The Year 1917
Music in Turbulent Times
Deutsche Grammophon, 2017
There are two things I would notice before talking about the music of this collection, entitled The Year 1917. Music in Turbulent Times. The first is simply a warning, necessary because this is not a collection of new performances but of already released ones (I will list them at the end of this post), so that you will not make a mistake if you think to buy something that you already have in your record library.
The second thing is a matter of coherency, a quality which I think this album lacks. In the first place, the greatest part (not to say the entirety) of the pieces is not affected by the kind of “turbulence” you may expect if you take into consideration the title and the cover image. They clearly refer to war, which in 1917 reached its third year for many of the powers involved and had brought about so many sorrows and troubles, and then one expects a collection that conveys an impression of anguish and pain, not necessarily reproducing in music the sounds of war but at least reflecting its psychological effects on human minds.
This is not the case in 1917, where actually the war remains in the background because, as it is clearly and rather naively stated in the booklet, «many of the composers in our edition were only indirectly affected by it» and many works have been composed before the outbreak of the war or even many years later, as it happened with Shostakovich’s Symphony no. 12. It has been completed more than forty years later (between 1959 and 1961) and, if I am aware that its nickname is The Year 1917 and it is this the reason why it has been selected, on the other hand I think that this choice is incompatible with the subtitle “music in turbulent times”, which makes you expect music composed at the same time of the events. I do not even dare to find an explanation for Manuel de Falla’s El sombrero de tres picos and for Igor Stravinsky’s Les Noces, premiered in 1919 and in 1923 respectively – after the end of the war!
Anyway, these works and even those composed during the war seem written to please the public of big cities, fortunately preserved by war horrors, rather than denounce the loss of millions of human lives and this may upset a sensitive soul. In fact, the first things that occurred to you when you think of those years are sorrow and grief and then you start listen to music that express completely different moods and that, even in the case that it reveals some distress, is far away from a dramatic picture of human sufferings. This is really unpleasant, because if you forget for a moment that many works have been composed before and after the war, you may start thinking that those composers, even composers that you admire and respect, have been indifferent to what was happening away from them and that they did not care about it at all. It would have been better to choose a different title to avoid this all.
The works are performed (and sung, in few occasions) by first rate orchestras, conductors and singers and give some fine and even excellent performances. I cannot linger on every one of them, but I would like to remember at least Ottorino Respighi’s The Fountain of Trevi (or La fontana di Trevi al meriggio), performed by Giuseppe Sinopoli in way that can be considered a search for beauty and that has its acme in the end, when the orchestra reproduces the gush of the fountain, the excellent and firm conduction of Lorin Maazel of the Dance of the Miller’s Wife from Falla’s El sombrero de tres picos, the Allegro ma non troppo from Franck Bridge’s Sonata for cello and piano, where the extraordinary duo Mstislav Rostropovich and Benjamin Britten give the piece a peculiar anguish, which anyway is very personal and has nothing to do with the outside world, the pompous Parade (Ballet realiste) by Eric Satie conducted by Louis Frémaux, and finally Shostakovich’s Symphony no. 12, superbly conducted by Neeme Järvi.
This is maybe the worst thing of 1917: this would not be a bad album at all if you focus only on music and do not think about any “programme”, but to suggest that you forget the reason why these works have been collected would be a paradox.