“There is no memorial above Babi Yar, the steep ravine is like a crude tombstone.” So begins Yevgeny Yevtushenko’s poem commemorating the Nazi massacre of tens of thousands of Jews outside Kiev in 1941. Written 20 years later, the poem caused a furore in Soviet Russia, still in denial about its antisemitism. Deeply touched by the poetry, Shostakovich used it and other Yevtushenko works to create a lasting musical memorial to the victims. So controversial was the symphony that its Russian premiere was closed to the public. Poet and composer were forced to make changes to the text.
The symphony’s western premiere was no less dramatic. A microfilm of the work was smuggled out of Russia, the words translated into Italian for a concert in Rome in January 1970 by Riccardo Muti. Nearly 50 years later, in September 2018, Muti made this live Chicago recording in the presence of the composer’s widow, who presented him with a tape of the 1970 performance held in Shostakovich’s library.
A generation ago the Chicago Symphony made an impressive disc of this work under Georg Solti, interspersed with the poems read in English by Anthony Hopkins, whose understated delivery invested the texts with chilling menace. This version comes with no such bonus, but Muti delivers an utterly committed account. Veteran CSO chorus master, Duain Wolfe (who also worked for Solti) ensures that the male chorus packs a punch throughout. Bass Alexey Tikhomirov impresses with his solemnity of tone.
Muti is a master mood-setter, vividly bringing to life the five different scenes that make up the symphony. The desolation of Babi Yar is forcefully thrust against pogrom politics in the first movement; the musical representation of breaking down doors is utterly shattering. In the second movement, the gallows humour is a little lead-footed, as if to reinforce its surreality.
Played without a break, the last three movements shine a light on other Soviet blights: misogyny, the fear of betrayal and careerism. At the work’s emotional centre is the quiet, sinister fourth movement: “Fears are dying out in Russia”. Tikhomirov has an appropriately ironic edge to his voice here, but Sergei Aleksashkin for Solti digs a little deeper into the text. The mock-comic finale with its concluding celesta solo leaves an uneasiness that only Shostakovich could create. Muti’s fine, powerful homage to Shostakovich should not be missed.