Symphony No. 1 in F minor, Opus 6 (1925)
*Symphony No. 3 in C major, Opus 17 (1934-5)
USSR Radio Symphony Orchestra
cond. Mark Ermler; *cond. Valery Gergiev
Olympia OCD577 [78:01/ADD]

SHEBALIN Violin Concerto, Opus 6 (1940)
RAKOV Violin Concerto No. 1 (1944)
KABALEVSKY Violin Concerto No. 1 in C major, Opus 48 (1948)
Andrew Harvey, violin
Symphony Orchestra of Russia cond. Veronika Dudarova
Olympia OCD573 [79:56/DDD]

A pupil of Myaskovsky in Moscow during the early 1920s (see Chronology), Vissarion Shebalin was temperamentally similar to his teacher: reserved, incorruptibly honest, and unashamedly conservative in spirit and style. Known in Russia chiefly for his opera The Taming of the Shrew and his Stalin Prize-winning Fifth Quartet, he refused to be browbeaten into condemning his friend Shostakovich in 1936 or 1948, and, having stood up to Zhdanov during the second of these debacles, was discharged from the directorship of the Moscow Conservatoire and "unpersoned" (portrayed as a social undesirable and deprived of anything but a hand-to-mouth living).

Composed about the same time as Shostakovich's First Symphony, Shebalin's First is an accomplished graduation piece in the mould of his teacher. Dark colours are relieved by occasional patches of airy sunshine, themes are fugal in character (and often in usage) with recurring interludes of folksy nostalgia. Imaginatively orchestrated within its conservative limits, this is a worthy Russian genre composition - fatefully moody but rather too formulaic, and lacking in distinct personality. Performance and recording are acceptable and, if early-to-mid period Myaskovsky is your speed, you may enjoy this.

By contrast, the Third has the wryness and faster event-horizon of Shostakovich, to whom it is dedicated. Beginning with what appears to be an unconscious recollection of the first measures of Prokofiev's Scythian Suite, its opening Allegro is propulsively agitated. Although its language is still predominantly contrapuntal/imitative and rhythmically regular, it gives the impression of a composing mind that has been shaken up by outside events - presumably those of the Cultural Revolution of 1929-32. (It is worth comparing this music with that of Myaskovsky's Eleventh Symphony [Olympia OCD 133], composed under similar stimulus a year earlier.) A subtle symbolism can be inferred from this work. Thus, when the symphony's main subject is rhapsodically revisited in the second movement, a menacing counter-theme intervenes, producing a stormy climax, after which the music declines into pensive lyricism. The tense twilight hush in which this Andante concludes is dispersed by a pell-mell quasi-Shostakovichian scherzo. Beginning on a grave passacaglia, the finale returns to Myaskovsky territory with a fugal treatment of earlier material, progressing, via a contrasting idyllic interlude, to a mandatory "positive" conclusion in which these ideas somewhat effortfully fuse.

On the basis of his Third Symphony, Shebalin stands to Shostakovich as Bliss does to Britten. Yet one need only compare his fugal finale with the similar finale of Bliss's A Colour Symphony to see that Shebalin lacks the faint touch of madness that turns a craftsman into an artist. His Violin Concerto (1940) is deeper and darker than the symphonies with many coded signals of dissent, yet its conservative idiom forestalls anything that really surprises. This is a respectable work (the most mature and rewarding of the three discussed here) and, as such, would make a natural disc coupling with Myaskovky's own Violin Concerto of 1938. It will also interest Shostakovich students in that its outer movements feature a climactic figure (I, 5:36; III, 7.20) which appears to be the inspiration for the almost identical, if enormously more overwhelming, climaxes in the outer movements of Shostakovich's Eighth Symphony. (Shebalin accompanied Shostakovich to war-time evacuation in Kuibyshev, where he presumably showed him the score of his Violin Concerto.)

Andrew Hardy's performance with Dudarova's orchestra is convincing and well recorded in a resonant acoustic suiting its large ensemble. The smaller lay-outs of the concertos by Rakov and Kabalevsky are recorded more closely (in the case of the former, a little too much so, since some of the woodwind lines threaten occasionally to entangle themselves with the soloist). Hardy is rewarding in the extrovert "gipsy" idiom of Kabalevsky's pocket concerto, but falls prey to intonational ugliness amid the angular double-stopping of the Rakov piece. Nikolai Petrovich Rakov (1908-1990) was a pupil of Glier at the Moscow Conservatoire where he subsequently taught a small galaxy of pupils, including Boris Tchaikovsky, Edison Denisov, Andrei Eshpay, Karen Khachaturian, and Gennadi Rozhdestvensky. His concerto is romantic and ripely lyrical in a style which occasionally veers towards Korngold's, although its folkloric ingredients soon steer it away into something less personal. An irritating burlesque rondo-finale detracts from its modestly winning effects.

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