Shostakovich: Symphony No 13, 'Babiy Yar'; Arvo Pärt: De Profundis. Albert Dohmen, bass-baritone; Estonian National Male Choir; BBC Philharmonic / John Storgårds. © 2024 Chandos Records Ltd


An Immediate Impact

GEOFF PEARCE listens to Pärt and Shostakovich

'... soloist, choir, orchestra and conductor provide a compelling account, and the sound is glorious.'


This CD contains two of my favourite works. I have a few different recordings of Shostakovich's Symphony number 13, 'Babiy Yar' but I do not own a recording of Pärt's De Profundis, so I was delighted to now have a recording in my possession.

Arvo Pärt's De Profundis, first on the disc, was originally written for male voices, organ and percussion in 1980, and this was re-orchestrated in 2008 for chamber orchestra. I am not generally a fan of minimalist music, as it often agitates me, but Pärt is one of those composers who had an immediate impact on me as there is a serenity and luminosity in much of his music, especially sacred music, that calms and intrigues me.

De Profundis is a typical example of Pärt's music that has this effect on me. Over the course of seven minutes, one is led on a spiritual meditation. The note writer said that this work is not particularly bell-like, and I found this strange, as the first time I heard this work, bells were exactly what I had in my mind. This is a very touching work and its conception comes from a country with a very rich choral tradition. The Estonian National Male Choir, one of the finest male vocal ensembles I know, provides a real depth to the sound.

Listen — Pärt: De Profundis
(CHSA 5335 track 1, 3:09-4:01) ℗ 2024 Chandos Records :

Dmitri Shostakovich wrote Symphony No 13 I Op 113 in 1962 and it was premiered on 18 December of that year with much trepidation as Soviet politics, especially when it came to artistic freedom, and both Shostakovich the poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko were on thin ice with this work. The symphony is in five movements, each a setting of a Yevtushenko poem depicting a different aspect of Soviet life. The title 'Babiy Yar' did not appear anywhere on the composer's score.

The first movement, whist remembering the 1941 massacre by Nazis of Jews at Babiy Yar in the Ukraine, actually renounces antisemitism in all its forms, and he uses three episodes to illustrate this: The Dreyfus Affair, The Bialystok Pogrom and the story of Anne Frank. The movement takes around sixteen minutes and starts off in a very dirge-like fashion - a kind of funeral march. But there are quite a number of mood changes in this movement, as Shostakovich was a master of vividly illustrating the narrative in music. The male voice choir and fine dramatic voice of Dohmen, along with the excellent and very responsive forces of the BBC Philharmonic under the excellent directorship of John Storgårds, really get into the spirit of this music. Shostakovich originally perceived this movement as a one movement cantata.

Listen — Shostakovich: Babiy Yar (Symphony No 13)
(CHSA 5335 track 2, 3:52-4:42) ℗ 2024 Chandos Records :

The second movement, 'Humour', is, on the surface, light-hearted. However it is anything but. I have to quote from Wikipedia on this as this was close to my first impressions on hearing this work as a schoolboy in the early 1970s:

Shostakovich quotes from the third of his Six Romances on Verses by British Poets, Op 62 (Robert Burns' 'Macpherson Before His Execution') to colour Yevtushenko's imagery of the spirit of mockery, endlessly murdered and endlessly resurrected, denouncing the vain attempts of tyrants to shackle wit. The movement is a Mahlerian gesture of mocking burlesque, not simply light or humorous but witty, satirical and parodistic.

Listen — Shostakovich: Humour (Symphony No 13)
(CHSA 5335 track 3, 0:27-1:14) ℗ 2024 Chandos Records :

The third movement, 'In the Store', portrays the hardship of Soviet women and the endless queuing up at stores to obtain household essentials. It is a lament on the plight of these women and a rather joyless struggle. This is bleak and brooding music, but at the same time, especially towards the end of the movement, there is a feeling of defiance and fortitude. This does not last, however, and the movement ends as it began.

Listen — Shostakovich: In the Store (Symphony No 13)
(CHSA 5335 track 4, 9:23-10:11) ℗ 2024 Chandos Records :

The next movement, 'Fears', is again rather ominous. The words set from the poem, 'Fears are dying out in Russia', do nothing really to provide any sort of reassurance at all. Perhaps this reflects the thaw freeze periods in Soviet Russia during the Krushchev era, which often made particularly the artistic community very apprehensive.

Listen — Shostakovich: Fears (Symphony No 13)
(CHSA 5335 track 5, 5:57-6:41) ℗ 2024 Chandos Records :

The final movement, 'Career', is probably the most relaxed of all, emotionally, and it is an ironic attack on the lives of bureaucrats - their self interests and their corruption. At the same time it praises the endeavours of the truly creative. In many ways this movement is the most complex.

Listen — Shostakovich: Career (Symphony No 13)
(CHSA 5335 track 6, 10:06-10:57) ℗ 2024 Chandos Records :

This is an unsettling work, and there was not much enthusiasm for it by the party. Various text revisions had to be made before the premiere took place, and the party boxes were predictably empty at an otherwise full house. Pressure was put on the scheduled conductor, Mravinsky, who cancelled along with the singer who was billed to perform. Kiril Kondrashin eventually took the reins and the first performance was a resounding success from the reception the audience gave the work. The work received a few performances before being banned in the Soviet bloc for many years. The original score and text were smuggled out of Russia and the work was first performed in 1970 by Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra. A radio broadcast of that performance was the first time I heard this work. It left a lasting impression.

I have two other recordings of this piece - Kondrashin and Rostropovich - and this new recording is equal to those fine recordings, as the soloist, choir, orchestra and conductor provide a compelling account, and the sound is glorious. The attached notes are very detailed and I am pleased to see that the text of both works is included.

Copyright © 17 April 2024 Geoff Pearce,
Sydney, Australia



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