- Symphony No. 5
- Tabachny Kapitan (Tobacco Captain), suite for orchestra
The way this Northern Flowers issue -- 1941-1945 Wartime Music Vol. 2 -- is packaged, one would think it a collection of music from World War II. But it is actually a volume within an ongoing series of discs chronicling works of Russian composers written during the Second World War. The subject in this instance is Vladimir Shcherbachov (1887-1952) -- here called "Scherbachov" -- a near-contemporary of Prokofiev who remains practically unknown in the West. Perhaps only one of his works -- his "Nonet for voice, piano, flute, harp, string quartet, and dancer" (1919) -- has ever circulated on recordings outside Europe. Shcherbachov was a major mover during the prime years of Russian Futurism as a teacher, organizer, and as the central advocate for modern music in St. Petersburg; young composers clustered around him as he fearlessly took on authorities in defense of new trends in music. Shcherbachov was also a reformer in education, submitted changes in compositional disciplines that were widely accepted and served as head of the composition and theory department at the Fourth (later "Central") music training college in Leningrad. Just about none of this crusading, pioneering spirit comes across in 1941-1945 Wartime Music Vol. 2, as by the time these orchestral works -- "The Tobacco Captain Suite" (1942) and Shcherbachov's "Symphony No. 5" (1950) -- were composed, Shcherbachov had been roundly, repeatedly, and very publicly spanked for his modernist tendencies. Just as Shcherbachov's pre-1930 career had been all about upping the ante, after 1930 it was about folding and covering. This was not entirely fair; Shcherbachov's advocacy was mainly intended on the behalf of his fellow composers, as his own work attempted to blend the heritage of Rachmaninoff and Glazunov that was rightfully his with the challenging new ideas that he fostered to others, making Shcherbachov one of the more conservative figures among the Russian Futurists. Shcherbachov was a very slow and deliberate composer at all times in his career, rather like his former teacher Anatoly Liadov. The "Symphony No. 5" was premiered in 1950 under Nathan Rachlin, but Shcherbachov had worked on it the entire decade of the 1940s; in 1948, Shcherbachov had been among the names named in the notorious "Zhdanov purge" of the Composer's Union that also brought harsh condemnation to his colleagues such as Prokofiev and Shostakovich. This symphony shows signs of being overworked; the second, Allegro drammatico movement fairly brims with excitement, colorful orchestration, strong themes, and an effective use of traditional folk tunes; however, the fluid-connecting tissue that commonly holds a symphonic movement together is not present; sections stop dead in their tracks. Shcherbachov -- a former student of Maximilian Steinberg -- certainly knew better, but apparently did not want to introduce any element into his finished symphony that could be pointed out as formalistic; it would prove his last work. "The Tobacco Captain Suite" -- incidental music for a satirical play -- is a far happier experience, which in itself is rather surprising as Shcherbachov composed it while evacuated to Siberia for his own safety during the siege of Leningrad; unlike Shcherbachov's usual working procedures, this suite was written in a matter of mere months. It is joyous, humorous music with tongue-in-cheek references to typical Russian religious music and popular folk dances, brilliantly scored. Moreover, it is stylistically barely more challenging than Rimsky-Korsakov, but as we do not condemn the "Gayane Suite" of Aram Khachaturian for being a tad regressive in relation to its time, this work deserves to be judged on its own merits. The performance, by Alexander Titov and the St. Petersburg State Academic Symphony, is dedicated and enthusiastic though somewhat less than polished; the recording is not bad, but also not great, but adequate. Anyone who loves "Gayane" will greatly enjoy "The Tobacco Captain"; the symphony is far less satisfactory, but is at least interesting. In order to discover Shcherbachov at his peak relevance one would need to go back a bit farther into his timeline, something that the "wartime" orientation of this Northern Flowers release does not permit.