"Fears are dying out in Russia," the men of the Choral Arts Society proclaimed confidently -- and in Russian -- last night in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. Bulgarian bass Nicola Ghiuselev added, "It is even strange to remember now. The secret fear of an anonymous denunciation, the secret fear of a knock at the door."
The words were given a special eloquence by the music of Dmitri Shostakovich, who incorporated five Khrushchev-era poems of Yevgeny Yevtushenko in his Symphony No. 13, "Babi Yar." The symphony was powerfully performed with Mstislav Rostropovich conducting the National Symphony Orchestra, the superbly trained chorus and the rich-voiced, deeply expressive soloist.
Yevtushenko's poem "Fears" -- the fourth of the symphony's five movements -- clearly had a special meaning for Shostakovich, who confessed in his posthumous memoirs that he suffered such fears for years, living in the shadow of Joseph Stalin, who had incited more than one campaign of denunciation against him.
By the time the optimistic "Fears" comes in, Shostakovich is trying to build a strong, positive finale for his symphony. It works well enough structurally, leading to a calm conclusion in the sardonically idealistic final movement, "A Career." But historically, Yevtushenko's and Shostakovich's optimism proved premature. A couple of performances after its 1962 premiere, the symphony dropped from sight while the authorities pressured Yevtushenko to change the words of the first section, "Babi Yar" -- a vigorous indictment of anti-Semitism, including the Soviet brand.
One bass soloist after another had turned down the honor of singing the premiere of this work. When a soloist finally agreed, the Bolshoi Opera changed its schedule, forcing him to sing at the opera on what had been planned as a free evening. In the end, a student from the Moscow Conservatory was the soloist in the first performance. Rostropovich, a friend and student of Shostakovich, volunteered to recruit and train the soloist and in the process became thoroughly familiar with the symphony, which he studied with the composer and played on the piano again and again for soloists.
This familiarity was evident in last night's performance. The orchestra, in top form, generated sheer terror in parts of the first movement and rough, vigorous humor in the second before turning to the pathos of the tribute to the strength and suffering of Russian women in the third. A long standing ovation closed the evening, and Rostropovich brought out Norman Scribner, director of the chorus, to share the applause.
The program opened with Bach's First Suite for Orchestra, well played in a rather romanticized style.