A little over a month ago, Naxos released the final (eleventh) volume in the collection of the complete symphonies of Dmitri Shostakovich, performed by Vasily Petrenko conducting the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra. This is a single CD of a single symphony, Opus 113 in B-flat minor, the thirteenth of the composer’s fifteen symphonies. Each movement of the symphony is a setting of a poem by Yevgeny Yevtushenko, the first of which is his most famous poem, “Babi Yar.” Because of the familiarity of that poem, the symphony is also often known as the “Babi Yar” symphony.
Shostakovich composed Opus 113 in 1962, the year after Yevtushenko wrote “Babi Yar.” It is named for the site of a series of the bloody Nazi massacres on Soviet soil. Over the course of just one of those operations, lasting between September 29 and September 30 in 1941, 33,771 Jewish men, women, and children were killed, Yevtushenko, who is not Jewish, wrote his poem to protest the refusal of Soviet authorities to recognize the site as a Holocaust memorial.
On the surface it would appear that Yevtushenko was less circumspect about Soviet criticism and how that criticism would be enforced than Shostakovich learned to be in the decade preceding the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union. Other Russian poets, such as Joseph Brodsky, would later argue that any criticisms that Yevtushenko voiced through his poems were actually approved by the Communist Party. Perhaps Shostakovich felt that working with Yevtushenko’s texts would be viewed as “safe.” (Shostakovich had only jointed the Party in 1960.) Things were not quite as safe as Shostakovich may have expected, though. After the premiere performance of the symphony, Yevtushenko was forced to add a stanza to the poem stating that Russians and Ukrainians died alongside Jews during the Babi Yar massacres. On the other hand Shostakovich was not forced to change his symphony’s first movement to accommodate the added text.
One might argue that Opus 113, scored for bass solo and male chorus, as well as full orchestra, is more of a cantata than an symphony. However, the work follows Shostakovich’s preference for a five-movement structure that we find in the symphonies; and the second movement, setting Yevtushenko’s poem “Humour,” is definitely a scherzo. It is also rich with irony, since the basic argument is that jokes can never successfully be suppressed by authority. The remaining movements, on the other hand, are all darker in nature, including the final Allegretto ironic setting of “A Career.” This is about a contemporary of Galileo, who was smart enough to appreciate Galileo’s argument against prevailing heliocentric thinking but was also smart enough to keep his mouth shut.
As with all of the other recordings, Petrenko conducts this symphony with aggressively bold strokes. This is as stirring an account as one finds in the very first recording in the set, the Opus 103 symphony (the eleventh), depicting the onset of the failed Russian Revolution of 1905. Vocally, Alexander Vinogradov has that same solid bass voice that brought strength to the tenth volume in Petrenko’s cycle, Opus 135, the fourteenth symphony, which is basically a symphonic song cycle based on poems about mortality and premature death. This time, however, his deep bass tones are impressively reinforced by the combined male forces of the Huddersfield Choral Society and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Choir.
Taken as a whole, the entire collection stands as an impressive approach to the interpretation of Shostakovich’s instrumental music, with each of the symphonies providing its own distinctive contribution to a biographical profile of the composer.