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Recordings

Dmitri Shostakovich: Execution of Stepan Razin; October; 5 Fragments, Op. 42
24 Jul 2006

SHOSTAKOVICH: The Execution of Stepan Razin

This new Naxos recording offers a rare opportunity to hear three little-known works by one of the 20th century's greatest composers - The Execution of Stepan Razin op. 119, October op. 131, and Five Fragments for orchestra op. 42, by Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-75).

Dmitri Shostakovich: Execution of Stepan Razin; October; 5 Fragments, Op. 42

Charles Robert Austin, Abraham Kaplan, Seattle Symphony Chorale, Seattle Symphony Orchestra, Gerard Schwarz (cond.)

Naxos 8.557812 [CD]

$7.99  Click to buy

The works, recorded over the last decade, are performed by the Seattle Symphony conducted by Gerard Schwarz; Stepan Razin also utilizes the Seattle Symphony Chorale under the direction of Abraham Kaplan, with Charles Robert Austin as the soloist.

All three pieces seem to have suffered neglect over the years, not because of their unquestionable quality, but rather for the sake of ideological expediency. The Fragments, a series of aphoristic gems composed in 1935 as experimental sketches to the ill-fated 4th symphony, might have shared the symphony's fortunes then and are still rarely heard today. Which is unfortunate: this is a fabulously quirky little suite, and a wind lover's paradise. The opening moderato is written exclusively for the woodwinds, while the following andante combines their crisp, whimsical lines with an energetic double bass solo; no. 4, another moderato, is a contemplative fugue for a wind trio. The strings take the lead in a pensive, moody, lyrical Largo (no. 3) - a beauty even by the standards of a spoiled Shostakovich fan. The Allegretto finale opens with a tongue-in-cheek duet for a solo violin and a snare drum, followed by a violin-double bass duet - both combinations straight out of Histoire du soldat, although the violin sounds more like a Mahler scherzo than a Stravinsky "fiddle."

The other two pieces on the CD belong to a later period in Shostakovich's career - the 1960s. The 1967 symphonic poem October, dedicated to the 50th anniversary of the 1917 Revolution, is unlikely to be found on concert programs today, both Western and post-Soviet orchestras evidently embarrassed by the obvious ideological connotations. October is a high quality symphonic work, although perhaps lacking in either the biting irony or the gut-wrenching depth of its composer's greatest masterpieces. The main theme is an appropriate quotation of a so-called "partisan song" that Shostakovich appropriated from his own early film score, Volochayevskie Dni. Yet the overall mood of the piece is dark and somehow hollow - not at all appropriate for a laudatory offering the subject should have inspired and the reason for the composition's lack of popularity when it first appeared. It may not prove to be anyone's favorite, but it is an intriguing piece of a Shostakovich legacy, and the Seattle Symphony should be commended for resurrecting it.

The title track of the recording is the monumental 1964 Execution of Stepan Razin - an unusual and conceptually difficult work, billed by the composer himself as a "symphonic poem" for a baritone soloist, mixed chorus, and orchestra. Conceived as a sort of companion piece to the 13th symphony, it shares many characteristics of the earlier work: both set the edgy poetry of Yevgeni Yevtushenko; both include a solo male voice and a chorus; both confront the themes of victimization, indifference, and sacrifice. Yet the approach to those themes taken in Stepan Razin is arguably more complex than in the symphony, due to the ambiguous nature of the protagonist - for some, a terrorist, for others, a freedom fighter who kills for a just cause and sacrifices his life for the people who scorn him. Shostakovich himself reportedly struggled with his character's image, and repeatedly asked the poet if, in his opinion, Razin was a good man.

The composer's setting may best be described as, in his own words, "the Russian style" typical of several compositions of the early 1960s, in which elements of pseudo-folksiness (such as the use of plagal cadences and natural minor characteristic of the Russian folk tradition) combine with a more recognizable Shostakovich idiom - flat-degree scales, dark orchestral hues with much use of low register and sharp high/low contrasts. Frequently dry instrumentation with an emphasis on winds and percussion is reminiscent of Stravinsky (an open homage to Histoire is recognizable in an orchestral interlude that illustrates the text "even the skomorokhi fell silent"). More evidently perhaps, the treatment of vocal declamation, the powerful choral scenes, and the overall structure of this unstaged "folk drama" suggests a pervasive influence of Mussorgsky whose opera Khovanshchina and song cycle Songs and Dances of Death Shostakovich was studying and orchestrating in the years immediately prior to composing Stepan Razin.

The Execution of Stepan Razin is an emotionally compelling and intellectually complex work that ought to be much better known than it has been to date. Hopefully, this recording will help change that. The only drawback perhaps is a sorely inadequate booklet that provides next to no help to the listener. I therefore direct my readers wishing more information on the composer and the pieces to Laurel Fay's excellent biography and other examples of first-rate Shostakovich scholarship of recent years.

Olga Haldey
University of Maryland — College Park

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