An essential “Babi Yar” from Kirill Kondrashin on Praga

Shostakovich: Symphony No.13 ‘Babi Yar’; Prokofiev: October

Kirill Kondrashin/Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra (Praga)

shostakovich-13-kondrashin-pragaEven for Dmitri Shostakovich, few works had such a controversial genesis as his Thirteenth Symphony, “Babi Yar”. It was originally intended as a one movement cantata, based on a poem by Yevgeny Yevtuschenko about the 1941 Nazi massacre of Jews at Babi Yar, a ravine in Kiev. He added a further four poems, including Fears which was written specifically for the composer, to turn it into a five movement symphony for bass soloist, bass chorus and orchestra. Shostakovich discovered that the ‘Khrushchev Thaw’ had turned decidedly icy.

The première was given on 18th December 1962 under Kirill Kondrashin, with Vitaly Gromadsky the bass soloist, neither first choice artists. “A disgusting poison campaign began. They tried to scare off everyone from Yevtushenko and me,” Shostakovich reportedly claimed. Evgeny Mravinsky, conductor of many Shostakovich premières, had declined to conduct Babi Yar, ostensibly because he didn’t conduct choral music, although Kondrashin later claimed that Mravinsky “withdrew like a coward”. The original choice of bass soloist, Boris Gmyirya, turned down the engagement on the basis that the text was too controversial. Two further basses were approached, Victor Nechipailo pulling out on the day of the first performance itself, leaving Vitaly Gromadsky to sing instead.

The evening before the première, Khrushchev had berated artists and sculptors at a Kremlin reception, where Leonid Ilyichyov (his spokesman) also attacked Yevtuchenko directly about Babi Yar. The first performance of the symphony, where printed texts were not distributed, was wildly acclaimed. Kondrashin, quoted at great length in Elizabeth Wilson’s recommended volume Shostakovich: A Life Remembered, recounted that “At the end of the first movement the audience started to applaud and shout hysterically”. However, the critical response was silent. A second performance two days later was announced as postponed, but took place nonetheless and is the first recorded document of the symphony, captured on disc here. Praga’s booklet rather undersells its importance.

This recording has been previously available on CD, released some 20 years ago on Russian Disc and now fetching silly prices on the internet. It was also included in a Venezia box of the complete Kondrashin Shostakovich symphony recordings, alongside his 1967 studio recording, which featured Yevtuschenko’s revised text after further performances were discouraged unless alterations took place. For this remastering by Praga – the first in a series issued as a tribute to Kondrashin – the sound has been cleaned up superbly, with no applause retained. There is a little tape hiss and some congestion at climaxes, but the SACD stereo sound is now as good as Kondrashin’s studio recording of five years later.

Even without the improved sound quality, this is an essential recording in every way. There is an electricity which crackles through the performance, aided by understanding the events surrounding the symphony’s genesis. In the first movement, loud chords, which Anne Frank deludes herself into thinking is the cracking of ice to signal spring, hammer fiercely as soldiers breaking the door down. Kondrashin isn’t as fleet as his 1967 studio recording other than the second movement, where Gromadsky catches the sardonic tone of ‘Humour’ perfectly, drawing mocking responses from the Moscow Philharmonic woodwinds. The soloist is occasionally taxed by the high, quiet lines in the third movement, “In the store”, but again points the humour well in the concluding poem “A career”: “I pursue my career by not pursuing it!”

Praga pairs the symphony with five movements from Prokofiev’s cantata October, recorded in 1966, with the Moscow Philharmonic brass in typically biting form and a fervent Soviet chorus. However, in its excerpted form, this feels like a filler, especially when there are no booklet texts (unlike for Babi Yar). When the entire recording of the Prokofiev is still available on Melodiya, it would have been better to include Kondrashin and Gromadsky in The Execution of Stepan Razin, another vital Shostakovich recording also based on Yevtushenko poetry.

The disc bears the label ‘Centenary Limited Edition’ in tiny print on the booklet cover. Anyone with the remotest interest in Shostakovich should snap this up for their collection forthwith.

Shostakovich: Symphony No. 13 ‘Babi Yar’; Prokofiev: October (excerpts) – Vitaly Gromadsky; RSFSR Academic Choir; Yurlov State Choir; Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra/ Kirill Kondrashin (Praga SACD PRD/DSD 350 089)
Kirill Kondrashin/ Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra; Arthur Eisen; Choirs of the Russian Republic (Aulos, 10 discs) AMC2-043-1~10 (1967)

This review originally appeared in IRR.

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