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Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Ten Poems on texts by Revolutionary Poets, op.88 [35:16]
Ten Russian Folk Songs [27:13]
Chorus of the Moscow Academy of Choral Art/Victor Popov
Tatyana Kravchenko (piano)
rec. Small Hall, Moscow Conservatory, Moscow, Russia, January-April 1998.

In common with fellow Soviet composers Shostakovich did not have an easy time as an artist in the USSR. It is true that ‘it is an ill wind that blows no-one any good’ and that the strictures and edicts that composers had to work within gave rise to some great art that we would otherwise not have. Shostakovich’s own 5th symphony subtitled ‘A Soviet Artist’s Reply to Just Criticism’ is a case in point. Conversely there may have been much else that was never composed for the same reasons for there were few other composers who had the ability to secrete subtexts within their music that ordinary citizens knew how to decipher which is something Shostakovich became a master at. That said there are times when people believe they’ve found subtexts where there aren’t necessarily any to be found.
The Ten Poems on texts by Revolutionary Poets could be said to be one such example. Some say simply that it is the composer writing music that chimes well with the concept of Socialist Realism that held that music “must serve the people”. Perhaps he could not have chosen a better subject than poems by revolutionary poets taken from a collection spanning 1870-1917 published in Leningrad, the year before the work was written in 1951. Others, however, point to the very year 1951 as being an indicator that a subtext exists since 1951 was a particularly difficult year following Zhdanov’s 1948 decree against ‘formalism’ in music of which Shostakovich himself had been accused. They have it that this was Shostakovich making a subtle comparison between the savagery of Tsarist repression that included ‘Bloody Sunday’ that resulted in the failed 1905 revolution and Stalinist repression during which millions died. It is an argument that could persist forever and some even add into the mix the fact that for the first time Shostakovich elected to employ an unaccompanied choir that could be likened to the singing of a Russian Orthodox Church choir.
The only certainty is its existence which if the supporters of the subtext theory are correct is another example of great art created against the odds and once again if true fooled the authorities who awarded it a Stalin Prize in 1952. What cannot be in dispute is the nature of the music which was a difficult challenge for Shostakovich to set himself and is an equally tough one for the choir that tackles it because of its sudden changes in tempo and mood. It is a tribute to any choir that takes it on and that produces as wonderful a result as this one does. Shostakovich proves himself to have been able not only to take on the challenge of writing for unaccompanied voices but to have composed a work that is so successful in its declared aim that the listener is hardly aware that there are no accompanying instruments. All the songs are powerful statements whether calls to arms, tender love songs or songs of regret and mourning and leave a lasting impression.
Once again speculation could be made as to why as innocent a composition as his Ten Russian Folk Songs written in the same year 1951 should not have been performed until 1971 and that the full cycle should have remained unpublished until 1985. Several of the songs which are taken from collections which date from 1896, 1904 and one published as late as 1943, had their texts changed to suit the patriotism required during the Great Patriotic War (World War 2). I have often heard the first of the cycle ‘Clap of thunder over Moscow’ sung by the famous Red Army Choir despite its origins being from the 1812 war against Napoleon as are numbers 2-4 and 10. All of them have that special nature that Russian folksongs have which is so immediately recognisable and that makes them so internationally popular. The characteristic deep bass voices are much in evidence as well as some beautiful soprano singing.
Both these song cycles are further demonstrations of the brilliance of Shostakovich who seemed able to turn his compositional skills to any genre he chose to take on and to make a success of them. It is interesting to note that these two works, both of them departures from his significant symphonic output was immediately preceded by the wonderful 24 Preludes and Fugues composed and dedicated to the great Tatyana Nikolaeva and itself both monumental and an especial challenge. All this points to a composer who was never happy to simply plough a safe and secure path but one that relished the challenge of pushing himself in different, difficult and often dangerous directions. He believed that art should mirror life and whether at times he was constrained or at others fiercely independent his music is indeed a mirror of life in that country in the 20th century.
This disc is of music by one of the greatest of all composers of the last century. It is seldom heard by comparison with most of what he wrote and proves that it should be heard more frequently. I say bravo to Brilliant Classics for giving us the opportunity to do so and at their generously budget price. All are wonderfully sung with a clarity that enables the music to weave its magic and that it certainly does.
Steve Arloff