SHOSTAKOVICH: The Execution of Stepan Razin, Op. 119. October, Op. 131. Five Fragments, Op. 42.
Charles Robert Austin, bass-baritone; Seattle Symphony Chorale; Seattle Symphony Orch/Gerard Schwarz, cond.
NAXOS 8557812 (B) TT: 52:22

KABALEVSKY: Piano Concerto No. 1, Op. 9. Piano Concerto No. 2, Op. 23.
In-Ju Bang, pianist; Russian Philharmonic Orch/Dmitry Yablonsky, cond.
NAXOS 8557683 (B) TT: 56:01

FOERSTER: Festive Overture, Op. 70. My Youth, Op. 44 (symphonic poem). Symphony No. 4 "Easter Eve."
Slovak Radio Symphony Och/Lance Friedel, cond.
NAXOS 8557776 (B) TT: 72:33

From east of the Alps, Naxos has two clear winners out of three new releases — music by Shostakovich and Josef Bohuslav Foerster (1859-1951) – not that the third (piano concertos by Dmitry Kabalevsky) is negligble, but musically those are either conventional or imitative despite the composer’s proficiency. The prize is Gerard Schwarz’s enkindling leadership of The Execution of Stepan Razin, a cantata composed in 1964 to the grisly poem about a 17th-century revolutionary by Yevgeni Yevtuschenko, whose scandalous “Babij Yar” Shostakovich had dared to set to music as his 13th Symphony two years earlier. (Because the poet blamed Soviet troops rather than the Nazis for the mass execution of Polish Jews at Babij Yar, a shocked party hierarchy insisted the text be modified after the first performance in 1962, and banned further performances within the USSR for three years after, by which time, however, it had become a cause célébre throughout the western world.) Whereas much of “Babij Yar” was wryly muted, Stepan Razin is as bloodthirsty a score – and a masterwork – as anything Shostakovich had written since the massacre music in his Eleventh (The Year of 1905) Symphony. It was as if he dared the apparatchiks who censored “Babij Yar” to attack again. Scored for chorus, orchestra and bass-baritone soloist (Charles Robert Austin may not be Russian but sings heroically), Schwarz’s Seattle forces rise to the occasion with a passion surpassing their other Shostakovich performances for not-quite-defunct Delos or more recently Naxos. The irony is that Stepan Razin was performed and superbly recorded 10 years ago, during June 1996, in the Opera House that sonically compromised concerts but was an outstanding recording chamber when Adam Stern was the producer; the sound yields nothing to the Mark Taper Auditorium in Benaroya Hall where October was recorded in 2000 (again with Stern producing). This late work commemorating the golden jubilee of the 1917 Revolution, is hardly less grim than Stenka Razin, apart from a celebratory coda that Shostakovich, because he was a great composer, managed to muster for the occasion without debilitating what had gone before. The Five Fragments, a Taper/Benaroya production from 2005, was test material for the Fourth Symphony (finished in 1935-36 but not performed for a quarter of a century) — piquant music of substance and fantasy in spite of its brevity (1:21; 1:02; 3:48; 2:51, and 1:33). But Stalin meanwhile had heard and hated Lady Macbeth from the District of Mszensk, and a historic damnation of it and its composer on the front page of Pravda made Shostakovich fearful for his life. Both Rostropovich and Mark Elder have recorded the Fragments, although hardly better than Schwarz and his players, but there is not currently an alternative version of October, not that there needs to be. This one is gritty in the best sense – a genuine centennial tribute to the composer’s memory, and his genius.

Kabalevsky was born two years before Shostakovich and likewise studied with Myaskovsky among others, but he was the Good Boy, the Rollo, among Soviet composers: not once publicly reprimanded for deserting the party line, not even in Zhdanov’s denunciation of Shostakovich and Prokofiev among others in 1948. He composed solo works, concertos and symphonies during his lifespan of 83 years, and was celebrated as a teacher in later decades. His two best-known works in the west are the Overture to Colas Breugnon (a favorite of Toscanini and Reiner) and The Comedians, a lightweight suite of which Arthur Fiedler and his Boston “Pops” audiences were especially fond. The piano concertos were more conventional stuff for their time – No 1, written when Kabalevsky was 24, echoes Rachmaninov without comparable tunes, while No. 2 (1935, revised in 1972) is a virtual homage to Prokofiev’s Soviet-style sauciness (meaning easy on the hot sauce). In-Ju Bang, a prodigiously gifted Korean who was just 14 when she recorded these in 2004 – the year she won the gold medal in conductor Yablonsky’s Puigcerda Festival on the French-Spanish border, founded in 1998. Her program bio says that Bang (who doesn’t, although she can produce a formidable sonority) is studying this year at The Juilliard School. Yablonsky, whose mother (Oxana Yablonskaya) was a widely-praised pianist, and whose father was the Moscow Radio-TV Orchestra’s principal oboist, began his musical career as a cellist but started conducting in 1990, and by 1999 was appointed principal guest conductor of the Moscow Symphony. Three years later he was named Principal Conductor of the Russian Philharmonic (which raided several Russian orchestras for their best players), and obviously knows his business. At age 44, he deserves the kind of podium career other former-cellists have enjoyed, and Naxos has been making the most of him. The Russian State recording studio handles both dynamics and tonal extremes from top to bottom creditably. Given the brevity of this program, it’s a pity Kabalevsky’s Fourth Piano Concerto couldn’t have been squeezed in (although arguably Ms. Bang has yet to learn it). Verdict: For piano lovers who like their 20th-century music mellow.

Given the reputation of Josef Bohuslav Foerster (born in 1859, a year before his friend and fellow-Bohemian Mahler, whom he outlived by 40 years) in what used to be Czechoslovakia before the schism that produced two nations, his state-side reputation on discs has been inexplicably negligible. Although he composed five operas, five symphonies, four masses, Czech-flavored tone poems, a cello concerto and assorted chamber works, there have been only three recordings – including this new one – of his acknowledged masterpiece for orchestra, the “Easter Eve” Fourth Symphony, premiered in 1905. Rafael Kubelik made the first one in 1948; the other was a clog-footed version by Vaclav Smetacek, a willing collaborator with whatever regime occupied Czechoslovakia. It is a work that Kubelik took 49 minutes to interpret, two more than Lance Friedel on Naxos who plays it and the two shorter companion pieces with a fervor matched in his excellent program note. All three works, despite Foerster’s longevity, are fin de siécle; the newest is the 1907 Festive Overture composed for the opening of a theater in Prague; the oldest, and arguably the loveliest melodically as well as temperamentally, is My Youth (Mé Mládi) written soon after his move to Vienna in 1903 for the next 15 years at Mahler’s invitation. It suggests a charmed childhood and, were it not for Foerster’s prior date of composition, a Bohemian cousin of Richard Strauss’ Rosenkavalier. However, the symphony was a grander undertaking, philosophically and religiously as well as musically. Far from Strauss (although not, perhaps, Dvorak in the subject matter and scoring of the scherzo, marked Allegro deciso), it is in the structural and spiritual thrall of Bruckner, most notably the Fifth Symphony. An Easter hymn among its themes is played on a distant church organ, which leads to a mightily proclamative coda in the home key of C major. The playing of the Slovak Radio Symphony at Bratislava is especially beguiling in My Youth, although for maximum effect the “Easter Eve” Symphony needs a Czech or Vienna Philharmonic – a full instrumental panoply which the SRS simply hasn’t the resources to match – nor is the recording quite open and full-blooded, although a paragon of clarity. For all that, Friedel continues to impress as he did in MSR Classics' recent collection of tone poems and the Aladdin Suite of Carl Nielsen. With Yablonsky, Friedel and Schwarz on the roster, Naxos may be proud of its talent-scouting, leaving us anxious for more. Congratulations all around.

R.D. (May 2006)