Symphony No. 1, Opus 7 (1928-34)
*Symphony No. 2, Opus 39, "Motherland" (1943)
Moscow State Symphony Orchestra
*USSR Radio & TV Symphony Orchestra
cond. Gennady Provatorov
Olympia OCD576 [78:05/DDD]

Symphony No. 6, "Festive", Opus 99 (1970)
*Chamber Symphony (Septet) in C major, Opus 2 (1927)
USSR Radio Symphony Orchestra cond. Edvard Chivzhel
*Moscow Chamber Ensemble cond. Alexander Korneyev
Olympia OCD588 [69:52/ADD]

Gavriil Popov (1904-72) was a student along with Shostakovich at the Leningrad Conservatoire in the early 1920s and, like him, performed as a concert pianist during this period (see Chronology). Within more or less orthodox tonal terms, he was an individual composer with a penetrating style: sardonic and caricatural at one extreme, sensitive and deeply felt at the other. His Chamber Symphony of 1927 (like Mosolov's Iron Foundry) became a minor cause célèbre in European musical circles during the early 1930s, provoking a short-lived international recognition of his talent. Shostakovich, too, thought highly of Popov's early work, confessing himself "a great and ardent admirer" of his First Symphony. So what became of him?

Like many other Soviet artists, Popov was badly hit by the switch to Socialist Realist orthodoxy during the mid-1930s. Having endured a protracted peer review of his First Symphony in which he waited a year for a verdict and spent a further year making alterations to it, he eventually saw the work premièred in 1935, three years after originally finishing it. Almost immediately the symphony was attacked by the head of the Leningrad Bureau for Control of Cultural Events and Repertoire as "reflecting the ideology of classes hostile to us". The Leningrad Composers' Union - at that time still a place where rival views could, to some extent, be genuinely debated - witnessed a succession of heated arguments about the political correctness (or not) of Popov's First. The final outcome was a grudging rehabilitation that did not extend to any further performances. After the Terror of 1936-9, Popov appears to have decided to behave as a conformist. His Second Symphony of 1943, composed from one of the patriotic cinema scores he wrote at the time, is orthodox Socialist Realism, unusual only in the strength of feeling in its elegiac slow music. In 1948, despite his efforts to appear palatable, he was branded a formalist. Isolated, he took to drink, churning out official choral works and film soundtracks when required to. Even the Stalin Prize-winning Second Symphony was banned from performance. (An attempt to revive it in 1958 was prevented when the concert was mysteriously cancelled.) Popov managed four more symphonies, two of these in a burst of activity within three years of his death. He was working on a Seventh when he died in 1972.

Popov's First is a striking work in the idiom one might call expressionistic catastrophism, sharing a mood of doom and near-hysteria with Myaskovsky's symphonies 6-12 and Prokofiev's Third. A decade or so ago, Western critics might have sought a parallel between Popov's First and, say, Prokofiev's opera The Fiery Angel - or ventured that this symphony, like Walton's First, Vaughan Williams' Fourth, and Weill's Second, perhaps evoked rising Fascism in Europe. These days, we are used to looking closer to home and it would seem more plausible to see the sinister upheavals of Stalin's First Five-Year Plan (the era of the Soviet Cultural Revolution) as a likely stimulus. However, Per Skans' useful sleevenote to Olympia's new issue casts doubt on this, quoting excerpts from Popov's diary which seem to show him engaged in something not quite congruous with Myaskovskyian catastrophism. Such was the paranoia of this period that Popov's diary comments might reasonably be taken at less than face-value, were it not for his reference to "the mighty, joyous songfulness of the subsidiary theme" of the symphony's first movement. Either this is a masked statement or he meant it seriously - in which case the would-be interpreter is at a loss, since there is nothing in the movement in question (or in all but the final minute of the symphony) which the average listener would instinctively identify as "joyous".

By any normal affective interpretation, Popov's wild and dissonant First Symphony seems profoundly alienated. Its historical background would certainly account for this. Yet all we can say at this stage of knowledge is that, if Popov did not, in fact, have a catastrophic mood in mind when he composed this work, we stand little chance of identifying his intentions in anything else he wrote. Piling crescendo on agonised crescendo, the first movement overwhelms in the manner of Petterssen's Seventh (although without Petterssen's control). Yet the real model for Popov's multiclimactic structure is Mahler - especially the finale of Mahler's Sixth (almost quoted at 15:45). There are traces, too, of the Berg of Wozzeck and the Violin Concerto in Popov's Largo, not to mention a snatch of The Rite of Spring (at 10:20) - yet Mahler's is the presiding spirit here and it's no wonder that Shostakovich, a Mahler buff, was fascinated by this score. So fascinated, in fact, that he seems to have used it as a springboard for his own Fourth Symphony, to which Popov's First bears more than a few similarities. (E.g., the codas of the first and the second [12:27 et seq.] of Popov's movements - not to mention bars 11-12 of the theme of Popov's Largo [0:26-0:33] - are pure "Shostakovich Four".)

While we don't know what Popov had to alter in order to get his symphony performed, its literally last-minute swing into a "positive" C major not only reminds us of the "forced rejoicing" of the D major coda of Shostakovich's Fifth but also of the penchant of Stalin's arts watchdogs for counting the number of bars in minor keys, on the lookout for anti-Soviet subversion. In fact, Inna Barsova of the Moscow Conservatory has pinpointed the effective suppression of Popov's First Symphony as the point at which the Terror first began to make itself felt in the Soviet musical world:

"Composers ceased writing serious music and turned to film music, theatre music, and folklore... The musical creativity of Shostakovich nevertheless remained free until 1936, both in his choice of concepts and in his musical technique. In 1935, Gavriil Popov, dreaming of tearing asunder the 'banality of social taste' in his Second Symphony and making a 'leap into the future' wrote, not without admiration, in his diary about Shostakovich's music: 'October 31st, Detskoye Selo. Shostakovich's Fourth Symphony (I heard the first movement on the piano up to the reprise and read the score for half of the first movement) is very caustic, strong, and noble.'"
Madame Barsova quotes also from Liubov' Vasilievna Shaporiny's diary for 21st November 1937:
"The Leningrad Philharmonic premiered Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony. The audience was beside itself and gave a frenzied ovation - a deliberate protest against the persecution to which poor Mitya has been subjected. Everyone repeated one and the same phrase: 'He answered and he answered well.' D.D. came out pale, biting his lip. I think he could have broken into tears. Shebalin, Alexandrov, Gauk came from Moscow - only Shaporin wasn't there... I met Popov: 'You know, I've become a coward. I'm afraid of everything. I even burned your letter.'"
Like Shostakovich, Popov began to drink heavily around this time. Unlike Shostakovich, however, he failed to muster sufficient courage to carry on composing in his own voice. In this perspective, the conventionality of his Second Symphony, premiered eight years later, comes as less of a surprise. Compared to the First, this is far less personal music, though by no means as dull as the sort of Socialist Realism that works wholly on bogus sentiment; at least some of the feeling here is real. In terms of performance and recording, both First and Second are more than acceptable and anyone building a library of significant "Soviet" music will certainly want this disc.

Until more Popov is recorded, our view of him will naturally be exceedingly partial. What is clear is that his flight to the refuge of Socialist Realism in his Second Symphony was far from the closing page in an otherwise promising career.

Entitled the "Festive" (or "Holiday-like"), Popov's outrageously original Sixth Symphony is a 36-minute one-movement piece divided into three main sections. If the First is a work of "expressionistic catastrophism", the Sixth can be called a "delirium symphony" - a tumultuous, often garish orchestral hallucination in the vein of Scriabin's Poem of Ecstasy and Vyacheslav Artyomov's Way To Olympus (1978-84). In this case, however, the delirium is of the "tremens" variety rather than the mystical sort - for, by this time, Popov was an alcoholic. Despite this, his artistic control remained intact, while his vision had become uniquely personal. Using an idiom perhaps suggested by its composer's extensive work in the cinema, the Sixth veers in the unlikely direction of the MGM musical, its thematic material often suggesting Copland or Bernstein, or even the slaphappy, semi-drunken dance of Gene Kelly in Singing In The Rain. This image is blurred by an overlay of louche cinema Orientalism in often bitonal harmony and orchestration halo'ed with tuned percussion.

A further reference-point is Stravinsky: the Petrushka-like second section of the "finale", and a passage in the "slow movement" (recurring in the "finale") which recalls the coda of the Symphony of Psalms. There is even a broad hint of Mahler (Third Symphony) in the stentorian unison fanfare for massed horns that launches the work - but this soon evokes more suggestive echoes of Shostakovich: the first themes of the Fourth and Seventh symphonies, and the song-like melody which concludes the first section of the finale of the Fifth - in other words, the idiom of the totalitarian chorale. Although Per Skans is unconvinced by the possibility, the fact that Popov's "Festive" symphony was composed from 1969 into 1970 suggests that it was somehow connected with the latter year's centenary celebration of Lenin's birth (for which Shostakovich donated the choral cycle Loyalty, Opus 136). Skans observes that Popov's work "might not have been (considered) solemn enough". Certainly there is not the slightest hint of civic sobriety in this mad symphony; indeed, its "festivities" are wild to the point of Bacchanalian frenzy. (Perhaps a more accurate subtitle might have been - to paraphrase Hugh McDiarmid - "A drunk man looks at a Soviet jubilee".)

There can be no doubt that Popov's Sixth has a subversive programme. His thwarted dream of tearing asunder "the banality of (Soviet) social taste" in his Second Symphony is here fulfilled in an astonishingly inventive score which ironically exalts cinema cliché (e.g., the big blowsy string theme in the "slow movement") whilst reflecting the public face of Soviet society in the distorting mirrors of a funfair arcade. Thus, the ludicrous unison fanfare which opens the symphony fortissimo - this is, par excellence, a fortissimo symphony - is soon reduced to a crazy caricature by the woodwind. The first movement is regularly marked by similar unisons (symbolising, no doubt, such enforced social unanimity as the prearranged "spontaneous demonstrations" which Soviet citizens were often hauled out of bed before breakfast to practise). Returning in the huge coda of the "finale", the fanfare theme looms over the whirling festivities like a monstrous storm-cloud. The sense of megalomaniac menace here is extraordinary (and probably intelligible only to someone who has witnessed the sheer browbeating scale of a totalitarian civic celebration). Elsewhere sardonic grotesquerie alternates with inebriated dishevelment, most obviously in the drunken glissandi and mock sentimentality of the "slow movement". (Popov was far from alone in hitting the bottle to blot out the awfulness of Soviet life. Alcoholism was, and is, rife in Russia - and more so than average among Russian artists.)

Recorded in Moscow in 1984, the USSR Radio Symphony Orchestra under Edvard Chivzel play this riotously discontinuous (yet thematically tightly designed) score for all they're worth. Sometimes ensemble is defeated by Popov's densely-layered effects, but generally the orchestra more than manages to hang together and the final result, allowing for the usual super-reverberant sound and solo spotlighting, is both exhilarating and exhausting. This highly original and very intense work verges on burlesque vulgarity throughout - but deliberately so. There is nothing else like it.

It is good to have Popov's 1927 Chamber Symphony back in the catalogue. First made available by Olympia in 1988 as part of an anthology entitled "Music of the First October Years" (OCD 170), it is a striking work which won plaudits abroad and created great interest in Popov in Germany during the late 1920s. In the composer's words, this Septet is a "scenic-musical" composition in which the instruments are often used theatrically in satirical style; yet it also incorporates an undertow of tragedy which comes to the surface in its 10-minute Largo. (The key element here is the fragile "old world" theme introduced in the Scherzo and cruelly parodied in the Finale - a design suggesting that, in this work, Popov was observing, from an apolitically detached point of view, the often callous confrontations between revolutionary and bourgeois class-culture during the 1920s.)

This new version of the Chamber Symphony by the Moscow Chamber Ensemble is, in fact, older (1971) than the earlier one by the Bolshoi Theatre Soloists under Alexander Lazarev (1986). While perfectly adequate, it is inferior in performance and recording to Lazarev's version (now deleted).

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