About this Recording
8.573218 - SHOSTAKOVICH, D.: Symphonies, Vol. 11 - Symphony No. 13, "Babi Yar" (Vinogradov, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, V. Petrenko)

Dmitry Shostakovich (1906–1975)
Symphony No. 13 ‘Babi Yar’


The fifteen symphonies of Dmitry Shostakovich now stand at the very centre of the orchestral repertoire: together with those of Mahler, they can fairly be said to represent ‘modern’ music as it appears for the non-specialist concertgoer. Yet unlike any comparable symphonic cycle since that of Beethoven, they do not progress in a way as might have endowed their career-spanning inclusivity with a logical evolution which carries them from aspiration to fulfilment.

Of the symphonies, the First is a graduation work that quickly accorded its teenage composer national acclaim and then international prominence. The Second and Third both represent reckless accommodation between modernist means and revolutionary ends, while the Fourth stakes out the boundary between the individual and society which was to remain a focal point thereafter. The Fifth clarifies that boundary by paradoxically making it even more equivocal; a process the Sixth continues by its subverting the private/public relationship still further. The Seventh is an unequivocal reaction to civil conflict and social collapse as finds its conceptual equivalent in the Eighth, which in turn finds its opposite in the Ninth. The Tenth effectively marks the genre’s culmination as the outlet for an abstract programme. The Eleventh initiates a period during which Russian concerns were to assume dominance, with its historical acuity being diluted by the relative impersonality of the Twelfth then intensified by the undeniable explicitness of the Thirteenth. The Fourteenth stands outside the symphonic genre as regards form though not in terms of content, while the Fifteenth marks a belated re-engagement with an abstract approach to symphonic thinking such as might or might not have been continued.

The Thirteenth Symphony followed on directly from its predecessor and has the consecutive opus number. Nor were any original compositions completed between them (an orchestration of Mussorgsky’s song-cycle Songs and Dances of Death was undertaken during work on the symphony, but only finished afterwards), as though Shostakovich intended these two pieces to form a self-contained diptych that brought to a head his preoccupation with Russian issues over the twentieth century. ‘The Year 1962’ might have proved an equally apposite subtitle.

Publication on 19 September 1961 of Yevgeny Yevtushenko’s poem Babi Yar, a forthright condemnation of anti-Semitism in Russia, marked the beginning of the end of that period in Soviet history known as ‘the thaw’ which took place under the presidency of Nikita Kruschev. Shostakovich was galvanized into action—completing his setting of the poem in piano score on 27 March 1962 with the full score on 21 April, and only then contacting the poet for his permission. Initially he envisaged this setting as a stand-alone piece, though on acquiring Yevtushenko’s volume A Wave of the Hand he soon set to work on three further poems and subsequently requested a new poem from the author (Fears) as a symphonic conception fell into place. Despite a short stay in hospital, Shostakovich completed the work on 20 July 1962. During this period, moreover, the composer defended his decision to set so extensively a poet who was viewed with suspicion in cultural circles (much as Bob Dylan was to be by Western literati)—considering his veracity of expression to outweigh any shortcomings in technique.

Shostakovich first approached the Ukrainian bass Boris Gmyra to take on the premiere, but the latter refused after having consulted his local Communist Party leadership. Matters went little further while the composer attended a major retrospective of his work at the Edinburgh Festival in August, followed by such as Stravinsky’s return to his homeland in October after some 45 years and then Shostakovich’s only public appearance as a conductor (directing his First Cello Concerto at Gorky) in November. By this time, it had become clear that Yevgeny Mravinsky, who had undertaken the premieres of almost all Shostakovich’s symphonies since the Fifth, was unwilling to take on the new work. Stung by this rejection (reasons for which remain contested to this day), the composer approached Kirill Kondrashin—who had given the belated premiere of the Fourth Symphony and duly accepted with alacrity. Bass Viktor Nechipailo was engaged, but Kondrashin also coached Vitaly Gromadsky as ‘replacement’—a precaution that proved invaluable when the former failed to appear for the dress rehearsal.

When it did go ahead, the premiere—in Moscow on 18 December 1962 with Gromadsky, basses of the Republican State and Gnessin Institute Choirs, and Kondrashin conducting the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra, with a repeat hearing two days later—was a resounding success. Soviet officialdom did its best to undermine the occasion by cancelling a televised transmission, then demanding changes to the text of the first movement—to underline that Russians and Ukrainians died alongside Jews at the Babi Yar ravine near Kiev—if further hearings were to take place. Despite misgivings, Shostakovich acquiesced to Yevtushenko’s rewriting of eight lines, but he did not enter these changes (which caused minimal alteration to the music) in the score and almost all post-Soviet performances and recordings (including the present one) have gone back to the original text. The revision was first heard in Moscow on 10 and 11 February 1963, again conducted by Kondrashin, though not for two largely unheralded performances in Minsk—both conducted by Vitaly Katayev—during mid-May.

The original artists gave further performances in Moscow on 20 November 1965, in Gorky that December and at Novosibirsk in January 1966 but such hearings, while never prohibited, were not encouraged. Eugene Ormandy gave the American premiere in Philadelphia on 16 January 1970 with Tom Krause, the Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia and the Philadelphia Orchestra, with the UK premiere in Liverpool on 14 September 1971 by John Shirley-Quirk, the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Chorus and Orchestra under Charles Groves. Several early performances were later released on disc—including those given by Kondrashin in Moscow on 20 December 1962 and 20 November 1965, and, intriguingly, in an Italian translation conducted by Riccardo Muti in Rome on 31 January 1970—with the first studio recording made in Moscow by Kondrashin in September 1965, followed by Ormandy in Philadelphia in 1970, and Andre Previn in London during 1979. Commercial recordings became more frequent as the Shostakovich discography expanded over the following two decades.

The Thirteenth Symphony is scored for bass soloist, a chorus of basses (between 40 and 100 voices), and an orchestra consisting of woodwind in threes (two flutes and one piccolo) with doublings, four horns, three each of trumpets and trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (four players) and strings (from 64 to 82 desks). The first movement is a predominantly slow yet deceptively rhapsodic design, and is followed by a scherzo; the final three movements play without pause so a progression from numbness, through volatility, to animation is perceived.

The first movement, Babi Yar, tells of prolonged anti-Semitism in Russia in the context of the atrocity committed against Jews by the Nazis at the eponymous ravine near Kiev in 1941. It opens with a stealthy theme on woodwind and muted trumpets, heard over pizzicato strings and bell strokes, which forms a ‘motto’ for the work overall. The chorus enters with a broad melody over lower strings that sets the scene, and which the bass continues with reference to the ‘Dreyfus Case’—the music growing more venomous as he proceeds. After a brief repose, it becomes brazenly sardonic as bass and chorus recall the anti-semitic pogrom in Białystok, formerly part of the Russian Empire and today part of Poland, in June 1906, then ricocheting brass lead to a rapt restatement of the motto on strings and celesta. The bass now addresses the Russian people over pensive horns and woodwind, a recall of the sardonic music acting as the transition into his idealized evocation of Anne Frank (‘I feel that I am Anne Frank, as tender as a shoot in April’) against strings and celesta, summarily curtailed by the fateful ‘arrival’ of the chorus, then a brutal march-like passage that culminates in a crushing orchestral restatement of the motto. Dying away on percussion, this leaves the chorus and bass to recall the site of the massacre over sombre woodwind and brass, subsequently taking the music to an eloquent climax which pointedly equates anti-Semitism with Russianness. The tail-end of the motto then returns to bring about a wrathful conclusion.

The second movement, Humour, raises its subject to the level of an eternal freedom-fighter against institutions, whether social, political or religious. Ironic woodwind and string chords launch the strutting main theme, bass and chorus telling of humour’s exploits over an active orchestral backing. This only briefly loses impetus when his death is solemnly announced—after which, mordant woodwind recollect the motto from the previous movement, before bass and chorus initiate a hectic dance that moves from strings to brass. The bass now darkly foretells of humour’s imminent execution, amid violent orchestral outbursts, but his last-minute survival is signalled by the return of the initial jollity to thunderous orchestral approval. Bass and chorus apostrophise him in deadpan terms, the orchestra finally emerging for a dashing recall of the earlier dance then an exhilarating close.

The third movement, In the Store, recounts the daily drudgery of Russian women as they set about their routine. Lower strings slowly unfold the sombre theme which becomes more defined as it rises upwards. The bass sets a scene whose dreariness is echoed by the chorus, an aimless percussion motif trailing in its wake. This latter alternates with pizzicato strings as textures become more varied, bass and chorus amply reinforcing the eloquence of the poet’s sentiments, before the theme migrates from lower woodwind to upper strings in an interlude of magical pathos. The bass re-enters as tension mounts and a vast climax is reached—bass and chorus joining in condemnation of those who would not accord the women their dignity, against stark tattoos on percussion and a final outburst that culminates in slashing gestures from strings and percussion. Over fateful pizzicato the bass intones his enduring shame, his words trailing off against resonant choral harmonies (the only time in the work when voices are so divided), then lower strings recall the main theme as the music returns to the depths.

The fourth movement, Fears, follows on immediately with solo tuba sounding baleful over sepulchral strings. The chorus enters hesitantly with its guarded recognition of a more open society, the bass responding with his defiant recollection of more troubled times (though whether Tsarist or Soviet is left pointedly unanswered), while a menacing rhythmic figure on trumpets and flutes keeps the atmosphere tense. Twice it provokes a brief outburst, as lower strings continue their restless searching and the bass evokes images of informers and midnight visits. A change of perspective sees the re-entry of the chorus in a stealthy march whose folk-like theme is echoed by bass as the music accrues momentum over undulating strings with shrill cries on woodwind and percussion. His warning that fears inhibit the dissemination of truth provokes a surging climax, culminating in a glowering transformation of the work’s opening theme. This subsides to leave the chorus reiterating its initial words, and the bass solemnly to bear witness, before the music gradually dies down against ominous tolling from horns and harp.

The fifth movement, A Career, radically changes the expression with its airborne theme for flutes which draws in other woodwind then strings as its radiance spreads. A suave refrain on strings precedes a laconic bassoon figure over which bass and chorus agilely alternate in their telling of Galileo’s humiliation by those with more to lose and whom time has condemned to oblivion. Ironic interjections from woodwind and brass provoke a breezy climax, before two reappearances of the suave refrain enclose a pizzicato version of the flutes’ theme. Bass and chorus widen their consideration of integrity to include other epoch-making figures (note the acidic pun on ‘Tolstoy’), the strings unfolding a vigorous fugue on the bassoon figure toward a strident climax that subsides on lower strings. The mood quietens as bass and chorus recall those whose careers proved life-changing, the former continuing over strings and lower woodwind in his plea for others to follow their example. Solo strings eloquently reprise the flute theme, then celesta adding its spectral presence as the music fades with a final chime on bells.

Shostakovich spoke of having recited this latter poem as though an article of faith. Clearly its message struck a resonance with the composer, whose own career had often been blighted by intrigue and compromise: encouraging him, perhaps, to pursue his career by not pursuing it.

Richard Whitehouse

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