Excellent performances of questionable music…with one exception.

SHOSTAKOVICH: The Execution of Stepan Razin; The Sun Shines Over Our Motherland; The Song of the Forests – Alexi Tanovitski, bass/ Konstantin Andreyev, tenor/ Narva Boys Choir/ Estonian Concert Choir/ Estonian Nat. Sym. Orch./ Paavo Jarvi – Warner Classics 0825646166664, 79:52 [Distr. by Naxos] ***1/2:

The Execution of Stepan Razin is a masterpiece. Composed to a libretto by Yevgeny Yevtushenko in 1964, the composition considers Stepan Razin, a Cossack leader who headed a major uprising (1670–71) against the nobility in southern Russia. The piece is pure later Shostakovich, wonderful melodies and brilliant harmonies that are striking and dramatic. Of the three works here, it is by far the less egregious politically—unless you are a Tsarist.

The other two works, considered important by conductor Jarvi, who supposedly had to hire bodyguards when giving these works in Estonia four years ago, so sensitive is the subject, are far less important, and quite frankly, rather banal, especially when taken in the light of the composer’s greatest works. Both were the result of an official slap down, the response of the composer to “just criticism”, and both had their intended effects. [No wonder the Baltic states hate the Russians…Ed.] The Song of the Forests, celebrating Stalin’s reforestation project, is to a poem by “official” poet Yevgeniy Dolmatovsky, as is The Sun Shines Over Our Motherland. The former allegedly caused the composer to weep after the performance, tears that must have subsided when the next year brought him a First Class Stalin Award, and 100,000 rubles. The Nineteenth Congress of the Communist Party was the recipient of the composer’s dedication of The Sun Shines, an icon of spasmodic opportunism that convinced even the morons at Pravda to laud its “energetic, revolutionary spirit.”

The music in both is simpler, very folk-like and redolent of the nineteenth century, and in my opinion, not worth the paper it is written on. But this recording does a slight service in presenting them both in fine performances that do document the composer’s efforts to live free and create, and they did allow him that favor. But for posterity’s sake, these are both about as insignificant musically as anything he ever wrote. But Razin is worthwhile, given an explosive reading here of great nuance, though I understand if someone would rather search out a recording of it only. As is, worthwhile for one musical and two historical reasons, so you make the call. Performances are exemplary, as is the sound.

—Steven Ritter