Piano Trio (1945)
*St Petersburg Songs (1961-3)
**Music for Chamber Orchestra (1964)
Olga Kolgatina, violin; Alexander Rudin, cello; Marina Butir, piano
*Natalia Gerasimova, soprano; Tatiana Vinogradova, mezzo;
Alexander Vasiliev, baritone; Alexander Vedernikov, bass;
Alexander Mayorov, violin; Alexei Makarov, cello; Marina Butir, piano
**Musica Viva Chamber Orchestra cond. Alexander Rudin
Olympia OCD 540 [74:54/DDD]
3 Choruses from music to Tsar Feodor Ioannovich (1969-72)
Pushkin's Garland, Concerto for Chorus (1980)
Songs of Troubled Times, 4 Choruses (1980)
Night Clouds, Choral Cantata (1979)
Moscow New Choir cond. Elena Rastvorova
Olympia OCD 541 [67:40/DDD]
Georgy Sviridov (b. 1915) is a singular figure in 20th century Russian music. A pupil of Shostakovich, he was sufficiently nonconformist to have stood out almost alone among the intelligentsia in 1980 when pressure was on to join the chorus of orchestrated condemnation of Testimony. At the same time, he was a genuinely conservative artist appreciated even by the Soviet hierarchy (notably by the late Yuri Andropov, ex-head of the KGB and leader of the USSR from 1982 to 1984). To say that Sviridov is a genuine conservative is not to call him what Soviet critics once referred to as an "epigone" (meaning a pale imitator of past greatness). Instead he is both utterly authentic - one feels instantly upon hearing his music that here is a "real" composer - and deeply committed to his personal vision of truth, which for Sviridov means his native cultural tradition as it existed before the disaster of Communism.
To Sviridov, the heart of the Russian tradition is poetic song. Thus the lion's share of his output is vocal music framed in traditional terms and with a strong current of specifically Russian allusion. Indeed, it used to be said that he was "too Soviet" for Western ears. (This meant "too Russian", but the distinction lapsed under the Soviet dictatorship.) When Olympia issued its first Sviridov disc in 1993 (OCD 520), it overlooked the fact that Western listeners need a translation of the texts the composer uses, if only in order to orientate themselves to his initially disconcertingly unostentatious musical language. These two new discs come complete with English versions of the poems by Pushkin and Blok which Sviridov here sets, and anyone wishing to penetrate his art must have the patience to allow themselves to sink into the timeless imaginative world they evoke. If they do, the rewards of this music, with its engaging variety of mood and colour, will soon become apparent.
The best of the vocal works on offer here is Pushkin's Garland, a choral cycle of thirteen numbers composed in 1980. Anyone who allows the magic of this cycle to work on them will see that it is a small masterpiece; what is harder to assimilate is that, while composed only sixteen years ago, it seems divorced from historical time. The only thing which really identifies the score as recent is the small ensemble, including a vibraphone, which joins in halfway through (annoyingly causing the Russian engineers to alter the acoustic to accommodate them). Apart from that - and some dissonant touches in its harmony - the music floats free of chronology without any sense of contrived archaism. Thoroughly Russian as it is, there is no reason why Western choral societies should not take this work into their repertoire.
Almost as good are the St Petersburg Songs to poems by Blok for a quartet of solo singers and piano trio. Again the variety of mood - from dreamy romance ("Lullaby"), via ironic Shostakovichian juxtaposition ("Easter Time"), to anguished, vodka-sodden tragedy ("In the Attic") - is continuously gripping. Anyone who loves Russian literature will find many treasurably familar atmospheres evoked here. As with all Russian recordings, one must tolerate some eccentricities (a piano image which moves around the stereo spectrum, a primitive edit at 2:28 in track 6). Alexander Vedernikov's performance of "In the Attic" likewise treads a perilous path between real pathos and missed pitches. Yet pleasure vastly outweighs such drawbacks.
Probably the disc to go for first is the one containing the instrumental pieces. The Piano Trio in particular is a marvellous work close in character to Shostakovich, while the Music for Chamber Orchestra, though somewhat roughly recorded by an ensemble whose attack is not always intense enough and whose tuning is sometimes not of the best, nevertheless strikes the ear with an extraordinary immediacy that leaves one trying to rationalise the sensation that, without ever having heard it before, one has always known it. There are echoes of Brahms in the theme of the muscular Presto, and unmistakable traces of Shostakovich in the stern closing Largo - yet the passion and lyrical naturalness are entirely convincing in their own terms. (Chamber orchestras seeking a suitable recording companion for Martinu's Double Concerto should certainly look at this comparably moving work.)
Except for the aforementioned ambience-shift in Pushkin's Garland, the Moscow New Choir's disc is recorded with a natural reverberance that lends great presence to the Three Choruses from Tsar Feodor Ioannovich. This is a much richer sound than that given to the Yurlov State Choir in the same pieces on OCD 520, although the Yurlov's rawer passion at the climaxes makes up for this. Indeed, if Sviridov's music were blander, this disc might have been a candidate for Classic FM/New Age popular success. As it is, its subtly varied themes and textures make for engrossing listening.
Both of these discs come recommended to anyone with a serious habit for Russian music. Anyone who enjoys them will probably also want to try the earlier Olympia issue, which, apart from its rival version of the Tsar Feodor Ioannovich choruses, also features the Miniature Triptych (written in the same year - 1964 - as the Music for Chamber Orchestra), the cantata Snow is Falling, and Sviridov's music to a film of Pushkin's The Snowstorm. Perhaps, too, we can one day hope for a recording of the Pathetic Oratorio with its sombre climactic "Conversation with Lenin"?