Tishchenko’s “The Twelve” Recorded

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TISHCHENKO: The Twelve, Ballet After A. Block’s Poem. Variations on 3 Themes by Shostakovich* / St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orch.; Pavel Bubelnikov, *Alexander Titov, cond; Estonian State Symphony Orch.; Peeter Lilje, cond / Northern Flowers NF99149

Northern Flowers is an independent Russian label which, until 2016, had very limited distribution—I recall reviewing a CD by an obscure Russian pianist named Vladimir Nielsen back in the early 2000s—but since that year is now distributed by Alto UK. This very interesting disc seems to be the first-ever recording of Boris Tishchenko’s ballet, The Twelve.

Although this CD release is new, the recordings are not. Of the nine sections of the ballet, Nos. 1-3, 5, 6 and 8 were recorded by the St, Petersburg (then Leningrad) Philharmonic under Pavel Bubelnikov in 1976; Nos. 4, 7 & 9 were recorded by the Estonian State Symphony led by Peeter Lilje in 1982. The Variations were recorded by the St. Petersburg Philharmonic under Alexander Titov at a live concert in May 2006. This crazy-quilt arrangement must have been very frustrating to Tishchenko, who was still alive at the time (he died in 2010), particularly since it is only now that they have finally come to light.

Tishchenko was the pet pupil of Dmitri Shostakovich who had an almost father-son relationship with the younger composer. I confess to only being familiar with a few of his works, three of which—the Organ Inventions, Violin Concerto No. 2 (Violin Symphony) and Yuefu, 3 a cappella Choirs on Chinese Folk Texts—were released on a previous Northern Flowers CD, PMA 99146, but I was evidently impressed by them, thus I looked forward to hearing this CD.

At that time, I described the Violin Concerto as sounding like “Shostakovich lite,” but no such thoughts came to mind when listening to this ballet music. It is surprisingly edgy, generally atonal and bitonal music that has a regular rhythmic base but is by no means predictable. The music is scored in very bright, almost abrasive sonorities, focusing on high winds and brass; indeed, there are only a few moments when one hears a full string section in any of the movements. Yet except for the very abrasive opening, the music is not as off-putting to an average listener as much of today’s modern classical music. If there was one thing Tishchenko learned from Shostakovich, it was that music must have form and substance, it cannot be simply a succession of edgy sounds, thus there is considerable development within its harmonically edgy environment. Tishchenko uses contrapuntal figures here and there; if anything, his music in this ballet is even more colorful than that of his mentor, and there is no attempt at copying Shostakovich’s style.

I found the music mesmerizing due to its constant changing and morphing of meter and harmony. Occasionally, as in the second section, he repeated motifs a few times but not enough to become wearisome. In a way, this music struck me as a very modern version of Kodály’s Háry János Suite, and that’s not a bad thing. Despite the occasional crushed chords, in which half the orchestra seems to be playing at the same time and each section in a different tonality, the music is exceptionally clear. Some of the sections all have humorous titles, e.g. “The reckless driver,” “Boredom most boring deadly!,” and “Wrapped in wild snow, ahead of them goes Jesus Christ!” The music, however, is only humorous in a wry manner, not out-and-out comic relief, although I did get a chuckle out of the accordion that suddenly plays short solos in “reckless driver.” Interestingly, although the liner notes go into great detail about Blok’s creation of his poem, there’s not a single word to tell the reader what the poem or the ballet is about! All we learn is that “it combines the mystic concepts of a revolution as global renewal and God- seeking, tones of urban legends, and cultural contexts of contemporary Russia, popular speech, vulgarisms, and lexical and rhythmic diversity,” which strikes me as gobbledygook. What is so “mystical” about the bloody Communist revolution, which supplanted not the old Tsarist regime but the Democratic Keerensky government? Why am I the only person in the world who remembers Alexander Kerensky and his wonderful, if unfortunately weak, government? This sounds like the old Soviet Union patting itself on the back. Wikipedia gives us a clearer picture of this “wonderful” poem:

The poem describes the march of twelve Red Guards (likened to the Twelve Apostles) through the streets of revolutionary Petrograd, with a fierce winter blizzard raging around them. The mood of the Twelve as conveyed by the poem oscillates from base and even sadistic aggression towards everything perceived bourgeois and counter-revolutionary, to strict discipline and sense of “revolutionary duty.”

Yeah, right. Well, at least the music is better than the poem it’s based on, at least in pure musical terms.

In a way, I liked the Shostakovich theme variations even better. This is a piece that has a clear-cut classical form, in fact which uses two themes playing against each other in counterpoint after the opening, which gives it the feeling of solidly-written older music but with those whimsical harmonic devices which were a Shostakovich trademark. Tishchenko makes this music even more complex as it goes along, yet because of the very clear-cut form he never loses the listener. All of the performances herein are well played and surprisingly well recorded considering that most of them are analog.

A very interesting and valuable CD, then, despite the “We Love Communism ‘cause it’s Holy” overtones.

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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