GAVRIIL POPOV: Chamber Symphony (Septet) for flute, clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, violin, cello, and double bass; Symphony No. 1 – St. Petersburg Orch./ Alexander Titov – Northern Flowers

by | Jan 25, 2012 | Classical Reissue Reviews

GAVRIIL POPOV: Chamber Symphony (Septet) for flute, clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, violin, cello, and double bass, Op. 2; Symphony No. 1 , Op. 7 – Natalia Danilina, flute/ Oleg Tchastikov, clarinet/ Andrei Simonov, bassoon/ Mikhail Druzhinin, trumpet/ Natalia Malkova, violin/ Julia Molchanova, cello/ St. Petersburg State Academic Symphony Orchestra/ Alexander Titov – Northern Flowers NF/PMA 9996, 73:33 [Distr. by Albany] ***1/2:
It’s very good to have Popov’s Septet back in the catalog, especially in as well-played and coordinated a performance as the one here. I say “well coordinated” because the Septet must not be an easy piece to get entirely right. It includes layers of contrapuntal writing and rhythms that, in their ragged irregularity, often work against synchronicity.
The Septet, produced as a “graduation paper” while Popov was still a student at the Leningrad Conservatory, established him as one of the leading figures among the Soviet avant-garde, along with Alexander Mosolov, Nikolai Roslavets, and others, including Popov’s friend and fellow conservatory student Dmitri Shostakovich. The early careers of Popov and Shostakovich mirror one another. Shostakovich’s remarkably precocious First Symphony appeared the same year (1926) as Popov’s Septet and had the same impact on listeners and critics. Both composers were guaranteed an audience after this initial success, Shostakovich launching his next two highly experimental symphonies and Popov following up with his critically acclaimed Grand Suite for Piano, Op. 6.
Popov began work on his First Symphony the year after the Septet appeared, working on it for seven years. But by the time the work appeared, a vast change had taken place in Soviet musical circles. The frenetic Expressionism favored by 1920s Russian composers had been replaced by a new model, Social Realism, and there were powerful groups in place to enforce compositional orthodoxy. Popov’s symphony underwent peer review and revision before it was premiered on March 22, 1935. The next day, the Leningrad Agency for Control over Performances lashed out at the work: “performances of the symphony as conveying the ideology of classes hostile to us is intolerable.” The symphony was banned from performance in the Soviet Union, which meant that it was not heard in or outside Russia until fairly recently.
Already in hot water over Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, which was denounced by Pravda and subsequently banished from performance, Shostakovich wisely withdrew his incendiary Fourth Symphony from rehearsals, fearing the same kind of backlash that Popov had received for his First. After that, however, the two careers diverged: Shostakovich was able to rehabilitate himself with his Fifth Symphony while still maintaining his artist integrity; though he would live in fear for much of his life and though he’d run afoul of the Soviet authorities again, he was a survivor. Popov, on the other hand, managed to rehabilitate himself only through acquiescence to musical orthodoxy.
As late as 1935, he planned his Second Symphony to be another assault on such orthodoxy. In his diary, he wrote, “With the second Symphony I want to tear apart the banality of the public musical taste, to thunder with a frantic power and passion. . . .” The Second Symphony he actually produced in 1943 is of quite a different character. Bearing the subtitle “Motherland,” it’s a typical paean to the spirit of the Russian people in time of war, and for the “colossal roar of challenging piercing thought,” Popov substitutes folk melodies and stock nationalistic sentiments. And so it would go for the rest of Popov’s career.
There is, however, unbridled power in the First Symphony and interestingly, a program that should have satisfied Soviet authorities. In a diary entry from 1930, Popov wrote that he dedicated the work to his father, “toiler and fighter of the proletarian culture front,” the symphony being “about I) struggle and failures, II) humanity, III) energy, will and joy of the labor of the winner.” I’m guessing the Leningrad Agency for Control over Performances heard as little of this program in the music as I hear. Instead, I hear a kind of relentless spikiness in the first movement, a spooky desolation in the second, and a wild sardonic playfulness and manic energy in the last that bring it close in spirit to the machine-inspired futurism of 20s music such as Prokofiev’s Second Symphony or Pas d’acier. Not the way to make friends and influence people in the Russia of 1935.
While some of the same harmonic restlessness, sardonic wit, and frenetic energy inform the Septet, it strikes me as a more disciplined work, maybe because it’s a student composition. There’s more of classical balance in its four traditionally arranged movements, including a tightly-argued, polyphonically complex sonata-form finale that manages to repeat themes from the foregoing movements, all in a tidy seven-minute package. An early critic of the work, one B. V. Asafiev, found the piece “closest to Hindemith. . .in his chamber-symphonic dynamics.” I hear echoes of Paris rather than Berlin here; the languid air of the first movement recalls Honegger or Milhaud more than Hindemith, and subsequent passages remind me of the wind writing in Stravinsky’s Octet (debuted in Paris in 1923). I’m not sure how aware Popov was of musical goings-on in France, but this is what I hear. As I mentioned before, the current performance seems to be on top of all the complexities that Popov hatches and captures the electric energy of Popov’s writing.
In the symphony, the St. Petersburg State Academic Symphony Orchestra plays with more enthusiasm than polish though the performance is stronger than in the Popov Third Symphony that I reviewed earlier. The strings are the weakest link, and they’re occasionally taxed just about to the limit. But along with this occasional untidiness there is also gusto, even abandon, that the more polished performance by Leon Botstein and the LSO on Telarc doesn’t quite match. Telarc’s recording is more cultured as well, though the sound Northern Flowers provides is a real improvement over that of earlier installments in this series. I would say if your chief interest is in Popov’s symphony, Botstein is your man despite his inclusion of a less-than-inspired early work by Shostakovich. But given the fine performance of the very fine Septet on the current disc, I think both recordings are fairly indispensible for those who want to hear what this composer has to offer.
—Lee Passarella

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