Shostakovich and Prokofiev were contemporaries for 47 years. There was a time when their names were pigeonholed in much the same way as Bruckner and Mahler. The individualities of all four composers have now distanced the life and music of each reputation from the other. Yet in the case of the Russian pair there is at least one overlap and this is to be found in politics. While Prokofiev departed the Soviet Union he returned and contributed extensively to the genre of Soviet tribute works and State afflatus. Prokofiev’s output in this field includes Songs of our Days, Cantata on the 20th Anniversary of the Revolution, On Guard for Peace, Flourish Mighty Land and Zdravitsa and Ode to the End of the War. Prominent amongst the similar output of other Soviet composers are Georgi Sviridov’s Oratorio pathétique which can be heard on the Relief label and Yuri Shaporin’s The Story of the Battle for the Russian Land once issued on EMI-Melodiya LPs (SLS791/2).
While the Prokofiev works have had some bashful attention the equivalent works by Shostakovich have been less fortunate. That has however stretched to an HDTT disc of The sun shines over the motherland. Jurowski (Capriccio), Mravinsky (Melodiya MELCD1000771), Temirkanov (BMG) and Ashkenazy (Decca) have recorded The Song of the Forests.
Apart from transient trips Shostakovich never left the Soviet Union but like Prokofiev he wrote works praising the state and its leaders. This disc of reissues of older USSR recordings in some measure redresses the balance again. I say ‘again’ because Russian Disc issued these self-same recordings of the first two works on this disc on RD CD 11 048. Jurowski/Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Köln recordings of those same works were issued on Capriccio C10779.
The present Praga disc is the only CD I know of that also offers Ten Poems on Words of Revolutionary Poets for a cappella chorus. It’s most generously timed and opens an aural casement onto some authentically fervent Soviet performances.
The oratorio The Song of the Forests was written in 1949 to celebrate the afforestation of the Russian steppes following the end of World War II. Premiered by the Leningrad Philharmonic under Yevgeny Mravinsky, the work earned the composer a Stalin Prize the following year.
It is here tracked in seven sections. At the war’s end has a rocking motion over which the tenor, Vladimir Ivanovsky, sings in honeyed confidence, joined from time to time by the choir. One might have guessed the lyrical Prokofiev but not Shostakovich. Next Forests let us clothe our country is a ripe brisk allegro with fervent unison singing from the magnificently sturdy choirs. There’s just a touch of the Eighth Symphony there, much as the Fifth is echoed in the subdued Remembrance of the Past. Bass, Ivan Petrov (1920-2003) sings lugubriously with ringing tone and he too is joined by the adult choirs. Children Plant the Forest has the children’s choirs pecking away in lively and controlled fashion with a trumpet running filigree rings around them. The romping confidence of the Piano Concerto No. 2 is at play in Arise the great deeds all ye people. Walk into the Future establishes a haunted yet confident atmosphere through woodwind solos which act as a prelude to a lovely moonlit solo by Ivanovsky - really something of a star. He would make a great Cavaradossi or Calaf. The final section is Slava with the choirs coiled and inter-coiled in a ringingly joyous celebration and ending in the expected blaze of sun. Everything about this performance feels big.
Much the same applies to the single movement The sun shines over the motherland. It dates from the same year as the deaths of Stalin and of Prokofiev. Its attractions - and it certainly has them - lie in its very accessibility and easy melodious nature, enhanced by singing of crackling power, sturdy ardour and coordination. Konstantin Ivanov was an old hand and ensures we get all the fervour every singer and every member of the chorus can draw down. The cantata, like The Song of the Forests, has texts by Soviet poet laureate Evgeni Dolmatovsky.
Ten Poems on Texts by Revolutionary Poets was Shostakovich's first work for a cappella chorus and gained him a Stalin Prize in 1952. The words are by various authors but are uniformly blood-stirring revolutionary texts. There’s tenderness as well - not just rabble-rousing. Listen for example to One of Many and To those executed. Even so, as expected it’s all in the service of revolutionary ends. The final A Song is to words by V. Tan-Bogoraz after Walt Whitman. This starts steadily but gains a shoulder-swinging, marching momentum - irresistible.
While the words of The Song of the Forests are printed in the booklet in transliteration but without translation none of the words for the other two works are given. This omission from the documentation is regrettable.
This music is all very listenable and if we can take the political settings of the West there is little reason to deny ourselves knowledge of Shostakovich’s own musical response to the State’s demands on his creativity. A valuable and generously timed disc with ringingly authentic performances, still raw in their vehemence and zeal.