The Gamblers, Opus 63 (1941-2)
Nikolai Kurpe, tenor (Ikharyov); Nikolai Reshetniak, baritone (Utyeshitelny);
Alexander Arkhipov, tenor (Krugel); Mikhael Krutikov, bass (Shvokhnyev);
Vyacheslav Pochapsky, bass (Alexei); Pyotr Gluboky, bass (Gavryushka)
Bolshoi Theatre Orchestra cond. Andrei Tchistiakov
Harmonia mundi RUS 288115 [47:35/DDD]

The Gamblers, with which Shostakovich whiled away 1942, must rank as one of the most elaborate compositional whims ever perpetrated. Not only would the subject - the tawdry scams of a gang of provincial cardsharps - have been hopelessly beyond the pale so far as Soviet theatres were concerned, but the completed opera would have run for over four hours. (True to his respect for every syllable Gogol ever wrote, Shostakovich refused to cut a word from the original play.) In the end, the composer realised that he was toying with a private interest of no public viability whatever, and regretfully abandoned it. In that The Gamblers contains quite a bit of prime Shostakovich, this is a shame; yet one can only agree that his very personal obsession with Gogol was unlikely to sustain an audience's interest in an all-male tale of seedy deceit for three hours, let alone four. Reckoning on a more realistic duration, the Polish composer Krzysztof Meyer has attempted to complete the opera with a running-time of just over two hours [Capriccio 606062-2] Sadly his effort makes it clear that only Shostakovich knew what he was up to in this work and anyone trying to emulate him is bound to fail.

For instance, only someone with Shostakovich's very idiosyncratic irony would set the words "Adelaida Ivanovna" (the name, bequeathed it by its doting owner, of a marked pack of cards ) to an inflatedly portentous crescendo, or turn a discussion about cheese into a lofty pseudo-baroque recitative. Shostakovich's delight in Gogol's ne'er-do-wells - and, in particular, the writer's paradoxical elevation of mundanity and cliché - produces some very funny, not to mention brilliantly scored, "scoundrel music". Yet there are puzzling moments, too. Why (in the bass duo between Alexei and Gavryushka) does he make nothing of the pregnant line "in two provinces at once"? What made him take the ostinato of Gavryushka's idiotic balalaika song and develop it in the last of his Preludes and Fugues, Opus 87? Is it coincidence that a cadence in the final surviving scene (Scene 4, 14:43 et seq.) turns up a year later in the finale of the Eighth Symphony? One hopes that Russian scholars with access to Shostakovich's manuscripts - such as Manashir Yakubov - will one day be able to enlighten us.

Meanwhile, this performance, made in Moscow in March 1995, fills a fascinating, albeit minor, hiatus in Shostakovich's CD discography - and, for the most part, effectively. The singers are uniformly good, the orchestra likewise (if backwardly balanced). Some passages, particularly in the latter stages of Scene 4, tend to drag, the stylised tedium of Gogol's monologues finding inadequate variation in Shostakovich's accompaniment. Likewise, pacing could be spritelier and more pointed at times. Yet there's more than enough here to part dedicated Shostakovich devotees from their money. (The package contains a translation but no transliteration.)

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