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Alexander VEPRIK (1899-1958)
Dances and Songs of the Ghetto, Op. 12 (1927) [9:44]
Two Symphonic Songs, Op. 20 (1932/1935) [15:37]
Five Little Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 17 (1930) [11:12]
Pastorale (1946) [11:10]
Two Poems (1956/1957) [27:05]
BBC National Orchestra of Wales/Christoph-Mathias Mueller
rec. 2019, Cardiff, UK
MDG 901 2133-6 SACD [74:51]

Whilst listening to this superb SACD I have experienced several emotions - the first, a sort of helpless fury came from reading the booklet biography of the composer, where I discovered that he was incarcerated in a Gulag prison camp in the Urals from 1950 to 1954 (the year after Stalin’s death). Before he was sent there for espousing “Jewish Nationalism”, he was imprisoned for four months and subjected to interrogation and torture on the grounds that he had composed “Zionist music”. In the Gulag itself, he suffered great privations and the brutal hard labour almost killed him. It was probably only the decision to permit him to work with the camp musicians to help promote the “re-education” of the inmates, that prevented his death. In 1954 his health broken, he was released.

He was one of at least 66 professionally trained composers who were arrested under Stalin’s rule in the USSR. Eleven were sentenced to be shot, and the remainder were sentenced to hard labour in the Gulags, which had been set up shortly after the Bolsheviks gained power, and which remained in use until the late 1950s.

There has been at least one series of recordings devoted to music composed under appalling prison camp conditions, I am thinking of Decca’s superb Entartete Musik, which revealed compositions from the Nazi prison camps. I have long thought that a similar project should be undertaken for Soviet musicians, because as the booklet explains, musical activity was encouraged in the Gulags, and the reasons for incarceration were just as revolting.

The second emotion was the pleasure I experienced in listening to this unknown music that really does deserve greater exposure - I am used to hearing pieces by obscure composers which deserve to remain obscure, and the third emotion is delight at hearing the superb Super Audio recording capture the range and colour of the orchestra. Rarely does one hear instruments being delineated with such sonic precision, without exaggeration and spotlighting. MDG make a point of explaining their recording philosophy on page four of the booklet, and suffice to say that here they have achieved their aim of “genuine reproduction with precise depth gradation, original dynamics, and natural tone colours”

Now, to the music: the nine minute Pastorale was composed in 1943 and then revised on his release from prison. The first thing that struck me is Veprik’s use of part of the same (or a slight variation of the same) melody that forms the principal theme of the third movement of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade. I had always thought that in Scheherazade, Rimsky had used original melodies, in which case Veprik is consciously or unconsciously using Rimsky’s tune, which he must have heard many times, or the tune is of folk origin; however, the booklet avers that the tune is in the “Jewish melodic idiom”.This Pastorale does not solely consist of impressions of beautiful countryside. Quite the reverse in fact, because the flow of the melody is interrupted for more serious matters which, at times, lend a rather bleak tone to the piece. It seems that it bears some relationship to the slow movement of his Second Symphony of 1938, and I would very much like to hear that piece in such a resplendent performance and recording as we have here.

After he had been released from the Gulag, it seems that Veprik suffered some sort of social ostracism, which weighed on him quite severely, and it was under these conditions that he composed the Two Poems. The first borrows its themes from the first movement of his second symphony. On first hearing I was struck by the rather militaristic march that develops, then fades and reappears again later. Whilst Veprik’s overall structure is more complex, the march bears some resemblance to that of the Roman Legions in Respighi’s “Pines of the Via Appia” in “Pini di Roma”. Perhaps it is the insistent drumbeat that reminds me of the Respighi piece, but having said that, the overwhelming crescendo and triumphalism of Respighi is not replicated, the work having much more inward looking music interspersed with the march.

In the second poem there are stark contrasts of dissonance and consonance coupled with dynamic variation. The piece begins with quite intense string work, but soon involves the rest of the orchestra, leading to a brief barnstorming finale that for me hardly sounds in any way triumphant or celebratory. Given Veprik’s situation, perhaps this is not to be wondered at.

The shortest piece in the disc is the Dances and Songs of the Ghetto, and it is also the earliest, dating from 1927 when the composer was 28 and a prominent member of the Moscow Society for Jewish Music. In 1929, all independent Jewish organisations were dissolved and Jewish culture was taken over by the state, and reduced to what was indispensable for propaganda purposes.

From 1924, Veprik incorporated Jewish liturgical styles into his secular music and from 1926 he allowed Jewish folk-songs and tunes in as well. The Dances and Songs of the Ghetto show these effects markedly. The orchestration is varied and colourful, piquant even, and the often sinuous line of the music certainly places it outside the European ‘norm’ of the time. The piece does not remind me of the Jewish influenced music of, say, Ernest Bloch, but is very attractive nonetheless.

Chronologically, the next work is his Five Little Pieces for Orchestra, written in 1930. The racist state of affairs in the USSR at the time is revealed by the fact that he originally entitled the piece Orchestral Suite on Jewish Themes, but this was disallowed by the Communist musical authorities, and he had to change it. Each piece is short - the longest is 3:15, and all are memorable. The slow second one is marked adagio, and is beautifully romantic. Overall, the movements rather remind me of Bartok’s Rumanian Folk Dances, mixing sprightly dances with slower, more reflective music, and they would form a very pleasant introduction to any concert

In 1929 the control of the state by the Communist Party under Stalin was extended by a large scale collectivisation of agriculture, the closing of churches and the introduction of ‘five year plans’. Great economic distress ensued and the authorities clamped down even harder, with Stalin hailed as Lenin’s successor. Many composers in the emasculated Moscow Society for Jewish Music tried to present their works as examples of proletarian culture in Jewish music, and Veprik continued to employ a Jewish musical idiom longer than most. In 1932, he tried to conform to the personality cult around Stalin by composing Stalinistan, to Yiddish texts. It may be that his continuance of including Jewish elements in his music ultimately led to the authorities to pick on him, although by the end of the 1930s he had substituted Kyrgyz folk-music for Jewish themes, which were now completely suppressed by the Musicians Union.

The Two Symphonic Songs date from 1932 and 1935 respectively. These two works were not originally conceived as a pair, only being combined in the new edition of his works in 1959. The first – Song of Mourning – is a fully orchestrated, rather intense lament, in A-B-A form, with a reflective central ‘B’ section. The whole is a melodically memorable, fine piece, and I have enjoyed listening to it very much. In contrast, the Song of Jubilation is far more in line with the desire of the authorities for composers to produce music that was intelligible to the proletariat, and which reflected the joy of living the workers’ paradise that was the Soviet Union. As such, it doesn’t make as much of an impression as its earlier companion, and it is just about the only work on this CD that in any way reminded me of Shostakovitch in similar productive mode.

It must be clear by now that this I think that this is a simply superlative SACD by MDG. The music is individual, has considerable melodic impact, very varied orchestration and general appeal. Generally speaking, it does not remind me of any other Soviet Composer’s output, and that is no way a deprecation. The recording, heard in two channel stereo through an SACD player, but playable as an ordinary CD if required, is splendid. The orchestra, who cannot have known much, if any of this music, play it as to the manner born under the inspired direction of Christoph-Mathias Mueller, and the booklet in English, French and German is in two parts; a quite detailed and interesting biographical section with five photos of the composer, followed by a musical commentary by the conductor.
Jim Westhead
Previous reviews: Stephen Greenbank ~ Jonathan Woolf

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