Gavriil Popov: Symphony No. 1, op. 7 (1934)
CD: CD: Popov: Symphony No. 1, etc., London Symphony Orchestra, Leon Botstein (Telarc CD-80642)
[Shostakovich] began to speak with sadness about his “lost health”, but did not linger long on this subject and quickly turned to reminiscences of the composer Gavriil Popov. “Now there was a talent. His First Symphony, which had a lot of magnificent stuff in it, was banned at the time by the Fighters against Formalism. I have been appointed chairman of the Popov Memorial Committee; it is essential that his works are played.”
— Isaak Glikman, describing a 1972 conversation with Shostakovich in Story of a Friendship
The Russian composer Gavriil Popov was born in 1904 and died in 1972, by which time early, suppressed Soviet musical works, at least by Shostakovich, had been reappearing in the USSR over the past decade. I don’t know if Popov’s first symphony saw the light of day then, but it was swallowed by the same political sinkhole as Shostakovich’s major works of the 1920s and early 1930s (chiefly The Nose, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, and the fourth symphony) and was equally deserving of restoration. After his first symphony was banned after its single public performance in 1935, Popov’s career, from what little I know of it, followed a similar track to Shostakovich’s: A bend into a more conservative style, a good deal of compositions for film and for thoroughly acceptible official occasions. He never developed Shostakovich’s international reputation — whether he could have is one of the many might-have-beens that come up when you learn about this or that Soviet artist who was squelched by the state — and his first symphony remains obscure, although it now has Leon Botstein’s excellent 2004 recording with the London Symphony to advocate for it. I’m including the work in my listen-through of Shostakovich’s works because Shostakovich’s fourth symphony obviously imitates much of its “magnificent stuff” in style and structure (I think it’s Alex Ross in The Rest is Noise who most aggressively makes that point of the authors I’ve read on the subject, although I don’t have the book at hand) and, more generally, because I want to cover a few works by other Soviet composers to see how Shostakovich fits in among his peers. It’s also a great work to go through; I’ve been listening to it quite a bit over the past couple of years, especially in the past few months when I’ve wanted a Soviet-orchestral fix during my self-imposed Shostakovich rationing, and listening through it closely last night was just a lot of fun.
Popov built his symphony on a grandiose scale, in three movements totaling fifty minutes; the style channels Prokofiev’s 1915 Scythian Suite but with more mass and sharper edges. The first movement, lasting for nearly half of the work’s total runtime itself, kicks off with an orchestral outburst and immediately falls off into a skittering introduction:
The first movement is rhapsodic and hard to track, as it kneads its musical material over and over until it’s barely recognizable. Its initial impression is all surface effects: Wind-heavy timbres, dramatic pauses, high dynamic contrasts. After getting more familiar with it I notice the movement’s structure more, how it rises and falls. The opening leads into an almost Romantic upswelling about three and a half minutes in, which builds into a sunburst of grinding orchestral sound; this darkens and settles down, only to lurch back into motion and peak in a glorious, twisting, noisy episode at the movement’s midpoint. This finally narrows down for good in the movement’s last five minutes, as the opening figure sprouts back up but settles into murky quietude, disturbed a little by repetitive, worrying figures in the low strings. The music’s greatest fault is its tendency to get loud and stay there for long, seemingly arbitrary stretches of time, but its sheer excess is also its greatest charm.
The slow second movement opens with a gentle, slightly exotic melody that unspools in the woodwinds, owing much to the high-bassoon beginning of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. The musical energy ebbs and flows as in the first movement but at a lower level, percolating for a bit before lowering again into romantic-modern softness, and finally dwindling to a minor-key close.
The ten-minute third movement is the easiest to take in at once and the most outwardly charming. It jumps into motion from the start and, within a minute, whips up into a kaleidoscopic frenzy. Around the 1:30 mark the trombone introduces a clownish, heavy-footed dance figure and passes it on through the orchestra. I think of such episodes as “bear polkas”, borrowing a phrase from a Paul Celan poem, for their ungainliness and sense of subdued menace; Popov here lacks Prokofiev’s gift for melody or Shostakovich’s facility for carnivalesque mugging, but I like this one a lot.
The dance material gets worked over for a bit and then, about six minutes in, the movement is sucked into the whirlpool-like beginning of the symphony’s coda, which rapidly builds to a gleaming, brushed-steel climax:
The work’s final minutes move like a massive clockwork that nearly shakes itself apart, all chiming percussion and titanic brass tones that heat up into a last, incandescent chord. It’s become one of my favorite symphonic finales out there — it’s not a delicately nuanced one, obviously, but I like the earnestness of this type of unselfconscious orchestral gigantism, and there is a subtlety in how Popov’s music sounds both ecstatic and ragged around the edges. It’s a fantastic example of monumental, industrial-grade Soviet musical modernism; it’s a shame that Popov wasn’t allowed to continue working in this vein.