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Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Symphony No. 13 in B flat minor, Op. 113, “Babi Yar” (1962) [66:39]
Yevgeny Yevtushenko reads [10:10]
Sergei Aleksashkin (bass); Moscow Chamber Choir
Tchaikovsky Symphony Orchestra of Moscow Radio/Vladimir Fedosseyev
rec. live, Grand Hall of the Moscow Conservatoire, 14 October 2006
RELIEF CR991081 [76:49]
Experience Classicsonline

Shostakovich’s Thirteenth Symphony was completed in July 1962 and first performed in December of that year in the Grand Hall of the Moscow Conservatoire, where this recording was also made. The composer had wanted Boris Gmyrya to sing the solo part and Mravinsky to conduct, but in the event, both refused. Gmyrya was undoubtedly fearful of the consequences of taking part in such a politically sensitive event, but the reasons for Mravinsky’s refusal have never been satisfactorily explained. He had directed the premieres of many of Shostakovich’s earlier works, and the composer was bitterly disappointed. “Eventually, the two would be able to re-establish professional contact,” writes Laurel Fay in her life of the composer, “but the loss of trust was never repaired.” The premiere eventually went ahead, as did a second performance two days later, with Vitali Gromadsky singing the solo part and Kyril Kondrashin conducting. The work was apparently rapturously received by the public, but as is well known, changes were imposed before further performances were allowed. The music itself was subject to little official comment, but Yevgeny Yevtushenko, the author, was obliged to rewrite part of the first poem, and though some later performances incorporated these changes, the composer never approved of them and never copied them into his manuscript score. 

On two successive days in September 1941, at the place known as Babi Yar, near Kiev, almost thirty-four thousand people, most of them Jewish, were herded together by the Nazis, laid down one on top of the other in pits, and shot. Yevtushenko’s poem commemorates this, but, crucially, uses it as a symbol of anti-Semitism in general and, by careful allusion, of contemporary anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union. Shostakovich reportedly decided to set it to music as soon as he had read it, and lost no time in choosing three others. Yevtushenko then wrote a fifth poem, Fears, at the composer’s request, which became the Thirteenth Symphony’s fourth movement. The five poems deal with different subjects and are quite unconnected, but Shostakovich’s mastery of form and thematic content ensure the required symphonic structure, unity and growth. Repression is an ever-present subtext, but only the first poem was explicit enough to trouble the authorities.

This is a recording of a live performance and, more than many such recordings - where the presence of an audience seems undetectable - this has its advantages and disadvantages. The sound is fine, very immediate and carefully balanced, but there are more coughs than we are used to, some of which appear to come from the musicians, as certainly do the various platform creaks and noises. You forget this though, because the performance is incandescent with the fire that comes of making music in front of an audience.

The orchestra has resisted - praise be! - the transformation into a homogenised, international sound. This is brilliant and highly disciplined playing, but the sound can be brash and unrefined, a little rough round the edges. The instruments actually sound different, one from the other. This is positive comment! When the occasion demands, such as the end of the first movement, they play with huge, ferocious power. The second movement is entitled Humour, and rarely has the humour sounded more forced, more ironic than here. The conductor’s way with the piece leaves the listener in no doubt of his view of things. It is still shameful, he is saying, that Russia’s women have to queue all day to buy basic foodstuffs. And no, he makes clear in the fourth movement, the fears of the Russian people have still not been laid to rest. He makes these points by constantly moving the music on, by underlining expressive effects such as accents, and above all by encouraging his musicians to play and sing with real passion. It is a stunning performance to which I will often return, and in which I take issue with only one thing, which is Fedoseyev’s uncharacteristic decision to slow down the tempo for the return of the wistful little waltz in the final pages of the work. It’s not quite sentimental, but it comes perilously close.

The typically dark tone of the choir is a huge advantage, and they acquit themselves splendidly throughout. Sergei Aleksashkin is marvellous too, hugely communicative and powerfully expressive. There is some vocal strain in the head voice as he describes the stoicism of the queuing women in the third movement, and this, in the context of a live performance, is very affecting. Less so is his acting out, with very approximate pitch, of the opening of Humour. Six years earlier, for Rudolf Barshai - Brilliant Classics 6324, the complete symphonies and the finest bargain in my collection - where he is much more careful about the notes, but straighter and less ironic.

The presentation of the disc is strange. A long essay in German is given also in English and French. The French translation seems a safer bet than the English one which is at times unintelligible. A few quotes are then appended from what the unnamed writer refers to as “Solomon Volkov’s once controversial but now almost universally accepted book Testimony.” Information about the conductor and the orchestra is given in English only, and there is nothing at all about the soloist or the choir. The text of the symphony is included too, but in German only. Then there are several photographs, including one of the painfully shy composer receiving the poet’s embrace on the platform after the symphony’s first performance. I think Yevtushenko might well be talking about this, amongst other reminiscences of Shostakovich, in the ten minutes of “Yevgeny Yevtushenko reads” which ends the disc, but since he speaks in Russian and the documentation provides no further information - and certainly no translation - there is sadly no way of knowing.

William Hedley 



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