|Liner Notes: Popov: Symphony no 6, Chamber Symphony / Chivzhel, USSR SO|
Most music-lovers are aware how the
Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky met
his death at the age of just 42: put bluntly, he
drank himself to death. Other composers,
however, met a similar fate too, and one of
these was Gavriil Nikolayevich Popov
(stressed on the second syllable).
The Soviet Composers' Union was never a teetotal organization, but Popov was certainly thirstier than average. His was a tragic case, because he could not come to terms with the spiritual climate of Stalinism. As early as the 1930s he justifiably felt threatened by the Stalinist organization 'Proletkult', and in 1948 he was among the composers who were singled out in the second purification of Soviet composers. Stalin's cultural thug, Andrei Zhdanov, gave two speeches at a 'Conference of Soviet Musicians'at the beginning of the year, presenting an urgent threat to 'formalist' composers. Along with Popov,he mentioned Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Myaskovsky, Khachaturian, Shebalin and Kabalevsky by name,and the same names (with the exception of Kabalevsky) figured soon afterwards in a Party decree. At that period people were often fetched from their houses at four in the morning,never to be seen again,and it is understandable that Popov tried to drink away this trauma. (The claim in Shostakovich's Memoirs that Kabalevsky managed to have his name exchanged for that of Popov- a story which probably comes from Solomon Volkov - is untrue; in Zhdanov's speech they were named one after the other.)
Popov possessed oneof the greatest Russian ompositionaltalentsof the twentieth century, and Shostakovich (for instance) had a very highopinion of his abilities. Popov's very extensive education included studies of the piano and composition (with Vladimir Shcherbachov, a Leningrad equivalent of Myaskovsky in Moscow); he also studied architecture and literary history at college level. Later he gave concerts as a pianist: in 1927, for example, he played Mozart's Concerto in E flat major for two pianos with Dmitri Shostakovich and the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra.( Together with Maria Yudina and two other pianists hefrequently performed Stravinsky's Les Noces.) Like many other Soviet composers,he wrote film music; indeed he worked on 38 films for the greatest Soviet directors,including Sergei Eisenstein. He also composed an opera (Alexander Nevsky),various cantatas and other works for voice and orchestra, five symphonies, chambermusic, songs and choruses.
Popov's Symphony No.6, Op. 99, was to be the last one he completed; at the time of his death only fragments of a seventh symphony were found. The work was written in 1969 (some sources give 1970) and bears as a subtitle the Russian adjective [-----------], which can be translated as 'festive' or 'holidaylike'. In view of its date of composition, it is possible that the work was composed for the 100th anniversary (in 1970) of the birth of Lenin. For such a sacred event in Communist circles, however, the piece might not have been solemn enough, and we must therefore consider the possibility that Popov had no special occasion in mind - it was not unusual for Soviet composers to write 'festive pieces' that were only later 'attached' to a particular event.
It is interesting to observe Popov's stylistic development with the benefit of hindsight. Whilst the Chamber Symphony (see below) fits in with a general trend of the 1920s, the First Symphony can be regarded as a 'Sturm und Drang' work, and the Second Symphony as a deeply-felt expression of wartime patriotism (both symphonies are available on OCD 576). The Sixth Symphony, in its turn, testifies to a maturity of style and an astonishing technical mastery.
Although the work consists of three sections, the boundaries between them are not very clear. It is therefore basically in a single movement beginning with a broad introduction - a proud, long-held theme Maestoso cantando in B flat major, played in unison by unaccompanied horns, fortissimo. The trombones take up the theme, still in B flat major, while the horns play counterpoint. The trumpets then enter in G major, at which point the tempo becomes faster and march-like. A sudden pause leads to an Allegro, in which the sound of bells contribute to the festive atmosphere alluded to in the sub-title; the quick main theme of this Allegro leads to an extremely virtuoso orchestral passage with particularly striking use of refined sound combinations such as flutes, piano, harps and muted brass. The subsidiary theme appears in the clarinet, somewhat slower but nevertheless also derived from the introductory theme. As this section progresses, its rustic character is strangely reminiscent of Bartok and Mahler simultaneously. The theme, playful at first, rises (with unusual power for a subsidiary theme) to a brief climax which is followed by an Oriental-sounding, rhapsodic transition. The woodwind instruments, led by the flute, now restate the main theme in a march-like manner, and there is a skilful development section. At the end of this passage, however, there is no recapitulation (this is not real sonata form); instead, the music ebbs slowly away and leads directly into the Largo cantabile. In this section the opening melody is given to muted strings (E major, but with bitonal touches), followed by a middle section in C major with a theme in full-bodied string chords. These two themes, both of which derive from the introductory motif of the symphony, are skilfully worked out before this relatively short section concludes with a melody from the horns. An accelerando leads into the Allegro vivace, which begins with an infectious fugue based on familiar thematic material. By means of its triad sequences and instrumentation, a slower section transports us to the atmosphere of the fairground scene in Stravinsky's Petrushka, and a sort of daredevil, virtuoso rhapsody begins. The composer here gives us a splendid display of refined orchestral sonorities during which, at unexpected places, the main theme keeps on resurfacing. The coda rocks like waves at sea, and from this the theme rises up in the brass to conclude the work on a radiant B flat, followed by a striking musical exclamation mark.
'With Popov one can always discern a fine sensitivity for the lines, a clear sense of form, a capacity - achieved by listening to live material - to control the intense movement of the music and to subject it gradually to an artistically organized Intensification... In terms of character and manner of thinking, Popov comes closer than any other composer of today to certain of Hindemith's works... His masculine, energetic talent strives to create precise, clear, well-defined forms. The character of his clear-cut, dynamic music is bright and fresh. His melodies are clearly apparent and flexible.' This analysis comes from issue 25 of the magazine Sovremennaya muzyka (1927). The article was written by 'Igor Glebov', a pseudonym of the famous musicologist Boris Asafiev (1884-1949), and its immediate provocation was Popov's Chamber Symphony, also known as Septet (these are two names for the same piece, and the claim that the Chamber Symphony is an orchestral version of the Septet is incorrect). Asafiev's work as a writer in the 1920s (Including A Book about Stravinsky, 1929, and Les Six, 1926) allows us, with hindsight, clearly to recognize his perception and insight, and it is interesting that, even so early, he had such a high opinion of Popov.
At that time, however, Popov was by no means as sure of himself as Asafiev. While working on the Chamber Symphony in 1926 the 22-year old composer wrote: 'My mind is increasingly tormented by thoughts of the scenic-musical (symphonic) form that I have not yet found. I am searching for the subject and the form.' He was to find both - in such a convincing manner that, within a couple of years, he could enjoy considerable international success with the work. In a letter from Berlin dated 22nd September 1930, the conductor Leo Ginzburg wrote to Popov that a performance of the latter's First Symphony was: 'virtually a certainty here, as we have just succeeded in having your Septet played in Stuttgart, where it enjoyed great success and I was asked what else this composer had written'. In fact Nikolai Maiko, Otto Klemperer, Hermann Scherchen and Erich Kleiber were soon to scramble to perform the symphony in Prague and Berlin because, owing to the enormous success of the Septet, the composer soon became better-known in Germany than he is today.
Popov chose an instrumental combination that offers great amplitude of sound from a small number of performers. Flute, clarinet and bassoon cover the entire woodwind register; violin, cello and double bass cover that of the strings; and a trumpet provides the additional tonal colour of brass. The first movement, Moderato cantabile, begins with a lyrical flute melody above a pedal point on E (only towards the end of the movement does this emerge as the dominant of A minor, the parallel key of C major). A signal from the muted trumpet announces the more lively subsidiary theme, which leads straight into a sort of development. After this we arrive at the main key, C major and, after a meditative dialogue between flute and violin, the latter presents a shortened recapitulation. The movement ends, surprisingly, in A minor.
The scherzo - a merry, highly virtuoso, contrapuntal piece - begins with a trumpet fanfare in A minor; at first the music is principally reserved for the woodwind instruments. The trio is considerably slower and contains beautiful lyrical writing from the flute, violin and clarinet in turn. The reprise ends with a surprising, elegant device.
The Largo cantabile begins with a broadly conceived melody, at first from the cello, which rises up, is taken over by the violin, and then sinks back again. In the subsidiary section the violin plays a theme in the high register above a succession of chords from the other instruments - a lyrical passage of rare beauty that is interrupted by an interlude with strange, jazzy rhythms. The main theme appears again and, this time, is developed further - until the lyricism of the middle section is taken up again, this time serving as a coda.
The finale is a free rondo with the tempo marking Allegro energico, beginning in a metrically regular B flat major; these motoric rhythms characterise the entire movement.
The trumpet plays an extremely concise theme with an easily memorable ascending chromatic contour. The flute involves itself playfully in the action, and the theme is then taken up by the strings. A slow intermezzo follows, its theme played in turn by the flute, violin and trumpet. With the entry of the clarinet the tempo becomes slower, and via a diminuendo it comes to a halt completely. The double bass now plays the main theme, pizzicato, and a sort of development leads to the reappearance of the trumpet. A short new intermezzo is inserted and then the main theme is played by all the strings. A coda follows, with the clear aim of reestablishing the basic key of C major. This happens with plenty of aplomb, and the work ends with refreshing vigour.
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