Here's another interesting disc from Northern Flower's 1941-1945 "Wartime Music" series. I think it's safe to say that almost no one reading this will have any familiarity with Yuri Kochurov. And thus most of us would be hard-pressed to think of a single Kochurov composition (the poorly translated liner notes speak of his songs and vocal cycles set to verses by Pushkin, Lermontov, and Tyutchev, as well as his Petrarca's Sonnet for voice with organ as some of his his "most popular opuses").
The four works on this somewhat brief disc seem to reflect Kochurov’s greatest strength and greatest failing; he is an extraordinary musical chameleon. Each of these works belong to a very different musical style and even aesthetic but Kochurov seems to be able to write with sincere conviction and no little skill in these differing idioms. More to the point each is graced with skillful orchestration and melodic/motivic memorability; much can be forgiven in return for a good tune. The key to this might well lie in his background in theatre and film with its inherent demands of being able to produce appropriate music for many different scenarios.
The commissioning of incidental music for a 1940 production of Shakespeare’s Macbeth led to a score Kochurov developed over the ensuing eight years as his "Macbeth Symphony" which was premiered by Kurt Sanderling and the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra in December 1948. Several things about this work should be known straightaway-it is not a symphony even in the Domestica or Alpine sense but it is remarkably Straussian and as such an extended tone-poem. For sure there are thematic/character motifs that lend it a symphonic unity but the six linked but defined sections give it much more of a feel of say Also Sprach Zarathustra. The influence of Richard Strauss is pretty undigested much in the same manner as Bartok’s "Kossuth" or Szymanowski’s "Concert Overture" which represent early works for their respective composers before their mature music appeared. The thing that saves the work, and the others recorded here, is that Kochurov’s music remains memorable enough in its own right if resolutely unoriginal. There is nothing particularly subtle in the musical characterization but then it could be argued that the big broad strokes of the play; Macbeth, Lady Macbeth, killing King Duncan and the final death and destruction of Macbeth and his ambitions do not require the subtlest of nuance. The liner reproduces the extended program supplied by Kochurov for the premiere. Very curiously there is not a single reference in it to the witches or the supernatural, only "evil growing in Macbeth’s heart" and "dark forces". Is it too fanciful to suppose that there could be no mention of anything possibly linked to the supernatural/religion in the atheist Soviet Union? Yet if that was indeed the case it's hard to think of another Soviet work from this era so lush and frankly self-indulgent. Quite how it got past the censors is hard to imagine but we should be glad it did. The very opening with its surging writing, exultant horns and complex writing gives you an immediate sense of what will follow in the next half hour. As before in this series, the orchestra proves to be not of the first rank, with the upper strings sorely taxed and lacking the kind of tonal bloom and absolute unanimity of intonation that most have come to expect. Mahler provides several musical reminiscences-just the occasional melodic/rhythmic motif that makes one think of his work. Harmonically this is at a huge remove from the more typical products of Wartime Russia featuring neither the harshly clashing harmonies of a young Prokofiev or the mainstream predictability of Khrennikov. The orchestration owes more to German models of the early 20th Century which is surprising given Kochurov’s training at the Leningrad Conservatory. It's beautifully orchestrated and so what if Death and Transfiguration seems close at hand? The ensuing gently malicious scherzo representing the cankerous growth of evil in Macbeth is skillfully constructed. Kochurov again shows his virtuosity as an orchestrator with malevolently quiet muted brass and hobbling bass clarinet and characterful contra-bassoon. This builds to a powerful climax and leads straight into the next section which reprises Macbeth’s main theme this time revealed in all its confident glory.
The remaining works on the disc are more clearly functional yet they are all saved from the 'humdrum' by neat little touches of individuality by the composer. The "Suvorov Overture" refers to Alexander Suvorov who was one of the great Russian military commanders of the 18th Century. Apart from his skills as a soldier it can be imagined that his 'common touch' was something much celebrated in the Soviet era by word if not in deed. In this work Kochurov does not try to be specifically programmatic instead he uses the title to allow him to write what can only be described as a 'Classical Comedy Overture' in the same way that Prokofiev’s Symphony No.1 is 'Classical'. Again, it's difficult to think of another Soviet work with this genuine light-hearted feel. There seems to be no 'side' to the humur neither does it seems false or forced. This is the neoclassical world of Respighi or Grieg in Holberg-mode. Textures are light and clear with contrapuntal writing to the fore. Kochurov passes the musical material deftly around all the instruments of the orchestra in a genuinely charming way. The final peroration is a tad formulaic in its use of sequences and lets the rest of the work down somewhat.
With the "Solemn March" Kochurov wears another hat-this time it is the ceremonial march of Tchaikovsky. But thankfully it avoids the cliches of so many similar 'great occasion' Soviet marches. The orchestral brass enjoy their fanfares but again the string playing lacks real finesse. This is far more quirky than similar works; it is more jaunty than solemn. The fun is in the counter-melodies and how he orchestrates them. Even the last work, which is my favorite (with its daunting title "Heroic Aria") proves to be more impressive than one might think. It suffers from a far inferior recording, and from a different engineer apparently. The orchestra sounds far more distant and harsher. In Olesya Petrova they have a young Russian mezzo-soprano whose voice combines the best of traditional Russian singing values, rich, resonant and vibrant. She has a fairly dreadful text to sing; "Leningrad troops are marching to do battle against evil invaders" is one of the more deathless couplets. But again Kochurov seems to have found a way of setting it that has the ring of sincerity. It should be no surprise that this occupies more of a predictable sound-world but it manages to feel more like an operatic aria than propaganda piece. Petrova sings it with conviction and the orchestration lifts it far above the run of the mill. There is a beautiful poignant but brief passage for two clarinets that alone justifies the worth of the whole work.
The liner notes don't at all explain Kochurov’s early death in 1952 (the disc lists it as being 1951 but that is incorrect) at the age of just 44. It is easy to speculate that his work did not find favor among the establishment with all the implications that had for Soviet artists. The notes mention other scores for the theatre that include a Tristan and Isolde, Don Quixote and Boris Godunov...that would make for an intriguing disc!