POPOV (1904 - 1972)
Symphony No.2 Motherland Op.39 (1943) [35:41]
The Turning Point Op.44 – film soundtrack (1945) [16:51]
Red Cavalry Campaign – Symphonic Poster for a large orchestra (1941)
Male Group of the Smolny Cathedral Chamber Choir (track 12) St. Petersburg State Academic Symphony Orchestra/Alexander Titov
rec. St. Catherine Lutheran Church St. Petersburg, Russia 6-7 September
2008, 25 March 2009 Wartime Music Vol.8
NORTHERN FLOWERS NF/PMA9977 [60:10]
I am sure I am not alone amongst collectors in having discs and performances that I let slip through my fingers. Things that have disappeared from the catalogue with indecent haste and now populate the extortionate ‘collectable’ listings of Amazon and E-bay.
The much-missed Olympia label had several such discs for me – at the time getting the first digital/Soviet cycle of Shostakovich or Glazunov or Tchaikovsky seemed more of an imperative than investigating the real rarities its catalogue concerned. I am now repenting at leisure and the music of Gavriil Popov is the focus of much of it. He is one of those composers whose name appears in historical accounts of the time and whose music has appeared on several CDs but he remains an elusive figure – the music I have heard seeming to reinforce his position as both victim of and collaborator with the ideologies of the Soviet regime. So it was with particular interest that I started listening to this disc – Volume 8 in Northern Flowers’ ‘Wartime Music’ series. As I have written regarding other releases the premise behind this is to highlight music written by Soviet composers as a direct response to the German invasion of the Soviet Union and the ensuing ‘Great Patriotic War’ from 1941 to 1945. Given the sheer scale of the conflict and the immense upheavals and tragedies it gave rise to it is not at all surprising that there should be such a large legacy of music associated with the events of that time. The politicising of music within the Soviet Union led to many compositions having an overtly propagandist impetus but that does not mean that all such work does not have genuine artistic worth in its own right.
Gavriil Popov’s life covered almost exactly the same span as his far more famous contemporary Shostakovich and they were students at the Petrograd conservatory at the same time. The single fact you read most often about Popov is that at the time of graduation he was considered the more talented. Into that mix you throw the second most quoted fact which is that his Symphony No.1 (1927-34) was the very first Soviet symphony to be banned – on 23 March 1935 just the day after its premiere. The reason for the ban was given as: “… conveying the ideology of classes hostile to us is intolerable.” – so ran the edict from the Leningrad Agency for Control over Performances and Repertoire. The liner-note goes on to quote extensively from Popov’s diary as he plotted his Symphony No.2 in the wake of the ban and how he intended it – to paraphrase – to be a “colossal roar of challenging piercing thought …” All of which whets the appetite for the music to come.
So I am left scratching my head as to where it all went wrong. There is something terribly poignant about just how formulaically propagandist this music is. The liner-note is interesting and extensive and very enthusiastic about Popov and his work but it is very hard not to reach the conclusion that somewhere along the line the spirit of the composer was broken – there are no ‘colossal roars’ here. And who can blame him – how many of us faced with the terrors of the Soviet regime would have done any differently. One curio though regarding the liner: the writer states that the banned symphony did not get performed again until 2008 – which makes the 1989 playright of the Olympia disc from the Moscow State Symphony Orchestra and Gennady Provatorov all the more surprising! To take the Symphony No.2 ‘Motherland’ first. According to the composer’s own description this standard form four movement work splits into two two-movement sections. The opening pair of movements represent ‘Peace’ with the first movement embodying “the people’s soul … broad and stern … born by the boundless expanses of Russian nature” and the second movement a “Russian merry-go-round dance … [alternating with] … images of intimate lyricism and tenderness”. About the second half of the symphony Popov wrote “I disclose images of human grief and suffering, heavy victims that fell to our Motherland’s lot” which leads to a finale where after “vehement strife ... the nation’s mighty and bright strength of mind wins … the melodious theme of the first movement growing into a symbol of our Motherland’s power and greatness”. I know Shostakovich could produce tub-thumping prose such as the above on demand but usually – in the major works at least – what the ear heard was at odds with the written word. Here the work is as hollow and effortful as the words might imply. It is in fact a reworking of music written for Friedrich Ermler’s 1943 film She defends her Motherland. There are numerous fine examples of film scores reworked – even as symphonies – for the concert hall but without access to the film or scores I have no idea how much the music evolved from screen to symphony. All I would note is that except for the far from original cyclic recurrence of the opening theme at the end of the work the music does sounds more illustrative than out and out symphonic. Apparently Popov did make use of some folk-derived material which might explain why the very opening few notes of the main theme has a sudden but passing resemblance to the opening of Shostakovich’s Symphony No.7 ‘Leningrad’ – but given the huge impact of that work then I find it hard to believe any composer would consciously copy it. It gives me no pleasure to say that I find nothing in this work that rises above the workmanlike – the way it ticks all the boxes in such a predictable manner is depressing. Hence the opening movement is serious and sober with extended string counterpoints moving forward with a purposeful tread. The second movement owes more than a nod towards a Petrushka-esque Shrovetide fair. The form of this movement seems to be a very simple A-B-A with the bustling outer panels – which sound like a straight repeat with no development – framing the lyrically tender passage alluded to above. The most powerful – and longest - movement is the third which builds effectively to an impressive climax although this is rather let down by the hollow bombast of the finale.
Following the symphony is an actual soundtrack to the 1945 film The Turning Point. This is represented by seven fairly brief movements. Although clearly pictorial I think much of this music works better than the symphony because Popov allows the film to drive the music’s emotional content and as such the mood is better sustained. The highlights are Minutka’s Death [track 7] and German Offensive [track 8]. The former has some real emotional weight while the latter is an enjoyable and predictable mechanistic march. The problem with this suite is its undigested nature. Several of the cues are relatively brief and stop abruptly. My feeling is that the piece and the composer would have been better served if an arranger – in the spirit of Philip Lane or Christopher Palmer – had reworked the music into a continuous sequence giving the suite an emotional arc. Just one example – we have here possibly the most inconsequential cue ever; the track-listing tries to assure us that track 10 Klaus taken Prisoner lasts 1:20. In reality it is just 17 seconds – a single 8 bar phrase I think – of a bright march tempo. What on earth is any listener meant to make of that? Actually it finishes so abruptly that I did wonder if there has been a catastrophic edit!
Unfortunately the disc is completed – finished off really – with Red Cavalry Campaign – and is subtitled ‘symphonic poster’ which is a perfect description. The photo on the CD cover is of – I presume – a red square May Day/Victory parade. This is a kind of banal up-tempo march written by Comrade Sousa. Energy is injected into proceedings by the very idiomatic sounding male voice choir from Smolny Cathedral who really do sing with commendable lusty zeal. Part of the text they sing reads; “Strike, strike the enemy! Strike down, smash the foe.” It’s poetry Jim, just not as we know it. Oddly, as a strange kind of artistic curio of another age this has value – just not as music. Which brings me on to the performance itself. Any critique must take account of four separate elements; the piece, the performance, the interpretation and the engineering/presentation. Ideally a good disc will excel in all these areas and even a good disc will be strong in at least two. This disc I find to be literally unimpressive. By that I mean no element of it made an impression. By now it should be clear I find Popov as a composer an enigma – surely the music here is the public face. I would not judge Shostakovich by The Sun shines over the Motherland so I am loath to dismiss Popov on the strength of the music here. However, his cause is really not helped by a recording which is well below standard in modern engineering terms. Curiously, most of the stereo spread seems to be from just left of centre across to the right with the bulk of the left hand channel reserved for the timps and percussion and the occasional horn. Balance – proving to be a very movable feast - is in the best bad old traditions of Melodiya with a solo flute (rather nicely played actually) balanced well in front of the brass choir at one point [track 8 1:19]. The string playing in particular is often shoddy, neither together or perfectly in tune with a glassy glare given to it by the engineering. The worst sound is reserved for Red Cavalry Campaign where the orchestra disappears back into a murky half-light leaving the choir quite literally in the aural spotlight. I have no comparative versions of any of this music to hand but I find it hard to believe that a more galvanic presence than conductor Alexander Titov could not have found additional energy and life in these scores. It is not just a case of playing things louder or faster, surely there could be more momentum, more latent energy than we have here. While I was fishing around on the internet for some additional information about Popov I came across a couple of forums extolling his virtues and – I should say – this disc. An article on The Rest is Noise blog is particularly persuasive and does make me want to seek out more of this music: www.therestisnoise.com/2004/09/the_popov_disco.html . Curiously, the blogger’s comments regarding the Telarc/Botstein Symphony No.1 are not shared elsewhere – others prefer the blood and thunder of the old deleted Olympia disc I referred to at the start of this review.
So, I am left in the curious position of wanting to search out more of this elusive composer’s works but not on the strength of anything presented here, there is more to this than meets the ear.
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