Boris Ivanovich TISCHENKO (b.1939)
Symphony No.6 for soprano, contralto and orchestra (1988) [55:11]
Valentina Yuzvenko (soprano); Elena Rubin (contralto); Symphony Orchestra of the USSR Ministry of Culture/Gennady Rozhdestvensky
rec. live, Grand Hall of the Leningrad Philharmonic, Leningrad, USSR, 27 April 1989
Comparative review
Not all of Northern Flowers’ releases are new recordings as instanced here by the release of what I assume is the world premiere performance in concert of Boris Tischenko’s (or is it Tishchenko? – there seems to be some debate about the transliteration of Tisenko and I’m no expert at all) Symphony No.6 from 1989. Without doubt Tischenko is one of Russia’s greatest living symphonists and this is a big and raw work which is given a compelling red-in-tooth-and-claw performance.
Given his training in Shostakovich’s post-graduate composition class and the fact that he helped the older composer with elements of his later scores it is all too easy to clump Tischenko’s work together as some kind of post-Shostakovichian acolyte. For sure in these big works and the way he handles the orchestra the influence of his teacher can be heard but Tischenko has gone way beyond simple musical hagiography to something truly individual. Not that that means the listener is in for any kind of easy ride. Just because a work is of clear significance and stature does not always make it any easier to like. Although titled a symphony, the dominance of the solo vocal element, each movement is a setting of a poem, means the sense of it to the listener – at least initially when musical themes and motifs which give the work symphonic unity have not had time to register – seem more like an extended song cycle. Shostakovich’s own Symphony No.14 treats a very similar concept – as well as meditating on death – so there is a precedent close at hand. Although divided into five movements the work is dominated by the opening Sentimental March which at 26:48 accounts for very nearly half the work’s length. This movement was written earlier than the others and apparently Tischenko directs in the score that performances of individual movements are permissible. Within the first few seconds of the work we are launched into its world at full throttle in terms of piece, performance and recording. The recording is typical of many early digital DDD Russian/Soviet recordings – rather harsh, with a glassy glare and very strange instrumental balances. Oddly, the solo line – in this movement mainly given to soprano Valentina Yuzvenko – is more naturally balanced and she sings with compellingly idiomatic passion and commitment. Likewise the playing of the USSR Ministry of Culture Symphony Orchestra under Gennady Rozhdestvensky has all the unbridled power and drama one could wish if lacking much in finesse or the last degree of ensemble accuracy.
One major production/presentation problem is that the liner-notes contains full English texts but set next to the original Russian Cyrillic. So for someone like myself who cannot read the original it is impossible within seconds to follow the text and relate the music to it. This is compounded by a translation of the poetry which I can only assume is painfully literal and results in a text which verges on nonsense. Here are some quick examples; “Diamonds of sputa, a horde (sic), a sooty bulb. Celtic bone shining over the Scottish bagpipe” or “Pug glazing putty, tighten the seams, cook starch paste in the kitchen, scrape that glass with a razor bandmaster, where chalk has turned into marble” or lastly “Of him leaving for ally abysses strangely resemble the deceased one.” In fact no two sentences when put together make any kind of coherent sense. Now, I am sure we have all sat through Oratorios and Operas on occasion blissfully without a clue about what is going on, but somehow here so tortured and specific is the music I need the linkage to make sense of what I’m hearing. Without it I find I really am struggling to ‘understand’ the message the music carries. The feeling is of a very extended operatic scena. This is a huge sing for the soprano – unrelentingly intense and wide ranging across the entire vocal range. The ‘live’ nature of the performance is underlined by the fact that Yuzvenko gets a clearly annoying tickle in her throat at about the half-way point in the movement which causes her to try and clear her throat ‘off-microphone’ in the few passages she doesn’t sing – which makes the clarity and control of her singing all the more remarkable. For the most part the large orchestra comments (illustrates?) rather than accompanies and Tischenko’s orchestration is unfailingly interesting and individual. Yet time and again my listening notes reflect a frustration with ‘I wonder what’s happening here’ – the music is clearly illustrative. As stand alone music therefore I have to say I find this to be rather unrelenting, in the manner of a twenty-five minute modern ‘mad-scene’. Extended symphony/song-cycles are not exactly unknown – did Mahler’s Das Lied Von Der Erde provide any kind of model? I do wonder about the structural issue of placing the largest most harrowing setting first. For Mahler, his similarly proportioned extended movement Der Abschied provides a wonderfully moving farewell quite literally and the preceding music culminates in that extraordinary movement. Here, the music following Sentimental March is in every sense lesser. In the later part of this movement Tischenko creates a moment of musical theatre by introducing the second voice of the contralto Elena Rubin ‘off-stage’. Listeners will either warm to the Slavic vibrancy of Rubin’s voice or not. It is a huge sound which in its lower registers does sound baritonal. Again her connection and involvement with the work is clear and undeniable.
Musically and materially the second movement continues the mood and style of the first although as a whole it is much lighter scored. After a dramatic gesture from the horns there is a dialogue with impassioned violins before Rubin enters in her first solo onstage song. Try about 00:50 into track 2 to see if you will respond to her unique sound. Without access to a score I did find myself wondering whether all of the close dense dissonances in the string writing were as composed or playing ‘in the cracks’. The third movement seems to serve the function of the symphony’s Scherzo with the strings sharing the bulk of it with the percussion – great explosive airbursts from the timps leading the way. Again the playing is all one could wish for in terms of commitment but the ensemble suffers. Soprano Yuzvenko sings this movement and in its scurrying grim drama it is hard not to hear some of the influence of Shostakovich. However, having listened to this work several times I do feel the similarity is superficial; just that and no more – Tischenko is his own man. Yes there are occasional echoes – more in orchestrational touches rather than anything else – but the big defining moments of the work are intensely individual. Try from about 3:00 into track 3 where the full orchestra is unleashed in this movement for the first time. As before, the text translations do little to throw any kind of insight on matters. I quickly stopped trying to correlate what I read with what I heard, it was simply too confusing and frustrating.
The fourth movement is entrusted to the contralto once again – “with blue eyes and hot frontal bone, you were lured by universal juvenating anger [? – my question mark]” reads the opening lines. Personally I found this the least engaging movement because it is hard to see how this is developing musically/emotionally on the world of the first and third movements – it feels like more of the implacably desolate same. In that context the final movement comes as an intriguing surprise. Most clearly this is a song with an orchestral accompaniment and the pawky pizzicato accompaniment has a popular song style to it mirrored by the flowing diatonically harmonised duet for the singers. Perhaps this is the moment where Shostakovich’s influence is most clearly felt in the strange lop-sided dance and woodwind and horn interjections. This is by far the least violent movement even when the actual dynamic increases for the central climax. Even here, where the musical is less overtly complex it has to be said that the performance from the strings of the orchestra is far from polished which is surprising how well they sound on other contemporaneous recordings. The ending is rather effective – the contralto walks offstage singing in dialogue with the soprano; “Are you still alive?” .. “I’m still alive” … “Are you still here?” on a cruelly high exposed B natural finally replying “I am …” It’s a powerful ending to a demanding work for both performers and listeners.
For collectors of Tischenko’s work this will be a welcome and powerful addition to their library. I do not know enough of his music to say how typical and/or a good starting point for a collection this represents. What is clear is that this is an important and significant work by a strongly individual composer. Both the performance and recording add dramatic atmosphere and authenticity to proceedings at the same time as compromising one’s ability to judge the work wholly objectively. This does not make for a comfortable listen on any level but then should a work meditating on death ever be a comfortable listen? – probably not.
Nick Barnard
An important and significant work by a strongly individual composer ... see Full Review