About this Recording
8.557812 - SHOSTAKOVICH: Execution of Stepan Razin (The) / October / 5 Fragments, Op. 42
English  German 

Dmitry Shostakovich (1906-1975)
The Execution of Stepan Razin, Op. 119 • October, Op. 131 • Five Fragments, Op. 42

Dmitry Shostakovich must be reckoned among the leading composers of the twentieth century. Heralded by Soviet authorities following the Bolshevik revolution, his fortunes rose and fell in response to the thoughts and actions of Joseph Stalin. During the 1920s he had been hailed as the most promising of the new generation of Russian — that is “Soviet” — composers, one who had, in fact, captured the enthusiastic attention of Stalin himself. The Soviet dictator especially liked the series of politically correct film scores Shostakovich was composing in the populist style known throughout the arts as Soviet Realism.

Beginning with his opera, The Nose (from Gogol), in 1927-28, powerful Stalinists started faulting the composer for forsaking the principles of the Revolution. Still, Shostakovich remained in good stead until his audacious opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District was skewered by Stalin after an initially successful première in 1934. A year later Pravda published an editorial, titled “Chaos Instead of Music”, echoing Stalin’s judgement. Though he regained favour with his ostensibly populist Symphony No. 5, still his most played symphony, he faced renewed censure beginning in 1948, when the Cold War began to intensify and deviations from the party line were punishable offences. Creating music under totalitarian rule is fraught with perilous consequences, and Shostakovich strove mightily to fashion music that would enable him to survive in a landscape of political quicksand.

For the rest of his life Shostakovich faced uncertainty and suppression from Soviet authorities. A controversial book by Solomon Volkov, purporting accurately to reproduce interviews with Shostakovich, posits the argument that beneath Shostakovich’s pro- Soviet “manifest” musical themes is a dark strain of covert anti-Stalinist messages. Though most scholarly writers now discount Volkov’s veracity, opinion in the West about Shostakovich has in any case changed radically since the 1960s, when many commentators tended to view the composer as a lackey of the Soviet system. No one denies the fear of reprisal that Shostakovich and other Soviet creative artists lived with during the long Stalinist era. Today Shostakovich is rightly regarded as one of the dominant symphonists of modern times. Specific hidden messages or not, his music is inventive, dramatic, and spiky, frequently balancing public declamation with intensively brooding introspection.

Moody both by nature and in reaction to the anxious environment of Stalinist repression, Shostakovich had an unerring and Mahler-like propensity toward dark utterance and musical parody. Yet he also had a capacity for joyful expression that served as a balance to his depressive tendencies. In common with works by his older colleague, Sergey Prokofiev, Shostakovich’s music reveals a palpable undercurrent of irony. His Piano Concerto No. 1, dating from 1933, is filled with sardonic humour and parody, leavened by a truly beautiful slow movement. Twenty years later, following the death of Stalin, Shostakovich wrote his dark, angstridden Symphony No. 10, judged by many commentators as his finest symphonic work. Its ferocious Scherzo has been described as a portrait of Stalin’s murderous personality.

The Execution of Stepan Razin, Shostakovich’s symphonic poem for baritone, mixed chorus and orchestra, is an intentionally ambiguous work that operates on two levels. Its manifest content, to use Freud’s term, relates to the seventeenth-century Cossack rebel who led an unsuccessful revolt against Tsar Alexis I, father of Peter the Great. Captured, tortured and eventually beheaded in 1671, Razin became a posthumous folk-hero, a symbol of the downtrodden and disenfranchised individual standing up to entrenched, brutal power. As a son of the Revolution, Shostakovich composed this cantata-like work to celebrate the life of Razin and by extension, all ordinary people who fought the great ongoing battle against repression. At the same time, the latent content (to continue with Freud’s phraseology) points tellingly toward Soviet repression personified by Stalin and his minions.

Though Stalin had been dead for more than a decade when Shostakovich composed this work in 1964, Stepan Razin made party loyalists squirm since it could be taken as both a celebration of revolutionary fervour and a condemnation, not of Soviet Realism, but of Soviet reality. Adding to the apparatchiks’ discomfort, the text for Stepan Razin came courtesy of Yevgeny Yevtushenko, who had already denounced Russian anti-Semitism in Babi Yar, which Shostakovich had used in his Symphony No. 13.

The baritone soloist in Stepan Razin serves as both narrator and the eponymous Cossack leader. A virtual Greek chorus, the supporting singers echo and comment on the swirling events. Shostakovich’s energetic score shows a mastery of orchestral colour achieved over a lifetime of symphonic writing, ranging from aptly abrasive sonorities to heartfelt evocations of Russian folk-song. Much the same can be said of his treatment of the choruses, which resonate to the magnificent crowd scenes in Mussorgsky’s epic opera, Boris Godunov.

One of Shostakovich’s last orchestral works, composed fourteen years after Stalin’s death in March 1953, was the tone poem October, Op. 131, which received its première in October 1967. It was not the first time the composer had commemorated the October Revolution: both the Second and Twelfth Symphonies bore musical witness to that signal event in Russian/Soviet history. The 1967 score, commemorating the Golden Anniversary of that iconic event, is a short tone poem that, as with several other of Shostakovich’s works, quotes from previous works, in this case Partisan Song from his score for a mid-1930s film, Volochayev Days, with another from the Tenth Symphony. An opening section, Moderato, serves as an introduction to an Allegro that builds to a fever-pitched march.

Shostakovich composed his rarely heard Five Fragments (1935) as experimental “practice runs” for his Fourth Symphony. They are brief aphoristic utterances in a spare style redolent of Schoenberg, Berg and Webern. The first two Fragments are rhythmically quirky and tersely “modernistic.” No. 3 is slow and pensive, with long-held notes high in the violins. Short though it is (though it is the longest movement at a little under four minutes), it is strangely affecting, both sad and tender. No. 4 begins with bassoon soon joined in counterpoint by clarinet, then oboe, followed by the arrival of strings in the final minute. The edgy fifth number opens with snare drum and violin, recalling the life/death battle between the devil and the hapless soldier in Stravinsky’s L’Histoire du soldat.

Steven Lowe

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