Shostakovich: The Execution of Stepan Razin; October; Five Fragments

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COMPOSERS: Shostakovich
LABELS: Naxos
ALBUM TITLE: Shostakovich
WORKS: The Execution of Stepan Razin; October; Five Fragments
PERFORMER: Charles Robert Austin (bass-baritone); Seattle Symphony Chorale; Seattle Symphony/Gerard Schwarz
CATALOGUE NO: 8.557812
Shostakovich centenary year may have produced a rash of recordings of those professional public pieces composed to keep the wolf from the door, like the symphonic poem October featured here. But it also serves to remind us that several masterpieces still lurk on the sidelines. The Execution of Stepan Razin falls through the cracks of concert planning: too short, perhaps, to merit the outlay of bass soloist, chorus and orchestra, too similar to its parent work, Symphony No. 13 which also sets tough verses by Yevgeny Yevtushenko, to feature in the same programme. Gerard Schwarz makes a mini-opera out of its dramatic sweep and clearly believes in its many moods – the garish bully-boy swagger surrounding cossack rebel Razin’s frogmarch to the scaffold, the moody eloquence of the folk-hero’s soliloquy (soulfully declaimed by Charles Robert Austin, even if he lacks the full bass resonance for the more sarcastic outbursts), and the wild conclusion as his decapitated head mocks the tsar.

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Schwarz has honed Seattle strings and brass to produce exactly the right, dark Russian timbre. If his chorus is threadbare compared to the Soviet ensemble of the premiere, who made a long-unavailable recording of the work with Kirill Kondrashin, it delivers with enthusiasm. The slightly recessed concert-hall sound doesn’t help either here or in the sweep of October, but nor does it hamper the conviction of Schwarz’s performance, much the best currently available. The Five Fragments, contemporary with the wacky Fourth Symphony of 1935-36, mark a small-scale postlude, muted strings and wind solos surviving closer recorded inspection with honours. David Nice