Popov’s Symphony No. 1 “fits into the category of great music in the orchestral repertory that requires advocacy,” says Leon Botstein. “This symphony is a case in which a totalitarian state forced a work into obscurity and ultimately undermined the great talent that Gavriil Popov was.”
On the 70th anniversary of the completion of Popov’s Symphony No. 1, Botstein and the London Symphony Orchestra bring the work to life on a new Telarc recording that also includes Shostakovich’s Theme and Variations, Op. 3.
The juxtaposition of these two composers in a single recording is an appropriate one. Popov and Shostakovich were close contemporaries, and there are striking parallels in their careers. One of the most relevant examples is that they were both singled out and praised by Prokofiev when he visited the Soviet Union in 1927. The major difference is that Popov kept a diary, which preserves a wealth of information, not least concerning the background to the first of his six numbered symphonies, which he completed in 1934. His Symphony No. 1 was the work on which he expended the most effort and which was to earn him the greatest notoriety. “I dedicate this symphony to my dear father, a worker and fighter on the front of proletarian culture (educating young workers),” cited Popov. “It’s about 1.) struggle and failure, 2.) humanity, 3.) the energy, will and joy of the victor’s work,” cited Popov.
Shostakovich had made extraordinary strides as composer and pianist since beginning both activities at the age of nine. The Theme and Variations, Op. 3 (entitled simply Variations for Symphony Orchestra on the manuscript) dates from his third year at the Conservatoire and carries a dedication to his recently deceased counterpoint teacher Nikolay Sokolov—another Rimsky-Korsakov pupil—whose pedagogic gifts Shostakovich greatly respected but whom he sometimes had to seek out at his home when he failed to turn up to classes.
The Theme and Variations is probably Shostakovich’s most scholastic, and therefore least characteristic, work. The Theme is scored for strings alone in chorale style, and might have been conceived as a variant on the main slow movement theme of Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto.
If nothing else, the significance of this little-known work lies in its musical self-sufficiency. Shostakovich’s family suffered as much as all Petrogradians from the privations of life in a country torn by civil war, in particuliar the famine of 1921, and there were serious concerns for his health. But there is not the faintest trace of that in his Op. 3. Shostakovich’s ability to disengage from harsh reality would soon become as crucial a quality to his artistic development as his ability to engage—as crucial, but much less widely acknowledged.
Leon Botstein is Music Director of the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra and of the American Symphony Orchestra in New York. He is also Artistic Director of the Bard Music Festival and of the American Russian Young Artists Orchestra.
Botstein has guest conducted throughout the world with such orchestras as the London Philharmonic, the Düsseldorf Symphony, the Bern Symphony, NDR-Hannover, and the Bamberg Symphony. His most recent Telarc recording is of Liszt’s Dante Symphony and Tasso with the London Symphony Orchestra, with which he has also recording Gliere’s Symphony No. 3, “Il’ya Murometz.” With the American Symphony Orchestra he recently recorded a live performance of Strauss’s opera Die ägyptische Helena with Deborah Voigt.
Botstein is also a prominent scholar of music history, an editor of Musical Quarterly, and the author of numerous articles and books. For his contributions to music he has received awards from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, Harvard University’s prestigious Centennial Award, as well as the Cross of Honor, First Class from the government of Austria. Since 1975, he has been president of Bard College in New York where he also holds the Leon Levy Chair in Arts and Humanities. (concordmusicgroup. com)