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on May 22, 1999
Vissarion Yakovlevich Shebalin (1902-1963) continues to be credited, and rightfully so, as being an instrumental force in Soviet music, not only as a prolific and a successful composer, but also as a highly influential pedagogue (and from 1942 to 1948, director) of the Moscow Conservatory of Music. He is also credited for taking up the cause for the principles of true musical art his teacher, Myaskovsky, was already doing, both in spirit and in practice.
Both Shebalin, himself a student at the Moscow Conservatory of Music, and Shostakovich (a Leningrad student), completed their respective First Symphonies in 1925 (Shebalin was twenty-three at the time, Shostakovich was eighteen). And it is interesting to compare these works of their composers, who were to become life-long friends and compatriots. Shebalin's First Symphony is a fairly monumental work, lasting about three-quarters of an hour, and with the Soviet's version of Russian romanticism not far removed from much of the poetic sound world of Tchaikovsky, Glazunov, and Rimsky-Korsakov, while absorbing some of the academic rhetoric of Myaskovsky. And while it is generally not considered a masterpiece, it is nonetheless well written, assuredly so, and with some of Shebalin's musical fingerprints to be found in greater abundance and readiness in his later works. Shostakovich's First Symphony is very much in the spirit of the modernist fervor that swept Russia during the 1920s. Witty, youthful, somewhat more daring, it is indeed a musical cousin to the works of, say, Popov, Knipper, Mosolov, Stankovsky, and Roslavets. It is not the "yearning for tradition" type of work. Little wonders then that Glazunov grew highly displeased with the piece and offered to revise it himself before its May 12th, 1926 premiere by the Leningrad Philharmonic under Nikolai Malko. Shostakovich said no thanks and it became a sensation in its own right since then. Curiously, Shebalin's Third Symphony of 1935 (dedicated to Shostakovich incidentally) in some ways reminds me of Shostakovich's First in its economy of design and expression as well as some of the grotesqueness in the writing (the third movement for instance). Not an avant-garde piece (it's still fairly traditional and indebted to Myaskovsky), it is not far removed from the spirit of experimentation and unrelenting expression around that time (think of Popov's First Symphony and Shostakovich's Fourth ) before the "official" Soviet clampdown took hold by 1936, beginning with Shostakovich's "Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District."
Mark Ermler has the First Symphony very well measured and Gergiev's approach of the Third is ideally urgent (the USSR Radio and Television Symphony responds admirably and with commitment for both these works). Olympia's remasterings of the original Melodiya recordings are more than adequate and decent. In the end, this issue is a very indispensable and an important documentation in getting a more rounder picture of among the often overlooked talents under the regime, and its policies designed to repress him in particular.