Symphony No. 13 in B flat minor, Op. 113 ‘Babi Yar’
Alexey Tikhomirov (bass); Men of the Chicago Symphony Chorus/Dustin Wolfe; Chicago Symphony Orchestra/Riccardo Muti
CSO Resound CSOR 901 1901 64.47 mins
Riccardo Muti’s affinity with red-blooded Russian repertoire by composers such as Musorgsky, Prokofiev and Shostakovich is well established. I wasn’t aware, though, that he gave the first performance outside the USSR of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 13; as Phillip Huscher relates in the excellent programme note to this new recording.
Shostakovich’s Babi Yar Symphony sets five protest poems by Yevtushenko, sufficiently controversial in the early 1960s to provoke at least four key performers – including the conductor Mravinsky – to withdraw before its premiere. The tone virtually throughout is dark and intense, most particularly the opening movement which sets the title poem, named after the ravine where tens of thousands of Jews were massacred by the Nazis in collusion with local Ukrainians.
While conductors such as Mariss Jansons have emphasised the ‘symphonic’ qualities of that movement with flowing, well-modulated tempos, bringing out its Mahlerian qualities, Muti’s approach is altogether more vivid as he conjures vignettes: grim and funereal at the start, the scene abruptly jump-cuts to the tavern thugs who personify the antisemites whose actions culminate in the mass murder.
Muti’s identification with this work is confirmed in the subsequent movements: the hard-edged sarcasm of ‘Humour’ presents a striking contrast to the tender compassion with ‘In the Store’, itself a dramatic foil to the sudden surge of rage near the movement’s end. Then ‘Fears’, a cathartic slow movement after which follows, characteristically a ‘dawn’ of ironic blandness. Bass soloist Alexey Tikhomirov, rich-toned and sentient throughout, is backed by a superbly characterful Chicago Symphony Chorus.
Find out more about Shostakovich and his works here