Under the surface – Shostakovich Cantatas


Composer: Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975)

Nationality: Russian

What did he write? Shostakovich is best known for his output of symphonies (15) and string quartets (also 15) as well as popular concertos, two each, for piano, violin and cello. Yet a relatively large amount of his output remains unexplored, especially his vocal work.

What are the works on this new recording? There are three cantatas for chorus, published relatively late in Shostakovich’s career. The Execution of Stepan Razin is the best known of the three, and certainly the most accomplished, being also the closest we get to the real composer on this recording, as it was written ten years after the death of Stalin and was free of his decrees on musical direction. The Sun Shines on the Motherland and Song of the Forests are different, being works in praise of his authority and the forests of Russia, so they are by nature more celebratory. All three works are performed in this new recording from Warner Classics by the Estonian Concert Choir and National Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Paavo Järvi, with soloists Alexei Tanovitski (bass) and Konstantin Andreyev (tenor).

Why aren’t these works more popular? That’s an easy one – in the case of The Sun Shines on the Motherland and Song of the Forests the texts are pro-Stalin and completely of their time. Even when recording, Järvi had to contend with demonstrations outside the Estonia Concert Hall in Tallinn, with people aghast at his idea of recording the original texts. Yet this recording is an extremely valuable illustration of music Shostakovich had to write against his will – and, if you look closely, how he managed to keep in a number of sardonic and witty references.

What is the music like? Despite the bombast of the two obviously pro-Stalin works, there is a curious emptiness to their celebrations, the sense of duty paid. Far more substantial and lasting in its impact, The Execution of Stepan Razin leaves a very strong impression of a hero in extreme adversity, cutting frequently to the bone emotionally – and is described by Paavo Järvi as ‘a critical work of the Soviet regime’.

After a bombastic opening the music remains powerfully driven, reaching a tremendous climax around 21’30”, which may be after the moment of execution itself – though unfortunately we do not have texts here.

The Sun Shines on the Motherland is immediately brighter in tone with the Narva Boys Choir, and leads to a positive but musically telegraphed high point. It is very well written and brilliantly performed, but has little substance emotionally other than empty celebration.

The Song of the Forests  begins in soft reverence but then there is a resonant solo from bass Konstantin Andreyev. The harmonies Shostakovich uses often lead to the same, deliberately hackneyed progression – effective but ultimately strangely wearing. The first part ends with a pure and peaceful low ‘C’ from the basses in the choir – peace at the end of the war, though not for the composer.

What’s the verdict? This is a fascinating and extremely valuable disc that adds another dimension to your collection if you know Shostakovich just through the orchestral works and string quartets. The ferocity of the singing is striking, especially from the choir, and the standard of performance is consistently high.

One serious drawback here is a lack of texts in the booklet, especially given the use of the original pro-Stalin material. Fortunately Shostakovich’s means of expression is direct enough to bring them straight off the page.


You can hear the Shostakovich cantatas here:

If this appeals, a very strong recommendation goes to this double album, as reissued by EMI, of Rachmaninov and Prokofiev masterpieces with André Previn (The Bells by the former and Alexander Nevsky by the latter), together with the sharply toned Ivan the Terrible in a pioneering version conducted by Riccardo Muti.

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