Classical CD Reviews

New classical music releases reviewed in detail by Gavin Dixon

Monday, 7 June 2010

Scherbachov: Symphony no. 5, The Tobacco Captain Suite

Vladimir Scherbachov (1889-1952)
Symphony No.5 (1940-1950) [42:05]
The Tobacco Captain, a suite (1942) [21:44]
St. Petersburg State Academic Symphony Orchestra
Alexander Titov – conductor
Recorded in the St.Caterine Lutheran Church, St. Petersburg 4-6 September 2008 Stereo DDD
Northern Flowers NF/PMA 9970 [63:49]

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The Northern Flowers label continues to demonstrate that there is much more to the 20th century Russian orchestral repertoire than just Shostakovich and Prokofiev. Vladimir Scherbachov was a big name in his day, at least in the Soviet Union. It is easy to dismiss his work today as run-of-the-mill Socialist realism, but the two works on this disc show the composer at the top of his game, and while there is a slight tendency toward officially sanctioned blandness, they are still well worth a listen.

The disc is part of a series entitled ‘Wartime Music 1941-1945’. The 5th Symphony only partly fulfils these criteria, as its composition occupied the composer for the entire decade 1940-1950. The whole work is completely tonal, of course, but it is quite a roller coaster, two quite lyrical movements, the first and third, are all elegant woodwind solos and calm string passages, while the second and fourth are in a more dramatic/heroic mould. The stylistic influences and constraints on this music are quite difficult to pin down. The Socialist realism policies of the Soviet Union led to music emulating the styles of the Russian late Romantics. While this was anachronistic for composers of Shostakovich’s generation, Scherbachov was older and had come to musical maturity in the pre-Revolutionary times of Rimsky-Korsakov and Taneyev. And certainly listening to this music, it is clear that it is the work of a composer, like Gliere and Myaskovsky, for whom officially sanctioned symphonic discourse implied a continuity with earlier times. You’ll hear more of Borodin or Rimsky-Korsakov in this music than you will of Shostakovich.

It has a curious structure, effectively a clam prelude followed by a more symphonic three movement form. The orchestration in the quieter sections is imaginative. For example, it opens with a bassoon solo; plenty of Russian precedents for that, but this is much more Boris Godunov than it is Rite of Spring. Solo violin is another strong presence, not quite as strong as in Scheherazade but it’s that sort of thing. In the third movement Lento, Scherbachov has the strings run up and down the harmonics, one effect that must surely have come from Stravinsky. The louder music is in a more martial vein, and is therefore more ‘official’ and less interesting. It is still richly textured music though, and displays a similarly keen ear for fresh orchestral colour.

‘The Tobacco Captain’ so far as I can tell from the very poorly translated liner notes, is an operetta that Scherbachov undertook to satisfy his under-indulged tasted for musical comedy. This suite is very much incidental music, atmosphere and colour but little drama or form. Again, though, this is music that is both skilfully crafted and excellently orchestrated. There are plenty more elegant woodwind solos here, some civilised chamber ensembles, a few dance movements, and a regulation stirring finale.

The performance standards and sound quality are both to a high standard. Every section of the orchestra acquits themselves well, and special mention should go to the woodwind soloists. Alexander Titov is a familiar name in the West, so it is interesting to hear an example of what he gets up to when on home turf. He finds the necessary drama in the score of the symphony to give it the impact it needs. Conversely, he is able to keep the suite light and concentrate on the individual colours and textures to provide the maximum variety and maintain the interest.

A fine recording then, and an excellent introduction to the work of Vladimir Scherbachov. Just one final thought, though, about the series ‘Wartime Music 1941-1945’. Wartime music from any country is invariably going to be infused with nationalist propaganda, an issue that is particularly significant in the case of the Soviet Union. So why dedicate a recording series to it now? I notice that this disc was made with the support of St Petersburg’s Government, and while state funding remains the norm in Russia, it does raise a few questions about political motivations given the current situation in the country. Perhaps it is just as well not to worry too much about it though; in the long run this disc is going to have a more significant effect on the international reputation of Sherbachov than it is on the rehabilitation of Stalin.

Gavin Dixon 2010

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