CD Reviews 07
§ = World Première Recording
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Symphony No. 15, arr. for violin, cello, piano, celesta and percussion by Viktor Derevianko with Mark Petarsky, opus 141bis[a]§; Schnittke: Prelude (Praeludium) in Memoriam Dmitri Schostakovich for violin and tape[b].
Gidon Kremer (violin)[a,b], Clemens Hagen (cello)[a], Vadim Sakharov (piano and celesta)[a], Peter Sadlo, Edgar Guggeis, Michael Gärtner (percussion)[a].
Deutsche Grammophon 449 966-2. DDD. TT 47:02.
Recorded Kirche St. Konrad, Abersee bei St. Gilgen, Austria, August 1995.
§World première recording of arrangement.
Arrangements of familiar symphonic works for smaller groups of instruments fascinate because they promise new experience and revelation. In the age predating sound recordings, when Steinways rather than Sonys decorated the music lover’s home, Liszt’s transcriptions of Beethoven’s symphonies for piano trio and piano solo, among others, enjoyed popularity.
The genre has since had a respectable pedigree. One may still find recordings of Rite of Spring and Planets arranged for piano four hands, and Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra arranged for piano solo. Inasmuch as these arrangements aspire to be something they are not, they remain mere curiosities.
The current recording of Shostakovich’s Fifteenth Symphony arranged for piano trio and percussion is also something of a curiosity. The work is the love’s labour of pianist Viktor Derevianko, and was completed in 1972 with the benefit of the composer’s personal approval.
The listener may be taken by surprise by the suitability and strength of this transcription. One reason is the extraordinarily good performance it receives, the details of which will be taken up later. Another reason is the unexpected ease with which the work fits into its new instrumental clothing. As I hope to explain in this review, it is no exaggeration to call this rendition a metamorphosis unlike anything else in the genre.
Much has been written about the dichotomy between the public and private Shostakovich, as represented in the spheres of his symphonic and chamber music, respectively. In the last two symphonies, these two diverse worlds undergo a process of convergence and synthesis as the composer’s scoring, and thus much of his symphonic thinking, becomes increasingly chamber-like. This is especially true of the Fifteenth Symphony, whose instrumentation is frequently spare and sectional, and whose mode of expression is, by and large, private.
Derevianko’s arrangement, then, seems a natural consequence of the creative and instrumental character of the Fifteenth Symphony. Upon hearing it performed, it is evident that his score transcends the merely imitative quality of many transcriptions and achieves complete autonomy in being able to capture the work’s broad range of vision and expression.
In fact, its reduced forces have the effect of further enhancing the symphony’s highly personal nature, so that the listener’s experience of it is dramatically altered and intensified. The Derevianko version, in short, is transformational. For a Shostakovich work that contains so many private confessions of the soul, the shift in perspective is more than palatable, it is profound. All of its shattering impact is preserved, even magnified, due to the remarkable synergy between the current performers and the strange alchemy of this singular score.
The above comments are not based on any particular set of musical or technical features, but rather on an overall impression of the current performance: the way in which it successfully captures the terrifying Jekyll/Hyde duality which permeates the opening movement; the thrillingly coiled frenzy which is suddenly and cryptically cancelled by the William Tell quotes; the dark cello soliloquy in the second movement which now makes its futile appeals in a more vividly interpersonal setting; the explosive valedictory confrontation in the last movement and the mystical dissipation of the music as it fades into blackness.
The ensuing discussion of the details of Derevianko’s adaptation will be of greater interest to those who are already familiar with Shostakovich’s symphony. Other readers may skip down a few paragraphs.
As one might expect, the 13 percussion instruments and celesta called for in this transcription play pretty much the same parts as indicated in the composer’s original score. The violin and cello naturally assume the role of the strings while the versatile piano takes up the woodwinds and brass, though these are not hard and fast rules.
The most conspicuously altered timbre in the first movement is the assignment of the prominent trumpet parts to the cello. These include the trumpet solo (1:30, fig. 9; all figure numbers refer to location in the original orchestral score) leading up to the first William Tell quotation, all four William Tell quotations themselves, and the Tell-echoing trumpet motif (introduced at 2:33, fig. 15). One might have expected the piano to represent such an extroverted and declamatory instrument. However, the decision works by preventing the campiness from being overstated and by preserving the dignity of the original score’s piano dynamic marking at the junctures where the trumpet is featured.
I was not too surprised with the instrumentation in the second movement. As in the first movement, the trumpet once again avoids piano representation. The muted trumpet solos both before (6:47, fig. 66+1) and after (9:33, fig. 74) the central climax are quite effectively given to the violin playing harmonics. The trombone solo is reasonably scored for piano in parallel octaves.
The final movement, as one might expect, seems to have required more complex decisions in matters of timbre, balance and overall dramatic structure. For example, the exposition of the sentimental Glinka theme is given to the piano at the beginning of the movement, yet its post-climax recapitulation is scored for violin. This works quite well to establish contrast and a sense of transformation during the post-climactic darkening of mood. In each case in the original score, the Glinka theme is given to the first violins.
There are a number of other instrumental role reversals. At one point (3:02, fig. 120) a passage originally for woodwinds is cast for violin and cello. Yet when the winds return with the same material shortly thereafter (3:52, fig. 122), they are scored for piano. In between these (3:24, fig. 121), we find a passage, originally for strings, conferred to the piano.
The arrangement often brings forward certain details that are otherwise less apparent or obscured by multitude and room reverberance in conventional performance. I shall mention a few which particularly caught my ear. In the first movement there are a number of passages reminiscent of the Second and Fourth Symphonies where the contrapuntal texture thickens by successive voices entering in competing cross-rhythmic groups of 5 against 6 against 8 (e.g., 4:59, fig. 28). This is one of the many times during the symphony when the music enters strange regions of expressive neutrality.
Another curiously complex section that also emerges with revealing clarity is the sequence of odd accelerating, ascending filigrees in the strings (8:04, fig.133), almost a hysterical screeching, leading up to the final movement’s summary statement (compare similar filigrees in the Scherzo of the Tenth Symphony).
In matters of performance, the players deserve considerable praise for their unified interpretive vision and teamwork. This is clearly a set of musicians who share a deep and united emotional relationship with the work. I emphasize this point as I have heard too many performances of the Fifteenth in which the conductor fails to penetrate the work’s full scope of darkness and intensity. This is truly a model of Shostakovich interpretation and performance.
Thanks to the adrenal involvement of the three percussionists, the climactic sections of the second and fourth movements lose nothing of their volcanic impact as compared to orchestral versions. These musicians also can be commended for subtle, atmospheric solo work at various points, and otherwise, for being able to punctuate forcefully without obscuring other players.
Pianist Vadim Sakharov displays an impressive range of expression as the pivotal player in this adaptation. It is the percussive timbre of his instrument that is responsible for crystallizing many of the textures of the original score and driving much of the music forward. In the first movement he negotiates agitated passages with fierce intensity. In the final movement, he takes up the exposition of the Glinka melody with touching sweetness, as if to cast more strikingly the shattering drama to follow. He also begins the passacaglia theme with appropriately detached stealth, and delivers a set of striking ‘death chords’ with a vengeance in the finale.
Gidon Kremer’s virtuosity is given its most significant platform in the Scherzo, yet he delivers fine performances throughout, adding a delightfully irreverent swagger to his elisions in the first and third movements. He might have contributed more drama to the finale had he taken the recapitulation of the Glinka theme more slowly and dotingly, yet he certainly captures the poignancy of the moment. Cellist Clemens Hagen is a good ensemble player, though I would have preferred more of a personal presence throughout, especially in his otherwise technically proficient solos in the second movement. Both string players are to be congratulated for superbly negotiating their share of tricky passages.
It must be mentioned that the transcription does incur some minor losses when compared to the orchestral version. For example, one misses the doleful timbre of the trombone in its prominent second movement solos; and the widely spaced funereal chords that appear after the second movement’s climax (10:02, fig. 75) do not have the ghostly glow found in conventional renditions.
I do have one gripe, not necessarily with this recording, but with most performances of the Fifteenth. The final movement’s climax is topped off with a mighty gong stroke (9:26, fig. 135+2), yet most performances I have heard do not use a sufficiently large gong to achieve the massive resonance required for this cataclysmic moment
The instruments on this finely engineered recording are given the close, vividly clear presence demanded by the performance. At the same time the ambience is astutely endowed with sufficient resonating room to provide for the atmospheric sections.
This is a most uncommon entry in the Shostakovich discography. In it we find superb ensemble playing and a brilliantly realized interpretation that brings a unique, intensely personalized perspective to the work. Rather than being relegated to the oddities compartment along with the reduced versions of Planets, Rite, and Pastoral, this disc deserves equal status with the other competing versions of the Fifteenth Symphony. It is probably redundant at this point to say that it is one of the more engaging performances of the Fifteenth Symphony on record. It will no doubt remain a model of performance for some time to come.
Leading the programme is the five-minute Prelude in Memory of Dmitri Shostakovich by Alfred Schnittke, scored for two violins, and written a few months after the composer’s death in 1975. The work is based on the four-note monograms of Shostakovich and Bach, both of which are nested almost indistinguishably amid the often thickly dissonant multiple-stop sonorities. One violin maintains a metronomic pulse of pizzicato notes while the other repetitively intones a short, mournful phrase. Both reach a climactic level of anguish, then subside. Significantly, one of the violins is to be played unseen, either by an offstage performer or, as in the current recording, by prerecorded tape. The metaphors of ‘buried’ monograms and missing musician are not lost in this heartfelt memorial, passionately performed by Gidon Kremer.
This disc is mandatory for those with any level of interest in Shostakovich’s music.
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Sofia Perovskaya, opus 132 §; Vyborg District, opus 50, excerpt; The Man with the Gun, opus 53 §; A Great Citizen (Series II), opus 55, Funeral March§; Passer-By (Counterplan), opus 33 §.
Walter Mnatsakanov, Byelorussian Radio and TV Symphony Orchestra.
Russian Disc RDCD 10018. DDD. TT 64:38.
Recorded November 1995.
§ World première recordings.
Perhaps the best way to open my review of Sofia Perovskaya, the most sublime Shostakovich film score that I’ve heard, is to quote from Levon Hakopian’s booklet notes for Russian Disc’s première recording:
“Sofia Perovskaya, by Arnshtam, was released in 1968. It represents the story of the life and death of a conspicuous activist of the terrorist organisation Narodnaya Volya (“The People’s Will”), responsible for the assassination of Czar Alexander II on March 1st, 1881. Perhaps this strong, even ruthless female character had attracted Shostakovich’s attention because of her likeness to his favourite heroine Katerina Izmailova.”
Although elements of Sofia Perovskaya‘s plot may recall Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, the music itself is different from anything else I’ve heard from Shostakovich’s pen. The only exception is the very beginning of the score, where the March and Execution are reminiscent of Shostakovich’s older film scores. Indeed, one could almost mistake the beginning of Sofia for the much earlier Passer-by, opus 33.
After the Execution comes a movement featuring a prominent timpani role and then a quote from Mahler’s First Symphony on trumpet. Following this is a whole movement devoted to a timpani solo.
Next is what is probably the gem of the film score suite: a Valse. This resembles aspects of The Godfather soundtrack, although of course that would be years distant in the future. The Valse is scored for brass and cymbal, with an oom-pah-pah beat. The trumpets play a desperate tune that leaves the impression that the heroine is dancing the last waltz of her life. The woodwinds in the middle section of the Valse try to make the proceedings a little more cheery.
There is much intense string writing in this score that brings to mind composers such as Bartok and Britten, notably in the movement entitled The Village, where the strings are interwoven with a wordless women’s chorus.
The only movement that conveys a happy mood times out at a mere 48 seconds. Conversely, the longest movement of the whole score, at 6:47, is very involved, and has the whole orchestra sounding serious and intense, with prominent roles for celesta and lower strings. Here Shostakovich juxtaposes a climax, silence, and chamber-like qualities. The very short Moderato that follows recruits the whole orchestra with a sprinkling of tubular bells.
Only in the finale does the old film-composing Shostakovich return, with music that is momentarily bombastic and banal. This, however, is soon silenced by the timpani, and the strings return with an anti-climactic ending.
I agree completely with Mr. Hakopian when he writes,
“Like Katerina Izmailova, Sofia Perovskaya is portrayed in music with extreme tenderness – which is rather atypical of Shostakovich who, in general, avoided in his music every sign of “sentimentalism.” For connoisseurs of Shostakovich’s art it is really great luck to have this remarkable specimen of his late style available on CD.”
This is a desirable CD even without the fillers, which are also noteworthy. In addition to the first recording of Sofia Perovskaya, you get an excerpt from the Vyborg District, as well as world première recordings of music from The Man with the Gun, A Great Citizen, and the Passer-By.
Until I encountered this CD, The Gadfly and Hamlet were the Shostakovich film scores for which I had the greatest respect. I also found New Babylon to be very distinctive and Alone offered something to ponder. But Sofia Perovskaya has crossed a line in my estimation. This film score is the closest thing I’ve ever heard in Shostakovich to what I would call art in the purist sense. I can almost see a conductor programming Sofia Perovskaya instead of Bartok’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta and not thinking twice about it.
Although I never “blanket-recommend” a label or conductor, on the strength of his film score entries I am prepared to make a rare exception for Mnatsakanov on Russian Disc. I can’t wait to see a release from this team of The Gadfly or Hamlet.
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The Dance Album
Moscow, Cheryomushki, opus 105, Suite (ed. Andrew Cornall)§; The Bolt, Suite, opus 27a (1934 version); The Gadfly, opus 97, original film score, excerpts.
Riccardo Chailly, Philadelphia Orchestra.
Decca/London 452 597-2. DDD. 72:58.
Recorded Giandomenico Studios, Collingswood, New Jersey, December 1995.
§ World première recording.
To the best of my knowledge this is currently the only suite of Moscow, Cheryomushki, the complete work being fairly recently available from BBC Music Magazine. It sounds as if Chailly extracts more energy from the Philadelphians than conductor Wasfi Kani gets ot of the Pimlico Opera on the BBC recording.
The suite is in four movements and is relatively short. However, upon hearing it you feel a sense of completeness, along with a clear impression of the music’s operetta-like character. Both Andrew Cornall’s edition and Chailly’s execution of the music are excellent
The Bolt suite is the most orthodox music appearing on this CD and indeed I’m sure many of you would have to ask if you need yet another version of it. Nevertheless, Chailly’s approach offers both power and finesse, which could be said of the whole album. He is by no means straight-laced, but he doesn’t seem to blink either. The Philadelphia Orchestra are to be commended on the rare power and unity of ensemble they show.
These Gadfly excerpts are not the versions that everyone is accustomed to from the familiar suite, opus 97a; rather, they are excerpts from the film score in its original orchestration. While you will recognize the same material, it is organized into different chunks, which are, in general, shorter than the movements of the suite. Quite noticeable are the tubular bells in the Overture. I like The Gadfly in this version, but I look forward to the day when someone will record the complete score on a CD or two.
By the time you get done with The Gadfly you have to ask yourself “What does this have to do with dancing?” After all, many of the excerpts from The Gadfly don’t make me feel like dancing! It really doesn’t matter; The Dance Album is a great addition to the discography, putting together three pieces in an unlikely way that – surprisingly – works! Even though I usually favour European orchestras, I found the Philadelphia Orchestra’s contribution to be top-notch.
Now that Chailly has taken on the lightweights, I feel that it is time for him to tackle the heavyweights. Outstanding job, Chailly, on the Jazz Music and Dance albums … would you like to try a Shostakovich Fifth?