Shostakovich's distinctive musical voice shines through - even when writing for the Soviet authorities, says Mark Pullinger, who enjoys this assertive new recording from Estonian forces
Composed in the brief thaw in the Soviet Union’s cultural climate following Stalin’s death, Shostakovich’s cantata The Execution of Stepan Razin is set to controversial texts by Yevgeny Yevtushenko. It tells the tale of the Cossack Stenka Razin, who led raids against the tsarist regime, but was captured and executed in 1672. The spine-chilling execution scene ends with Stenka’s bloody head rolling to the ground and laughing at the Tsar. A revolutionary seeking freedom from oppression by tyrants was still a risky subject for the composer, even during Krushchev’s period of office.
Paavo Järvi draws fiery playing from the Estonian National Symphony Orchestra in a weighty recording. Bass Alexei Tanovitski is soft-grained (compared with Vitay Gromadsky on Kondrashin’s incendiary recording) and the Estonian Concert Choir a little too recessed, but it’s a performance that packs a punch.
Järvi adds two earlier cantatas composed as Communist Party-pleasing propaganda. The Song of the Forests is a hymn of praise to Stalin’s reforestation programme, while The Sun Shines over the Motherland, praised by Pravda for its 'energetic revolutionary spirit', cloys with its wholesome children’s choir. Even when appeasing the authorities, Shostakovich retains his distinctive voice and there is much to enjoy here.
Artists: Estonian Concert Choir; Narva Boys Choir; Estonian National Symphony Orchestra/Paavo Järvi
Mark Pullinger writes for International Record Review and is Classical Music and Opera Editor at Bachtrack.com.