- Published on Amazon.com
Format: Audio CD
I thought I read a review somewhere from someone who had grown up with this music and had loved it as a child. I was glad to read this. I feel these pieces have been much maligned (even by Booseys on their website, when they're supposed to be selling the music!) and for political, rather than musical reasons. If they had been written half a century earlier, or had different words, it's surely not unthinkable that they would be standard main-stream repertory items. Admittedly, Shostakovich wasn't at all happy having to write in 'required', late 19th century style and with massive, 'glorious' endings. But given that he did so, he did of course do it far better than anyone else. And what's more, there's not a trace of irony in the music; he needed a Stalin prize to help feed himself and his family, so he kept it straight. And in response to a friend's derogatory comment about the words just before the first performance, he said, "I take responsibility for the music; as for the words - well - " And why not take responsibility for the music? Such a beautiful opening section to "The Sun Shines"; such a lovely, spirited opening on the trumpets to "The Young Pioneers"; and what about the simple lyricism of "Walk into the Future" for tenor and unaccompanied chorus? Even those gigantic codas are carefully managed, orchestral tessitura and colouring controlled and timed, as the standard, clichéd modulations do their job.
Admittedly, "The Sun Shines" becomes a little cheesy as it continues. "Song of the Forests" on the other hand keeps its quality throughout. Shostakovich was concerned that basing the last movement on a fugue might be too 'intellectual' to suit the demands of the regime; but not only does this provide the substance needed at the end of the work, it also contrives to have a very 'basic' theme that nevertheless keeps its interest by alternating 4/4 and 3 /4 time. There have been composers who have come adrift attempting to write great 'glorious' choral fugues as demanded by custom - and I am thinking of Mozart and Schubert! Shostakovich succeeds with ease where these two, in my opinion, failed.
These are marvellous, "no-holds-barred" performances, the orchestra and balcony brass giving massive full sound without a trace of harshness. The baritone is as 'Russian' as one could wish, while the full-throated tenor is perfectly balanced by the engineers who, by the way, must have relished the challenge of coping with so much stunning sound. The children's chorus is fresh, uplifting and perfectly in tune, while the main chorus, which seems perhaps to have some useful help from some operatic voices, sings with such nationalist pride it's hard not to be carried away. Indeed, both the gentle opening of "The Sun Shines" and the massive ending of "Song of the Forests" have had me on the edge of tears.
Speaking of tears, there is a story that after the first performance of "Song of the Forests", Shostakovich went to his hotel room, threw himself on the bed and sobbed bitterly into the pillow. He must have detested the brief homage to Stalin in the words, and indeed the way the whole enterprise gave his implicit support to the regime. To hear what Shostakovich was really thinking and feeling at the time of these choral works, go to the 1st Violin Concerto, a very different kettle of fish. (But not Oistrakh with Mitropoulos - the orchestra is recorded as if from two rooms away. Try Mordkovitch.) All the same, as we slowly move away from that historical period, and even recognise that planting forests in the wake of the devastation of the war is not so ignoble a subject, these pieces may be due for a revival. Well, not a revival, since they are largely unknown in the west - so, an arousal of interest.
The album adds music from the early opera, "The Nose", quirky and sardonic, so it's possible to hear just how far from his natural bent Shostakovich had had to travel by the late '40s and early '50s.