An Unjustly Neglected Soviet Composer
Jeffrey Lipscomb | Sacramento, CA United States | 04/14/2005
(4 out of 5 stars)
"Unfortunately, this excellent CD appears to be out of print. But just in case you should stumble across this as a deleted item, here is a brief appraisal of its merits.
Vissarion Yakovlevitch Shebalin (1902-1963) was a student of Myaskovsky. Like virtually every other 20th century Russian symphonic composer, he labored in the shadow of Prokofiev and Shostakovich. In 1942 Shebalin became Director of the Moscow Conservatory: Shostakovich called him "the best composition teacher in the Soviet Union." But in 1948, during the infamous music conference in Moscow, Shebalin was accused (along with Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Myaskovsky, Popov, Khachaturian and Kabalevsky) of being a "principal leader of the formalist trend in music." Apparently "formalist" was simply a vague label used by Soviet authorities to chastise those who had fallen out of favor. Shebalin made the brave mistake of referring to loyal Communist composers as "obliging fools" and was forced to resign his position at the Conservatory.
While Shebalin's music is little known outside of Russia, he was highly regarded by his contemporaries. According to this CD's booklet, Shostakovich kept in his study the pictures of just three composers: Mahler, Mussorgsky and ... Shebalin!
The Concertino for Violin and Orchestra is an inviting mixture of Prokofiev and Hindemith, but with its own distinctive voice. The performance is hampered slightly by the somewhat un-charismatic violin playing of Boris Shulgin. One can only fantasize what an Oistrahk or Kogan might have made of it.
The Concertino for Horn and Orchestra is a gorgeously atmospheric piece, with Afanasiev's vibrato-laden but highly expressive playing supported beautifully by the great Soviet conductor Nikolai Anosov (father of conductor Gennady Rozhdestvensky, who went by his mother's maiden name). Especially notable is the slow mvt., which vaguely reminds me of the opening of Puccini's "Il Tabarro" in its evocative mystery.
My favorite work here is the "Sinfonietta on Russian Folk Themes," in a vigorous performance by Alexander Gauk, a rather forgotten conductor who made a great many excellent recordings: his superb Schumann 3rd, Rachmaninov 2nd, and Tchaikovsky Manfred all deserve to be on CD. Here Shebalin utilizes folk material in a way that is similar to Vaughan Williams' treatment of English folk tunes, and there are echoes of Mussorgsky, Tchaikovsky's 'Little Russian," and Borodin.
The 5th Symphony was written in 1962 just before the composer's death. While for the most part blessedly tonal, it nonetheless has moments that sound almost like serial music. This is rhapsodic but thoughtful writing that deserves to be heard on concert programs outside of Russia. This committed live performance under Svetlanov is in excellent sound (a few coughs notwithstanding).
For anyone interested in modern Russian music, this CD is certainly worth the search."