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Chicago Symphony Orchestra

Shostakovich: Symphony no. 13 "Babi Yar"


Dmitry Shostakovich, who was born in 1906 and died in 1975, spent his entire career working in, with, and around the repressive Soviet system. This original and inventive composer, endowed with a strong satirical streak, found himself both lionized and censured by cultural commissars whose views depended almost entirely on the direction of the political wind.

But Shostakovich too swayed with that wind. Denounced in 1936 for the repulsive characters, depraved story line, and degenerate scoring (which was utterly appropriate given the characters and story) of his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, Shostakovich kept his mouth shut and pulled back artistically. Accused in 1948, along with several other composers, of celebrating a "cult of atonality, dissonance, and discord," and displaying "formalistic perversions and antidemocratic tendencies," he obediently confessed: "I...deviated in the direction of formalism and began to speak a language incomprehensible to the people....I know that the party is right....I am deeply grateful for the criticism contained in the resolution."

At times he seems to have had a sort of artistic schizophrenia--one moment musically tweaking the apparatchiks, the next offering them patriotic works like "Vow of the People's Commissar." The banal, facile, and politically safe constantly shove up against the genuine and deeply felt. Even after the death of Stalin and the slight loosening of the strictures under which artists worked during his regime Shostakovich frequently took the careful road. Despite all he suffered at the hands of the Union of Soviet Composers, he served for many years as an officer of the group. For most of his career he enjoyed the benefits of being one of the favored members of the Soviet elite, with a far better standard of living than was available to the vast majority of his compatriots, though that didn't prevent his son, conductor Maxim Shostakovich, from defecting to the West.

Symphony no. 13, Babi Yar, represents one of Shostakovich's more courageous moments. It was inspired by and benefited from a general political thaw in 1962, but still pushed the authorities further than many of them wanted to go. The words were not printed in the program for the premiere, Pravda all

but ignored it, and ultimately Shostakovich was attacked by officialdom and forced to do a bit of reworking.

Like many of Shostakovich's compositions, it takes as its starting point an actual event in Russian history, here the Nazi butchery of thousands of Jews and others near Kiev in 1941. The criticism is more obvious--even to the most obtuse bureaucrat--than in some of his other works, because he chose to set poems by Yevgeny Yevtushenko, who had an unequivocal way of setting down the failings of Soviet life.

In the first poem, "Babi Yar," Yevtushenko dealt with the Russian tendency toward anti-Semitism, though in writing "Oh my Russian people, I know that at heart you are internationalists, but there have been those with soiled hands who abused your good name" he may have been overly generous and optimistic. In the second poem, "Humor," he wrote about the difficulties tyrants of any sort have with laughter.

The third, "In the Store," and fourth, "Fears," brilliantly illustrate the everyday hardships and terrors of life in the Soviet empire, with its chronic shortages and endless repression. The last, "A Career," was written specifically for this symphony; only a few years earlier it would have sent its author to the gulag for invoking Galileo and other people who suffered for sticking to their beliefs in the face of stupid authority. "Talent is talent, whatever name you give it. They're forgotten, those who hurled curses, but we remember the ones who were cursed....I believe in their sacred belief, and their belief gives me courage."

Shostakovich set these texts for men's chorus and solo bass, and the instrumentation is as dark as the thoughts expressed. It's extremely effective: you can hear the machine guns clatter at Babi Yar, you can feel the oppression and the despair, and you can hear humor and faith struggling to stand through it all.

The CSO's new disc of Babi Yar, recorded last February in Orchestra Hall, is in many ways an ideal realization of this music. Sir Georg Solti may be short in the charm and warmth department, but nobody does stark and dark better--and this music is almost as stark and dark as it comes. His tempi are well considered, and his direction underscores the meaning of the words. The CSO brass and percussion sections get ample opportunity to show off--indeed, this symphony showcases the orchestra's talent for performing such angular music.

The decision to utilize a Slavic bass, Sergei Aleksashkin, was wise. He has the back-of-the-throat singing style that's so annoying in other music but indispensable in Russian works--and he obviously understands precisely what he's singing.

The other great strength of this recording is the men of the Chicago Symphony Chorus. In most recordings of this work one must choose between a full-throated Russian choral sound and musical precision: Russian choruses seldom can offer the exactitude demanded by Shostakovich's music, while American ensembles have a tendency to sound like really good college glee clubs. Duain Wolfe's chorus offers us the best of both worlds.

For some reason (the desire to add a little star power to the package?) this recording features Anthony Hopkins reading the poems in English translation: one before the first movement, another before the second, and the final three before the third movement (the last three musical sections are played without interruption). He reads very well, but he's an unnecessary distraction and should not have been permitted to interrupt the music. If the poems had to be included they should have been relegated to either the beginning or the end of the disc. There's a translation in the program notes, and Shostakovich has done a far better job of illuminating these words than any actor could hope to do. But it's easy enough to program one's CD player to eliminate Hopkins.

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