Dmitri Shostakovich Cantatas Paavo JarviDmitri Shostakovich – Cantatas

Alexei Tanovitski, bass; Konstantin Andreyev, tenor
Narva Boys Choir
Mikhail Goryushin, Svetlana Goryushina, chorus masters
Estonian Concert Choir
Elmo Tiisval, Veronika Portsmuth, chorus masters
Estonian National Symphony Orchestra
Paavo Järvi, conductor
Erato, 2015

After having looked through the titles and having listening to the cantatas written by Dmitri Shostakovich and collected in this recording, there are some considerations to make. The first concerns the works themselves and their order.

The first cantata of the album, The Execution of Stepan Razin, was the last to be composed, in 1964, when the Soviet regime had reduced the surveillance over the artistic life of its people (in comparison with the Stalin years) and a sarcastic and dissenting composer as Shostakovich could once again express his disappointment without fear of being persecuted. This was anyway the feeling that tormented him when he composed the other two cantatas, The Sun Shines over our Motherland and The Song of the Forests, dating to 1952 and 1949 respectively and written with the main purpose to remove the suspects of Communist Party. The cantatas, too much flattering and celebratory to a modern ear, were nonetheless two successes that saved their creator, although it is reported that he was so shocked after the premiere of The Song of the Forests that he wept and drank a bottle of vodka when he went back to his hotel.

On the basis of chronology and outcome, I would have preferred an inverted order, with The Sun Shines over our Motherland and The Song of the Forests in the first and second place and The Execution of Stepan Razin at the end, so it would have been clearer that Shostakovich was forced by self-preservation to compose the two celebratory cantatas and that he could freely express himself only after Stalin’s death. Of course, this coherency would have affected the enjoyment of the album as The Sun Shines over our Motherland and The Song of the Forests are so compromised by their original destination that many listeners who would have expected the “usual” Shostakovich might have turned off the CD player before The Execution of Stepan Razin and this despite the excellent performance of Paavo Järvi and his chorus and orchestra.

This brings me to the next consideration, closely concerning the interpretation of this music. Although Järvi offers here the final reading of the works without betraying any incertitude, I suppose that working on cantatas as The Sun Shines over our Motherland and The Song of the Forests has posed the problem of how to present them in a way that could have attracted a wider audience than some fans looking for rarities.

As far as possible, this result has been achieved. Both cantatas have a maudlin, triumphal character that is on the verge of endurable and of ridiculous, especially in their thunderous, jubilant finali and in some sugary passages that reminds – unfavourably – of the chamber music of Russian composers of the 19th century, revealing a spirit that, if it is tolerable in the earlier works, becomes highly annoying in the more recent ones. One really wonders where Shostakovich’s inspiration was buried when he composed these works. Anyway, Järvi has softened this impact and has tried to replace the mawkishness with a kind of lyricism that works at least in the first minutes of The Sun Shines over our Motherland and in many passages of The Song of the Forests, as in We will cloth our homeland with forests until the entry of the chorus (that unfortunately has to sing its praise) and in Memories of the past. This – of course – cannot improve the two works, but the brilliance of the orchestral colours and the great singing of chorus and soloists are features that must not be disregarded.

If for the two earlier cantatas the listener is divided between a fine performance and questionable music, no dichotomy affects The Execution of Stepan Razin, in which we witness the return of Shostakovich’s customary, lucid criticism and biting sarcasm. Here the listener really finds the best Shostakovich and has the chance to appreciate what can be really considered his rebirth after the previous dark years. The execution of the most famous Russian rebel of the 17th century is fully and vibrantly portrayed and Järvi enlightens with decision and without hesitation the tragic spectacle described by the text. The music is sharp as a blade and extremely vivid in the representation of the horror of the crowd.

The Execution of Stepan Razin is definitely the best work of this album both for its music and for the performance of that music, but the other two cantatas deserves to be heard at least for the efforts of Järvi and his chorus and orchestra to surround them with a less celebratory and more endurable atmosphere.