Opus 3: Theme and Variations (1922)

Theme and Variations, op. 3 (1922)
CD:  Popov: Symphony No. 1, etc., London Symphony Orchestra, Leon Botstein (Telarc CD-80642)

The second week of this grand tour de Chostakovitch kicks off with another work for orchestra from the composer’s student days, the Theme and Variations, opus 3.  The piece is also represented on the two-disc Rozhdestvensky reissue that I’ll be going to for the rest of the composer’s very early orchestral fare, but I want to note the LSO / Botstein disc because its account of Gavriil Popov’s first symphony makes it an extraordinarily worthy album.  From a Shostakovich-centric standpoint, at first blush it seems calculated to make the young composer sound extremely derivative:  On the one hand, the Theme and Variations stays within the current of late-19th-century Russian romanticism; on the other, Popov’s symphony (from 1934) appears as an inspiration and model for the brashness and large-scale organization of Shostakovich’s fourth symphony, which followed it closely.  (Laurel Fay makes this comparison in a footnote in Shostakovich: A Life, and if memory serves Alex Ross states it more forwardly in The Rest is Noise.)  After further listening and thought, though, Shostakovich’s fourth isn’t at all a mere knockoff of Popov’s first — it will be useful to listen through both symphonies side by side when I get there, to compare another promising contemporary talent whose career was apparently squelched by the state.  And Shostakovich wrote the Theme and Variations, after all, when he was about sixteen and still honing his craft.

It’s a geeky comparison to make, but the Opus 3 sounds to me like orchestral arrangements of Nobuo Uematsu’s music from the Final Fantasy games — or, more aptly, both sound like they’re both aiming for the same innocuous, Romantic prettiness.  (To note a couple of key differences, Uematsu’s stuff shows more Japanese pop influence and his orchestrators’ work is even more prosaic than Shostakovich’s still uncharacteristic instrumentation.)  Shostakovich’s theme (sampled above) and the first few variations, which don’t stray very far from it, unfold pleasantly but without much inventiveness.  I first perked up at the beginning of Variation V, which Botstein draws into a lovely, slightly tensed hush:

Variation IX, a bit later, reaches the work’s high-water mark of boisterousness:


The final two variations out of eleven do the most to mix up the meter and rhythm, and a fast-slow-fast finale ends the work with a bright, heavy-footed orchestral exclamation point.  At fifteen minutes it is longer, and feels more developed, than the earlier student works.  I don’t think it holds any interest outside of the context of Shostakovich’s later, celebrated career, but it makes a nice companion on this album to the substantial Popov symphony and Botstein directs it with the right level of warmth and high energy.

I borrowed this disc from the Multnomah County Library, whose CD collection (like most big library systems I’ve used) has a good selection of Shostakovich’s bigger works, plus, helpfully, a couple of his more obscure ones.  I say this as a pitch for, or maybe just a nostalgic remembrance of, using public libraries as a way to survey new-to-you music.  For me this goes back to Northland Public Library in suburban Pittsburgh, where my brothers and I more or less systematically consumed the CD section’s classical albums (or at least the German and Russian late-Romantic works and, eventually, the 20th-century fare) when we were in high school.  As web-based distribution of digital music continues to render CDs obsolete, I’m not sure how libraries’ mission to make it available to the public will square with commercial producers’ desire not to have content propagate completely beyond their control.  (My little experience with library e-books, which seem expressly designed to make it hard to take them out into the world, doesn’t give me much hope, at least for the near future.)  But browsing the aisles worked well for me, despite the grievous state of a lot of frequently checked-out library CDs (what in the world do the other patrons do to them, run them through the dishwasher?), and in the absence of a good online equivalent it’s still a good approach.

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