Leo Botstein conducting the London Symphony Orchestra
Gavriil Popov was until very recently a minor footnote in Russian musical history. Like his contemporaries Prokofiev and Shostakovich, he had the bad fortune of being condemned by Soviet authorities for writing “formalist” works; but unlike them he never established an international reputation. His ambitious Symphony No. 1 was completed in 1934 when he was 30, premiered the next year, banned the very next day for reflecting “the ideology of classes hostile to us,” briefly reconsidered by the authorities, then again denounced and never heard again in his lifetime. (Shostakovich's Fourth Symphony, arguably influenced by Popov's First and premiered just months after it, met a similar fate.) Popov died in 1972, having composed six symphonies and numerous choral works and film scores. The First was finally performed and recorded more than once during the glasnost years, and has now been championed by the indefatigable Leon Botstein, who gave the work its American premiere with the American Symphony, and in 2004 recorded it with the London Symphony, adding as a generous supplement a 16-minute work from Shostakovich's student days.
I've listened to the Popov Symphony about a dozen times in a 3-week period, and must confess to remaining puzzled about the work. Its musical idiom, though “advanced” for its time, is not more so than, say, Prokofiev's Second Symphony or Shostakovich's Fourth, and considerably less so than the mature works of Schoenberg or Berg. It is sprawling and epic, each of the three movements complex in structure, its large orchestra used for colorful and sometimes overwhelming effects — all good things, as far as I am concerned. It has moments that sound like Scriabin or Prokofiev or Shostakovich — or Mahler, who deeply influenced Shostakovich as well. But having played it so repeatedly, I'm beginning to feel like the character in Memento who constantly discovers his tattoos and Polaroids as if for the first time: except for certain memorable passages (including the opening brief outburst), the piece always sounds like an interesting work I'm hearing for the first time. (At least it never seems banal.) In contrast, Shostakovich's Fourth and Prokofiev's Third (to say nothing of their most celebrated works) have always been haunting, unforgettable, thrilling works to me. (Would this be the case if I didn't know another note by those composers and so couldn't latch on to their familiar, unique voices? Or if I hadn't heard great live performances? Who can say?) None of this is a criticism of the Popov — just an expression of personal doubt that this work has the level of inspiration needed to make it a welcome addition to the international repertoire rather than an important footnote.
According to David Fanning's CD booklet, Popov dedicated his First Symphony to his father, “a worker and fighter on the front of proletarian culture,” and intended it to be “about 1) struggle and failure, 2) humanity, 3) the energy, will and joy of the victor's work.” If this is a movement-by-movement program, the first certainly conveys a sense of struggle in its various agitato sections, with passages of despondency as well. Nearly as long as the other movements combined, this allegro energetico — more edgy than energetic — is certainly filled with sweeping drama, startling contrasts and what might be called a tragic outburst at 5'19”, with a downward arc in melody and sustained high trills in the winds: this is, in fact, one of the passages that has stayed in my memory since the first hearing. (Another is a Shostakovichian swirl at 11'58”.). The slow movement, a largo con moto e molto cantabile, could be a sort of dazed elegy for struggling humanity, with a delicate, lyrical opening and closing, and considerable agitation in between. The finale (Scherzo e coda. Prestissimo) has plenty of “energy” and “will” — i.e., drive — in strident pages that again recall Shostakovich (unless the latter is being “Popovian” in many a famed passage); but perhaps there is little “joy” until the Scriabinesque final pages.
Shostakovich's Theme and Variations was completed by the time he was 16, and doesn't have the distinctive originality of his First Symphony (which remains one of the most astonishing works by a 19-year-old ever written). Its 16.5 minutes include the theme, eleven variations, and an allegro Finale that includes a brief adagio and a presto “Coda.” The theme and first few variations are gracefully reminiscent of Brahms — we seem to be in the world of the latter's Haydn Variations, with perhaps a little of the flavor of Tchaikovsky's Mozartiana. The later variations are more unusual, with the tarantella Ninth and the tricky quintuple-meter Tenth, while the Finale has a Russian swagger with again echoes of Brahms. Botstein and the LSO play the work with all the delicacy and festivity one could want, just as they provide a fierce reading of the Popov Symphony. The Telarc sound is absolutely superb, with sensational clarity and overwhelming climaxes.