DISCS / Scourges of the nations: Edward Seckerson and Stephen Johnson stand shoulder to shoulder in Russia and cross swords in the United States

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
SHOSTAKOVICH: Symphony No 13, 'Babi Yar'

New York Philharmonic / Kurt Masur (Teldec 4509-90848-2)

THE extraordinary voice of Yevgeny Yevtushenko sounds like it's coming from beyond the grave. The words of his poem 'Babi Yar' weigh heavily: he whispers, he hoarsely declaims, he rants, he implores. What a chilling, and moving, preface to this live performance of the symphony.

Yevtushenko and Shostakovich: ministers of protest, prophets of change. It's hard to imagine a more perfect marriage of literary and musical rhetoric. Sergei Leiferkus is here the voice of outrage and shame, much lighter than the black-toned basses usually assigned to the role but effective for the incisive, almost surgical manner of his declamation - not least the cynical, gallows humour of the second movement. The men of the New York Choral Artists have been well schooled in the dramatic curl of Mother Russia's tongue, and Kurt Masur pulls no punches where Shostakovich shouts to be heard.

Teldec's recording is forcefully up-front with the tolling bells and unforgiving brass. But still more intimidating is the stalking bass tuba of the third movement, 'Fears' - a kind of KGB Fafner. Yevtushenko has the last word - in English. After the shame of Russia's past, the agony of her rebirth. Lines like 'Is it true that epilepsy is our national character?' stick in the throat.

IF there's a received idea about the 13th, it's that this most Russian of Shostakovich's symphonies needs native performers. But does it? Masur's experience of Soviet-style repression in the old Communist DDR should give him quite enough insight into the haunted imagery of 'Fears'. And (judging by the orchestra list) there must be a few members of the New York Philharmonic with strong feelings about the anti-Semitism of the opening 'Babi Yar'.

Granted, this version doesn't carry quite the terrifying charge of the old Soviet Kondrashin recording, made at a time when the work was still regarded with suspicion in high places. But it has power, all the more effective for being measured. Masur doesn't let the intensity boil over, but he sustains it remarkably.

Leiferkus matches the Masur approach very well. Unlike Kondrashin's soloist, Artur Eizen, he doesn't rage, but his intense quiet eloquence in 'Fears', 'In the Store' and the beguilingly enigmatic finale, 'Career', is of the kind that makes one want to go back and listen harder. SJ

PAUL SCHOENFIELD: Four Parables. Vaudeville.

Klezmer Rondos

New World Symphony / John Nelson (Argo 440 212-2)

IMAGINE a dark preludium - lamenting clarinet over bare Shostakovich-like string harmonies. Then, a bolt from the blue: a jazz piano taking off like an express train in a madcap toccata - Prokofiev meets Duke Ellington. But the really amazing thing about Paul Schoenfield is that he is anything but a pastiche artist. He doesn't toy with ragtime, jazz, blues, or the sour tang of Klezmer music. It's a part of him. He has absorbed the whole Jewish / American musical vernacular into his own musical persona and cultivated something unique.

Who says weighty emotions cannot be expressed in a wistful piano rag or the defiance of a gaudy big-band break? Or that a tarnished little trumpet tune from Vaudeville cannot touch the heights? Schoenfield's talent will be misunderstood. But anyone who can write with so much heart and still make a musical pratfall of a key moment from Mahler's Second Symphony gets my ear. I'm hopelessly, utterly hooked.

SHOSTAKOVICH is the starting-point for Schoenfield's Four Parables - literally, since his opening sounds remarkably like the first basso stirrings of Shostakovich's 10th Symphony (at the same pitch too). But Schoenfield doesn't think in big symphonic spans. A lot of this music is pastiche - popular American styles from ragtime to Jewish dance music to B-movie horror scores mixed in with salutes to high-art heroes along the way - special guest appearances by Mahler and Mendelssohn.

On the whole it's good pastiche, especially Klezmer Rondos, where Schoenfield seems to have dug his roots deep into traditional Jewish song and dance. But elsewhere the Schoenfield melee is a bit on the tame side. It reminds me in places of the New York rock-jazz-classical maverick John Zorn, but without Zorn's dangerous energy and crazy, unmistakably 1990s perspective. This sounds too much like simple nostalgia to me - the 'let's pretend Boulez never existed' school of composition.

Parts of Klezmer Rondos and Vaudeville could virtually have been written by the young Shostakovich or Kurt Weill in his Berlin days - only wouldn't the acid content have been a drop or two higher? It's beautifully done, beautifully played and beautifully recorded, but I don't see much sign of life beneath the surface.