- Symphony No. 1, Op 7
- Theme & Variations for orchestra in B flat major, Op. 3
Considering the fascination and controversy that Dmitri Shostakovich's music continues to provoke today, it's about time that some of the attention rubs off on his lesser-known contemporaries. Case in point: Gavriil Popov (1904-72), who endured many of the same political tribulations as Shostakovich during his long career in the Soviet Union. With a riveting performance of his sprawling First Symphony (1934) offered here, Popov is the latest beneficiary of conductor and scholar Leon Botstein's inquisitive spirit. This is unpredictable music, and its often wayward, dramatic curve takes a few hearings to sink in. Compared with Shostakovich's works, it packs a similar punch to the nearly contemporary Fourth Symphony; both are marked by anguished outbursts, complex textures, and surprising contrasts. But Popov can also conjure unique worlds of sound, especially with the woodwind solos of the central slow movement, which are magical but more than a little eerie. This uncompromising work deserves to be heard, both in its own right and as a complement to Shostakovich's music of the same era. Fittingly, Botstein offers an early rarity by the latter composer as a bonus here: the Theme and Variations, Op. 3, completed in 1922 during his student years. If it sounds nothing like the Shostakovich we know best -- he was only in his teens when he wrote it -- this ingratiating work still reminds us of his continuity with the Russian tradition, with shades of Rimsky-Korsakov and Tchaikovsky that would be purged from his mature compositions. For both of these performances, but especially for putting Popov back on the map, Botstein and the London Symphony deserve a standing ovation from anyone who cares about 20th-century music.