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Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
The Execution of Stepan Razin, op. 119 (1964) [28:37]
October, op. 131 (1967) [13:10]
Five Fragments, op. 42 (1935) [10:35]
Charles Robert Austin (bass-baritone)
Seattle Symphony Chorus
Seattle Symphony/Gerard Schwarz
rec. June 1996, Seattle Center Opera House (Stepan Razin); S. Mark Taper Foundation Auditorium, Benaroya Hall, Seattle, Feb 2000, (October); February 2005 (Five Fragments)
NAXOS 8.557812 [52:22]
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Gerard Schwarz is, in many ways, an unrecognized conductor. In his work with the Seattle Symphony on Delos, he has recorded much of the twentieth century American symphony. Bernstein is rightly revered for his premieres, but Schwarz has worked his way, at a very high level of quality, through broad swathes of the catalogue. His recordings of Howard Hanson’s symphonies, or his championing of the work of Hovhaness, to take just two examples, are indispensable. Yet he has also done good work in more standard repertoire. I have valued recordings of Stravinsky, Richard Strauss and Haydn under his baton.

Naxos is now re-releasing some of these recordings. I was excited to see a recording of Shostakovich’s The Execution of Stepan Razin — if this was previously available, I missed it at the time. This is a great work that has been served very poorly on disc. They - the Russians, I suppose - don’t make basses of the vocal variety like they used to. The bass soloist is the lynchpin in any performance of this orchestral cantata. The original Melodiya recording with Kondrashin conducting and bass Vitaly Gromadsky remains the unsurpassed benchmark. I was fortunate that, in the early days of the Internet, a fellow listserv member sent me a cassette copy of this, which I held onto until my tape player was consigned to the dustbin of technological history. Why, oh why, won’t somebody take control of the Melodiya archives and institute a coherent plan to make this and other treasures available?

If you appreciate Shostakovich’s 13th symphony, then Stepan Razin will be a must-hear, must-have work. Both a bass soloist delivering texts of Yevtushenko, accompanied by orchestra. The story of the folk-hero Stepan Razin, a Cossack rebel who challenged the power of the Tsar, operates, like much of Shostakovich’s work, on at least two levels. On the first, it is good Socialist Realism: a representative of the people against entrenched powers. On the second level, however, it is possible to identify Stalin himself with the oppressive Tsar. I actually prefer the cantata to the symphony: it has more unity of purpose and thus, more impact. Beyond personal evaluations, though, both are necessary works for the admirer of Shostakovich.

The primary competition to this recording comes from Polyansky’s recording on Chandos, with Anatoly Lochak as soloist. (Chandos, CHAN 9813, coupled with a good performance of the 6th ) Charles Robert Austin sounds, surprisingly, more Russian than does Lochak. By this I mean that Austin’s voice has a greater depth and resonance. He sounds at home in the idiom. Lochak’s lighter voice possesses alternate virtues: he works the text. At moments he sounds like he is telling you a raunchy story; at others, likely he is truly emitting a battle cry. At the end of the day I think both are important approaches to the work. There are at least three other recordings on CD. I am not familiar with Janowski (Capriccio 10780). Andreev (Koch 3-7017-2) and Slovák (Praga PR 254 055) feature singing and orchestral work far inferior to Schwarz and Polyansky.

The other two works on the Naxos recording can be considered filler. October is an exciting and evocative symphonic poem that receives a lot of good performances — this is one. The Five Fragments are more at the level of ephemera. The notes indicate that they served as practice for the 4th Symphony. As a result, they will be of interest to the Shostakovich completist.

Until we get a reissue of Kondrashin’s recording, or another at its level of skill and inspiration, the recordings by Schwarz and Polyansky are ones we can live with. Their differences, particularly in vocal execution, reflect interpretive differences significant enough that I would recommend getting both. The Naxos disc, being the cheaper of the two, would be a great place to start. The notes provide the cantata’s text in transliterated Russian and in English.

Brian Burtt



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