SHOSTAKOVICH:  Symphony No. 6, Op. 54.  The Execution of Stepan Razin, Op. 119.
Anatoloy Lochak, bass; Russian State Symphonic Capella; Russian State Symphony Orch/Valeri Polyanski, cond.

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It's been at least two years since I reviewed RCA/BMG's issue of this symphony (coupled with No. 1 and the Festive Overture), recorded in 1996 by Yuri Temirkanov and the Saint Petersburg (formerly Leningrad) Philharmonic in the Great Hall on the Neva. Now we have a 1999 version recorded in Mosfilm Studio by the Russian (formerly USSR) State Symphony Orchestra that its founder, Gennady Rozhdestvensky, willed to his student Valery Polyansky in 1992. The latter is not only Artistic Director and Principal Conductor but, in this case, his own producer. I'm not sure that even Stokowski had that much chutzpah.

Polyansky is obviously a professional conductor, although his orchestra's solo oboe squeals at the top of its register, and other winds suffer momentary lapses—oddly, in ensembles rather than solos. He is also grand panjandrum of the Russian State Symphonic Cappella, which sings with the sonority one expects from Russian low voices, but minus the squally, screamy sounds from sopranos that one hears, for example, in the recording of The Execution of Stepan Razin I know best—Kiril Kondrashin's with the Moscow Philharmonic on Melodiya, recorded in 1966, two years after the work's premiere by with the same chorus and soloist, Vitaly Gromadsky. I've kept a cassette copy, made on a Nakamichi Dragon, of EMI's stateside SD issue and it is a thriller despite age and origin. By 1964 Shostakovich had written his Babij Yar Symphony, based on poems by Yevgeni Yevtushenko, who also wrote the poem for this spare, scary, uniquely powerful late work, about a 17th-century folk hero who took up arms against the Tsar, was captured, tortured, and decapitated. But his head refused to die before it reviled the Tsar, and repelled the frightened priest who tried to close its eyes.

Polyansky and his forces make a big noise wherever the score instructs. But his soloist, baritone Anatoly Lochak (who studied with Carlo Bergonzi!), lacks the mocking ferocity of Gromadsky, doubling as the narrator and Razin. In the same vein, Polyansky is missing a basic ingredient: he's not sinister. To be anything less is to dilute the piece and simply let it end instead of conclude. It is not a bad performance—and the recording made in the Moscow Conservatory's Grand Hall two years ago is thrilling in its sonority (despite a right-channel tilt). But it isn't scary in the way Kondrashin's was. (Neither was a scrappy recording from Varna, Bulgaria, on Koch International, still listed in "Volume 12" of Schwann/Opus, r.i.p.).

In heavily-scored passages, the Sixth Symphony (see my earlier review) becomes shrill-sounding on the top end. Polyansky musters more prankishness in movements 2 and 3 than Temirkanov; but in the long, river-like geography of the opening Largo he doesn't find the brooding subtext of a composer very nearly exterminated three years earlier because his opera, Lady Macbeth from Mtsensk, offended the delicate sensibilities of Josif Stalin (who died listening to a Mozart piano concerto!). Ergo, I'm still waiting for the release on some label of this same coupling—No. 6 and Stepan—that Gerard Schwarz made in Seattle before his orchestra and Delos divorced. I never heard a tape of his Stepan performances, but I have of the Sixth Symphony, recorded in Benaroya Hall, plus a hair-raising live performance with the Philadelphia Orchestra of Symphony No. 10, that somber Delos disc of No. 11, and a gripping live-performance cassette of Symphony No. 5. Schwarz conducts these works of Shostakovich as or more probingly than any Russian maestro I've encountered since the USSR disintegrated in 1991.

R.D. (March 2002)