There's something inherently improbable in the idea of a forgotten semi-great composer named Popov. The very name may give American college graduates a queasy feeling, reminding them of Popov Vodka, that stomach-scouring serum in a plastic bottle. But Gavriil Popov, a contemporary of Shostakovich (born 1904, died 1972), was the real deal — a major talent cut down by the furies of his time. I encountered Popov's music at Bard College's Shostakovich Festival, which I wrote up in the New Yorker last week. I'd had a couple of Popov recordings in my library for a while, but, as so often, hearing the music live showed me something that the CDs had not.
Popov studied alongside Shostakovich at the Leningrad Conservatory. His breakout work was the Chamber Symphony of 1927, heard at Bard in a fine performance under the direction of Fernando Raucci. The instrumentation, for flute, clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, violin, cello, and double bass, recalls Histoire du Soldat, and you also hear echoes of the Hindemith of the Kammermusik series. There are trace elements of jazz, but only in the distant Soviet understanding of the word — fox-trots and other café styles. Popov had a real gift for melody, even as he constantly undercut his lyric flights with murmurs of disaster. There is an open-hearted sweetness that you seldom find in Shostakovich's music. The Trio theme in the second movement is almost like Copland — a plainspoken song in the flute over static accompaniment. The Largo is absolutely magical: midway through comes a high, sad, slow, bewitching violin theme over a funky bass vamp. The fast passages are full of rhythmic surprises, unusual tonal combinations, nasty little dances that start and stop. Overall, the work has more personality and invention than anything by Shostakovich from the same period, even the First Symphony. What it lacks is Shostakovich's rock-solid sense of form, his Beethovenian aura of inevitability.
In the late twenties, Popov moved away from brittle, satirical neoclassicism. As David Fanning recounts in an American Symphony program note, he wrote in his diary of a new kind of "theatrical-musical (symphonic) form," based on a study of Mahler. He seems to have sincerely believed that this monumental, dramatic approach to symphonic writing would match up with Soviet cultural policy. (The critic Ivan Sollertinsky, one of Shostakovich's closest friends and advisers, was writing along similar lines.) His manifesto work was the First Symphony, a work of astounding expressive power and emotional complexity. Very much like Shostakovich's later Fourth Symphony, it stumbles for long periods across an unearthly landscape that resembles partially bombed-out Mahler. The final movement is particularly remarkable: it begins with a Soviet industrial ostinato along the lines of Mossolov's Iron Foundry and Prokofiev's Pas d'acier, but then a human form seems to rise up from the innards of the machine, singing in alternately ecstatic and demonic tones. The symphony closes with an awesome sequence of ringing figures and trilling chords, based on the magic bells of Wagner's Monsalvat and Rimsky's Kitezh — except that some terrible shadow hangs over this shining city on a hill. I thought of Poe: "While from a proud tower in the town / Death looks gigantically down."
Shostakovich plainly paid attention to Popov's idea of theatricalized symphonic form: his own death-drunk Fourth not only resembles Popov's First in design but seems at times to quote its music. There might also be a citation of Popov in the Fifth Symphony, whose great opening utterance resembles a figure that surfaces in Popov's opening movement. Whether Shostakovich was sending a clandestine message with these near-quotations is anyone's guess, but he might have wanted to show solidarity with Popov, who had been briefly purged from the Conservatory back in the twenties and suffered censure again after the First's premiere in March of 1935. (The work was said to show "the ideology of classes hostile to us.") The denunciation of Shostakovich in 1936 was more public and ferocious, but it was accompanied, we now know, by private assurances that the composer would thrive again if he followed a correct path. Popov apparently received no such encouragement. His masterpiece was never heard again during his lifetime.
The two composers together make an interesting case study in the difference between raw talent and genius. Shostakovich showed the world a helpless, vulnerable facade, but he had an inner tenacity that carried him through the Stalinist crisis. He also had a certain canniness, a knack for plotting the twists and turns of his career, which we never like to acknowledge as an ingredient of genius. Popov, exploding with talent but lacking that eerie detachment from his creative self, collapsed under the outward pressure. He felt obligated to produce programmatic Socialist-Realistic pieces on a regular basis (Komsomol Is The Chief of Electrification). He became a raging alcoholic. (Per Skans in an Olympia liner note: "The Soviet Composers Union was never a teetotal organization, but Popov was certainly thirstier than average.") For extended periods after the war he produced little of consequence. His last major statement, the Sixth Symphony, subtitled Holiday, makes for an upsettingly strange experience: you're never sure whether you're listening to some craven attempt at Communist bombast, some fabulously ironic satire on same, or drunken babbling. At its best, it matches the First Symphony's attitude of regal delirium: this Soviet holiday party culminates in obvious echoes of Mussorgsky's Coronation Scene, the crowning of the murderer Tsar, and ends with a noise that you could hear either as a whoop of joy or an onrush of vomit.
For the moment, there's no way of hearing the works I describe here except on used LPs and CDs. The Olympia label, which released recordings of the Popov symphonies some years ago, has ceased to exist. How's that for frustration? Fortunately, Leon Bostein, who presided over the Shostakovich Festival at Bard, has made a very persuasive recording of the First Symphony with the London Symphony, which Telarc will release in the fall. I've listened to my preview copy at least twenty times in the last few weeks: it has the ever-changing, life-enhancing personality of a masterpiece. Popov was a man destroyed by history, and he deserves some restitution after death.