SVIRIDOV: Poem in Memory of Sergei Esenin; Five Choruses to Lyrics by Russian Poets; Music for Chamber Orchestra; Pathetic Oratorio Time, Forwardt (Filmscore)

SVIRIDOV: Poem in Memory of Sergei Esenin; Five Choruses to Lyrics by Russian Poets. A. Maslennikov, tenor; Yuri Temirkanov conducting the Yurlov Russian Choir and Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra; Vladislav Chernushenko conducting Leningrad Glinka Choir. MELODIYA SUCD 10-00215 [ADD]; 67:11. Distributed by Koch International.

SVIRIDOV: Music for Chamber Orchestra; Pathetic Oratorio Time, Forwardt(Filmscore). Rudolf Barshai conducting the Moscow Chamber Orchestral; Nina Isakova, mezzo-soprano; Alexander Vedernikov, bass; Kiril Kondrashin conductingthe Russian Chamber Choir and Moscow Philharmonic Orchestral; Vladimir Fedoseyev conducting the USSR TV and Radio Large Symphony Orchestra. MELODIYA SUCD 10-00232 [AAD]; 67:41. Distributed by Koch International.

Georgi Sviridov (1915-1998), an early student of Shostakovich, belongs to that group that might nostalgically be called “Soviet” composers. Most of his work comprises choral and vocal music and displays a typically Russian nationalistic robustness, overlaid at times by a martial ferocity. Louis Blois, in an article published in Kastlemusick called “The Music of Georgi Sviridov,” (February, 1983), characterized him as a “modern-day visionary of Russian folklore.” At its best, Sviridov’s music exhibits an epic power and sweeping grandeur. At its worst, it can rattle with numbing, vacuous bombast.

Each of these two CDs reissues material originally recorded between 1965 and 1982 on Melodiya. The content of these reissues varies in quality, but there is enough of’ distinction and interest on each to merit consideration by the listener receptive to Russian nationalism and/or Soviet musical idealism. Before hitting the nationalist point too hard I should note that one of the most outstanding of these pieces, Music for Chamber Orchestra, exhibits very little overtly Russian or Soviet flavor. Scored for strings, piano, and French horn, it is a strong three-movement work that exemplifies a harmonically conservative lyrico-dramatic classicism. Composed in 1 964, Music offers some striking thematic material, an unusual forma design, and attractive instrumental textures.

Poem in Memory of Sergei Esenin is Sviridov’s earliest major work, and its success elevated his reputation among his colleagues. Professor Blois considers the work to be Sviridov’s masterpiece and, on the basis of what I have heard, I would have to agree. It was composed in 1955-56, shortly after the peasant romanticism of Esenin  (1895-1925) was brought to light. Blois writes that these settings display an “uncanny freshness and intensity in view of their diatonic adherence and typically Russian harmonies.” Scored for tenor, mixed chorus and orchestra, the Poem is a powerfully epic work of more than 30 minutes duration that, like the Music for Chamber Orchestra, strikingly indicates a creative talent too strong to be overlooked. A special bonus on this CD reissue is a nine-minute spoken commentary, newly recorded, on the Esenin work (in Russian) by the composer himself. Tenor Maslennikov projects the solo role with a rather stentorian, yet tasteful, musicianship, within the expected stylistic parameters.

The Pathetic Oratorio, composed only a few years after the Esenin settings, is a somewhat less successful work. It is based on the poetry of the Soviet i dealist Vladimir Sviridov Mayakovsky, although the absence of texts or translations makes it difficult for the non-Russian-speaking listener to know much about the work’s poetic meaning (including the significance of the title — curious, in view of the fact that the oratorio is drawn largely from a poem identified as, “It’s Fine”). The settings consist of solo declamation, recitative, and arioso in the folk style, with choral/orchestral elaboration. Some of the music is convincingly stirring, in the familiar Soviet manner, but much is martial and bombastic.

Five Songs to Lyrics by Russian Poets, also composed during the late 1950s and scored for chorus a capella, is much more sensitive and subdued. The chorus captures the typically soulful, Russian melos with impressive refinement.

The filmscore Time, Forward! pulls out all the stops. Provided for a 1962 film directed by Mikhail Shveitser about which I know nothing, the music clearly reveals its accompanimental origins by its generally athematic, repetitious, nondevelonmental construction. Brilliantly scored, some of the music is quite exciting, but much is blatant bombast in the manner of Khachaturian. The concluding segment even seems to display the influence of Mancini-style filmscore ,jazz. The program notes state that this section joins “impetuosity and power and can really be a symbol of our time” (sic).

Unfortunately, the production values of these two reissues at least as regards printed material — are pretty dismal. As noted earlier, there are no texts for the vocal works, and program notes are disgracefully skimpy, uninformative, and fatuous, as has been typical of Melodiya. Sound quality is pretty good, though.