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Op 42

NAXOS 8.557812


It is a great pleasure to welcome these lesser-known works to the Shostakovich discography. How he got away with The Execution of Stepan Razin (words by Yevtyushenko) used to perplex me, considering the trouble he was often in with the authorities.


Despite the fact that Stalin had been dead for ten years, usually such trouble was headed by lesser composers (e.g. Tikhon Krennikov) attacking either his choice of text (Thirteenth Symphony) or his ‘formalistic' music (Fourth Symphony), and more notoriously his opera “Lady MacBeth of the Mtsensk District”.) But as Razin says: “Against the boyars – it's true; against the people? No!” For boyars one cold easily read any tyrannical body in authority.

This piece is very similar in style to the Thirteenth Symphony – strong, powerful, urgent, abounding in snarling melodies richly orchestrated for bass-baritone, chorus and orchestra. Indeed, it seems like a mini epic such is its power. My personal benchmarks for this composer are conductors such as Mravinsky, and Kondrashin. The violinist David Oistrakh, cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, the pianist Tatiana Nikolayeva and the great singers Galina Vishnevskaya and the bass Vitaly Gromadsky.

The soloist on disc is Charles Robert Austin has the richly opulent voice required for taking on the sheer uproar created by the orchestra and chorus. He is a fine Wagnerian bass and here he takes on Shostakovich's anti-hero and narrator with absolute mastery. I could perhaps do with a little more swagger in his opening address and I would like the women to shriek even more harshly (as only a woman can). But this is such a fine performance overall that to cavil would be truly niggardly and it surely rates as a must for any serious Shostakovichian. Schwarz's tempos are slightly slower than taken by Jurowski on his equally fine (but less well recorded) version for Capriccio (with the wonderful Stanislaw Sulejmanow as Razin/Narrator) but there is such weight that this does not matter one whit. The Seattle Symphony orchestra is stunning in all departments. The excellent sleeve-notes by Steven Lowe include the text (Russian transliteration and English) which is also a great help.

October, Opus 131 is also something of a rarity and yet it could so easily become one of this composer's most popular works for it is absolutely non-contentious. Direct, melodic, written to celebrate the golden anniversary of the 1917 October Revolution in traditional Russian fashion. The moderato introduction precedes music that is stirring in an almost Tchaikovskian way as we are taken into a march that whirrs and whirls dangerously into occasionally dark territory before coming to the Partisan Song, announced on two clarinets then taken up by woodwind with the dark whirrings in the strings underneath. The whole thing ends in a traditional manner, all very exciting and with enough ‘dark' to satisfy his ‘serious' audience. Once more the performance and recording are absolutely top-notch. The disc concludes with the (almost difficult) Five Fragments Opus 42. These short pieces are hardly ever heard in the concert hall (to the music-listening public's shame) yet they would make a thought-provoking ‘overture'.

© Denis Day