Tell them beforehand and you can virtually guarantee it will condemned unheard as slipshod and shallow.

Rob Barnett

 

 



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