It’s said that at the time of his second denunciation by Andrei Zhdanov, Dmitri Shostakovich “waited for his arrest at night, out on the landing by the lift, so that at least his family wouldn’t be disturbed.” Prior to his rehabilitation at home the composer suffered untold hardships but at least he avoided a much-feared fate that was possibly worse than death: the torturous, lonely and pain-inducing Gulag. That was indeed the fate that the Ukrainian-born Jewish composer Alexander Veprik faced after his arrest in 1950. The promised eight years of forced labour turned out to be four, but still, Veprik returned home a broken man. And the effect on his music? Amazingly, inspiringly, we can sense a lightening glow somewhere beyond darkened skies, much like Yevgeny Ukhnalyov’s wonderful painting that adorns the booklet cover for MDG’s superb all-Veprik CD, Ukhnalyov another Gulag victim, six years interred this time rather than four.
In the second of Veprik’s expertly orchestrated Two Poems, at 5:16, after a poetic opening, the composer ups the pace for some highly variegated and dramatic writing, sometimes reflecting Prokofiev, at other times Shostakovich himself, but then at 9:35, quiet but promising fanfares and whooping brass signal a valiant arrival. Could we be approaching Liberty Island (echoes of Gershwin at 11:53, and the Second Rhapsody in particular – probably coincidental – seem to suggest so), an optimistic New World being traded for the shackles of the Old, though the triumphant close recalls Shostakovich, whose Eleventh Symphony seems to hover 40 seconds into the Dances and Songs of the Ghetto, Viprek’s opus having been composed thirty years earlier. Mention of Veprik’s contemporaries (the Greek composer Skalkottas seems conspicuous by his prophetic dancing presence in this same work) brings me to Sibelius whose spirit fills the Pastorale, maybe the Hasidic Baal Shem sitting by the river Tuoni, watching the long-necked Swan signalling terrible sadness yet to come. These references to other composers are intended merely as a guide to what you might expect when listening. And then there’s the last of Five Little Pieces for Orchestra, a devastatingly simple Lento, all 3:15 of it, music that seems to encapsulate the troubled but at times comforting spirit of this quite remarkable composer. The Two Symphonic Songs are also mightily impressive.
Look hard enough and you’ll always be able to find little-known music that appeals. But music of this quality, that seems to score the stream of life with such immense facility and level of intuition? Not in my experience. Among recent discoveries Mieczysław Weinberg is maybe the closest point of reference. Christoph-Mathias Mueller draws brilliant performances from the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, who seem committed to every note of each score. The recorded sound is first-rate and so are the booklet annotations. A potential Award-winner I’d say.
Alexander Veprik Orchestral Works
BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Christoph-Mathias Mueller
Dabringhaus und Grimm MDG 901 2133-6