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Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
The Execution of Stepan Razin, Op. 119 (1964) [25:34]
Zoya Suite, Op. 64a (1944) (arr. for orchestra by Lev Atovmyan)
1. Song about Zoya [8:10]
2. Military problem [5:03]
3. Tragedy of a loss [5:22]
4. Hero's victory [4:24]
5. The heroine's immortality [5:47]
Suite on Finnish Themes (1939)
1. Energico [00:52]
2. The sky is blue and white [1:13]
3. Lento non troppo [1:49]
4. The girls of this village [1:56]
5. The strawberry is a red berry [1:06]
6. If I could be at leisure [2:24]
7. My beloved is beautiful [1:57]
Tuomas Katajala (tenor); Mari Palo (soprano); Shenyang (bass-baritone)
State Choir ‘Latvija’; Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra/Vladimir Ashkenazy
Sung texts and translations included
rec. 22-23 March 2013, Helsinki Music Centre, Helsinki, Finland
ONDINE ODE1225-2 [65:37]

It’s good to see a new CD of The Execution of Stepan Razin, not least from Vladimir Ashkenazy. In particular his Shostakovich Fifth with the Royal Philharmonic - not his Philharmonia remake - is superbly drawn, as are his ‘Leningrad’ and ‘The Year 1905’ with the St. Petersburg Philharmonic (all on Decca). He has only a few rivals in Stepan Razin, among them Gerard Schwarz (Naxos), Valery Polyansky (Chandos), and Herbert Kegel (originally on Philips and now part of a 9-CD Decca set). However, Kirill Kondrashin’s 1965 account is still the one to beat; it’s in Melodiya’s indispensable Shostakovich box (review), but I also have the high-res HDTT transfer - coupled with the Ninth Symphony - that I plan to review for Download News.
The other works on this Ondine disc - theZoya suite and the one on Finnish themes = are even more peripheral; indeed, I can only find two recordings of the first - on Delos and Capriccio - and one of the second, on BIS. Among the Helsinki Phil’s finest recordings must be their Shostakovich Eleventh with the late-lamented James DePreist, which was my introduction to this much maligned - and neglected - work (Delos). Ashkenazy’s soloists are unfamiliar to me, but it’s the young Chinese bass-baritone Shenyang who has the big role here; he’s up against the likes of Vitaly Gromadsky for Kondrashin, Charles Robert Austin for Schwarz and Kegel’s Siegfried Vogel. As for the Latvian State Choir they impressed me in Mariss Jansons’ recent RCO Mahler Eighth, so I have high hopes for them there as well.
Yevtushenko’s outspoken texts for Shostakovich’s Thirteenth Symphony ‘Babi Yar’ are echoed in this strange, quasi-religious tale of Stepan Razin, the 17th-century Cossack who tried to overthrow the Tsar and was executed for his pains. Bizarrely, his decapitated head continues to defy the Tsar, which makes for a neat allegory aimed at those in absolute power. It’s a taut but garish score, with thrilling percussive weight and febrile singing. The hot-headed Kondrashin is at one extreme, with Kegel at the other. Polyansky is closer to his compatriot, but despite all that orchestral fire he’s a tad relentless and his idiomatic but vibrato-laden bass Anatoly Lochak lets the side down.
First impressions of the Ashkenazy are favourable; his players sound full-blooded yet there’s a discipline here that underlines the work’s symphonic structure. Shenyang is a very decent soloist, even if he doesn’t have the sheer authority of Gromadsky or the inwardness of Vogel. In the long monologue he works hard to make Razin a flesh-and-blood creation; he succeeds - in part at least - despite a touch of unsteadiness and less-than-optimal diction. The Latvian chorus are commendably crisp and clear, and the recording is impressive in its range and clout.
The best way to characterise Ashkenazy’s performance is to say it’s scrupulous, and he takes great care to emphasise Shostakovich’s distinctive colour palette. Thankfully that isn’t achieved at the expense of the drama. Those booming funeral bells gave me goosebumps, and I really warmed to Shenyang’s nicely nuanced delivery. True, it’s not a big voice and it reaches its limits fairly quickly, but it’s used with intelligence and that’s what counts. Elsewhere a little more abandon wouldn’t go amiss, but then Ashkenazy’s not one for excess.
Kondrashin is still unequalled in this work; his larger-than-life presentation has never sounded as intoxicating as it does in the HDTT transfer; the playing and singing are utterly compelling and there’s a powerful, unwavering defiance to the performance that no-one could hope to match, let alone surpass. Kegel is much too restrained for my taste - perhaps the thaw took a while to reach Leipzig - and while Vogel sings well his Razin never leaps off the page. Trouble is, there’s an almost unbridgeable gulf between Kondrashin and all the pretenders to his throne; in that respect it’s the fillers that could make the difference.
The Zoya suite is all that remains of Shostakovich’s score for a 1944 film about the exploits of a young partisan fighting the Germans. Arranged for orchestra by the ever-willing Lev Atovmyan it’s one of Shostakovich’s more striking efforts in the genre. The fanfares and transported chorus at the start are followed by a series of percussion-led climaxes that might catch you - and the neighbours - by surprise. The recording is fearless, so it’s reassuring that Ashkenazy is always in firm, far-sighted control of his forces. Indeed, this reminds me of his intensely focused conducting at a live screening of Alexander Nevsky many years ago.
The Helsinki Phil’s brass and percussion sections are splendid, and the thunderous perorations have extraordinary impact. In other hands this music could so easily be over-driven, but it isn’t here. Not only is Ashkenazy attuned to the heightened drama of the big, crowd-pleasing moments he’s also wonderfully inward in the quieter ones. He stitches it all together with great skill, and I just can’t imagine a more vivid, block-busting performance of the suite than this. The real stars, though, are the orchestra, who give this music all the weight and amplitude it needs - and then some. Simply sensational, in every sense of the word.
The lightly scored Suite on Finnish Themes is a welcome foil to the big-screen blood and guts that’s gone before. Soprano Mari Palo is bright and coquettish in her solos and she blends most pleasingly with the ardent tenor Tuomas Katajala in If I could be at leisure. This score finds Shostakovich at his most affectionate and disarming, even though it was penned at a particularly dark time in his life. Slight it may be, but this music is beautifully crafted; everyone ensures it skips along nicely.
This is a very worthwhile disc; it has everything - a strong Stepan Razin, a rafter-rattling Zoya and a frothy little Finnish finale. I know Ashkenazy has already given us a big Shostakovich box, but I sincerely hope this isn’t the last we’ll hear of him and the Helsinki Phil. Good liner-notes - including sung texts and translations - complete a well-planned package.
Ashkenazy and this Finnish band make a terrific team; more, please.
Dan Morgan