TISCHENKO: Yaroslavna, Op. 58 (1974). Symphony No. 3, Op. 36 (1967).
Symphony Orchestra and Choir of Leningrad Maly (Mussorgsky) Opera and Ballet Theater/Alexander Dmitriev; Kirov Opera and Ballet Chamber Orchestra/Igor Blazhkov.
Northern Flowers NF/PMA 9931/9932 (2 disks) (F) (DDD) TT: 120:57

Socialist Realism goes trendy. Russian composers under the Soviet czars generally found themselves in awkward and even dangerous situations. They were largely cut off from Western Modernism, except for brief periods of "thaw." For the hacks, this posed little hardship. Nevertheless, any risk seemed to involve considerable political risk. The infamous Zhdanov decree denounced the greatest artists in the country, including Prokofiev, Shostakovich, and Khachaturian. Weinberg's father-in-law was murdered by the secret police. Khrennikov continued the idiocy against such lights as Gubaidulina, Denisov, Firsova, and Suslin. The government committed all of this in the name of Socialist Realism, a doctrine so ill-defined, one never knew whether one had violated its tenets until after the fact. It was less an aesthetic principle than a political tool. Despite the tons of blather dumped in the Soviet press, the only consistent point remains that music should be based on popular or folklorist sources. Even then, a party lickspittle could get into trouble simply by picking the "wrong" subject, as happened to one Vano Muradeli sent into a twenty-year internal exile for writing an opera about Stalin's "Greatest Friend," Grigoriy Ordzhonikidze. According to Galina Vishnevskaya, the poor schnook had no idea that Stalin had liquidated the GF and didn't like reminders of the fact.

Composers reacted to the situation in various ways. Some wrote mainly for themselves, with no hope for publication. Others did their own thing and damn the consequences: they usually wound up in internal exile or absolutely denied musical work. Some, like Prokofiev and Shostakovich, tried to walk the tightrope, stumbling occasionally, but hoping for "rehabilitation." Most wrote as best they could to the expectations of their employers and held their breaths.

Boris Tischenko (born 1939) studied with, among others, Galina Ustvolskaya and Shostakovich. The latter held him in some esteem. You can hear late Shostakovich, Ustvolskaya, and even Prokofiev in Tischenko's work. However, there's a strong folklore base. Nevertheless, Tischenko's incorporation of Western devices and techniques from the Sixties and Seventies interests me the most. It's usually "extra" or a surface jolt on an essentially conservative idiom, like a Rolling Stones logo pinned to a tux or the white adult who appropriates hip-hop slang to appear "with it." But despite the surface, the music really takes an older viewpoint. It is less an exploration than Shostakovich, let alone Ustvolskaya, of new horizons.

Still, no one but a polemicist commands, "Thou shalt be progressive." Giving Tischenko points or taking them away solely on the basis of this or that device makes as much sense as buying a car for its paint color. How well does the music succeed on its own terms?

Yaroslava, a ninety-minute three-act ballet, tells the main story of the Song of Igor's Campaign -- a mixture of the Song of Roland and the Odyssey -- also the basis of Borodin's Prince Igor. Tischenko's take on the story differs from Borodin's portrait of gallant heroism. Igor, against the advice of his beloved Yaroslava and other level heads and despite bad omens, decides to fight the Polovtsi. He wins his first battle against a smaller force. In the second battle, however, the Polovtsi kill all his men and take him prisoner. He escapes and returns to his city, chastened. Tischenko gets a lot of credit for unusual (and successful) orchestral textures. He uses the chorus to tremendous effect. Shostakovich adored this ballet and saw its initial production three times. There's a powerful sequence in the third act that describes the second battle, and the finale -- a chorale that seems to pray over the fields of the dead -- manages to be bleak, human, and sane all at once. The music clearly describes the action. Yet there's an awful lot of padding, whether for the demands of the choreographer or not, as well as an over-reliance on solo instrumental recitative. This would probably have made a better film score.

The earlier Symphony No. 3 shows the ballet's strengths and weaknesses in more concentrated form. Novel textures, unusual ideas, and fundamental seriousness of purpose abound. Lacking a plot, nevertheless, the music seems to have been composed to a program, although program implies a story. A succession of pictures is more like it. Tischenko tends to describe rather than to narrate. One feels very little narrative (or even general forward) impulse in this music, in spite of the strains and stresses of a lot of notes and some compelling moments. It's as if an athlete has jerked and pressed a very heavy weight above his head and then put it back down exactly where he found it. The whole thing, despite its wanderings, seems static. I look in vain for a symphonic argument or even the sense of journey and transformation.

The sound, from the composer's tapes of the mid-Seventies, is surprisingly good, if a little bright and in-your-face. The performers serve the music with commitment.

S.G.S. (April 2007)