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Boris Tishchenko (1939–2010)
The Twelve, Op. 25 (1963)
Variations on Three Themes by D. D. Shostakovich, Op. 143 (2005)
Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra/Pavel Bubelnikov
Estonian SSR State Symphony Orchestra/Peeter Lilje
St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra/Alexander Titov
rec. 1976-2006, Large Philharmonic Hall, St. Petersburg (Leningrad)

Boris Tishchenko may be best remembered for being the favorite student of Dmitri Shostakovich, a distinction that has been a double-edged sword, attracting both attention and dismissal. Unlike his older peers Andrei Volkonsky and Edison Denisov, Tishchenko was no Soviet avant-gardist. Instead, like Rodion Shchedrin, Boris Tchaikovsky, and Shostakovich himself, Tishchenko veered along a middle way between conservatism and modernism, carving out his own highly individual style.

The main work on this Northern Flowers CD is the ballet The Twelve, based on Alexander Blok’s eponymous poem about the October Revolution, which posthumously became a cornerstone of modern Russian literature. It was previously set to music by Vadim Salmanov, Yuri Brutsko, and Iosif Neimark; the latter making such a negative impression on Tishchenko that he sought to counter its perceived deficiencies in his own score. It brims with youthful confidence, and decisively establishes the stylistic parameters of his mature work; fearlessly swinging fistfuls of tone clusters, oriented towards long-breathed melodies instead of terse motifs, freely tonal, and richly orchestrated without sounding overripe.

Tishchenko’s ballet score was commissioned in 1963 for the Kirov Ballet by the choreographer Leonid Yakobson, with whom the young composer had previously worked with in two mythological vignettes, Prometheus and Dana´des. Its premiere on New Year’s Eve (conducted by the lamentably underappreciated maverick, Igor Blazhkov) arrived at the end of the Khrushchev Thaw. As the excellent, but uncredited liner notes state: “The ballet was doomed to perish from its birth - in a wrong time and place.” Both music and choreography were too much for Soviet censors of the era. After a handful of performances, the ballet was promptly banned, with the unwitting composer not learning of the news until a burly usher at the Kirov unceremoniously informed him of the fact. Nevertheless, The Twelve made a stirring impression on younger composers, influencing later works by Lyutsian Prigozhin and fellow Shostakovich pupil Vadim Bibergan. It was also hailed by progressive music critics, including the ballet historian Vera Krasovskaya: “With almost visceral lucidity, Tishchenko revealed images of the old world dispersed by the winds of revolution. [... His] finale is a dream of perfect harmony, a dream sublime and pure, urged on by the spirit of Blok’s poetry.”

From its opening measures, The Twelve captures the energy and apocalyptic mood of its namesake poem, which concludes with an unsettling vision of a blizzard swirling around Jesus Christ as he leads a dozen Red Army soldiers into a future unknown. Tishchenko’s score begins with a clangorous descending motif, punctuated by bells and raucous horns. Quarreling woodwinds give way to an acerbic, Shostakovichian march. Later, Tishchenko conjures whorling wisps of street ditties, their coarseness unexpectedly highlighted by a wheezing bayan. After the dizzying orchestral cataclysms finally subside, the score fades out with celesta arpeggios that peter away into an icy organ pedal point.

Yakobson had cut a number of sections from The Twelve in its original production, including the finale; these were restored by Tishchenko after the choreographer's death. The 1976 recording with the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra is here spliced with a 1982 live recording of the omitted sections performed by the Estonian SSR State Symphony Orchestra, conducted respectively by Pavel Bubelnikov and Peeter Lilje. The interpretive unity of the score is all the more remarkable given its piecemeal presentation; the boldness of Tishchenko’s music manifesting before the listener with arresting presence.

The disc concludes with a late work played by the now St. Petersburg Philharmonic, the Variations on Three Themes by D. D. Shostakovich, which majestically weaves together themes From Jewish Folk Poetry (“The Abandoned Father”) and the 24 Preludes and Fugues (Prelude No. 1, Fugue No. 24).

Some may feel trepidation at listening to the work of Soviet composers who came to maturity in the postwar era. For these artists, the legacy of Shostakovich was both cross and curse—a source of pride and inspiration, an extraordinary burden whose weight could crush an individual’s style. Many composers, including Mieczysław Weinberg and even Alfred Schnittke, never managed to escape the elder composer’s orbit. If Johannes Brahms felt intimidated by the echoes of footsteps of giants long gone, imagine the pressure young composers must have felt when the giant was not only alive and well, but dominated their nation’s musical discourse. These factors only augment the magnitude of willpower that Tishchenko must have exercised in his early balletic opus, which managed to be stimulated by his teacher’s examples without becoming subservient to them.

Until some enterprising label (CPO? Naxos? Hyperion?) decides to record The Twelve in modern digital sound, this present composite performance is the only option; although the freshness of its interpretation and vividness of sound would give any potential future rivals a run for their money.

For listeners curious about Soviet music beyond Shostakovich, but wary of diving into the avant-garde deep end, this Tishchenko disc is an ideal introduction. Those well-acquainted with this composer’s probing and fascinating art will have likely already nabbed themselves a copy of this CD.

NÚstor Castiglione

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