Although most of Russia's finest composers were tarred with the same brush in Zhdanov's 1948 cultural purges, Vissarion Shebalin was far more of a 'formalist' than the others, at least in the proper sense of the word. That's to say, his musical material was always essentially self-propelling, and he was far less inclined to be theatrical or cinematographic than his friend Shostakovich. Emotional ambivalence and meaningful glances at the great symphonic tradition were not his thing either. In common with his teacher Miaskovsky, his main struggle was to uphold values of decent craftsmanship; inimical circumstances lent that struggle an almost heroic dignity.
This third disc in Olympia's invaluable survey helpfully gathersRead more together examples of Shebalin's three main styles. Completed in 1962, the Fifth Symphony was his last major work. In its broadly traditional-academic layout and style it is a far cry from the excoriating intensity of a contemporary masterpiece such as Shostakovich's Thirteenth. Yet it has all the contrapuntal energy and angular chromaticized melody which mark out Shebalin's previous symphonies. There is an attractive Borodinish waltz lilt in both inner movements, and something about the lyrical writing suggests bravery of spirit, even if you don't know the social context. The finale starts in fairly standard Soviet running woodwind-energetic mode. Around six minutes in it seems about to break through to wider horizons, something more overtly heroic perhaps, but the inclination passes and by the end the air is heavy with regret. Sound quality is thinnish, as you might expect from a mono recording made live in 1963, and the playing is somewhat unpolished.
Shebalin's two Concertinos are neo-classical in feel, but in a bold, punchy H indemithian manner, devoid of Gallic whimsy or Prokofievian high jinks. To modern ears their workaday chugging may sound no more than solidly middle of the road. In fact in early-1930s Russia this style placed Shebalin well on the progressive wing. This music isn't seeking to change the world, or even to chronicle it; it just modestly sets about reinvigorating the concert repertoire. That approach was still ideologically defensible at the time (wasn't Hindemith's Gebrauchsmusik after all the acme of anti-elitist social awareness?), and this was one possible path on which intelligent composers and ideologues might conceivably have united.
The fibrous rhythmic energy of the Concertino for violin can still give enjoyment, while the Concertino for horn would be more than welcome as an alternative to today's standard performers' competition fodder — which is not meant as a put-down. The soloists are wonderful, and it's good to hear the now nearly defunct ripely vibratoed Russian horn style delivered with such nobility and technical mastery. In this work there is an alarming change of aural perspective in the middle of the last movement cadenza (track six, 2'28" and back again at 2'57"); otherwise you would hardly guess that the recording dates from 1962.
The rather frayed recording quality of the Sinfonietta on Russian Folk Themes does betray most of its 43 years, however, while the piece itself is little more than hack work. Its interest lies mainly in exemplifying the kinds of compromise a serious composer had to make around 1950, in the immediate aftermath of the Zhdanov purges.
As usual, this disc in Olympia's estimable Soviet Symphony series comes with an astute, well-informed booklet essay by Per Skans.
Concertino for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 14 no 1by Vissarion Shebalin Performer:
Boris Shulgin (Violin)
USSR State Academy Symphony Orchestra
Period: 20th Century Written: 1931-1932; Russia Date of Recording: 1954-78 Length: 10 Minutes 18 Secs.
Concertino for Horn and Orchestra, Op. 14 no 2by Vissarion Shebalin Performer:
Boris Afanasiev (French Horn)
USSR Radio/TV Large Symphony Orchestra
Period: 20th Century Written: 1930/1958; USSR Date of Recording: 1954-78 Length: 12 Minutes 16 Secs.
Sinfonietta on Russian Folk Themes, Op. 43by Vissarion Shebalin Conductor:
USSR Radio/TV Large Symphony Orchestra
Period: 20th Century Written: 1949-1951; USSR Length: 17 Minutes 10 Secs.
Symphony no 5, Op. 56by Vissarion Shebalin Conductor:
USSR State Symphony Orchestra
Period: 20th Century Written: 1962; USSR Length: 30 Minutes 19 Secs.
Average Customer Review: ( 1 Customer Review )
Fantastic CDApril 12, 2012By Tim Shuker (Glastonbury, Somerset)See All My Reviews"Shebalin is a badly neglected composer who wrote eloquent and beautiful music Rachmaninov would have been proud of. This CD is amazing, the Symphony No.5 always makes me cry...:-) Fast, great service. I shall definitely be getting the other Shebalin symphonies in due course. And PLEASE, re-issue Olympia's other Soviet cd's by Popov, especially the towering and crazy 6th symphony "Festive" from 1969. You'd be on to a winner and may even spark a Romantic Revolution. Now THERE's something worth living for...:-)
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