Saturday, May 23, 2015

Shostakovich: Cantatas Estonian Concert Choir, Estonian National Symphony Orchestra/Paavo Järvi (Erato)

Shostakovich's The Sun Shines over our Motherland and The Song of the Forests are seldom heard, for good reason. Both were written in the aftermath of the 1948 Zhdanov Decree, when the composer, along with Prokofiev and Khachaturian, was officially condemned for alleged "formalism". Shostakovich was sacked from his teaching post in Leningrad and survived by churning out film scores and "official" works, such as this pair of cantatas. The Tenth Symphony and Violin Concerto No. 1 were wisely hidden in the composer's bottom drawer, only emerging after Stalin's death. Paavo Järvi's recent decision to perform and record them in Estonia with their original words intact caused an understandable outcry; Järvi recalling that “everybody who sat in that audience probably had somebody close who died in Stalin's gulags. So when they heard the texts which glorified the communists, that must have been a nightmare.” The words, by hack poet Yevgeniy Dolmatovsky, aren't included in the booklet, the Shostakovich Estate feeling that including them would be too provocative.

This is an awful lot to get your head round before you've even started listening. Shostakovich was a master craftsman, and both pieces are impeccably constructed and neatly scored; this composer's typically dark orchestral sound noticeably brighter than usual. The seven-movement Song of the Forests is musically more varied, with the Narva Boys Choir outstanding in the fourth movement. There's a rousing fugal finale – which feels rather less uplifting when you read that Shostakovich retreated to his hotel room straight after the premiere and hit the vodka bottle. The Sun Shines over our Motherland has a grotesque, overblown close which would presumably go down well in Pyongyang. Not the sort of music you'd want to return to often, but these are fabulously assured readings, in ripe sound. As a welcome palate cleanser, Järvi also includes Shostakovich's The Execution of Stepan Razin. This bleak, savage work for bass, chorus and orchestra sets a poem by Yevtushenko, whose words had previously formed the basis of the great 13th Symphony. It's tremendous, angry stuff, magnificently sung by bass Alexei Tanovitski. No texts, but translations can be easily found online.

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