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Yuri Vladimirovich KOCHUROV (1907 - 1952)
Macbeth: Symphony for Large Orchestra (1940-48) [28:42]
The Suvorov Overture (1944) [10:41]; Solemn March (1945) [6:45]; Heroic Aria (1942) [7:38]
Olesya Petrova (mezzo); St. Petersburg State Academic Symphony Orchestra/Alexander Titov
rec. St. Catherine Lutheran Church St. Petersburg, Russia, 8-12 September 2009
Wartime Music Vol. 11

Experience Classicsonline

Having been less than thrilled by the three discs I have so far heard from the Northern Flowers Wartime Music series I am pleased to be able to report that Volume 11 is far more satisfactory on just about every count but particularly repertoire. Even the power of the internet is able to throw little light on the life, music or career of Yuri Kochurov. The writer of the liner-notes - a lengthy and informative essay translated into rather intractable English – seems to assume we will know his “most popular opuses” namely song cycles of texts by Pushkin, Lermontov and Tyutchev and a Petrarch Sonnet for voice and organ. For me this is my first encounter and a pleasurable one at that.
The four works on this – somewhat brief – disc reflect what I suspect might be Kochurov’s greatest strength and greatest failing; he is an extraordinary musical chameleon. Each of these works, as I will elaborate in the review, belongs to a very different musical style and even aesthetic but Kochurov seems to be able to write with sincere conviction and no little skill in these differing idioms. More to the point each is graced with skilful orchestration and melodic/motivic memorability; much can be forgiven in return for a good tune. The key to this might well lie in his background in theatre and film with its inherent demands of being able to produce appropriate music for many different scenarios. The commissioning of incidental music for a 1940 production of Shakespeare’s Macbeth led to a score Kochurov developed over the ensuing eight years as his Macbeth Symphony which was premiered by Kurt Sanderling and the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra in December 1948. You should know several things about this work straightaway; it is not a symphony even in the Domestica or Alpine sense but it is remarkably Straussian and as such an extended tone-poem. For sure there are thematic/character motifs that lend it a symphonic unity but the six linked but defined sections give it much more of a feel of say Also Sprach Zarathustra. The influence of Richard Strauss is pretty undigested much in the same manner as Bartók’s Kossuth or Szymanowski’s Concert Overture which represent early works for their respective composers before their mature music appeared. The thing that saves the work – and the others recorded here – is that Kochurov’s music remains memorable enough in its own right if resolutely unoriginal. There is nothing particularly subtle in the musical characterisation but then it could be argued that the big broad strokes of the play; Macbeth, Lady Macbeth, killing King Duncan and the final death and destruction of Macbeth and his ambitions do not require the subtlest of nuance. The liner reproduces the extended programme supplied by Kochurov for the premiere. Very curiously there is not a single reference in it to the witches or the supernatural only “evil growing in Macbeth’s heart” and “dark forces”. Is it too fanciful to suppose that there could be no mention of anything possibly linked to the supernatural/religion in the atheist Soviet Union? Yet if that was indeed the case I cannot think of another Soviet work from this era so lush and frankly self-indulgent. Quite how it got past the censors I cannot imagine but I am glad it did. The very opening with its surging writing, exultant horns and complex writing gives you an immediate sense of what will follow in the next half hour. As before in this series the orchestra proves to be not of the first rank with the upper strings sorely taxed and lacking the kind of tonal bloom and absolute unanimity of intonation and ensemble that we have come to expect. Also, there is a recurring issue of rhythms lagging through the violins. It’s the aural equivalent of a flicking tail – the movement reaching the end of the tail fractionally later than it was initiated by the beginning! However, the playing as a whole and the engineered balance is better which is curious since the sessions appear to have taken place on consecutive days with another disc I enjoyed far less. Certainly, in energy and commitment terms alone the orchestra sound in far better form. I have no comparative version but it also sounds as though conductor Alexander Titov is more engaged too; the music being given much more light and shade than on other more dutiful discs. Mahler provides several musical reminiscences – just the occasional melodic/rhythmic motif that makes one think of his work. Harmonically this is at a huge remove from the more typical products of Wartime Russia featuring neither the harshly clashing harmonies of a young Prokofiev or the mainstream predictability of Khrennikov. The orchestration owes much more to German models of the early 20th Century which is again surprising given Kochurov’s training at the Leningrad Conservatory. Try around 11:00 in, I’m not sure what part of the narrative we have reached here – I suspect it is what the liner refers to as “Macbeth is left alone with his thoughts. The night comes.” – this is absolutely gorgeous writing beautifully orchestrated and so what if Death and Transfiguration seems close at hand. This is far subtler than any other music I can think of written in the Soviet Union at this time - much more personal and frankly romantic – how on earth did he get away with it? The ensuing gently malicious scherzo representing the cankerous growth of evil in Macbeth is skilfully constructed. Kochurov again shows his virtuosity as an orchestrator with malevolently quiet muted brass and hobbling bass clarinet and characterful contra-bassoon. This builds to a powerful climax and leads straight into the next section which reprises Macbeth’s main theme this time revealed in all its confident glory. Hard not to hear echoes of Wagner and Korngold here and I can imagine a top drawer orchestra and recording sounding superb. The final section builds to a rather MGM-esque heroically happy ever after which I’m not sure chimes with the ‘message’ at the end of the play but it is hard to resist.
The remaining works on the disc are more clearly functional yet they are all saved from the humdrum by neat little touches of individuality by the composer. The Suvorov Overture refers to Alexander Suvorov who was one of the great Russian military commanders of the 18th Century. Apart from his skills as a soldier it can be imagined that his ‘common touch’ was something much celebrated in the Soviet era by word if not in deed. In this work Kochurov does not try to be specifically programmatic instead he uses the title to allow him to write what I can only describe as a Classical Comedy Overture in the same way that Prokofiev’s Symphony No.1 is ‘Classical’. I found myself thinking of the series of ENSA Overtures commissioned as morale raisers in Britain during World War II – Bax’s Work in Progress, Moeran’s Overture to a Masque, or Rawthorne’s Street Corner Overture being the best known. Not that for an instant does it sound remotely ‘English’ but instead it has a sustained good humour and lightness of touch that seems to serve the same function. Again, I cannot think of another Soviet work with this genuine light-hearted feel. There seems to be no ‘side’ to the humour neither does it seems false or forced. Nor is it remotely Straussian – this is the neo-classical world of Respighi or Grieg in Holberg-mode. Textures are light and clear with contrapuntal writing to the fore. As recorded Kochurov’s liking for the side-drum is about his only instrumental mis-judgement. For the rest the he passes the musical material deftly around all the instruments of the orchestra in a genuinely charming way. Unusually there is no central section at a contrasting tempo instead the work gradually builds to a weighty climax that feels a bit like Mastersingers out of Mlada. The final peroration is a tad formulaic in its use of sequences and frankly lets the rest of the work down.
With the Solemn March Kochurov wears another hat – this time it is the ceremonial/celebrational march of Tchaikovsky. But thank goodness it avoids the blue-eyed square-jawed clichés of so many similar ‘great occasion’ Soviet marches. The orchestral brass enjoy their fanfares but again the string playing lacks real finesse. This is far more quirky than similar works – having recently suffered Popov’s Red Cavalry Campaign I speak from painful experience – and is more jaunty than solemn. The fun is in the counter-melodies and how he orchestrates them. Even the last work with its daunting title Heroic Aria proves to be more impressive than I was expecting. It does suffer from a far inferior recording – from a different engineer apparently but can these really be from the same session dates? – the orchestra sounds far more distant and harsher. In Olesya Petrova they have a young Russian mezzo-soprano whose voice combines the best of traditional Russian singing – values, rich, resonant and vibrant. She has a fairly dreadful text to sing; “Leningrad troops are marching to do battle against evil invaders” is one of the more deathless couplets. But again Kochurov seems to have found a way of setting it that has the ring of sincerity. It should be no surprise that this occupies more of a predictable sound-world but it manages to feel more like an operatic aria than propaganda piece. Yes, the bulk of the setting is in the style of a heroic march but any toe-curling is avoided by the fact that actually he writes a pretty good tune. Petrova sings it with conviction and the orchestration lifts it far above the run of the mill. There is a beautiful poignant but brief passage for two clarinets that alone justifies the worth of the whole work. The liner-note does nothing to explain Kochurov’s early death in 1952 at the age of just 44 (the CD lists his death as 1951 but other sources seem to agree on 1952) – I cannot help but speculate that his work did not find favour among the establishment with all the implications that had for Soviet artists. We are told about other scores for the theatre that include a Tristan and Isolde, Don Quixote and Boris Godunov – now that would make for an intriguing disc! If the strength of Kochurov’s reputation lies with his vocal works his handling of the orchestra is very fine indeed.
This CD encapsulates exactly what I was hoping to find in more of the others in this series; interesting repertoire by forgotten composers. Conversely the music here does not reflect the influence of the War as clearly as others but for those interested in unusual music by a maverick albeit a conservative one it is well worth investigating. If the quality of performance and recording were better I would give this an unqualified welcome but as it is this is still an interesting byway worth travelling.
Nick Barnard

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