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Cantatas for Soprano
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Georgy SVIRIDOV (1915-98) Sneg idyot (Snow is falling) – a small cantata (1965) [9:43]
Music for Chamber Orchestra (1964) [22:16] Otchalivshaya Rus’ (Russia adrift) – a song cycle to words by Sergey Yesenin (1977/2016,
version for mezzo-soprano and orchestra by Leonid Rezetdinov) [32:55]
Mila Shkirtil (mezzo-soprano) Nikolay Mazhara (piano) Sergey Volushchuk
Rimsky-Korsakov Music College Female Choir
Boys of the St Petersburg Radio and Television Children’s Choir
St Petersburg State Symphony Orchestra/Yuri Serov
rec. 2016, St Petersburg Radio Studio
Texts and translations not included - accessible at www.naxos.com NAXOS 8.573685 [64:54]
In 1976 I was an awkward boy of fourteen already with a weakness for modern classical music. In this year both Britten and Shostakovich died and I recall falling in with a group at my school who would ‘like’ anything to appear rebellious to authority. At my school contemporary classical rivalled punk (which I also liked) as an anti-establishment posture. One of my best friends would make regular visits to family in London. He would turn up at school after these trips with carrier bags crammed to bursting with Melodiya records. I soon developed the confidence to journey to the capital myself, and the focus of these visits would be two very different record shops, Collets Russian Bookshop on Charing Cross Road and Rough Trade near Ladbroke Grove.
By this point, Shostakovich was becoming too passé for my need to be different (although I secretly really loved his music) and the long journeys to Collets would acquaint me with a cornucopia of exotic new names. Armed with my Collins Gem Russian dictionary (to transliterate the Cyrillic characters) I got to grips with a range of Soviet composers (some of very dubious merit) nobody at my school had ever heard of and gambled pennies hard-earned from helping out on a local milk-round on flimsy LPs of works by Shebalin, Gnessin, Akhinyan et al. One of these composers was Sviridov, who seemingly produced little in the way of instrumental music, as all the records of his works I acquired were choral or vocal. Much of this was obscure but tuneful, obviously written for the purpose of the consumption and/or participation of the Soviet public (thus adhering to the prevailing ideology). I quickly became aware that many Western record critics were sniffy and dismissive of this kind of repertoire but I liked it nonetheless and my Melodiya collection soon became the envy of my fellow Russophiles at school.
In fact Sviridov did write his share of purely instrumental music, some of which is now beginning to turn up on disc. There is an example on the present issue: the Music for Chamber Orchestra of 1964. Cast in three movements for string orchestra augmented by piano and horn it sounds largely as you might expect a Soviet-era work with such a title to sound. It’s a slow-fast-slow structure. The spectre of Shostakovich is never far away. The busy piano part betrays the fact that it was concocted from the sketches of an earlier, presumably rejected Piano Concerto. Parts of the central scherzo are oddly redolent of Martinu’s Toccata e due Canzoni. It’s robustly performed and decently recorded but while it’s not unattractive music I’d be surprised to see it appear on concert programmes outside Russia anytime soon.
In fact the two works involving voices provide the real reason to invest in this inexpensive disc. The short choral cantata after Pasternak ‘Sneg idyot’ (Snow is falling) was unfamiliar to me. I find it exquisite and unforgettable. It shares some of the essence of the ‘Naïve Art’ popular in many Slavic countries, and I truly don’t mean that in a disparaging way. Scored for boys’ and girls’ choirs and symphony orchestra, it consists of three songs. They each convey the aura of a sophisticated nursery rhyme. The opening ‘Snow is falling’ is so simple it could be mistaken for a minimalist work. It sways unassumingly between two chords, gentle strings coloured by flute and glockenspiel, the dreamy choir quietly intoning the melody above. The meditative ‘Soul’ which follows is darker, deeper and hypnotic – it could almost have come from the pen of Arvo Pärt. ‘Night’ provides a real contrast – it’s unexpectedly fast and joyous, accompanied by the steady beat of a drum. This brief cantata is a work which surely repays the unfettered attention of an audience – for all its seemingly surface beauties it will be obvious to the perceptive listener that there is far more going on beyond the notes. As Martin Anderson remarked in his obituary of Sviridov in 1998, “ ‘Sneg idyot’…..is a model of how to write music of delightful simplicity.” While this is certainly true, there is far more to this ‘simplicity’ than meets the eye. Both performance and recording here are ideal.
The largest work here by far is billed as a world première recording, the mezzo-soprano version of one of Sviridov’s late masterpieces, the song-cycle ‘Otchalivshaya Rus’ ‘ (Russia adrift) in a new orchestration by Leonid Rezetdinov. This consists of settings of verses by one of the ‘poets of the Revolution’, namely Sergei Yesenin (1895-1925), one of Sviridov’s most profound inspirations. Firstly we need to be clear about comparisons with other recordings – the world première refers to this particular orchestration: in fact it is one of two of this piece from 2016. Effectively ‘Otchalivshaya Rus’ has been recorded in four different versions. The baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky has made two of these; the original, with piano, accompanied by Mikhail Arkadiev and released in 1996 on Philips Classics (446 666-2), and a version in a different orchestration by Evgeny Stetsyuk which emerged on Delos (DE 1631) in 2016 – Jim Westhead’s MusicWeb review of this is here.
Additionally the work exists in a version for mezzo-soprano and piano. The soloist and conductor in the performance under consideration here, Mila Shkirtil and Yuri Serov have previously recorded the work in its guise with piano on a Northern Flowers disc (NF/PMA 9928), recorded in 2005 and reviewed by Rob Barnett on MusicWeb here. I must confess I have heard neither of these piano versions but can certainly compare the two, very different, orchestral recordings. Discussing the music first, these settings are certainly more sophisticated and ambiguous than the songs in Sneg idyot. But they are not as challenging a listen as say, the Shostakovich of the 14th Symphony or the Michaelangelo Sonnets. The texts describe a post-revolutionary Russia in flux, doubtful whether the benefits of the revolution would be worth the material and spiritual costs, but (presumably out of political expediency) ultimately hopeful (rather than certain) of its final outcome. Sviridov’s settings are direct and at times unequivocally emotional.
Hvorostovsky’s version with orchestra (the same band, the St Petersburg State Symphony Orchestra, albeit under Constantine Orbelian) emerged last year. Others have detected a slight weariness in his voice – after all it is now nearly thirty years since he prevailed in the Cardiff Singer of the World contest and in recent years has had to contend with the unimaginable practical challenges (especially for an opera singer) of managing a brain tumour. I don’t pretend to be an ultimate expert on the voice but to my ears in this performance his voice still sounds amazing. It is pure velvet and for me he remains one of the ultimate Russian singers of any generation. Stetsyuk’s orchestration is darker-hued than Rezetdinov’s despite the inclusion of a quintet of folk instruments, which provide very tactful and unobstrusive washes of local colour. Although Hvorostovsky was a friend and confidante of the composer, I’m sure Sviridov himself could scarcely have dreamed of a performance of this calibre.
However, Mila Shkirtil’s voice is also full-bodied and warm, her diction is clear and she invests each song with great drama. There is tenderness and real humanity in her interpretation. I detect slight strain in some of the highest passages. But that is not to detract from her performance overall, which I found captivating and deeply convincing. Rezetdinov’s orchestration is also luminous and bright. There is a lot of tuned percussion here, in marked contrast with Stetsyuk’s arrangement, but in my estimation it is never too gaudy or attention-seeking. Indeed it adds pertinent and really attractive colour. I thoroughly enjoyed this performance and recording as well and expect to return to it often. I really think the work is strong enough to experience in both of these excellent orchestral incarnations.
To sum up the merits of this disc then, and they are myriad, here are three worthwile examples of Sviridov’s art. I don’t think any of them could be regarded in any way as works compiled purely for the glorification of the regime. I appeal to curious listeners everywhere, especially those who may have written Sviridov off, on the basis of formulaic reviews from long ago, to give yourselves the chance to experience some delightful music from an unexpected source, at pretty minimal cost, in excellent performances and recordings.
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