PROKOFIEV: Cantata for the Twentieth Anniversary of the Russian Revolution, Op. 74; SHOSTAKOVICH: The Sun Shines over our Motherland, Op. 90 – RSFSR Russian Chorus/Boys Choir of Moscow Choir School/Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra/Kirill Kondrashin – Melodiya/HDTT HDCD229, 43:30 ***:
Serge Prokofiev had been deeply engrossed in the writings of Vladimir Lenin when the All-Union Radio Committee approached him with the idea of a patriotic cantata, one that might incorporate “Revolutionary texts.” The germs of the idea began in 1934, but Prokofiev undertook the main body of the ten-movement work in 1936-1937. Prokofiev repressed the score, however, and it did not receive its premier until 5 May 1966 under Kondrashin. The sheer number of forces involved–which can easily involve up to 500 musicians–suggests another reason for the rarity of this colossus. The musical fecundity of Prokofiev’s style–with clear analogies to Alexandre Nevsky and to the G Minor Violin Concerto–mark the piece as an inspired rather than a merely propagandist vehicle. For the prologue or Introduction, Prokofiev utilizes the phrase “A specter is haunting Europe,” the first sentence from Marx and Engels’ Communist Manifesto. The 1966 recording by Kirill Kondrashin omits two movements–Stalin’s Oath and The Constitution–movements no longer “politically correct” during the period of anti-Stalin reaction, since the Soviet government wished to detach itself from his crimes.
After the Introduction, the dense music and inflammatory texts trace the philosophical seeds of the October Revolution through its various means of political realization and political action. Prokofiev incorporates various masses of sound–including an accordion orchestra–from the folk as well as the classical-concert world to embrace the total will of the people. “We choose to fight and do not seek appeasement” becomes the rallying cry of section four, “We March Closely Together.” The battle scene emerges with terrific force, imitating the sounds of gunfire and the inflamed spirit of the people: “We shall take bread and shoes from the capitalists. . . .We must mobilize and arm the workers.” A frightful peasant dance emerges from the tumult and pandemonium of war and slaughter, a dizzy dance of death and celebration, the voice of Lenin megaphoned over rattling machine gun fire and sirens, Socialist Realism at its most ardent. The throes of revolt clearly hearken to Tybalt’s Death from Romeo and Juliet, then the atmosphere clears with the sense of Victory: “Comrades, spring is coming. . .the ice is broken in all corner of the earth.” A Symphony–Allegro energico–ensues in the manner of scherzo that embodies the ecstatic affirmation of the Revolution’s aims. The cantata ends with a reprise of Philosophers of movement two, an assertion of the difference between those men who dream of a better world and those who bring such change to ecstatic fruition. That much of this music Prokofiev meant as satire escaped the Soviet censors, but its extraordinary sonority appeals to Kondrashin, who controls all his forces with ripe dignity.
Dimitri Shostakovich can hardly be called a “defender” or “apologist” for Soviet Communism, but he did compose his cantata, The Sun shines over our Motherland–after the poem by Yevgeny Dolmatovsky–in 1952, when the Russians were celebrating the 35th anniversary of the October Revolution. The scoring has an airy woodwind character that makes it kin to The Song of the Forests. It opens with a boys’ chorus to establish political innocence. Nevertheless, the squalid post-1948 political atmosphere–which promised more repressions for creative artists–made any “patriotic” project unpalatable for Shostakovich, and many find his twelve-minute cantata bland, to say the least. The sun becomes the dominant metaphor of the “philosophical light” of Soviet Communism that had led Russia away from the capitalist darkness. The men’s chorus and mixed chorus sings of the struggles of the past, and the subsequent battles and the hard work of the People for “the splendid life” of Russia in the bounteous rays of Nature. “We have become wealthy and strong beneath the sun of freedom.” A majestic hymn announces spiritual victory, but hindsight and the composer’s own Testimony impose a hollow sound on an otherwise resonant series of patriotic declamations.
Note: HDTT does not supply recording information, and the banding of the tracks runs contrary to the liner notes: 1-7 Prokofiev; 8-Shostakovich. No individual timings for the Prokofiev movements are provided. The sound does hammer us with audiophile fidelity.
[Surprising, since since nearly all the Russian-made pre-Peristroika recordings sounded pretty awful…Ed.]
— Gary Lemco
The historic restorations show a renewed vitality.