I had never heard of Gavrill Popov until I read Alex Ross's 'The Rest is Noise' The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century. I was intrigued by his discussion of Popov's First Symphony, and the composer's connection to Shostakovich. I decided to do some investigating...
Fanfare Magazine featured two very positive reviews of the First Symphony several years ago (this recording and an earlier recording all Russian forces on Olympia Popov:Symphonies No.1 & No.2). I've ordered the Boststein non-SACD version of this recording. In the meantime, I thought interested listeners might find the Fanfare review of this recording informative.
"In 1948, Stalin's musical czar, Andrei Zhdanov, gave a pair of speeches at the Conference of Soviet Musicians in which he singled out composers whose manner and work were threats to the state. These "formalists" (a code word for anything the Soviet regime hated at the moment) were Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Miaskovsky, Khachaturian, Shebalin, Kabalevsky, and Gavril Popov (1904-1974). What's fascinating is the inclusion of Popov, virtually unknown today, in a list of some of the most distinguished and well-known composers of the Soviet Union.
It had not always been so. Back in the late 1920s and early 1930s, Popov was a prominent figure on the Soviet avant-garde musical scene: his Chamber Symphony of 1927 even became a celebrated "bad boy" work, abroad. A graduate of the Leningrad Conservatory, he was also an excellent pianist, performing Mozart's Concerto for Two Pianos in public with Shostakovich. Popov was known for his outspoken integrity and combative stance in support of various artists. (These qualities apparently continued in later years, and might have acted to the detriment of Popov's career. If the comments of Isaak Glikman, a close friend of Shostakovich, are to be believed, then Popov was only one of three musicians who dared offer an unequivocal defense of Shotakovich's Symphony No. 8 at a composers' plenum in 1944.)
But Popov made the transition to the Stalinist totalitarian regime poorly. His First Symphony was too original and pessimistic a work to win ultimate approval. Popov tried to placate the authorities with a superior kind of folk-based Socialist Realism in its successor, but secured no favor as a result. Further works were seldom performed and severely criticized by his peers, who in turn looked to the official line for cues on appropriate attitude. As Stalin considered himself a superlative judge of all the arts, suitable hints of unassuaged anger were never hard to discover.
David Fanning's liner notes point to Popov's music after his First Symphony as missing the promise of his early work. But has anybody in Russia or elsewhere actually acquired Popov's scores, and studied them to determine whether this is the case? At best, we've had three or four recordings on the now discontinued Olympia label of a few symphonies and symphonic works from which to judge Popov's life work as a classical composer. This is hardly sufficient for sweeping statements; nor do the compositions confirm, in themselves, the comments of promise unfulfilled. We'd do better to leave such judgments until a time when the bulk of Popov's music is sufficiently familiar for a clear assessment of its overall quality.
This also applies to comments (thankfully not included in Fanning's essay) bemoaning the composer's supposed descent into alcoholism as the cause of his "failure." Alcoholism was known as the Russian Vice as far back as the 15th century, when the Venetian ambassador Ambrogio Contarini famously referred to Russians as "great drunkards . . . who despise all those that do not do likewise." It was said to be the rock upon which innumerable fine careers were wrecked, but Popov had a lengthy and active career--as an esteemed composer of film music: 38 scores in all, including that deserved blockbuster of the Vasiliev Brothers, Chapayev (currently available on VHS only), and the great Sergei Eisenstein's now-lost Bezhin Meadow. Popov wouldn't have been offered such assignments if his talents were questionable or his ability to deliver results on time compromised. Whatever his personal vices, they apparently didn't include anything that would prevent his success on this front. If he drank, it didn't affect his abilities to function professionally.
One point alone seems indisputable: the Symphony No. 1 is a work of iconoclastic individuality and notable quality. It has appeared before in a late Soviet-era recording that featured the USSR Radio and TV SO under the direction of Gennady Provatorov, but neither that performance nor its sound was especially distinguished. Given the complexity of the work and the brilliance of its scoring, this new release can be regarded as the first truly representative recording of the piece.
Popov's method of construction in his First Symphony is direct and deceptively simple, with the first pair of movements following an identical formal plan. Each presents three themes of dissimilar character and style. For example, the first movement furnishes a snide, Prokofiev-like toccata, a spidery, fugal scherzo out of Schoenberg, and a series of heavily drooping brass-and-strings chords that call to mind the image of Scriabin after a night spent with a bad bottle of vodka. These themes are then developed at great length, finishing with an abbreviated thematic restatement.
(Popov would repeatedly return to this method of construction, most notably in his compelling Sixth Symphony. There the themes are all bright, pod-happy depictions of Soviet reality, such as one might hear in numerous other "official" works of Soviet optimism, put through a developmental blender that transforms them into the stuff of nightmares. The effect is not unlike that of viewing some of Salvador Dalí's oils for the first time, where the sense of disturbance is made all the greater by the transition from mundane into surrealistic reality.)
This is a young man's symphony, meaning that it is as much about making a statement as the statement itself. In this respect, it resembles the young Prokofiev, rather than Shostakovich, whose career David Fanning compares to that of Popov. This is a piece that never conceals its composer's pride in his exceptional skill at orchestration, rhythmic variety, and thematic transformation. Equally impressive are its elemental energy and creative focus, which not only bind together movements of great length (more than 23 minutes for the first, over 16 for the second), but also leave behind an impression of unsurpassed concentration.
On another level, Popov's First Symphony is curiously Janus-faced. Technically, it looks forward in the most uncompromising of terms, but emotionally it is tied to the manic-depressive extremes that rightly or wrongly have long been associated with the Russian national character at its romantic flood tide. The first movement is apocalyptic, a giant cry of despair more extroverted than the finale of Tchaikovsky's Sixth Symphony. The second movement recalls the massive, brooding slow movements of many Shostakovich symphonies--that in turn recall Mussorgsky; the finale is a grotesque, Prokofiev-like perpetuum mobile of great wit and glittering textures that capers and mocks. Were it not for the mocking part and the advanced musical language, the debt both composers owe to the symphonic scherzos of Glazunov would be clearer (though Prokofiev for one would never have acknowledged it).
The Shostakovich work selected as the symphony's disc companion is surprising. It is the most academic of his published works, composed in 1922, dedicated to his counterpoint teacher, Nikolai Sokolov, and apparently never performed during his lifetime. It is a pleasant work that could have been composed by the likes of Ippolitov-Ivanov on an inspired day. I'm glad of the chance to hear it, but will never regret the matter if it disappears from my future listening without a trace.
Botstein and the LSO deliver a powerful reading of Popov's complex and densely turbulent work. The clarity and articulation of inner parts is little short of remarkable at times, especially in the first movement. Tempos are often uncompromising, as in the final movement, where the manic marking of prestissimo is obeyed despite a horn bobble two-thirds of the way through. I'm not surprised that Botstein was satisfied with the results, since it has more than enough character and control to compensate. The Shostakovich must have seemed like a walk in the proverbial park after the Popov, but the LSO applies all the warmth and Russian Nationalist sheen at its command. The results are a delight.
Telarc's hybrid multichannel recording is bright and clear without sounding gimmicky. Two points of especial merit on the SACD version deserve mention. First, there's the entire finale of the symphony, its snarling brass and deep strings emerging from all quarters. Second, there's the transformation of the Scriabin-inspired theme from the first movement into an enormous, emotional meltdown that seems to pull you down with it. It's a perfect work to demonstrate the value of the Super Audio CD process, and Telarc achieves this.
There remains a great deal of Popov to explore. What about his Great Suite for Piano and his Octet, both from 1927? His operas, The Iron Horseman and King Lear? His 1957 Quintet for the interesting combination of flute, clarinet, trumpet, cello, and double-bass? His Organ Concerto of 1970? New, significantly better recordings of his fine Second and Sixth Symphonies? Perhaps this First Symphony will serve to open the floodgates. Whether it does or not, it is worth purchasing on its own, as a combination of superlatives for music, performance, and engineering. Barry Brenesal "