Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
The Execution of Stepan Razin, Op. 119 (1964) [29:24]
The Sun Shines over our Motherland, Op. 90 (1952) [14:16]
The Song of the Forests, Op. 81 (1949) [46:00]
1. The war ended in victory [5:00]
2. We will clothe our homeland with forests [2:53]
3. Memories of the past [7:00]
4. The pioneers plant the forests [2:01]
5. The people of Stalingrad go forth [3:23]
6. A walk into the future [6:32]
7. Glory [9:18]
Alexei Tanovitski (bass), Konstantin Andreyev (tenor)
Narva Boys Choir, Estonian Concert Choir
Estonian National Symphony Orchestra/Paavo Järvi
rec. live, 18-20 April 2012, Estonia Concert Hall, Tallinn, Estonia
Reviewed as a 16-bit download from Qobuz
Pdf booklet does not include sung texts or translations
ERATO 2564 616666 [79:52]
Much has been written about Shostakovich’s artistic isolation
in the years between the infamous denunciation of his opera Lady
Macbeth of Mtsensk in 1936 and his gradual rehabilitation in
the early 1950s. They were frigid times, during which the Fourth Symphony
was withdrawn and the Tenth written but not performed; also, the First
Violin Concerto, composed in 1947-1948, was only premiered in 1955.
Then there were the Party pieces, The Song of the Forests
(1949) and The Sun Shines over our Motherland (1952), to
texts by the popular poet and lyricist Evgeni Dolmatovsky (1915-1994).
After the first of these cantatas was premiered in December 1949 Shostakovich
is said to have returned to his hotel room and wept. However, once
Khrushchev had denounced Stalin in 1956 Dolmatovsky and Shostakovich
toned down the texts of both Opp. 81 and 90. One could argue that
this was as much about political expediency as it was about artistic
sensibilities; even then words came back to haunt Shostakovich, with
Evgeni Yevtushenko’s original texts to the Thirteenth Symphony
‘Babi Yar’ altered - for very different reasons - following
the work’s premiere in 1962. The Execution of Stepan Razin,
which came two years later, was not so controversial, although it
does have an interesting subtext.
Speaking of controversy that’s exactly what the Estonian conductor
and exile Paavo Järvi courted when he chose to programme Opp. 81 and
90 – with their original pro-Stalin texts – in his home
town of Tallinn in April 2012. In a candid interview with The
Guardian on 15 May 2015 Järvi dismissed accusations that he was
defending Stalin; after all, his family fled the Soviet-controlled
state in 1980. Instead, he believes that these unexpurgated texts
are necessary to a complete understanding of the composer’s
oeuvre. As a telling aside, Järvi – who received death threats
when the project was announced – points to political developments
in Russia that, in his view, signal the rise of a new despotism.
There are several recordings s of all three cantatas. The Execution
of Stepan Razin is by far the most popular; the larger-than-life
Kirill Kondrashin account (Melodiya, HDTT)
is the one to beat, although Vladimir Ashkenazy’s recent Helsinki
one is not without its strengths (review).
As for Opp. 81 and 90, they appear together on a Praga Digitals reissue
of two all-Russian performances from 1961 and 1970 (review).
Apart from Evgeni Mravinsky’s pioneering 78rpm recording of
Op. 81 (Melodiya) there are others from Ashkenazy (Decca), Yuri Temirkanov
(RCA/Sony) and Michail Jurowski (Capriccio). The Sun Shines over
our Motherland appears on another Kondrashin recording that's
been expertly re-mastered by HDTT (review).
Given that the USP of this new release is that it reverts to the original
texts in Opp. 81 and 90 it’s a great shame that the Shostakovich
estate refused to allow them to be reproduced in the booklet. Not
surprising, I suppose, as the estate is still based in a country where
such decisions cannot be taken lightly. That said, the Praga Digitals
SACD doesn’t offer sung texts either, even though they're the
tamed ones; even worse, the Jurowski download has no booklet at all.
Still, I don’t see why Erato couldn’t have included the
Razin libretto, which you will certainly find in the Ondine
As if to counter accusations of Stalinist sympathies at the outset
Järvi prefaces Opp. 81 and 90 with a lacerating version of Op. 119;
the latter, a bizarre and gaudy tale, could hardly be construed as
boot-licking bombast. The eponymous 17th-century hero attempts to
depose the Tsar and is decapitated for his pains. The fact that the
Cossack’s severed head then mocks his erstwhile master is a
neat allegorical twist that would not have been lost on Shostakovich,
his librettist Yevtushenko or the more perceptive Soviet listener.
It doesn't stop there, for the piece is also a powerful comment on
the state of Russia today.
Having recently reviewed what I described as Paavo Järvi’s ‘deeply
humanising’ account of Shostakovich’s Seventh
Symphony I did wonder how he’d tackle the wild and garish
Razin. As it happens he manages very well; the bass Alexei
Tanovitski is sonorous and wonderfully dramatic, but it’s the
Estonian choirs who really impress with their febrile, highly idiomatic
singing. The live recording is admirably tense and the all-important
percussion is simply hair-raising. Balances are convincing and the
dynamic range is very wide. Indeed, for a humble 16-bit download this
is pretty spectacular.
Järvi brings out the trenchant swipes and echoes of ‘Babi Yar’,
those staccato figures are as incisive and exciting as I’ve
ever heard them. Goodness, I’d say Kondrashin has met his match
at last, for this performance grabs the listener by the throat and
never lets go. Besides, the Estonian orchestra play with a heady mix
of precision and power that's utterly right for the piece; even in
the score’s quieter passages there’s a thrum of electricity
that you simply would not get in a studio. Razin is a potent
and persuasive score that deserves to be aired more often than it
In the past I’ve found Paavo Järvi meticulous but not always
very communicative; I have to say his Leningrad and Razin
– both intelligently wrought and intensely dramatic –
have changed all that. As if to reinforce the point Razin's
thumping, bell-tormented finale took my breath away. There’s
no applause, but I hope it brought the house down. If anything this
has whetted my appetite for more Shostakovich symphonies from this
conductor, the Thirteenth especially. Järvi père has long
specialised in this repertoire, but it’s clear that Järvi fils
promises much with his own, very individual view of this music.
Next up is the one-movement cantata The Sun Shines over our Motherland.
From the start it has a simplicity of style – no rough or subversive
harmonies here – that, despite its offensive texts, is as musically
inoffensive as one could imagine. That said, Shostakovich was a consummate
craftsman, so even a propaganda piece such as this has a certain appeal.
In spite of that - and without access to the texts - one senses a
frisson to the performance that surely derives, in oart at
least, from the presence of audience members with very real and painful
memories of life under Soviet occupation.
Whatever one thinks of Shostakovich in general or these pieces in
particular I do believe we need to hear these cantatas as
they were first performed to fully appreciate the complex and conflicted
life and works of this extraordinary composer. Hearing Järvi’s
splendid reading of Song of the Forests – written to
celebrate the forestation of the steppes after the war – strengthens
that view. Compared with the plainer Op. 90 it’s a much more
varied and interesting piece; indeed, its darkly majestic opening
has a cinematic breadth and seriousness of purpose that belies the
work’s narrow, propagandising context.
Tenor Konstantin Andreyev is firm and clear, as are the Narva Boys
Choir, and the adults bring an authentic weight and timbre to the
proceedings that’s always thrilling. However, it’s Järvi
who binds it all together with his alert and intuitive direction;
under all those horrible euphemisms – Stalin is referred to
as ‘the great gardener’ – there’s much to
tweak the ear and engage the brain. What a pity that such an accomplished
– and sometimes affecting – score is tainted by toe-curling
texts. By contrast Shostakovich's choral Second and Third symphonies,
patriotic tub-thumpers both, are the products of a less menacing political/artistic
milieu; they too have their memorable moments (review).
Anyone who thrills to the distinctive sound of Russian choral groups
such as the once-fabled Red Army Ensemble will warm the folksy, but
deeply felt writing of Op. 81’s penultimate movement, A
walk into the future. There’s a naïve optimism here, a
Candide-like moment in which the sight of this arboreal splendour
gives rise to hope and high expectations; alas, Glory, that
final hymn to Stalin, rather spoils the illusion. Still, it’s
fine music that builds to an impressive and proportionate climax.
More than that it’s actually quite overwhelming – in the
best sense of the word – Järvi and his performers inexhaustible
to the end. Now that really does deserve an ovation.
I wouldn’t want to be without Kondrashin and Gromadsky in Stepan
Razin, but Järvi’s accounts of Opp. 81 and 90 must go straight
to the top of the tree. If you loathe Shostakovich this recording
will just add grist to your mill; however, if you're a DSCH fan you
simply cannot overlook this remarkable – and important –
Paavo Järvi follows up his fine Leningrad with very persuasive
accounts of these cantatas; the playing, singing and sound are sensational.