CD Reviews 11
§ = World Première Recording
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In addition to thirteen CDs featuring Vladimir Ashkenazy conducting Shostakovich’s music, Decca have issued recordings, all now deleted, in which he has taken part as a pianist in six of the composer’s works (Cello Sonata, Moderato for Cello and Piano, Piano Quintet, Blok Romances, Captain Lebyadkin Verses and the piano version of the Michelangelo Suite, this last item issued only on LP but later rerecorded by Ashkenazy in its orchestral version). However, the present release is his first commercial recording of any of the solo piano music.
In 1991 I devoted many pages of the society’s newsletter to a discussion of the outstanding recording of the Opus 87 cycle by Marios Papadopoulos (Kingdom KCLCD2023 & 2024/5). Caroline Weichert’s set is also impressive (Accord 202032), but the widely-acclaimed Hyperion set by Tatiana Nikolayeva (CDA66441/3) is likely to be most listeners’ point of reference in a comparative evaluation of this new Decca release. Nikolayeva first recorded the cycle in 1962, but this 4-LP set has had little circulation outside the USSR. The 1962 performance is a fine one, illustrating why many musicians, including Ashkenazy himself, have paid tribute to her artistry. These LPs have never appeared on CD and the Melodiya CDs currently available of Nikolayeva playing Opus 87 derive from a 1987 recording which shows a distressing deterioration in her playing (19849-2) [Recordings Editor’s note: since this review was written, the BMG/Melodiya release has become unavailable, but the same recording has been reissued on Regis RRC 3005]. The 1987 set did not become available in the West until after Nikolayeva had recorded the cycle again in 1990 for Hyperion, a performance which shows an even greater decline, and a set which it would certainly not have been thought necessary to make had the better-engineered 1987 version been available at that time.
There is probably no parallel in the history of recording for any artist changing their interpretation as drastically as did Nikolayeva between her 1962 and 1990 recordings; indeed, it is difficult to conceive that the two sets are the work of the same artist. Reviewing the Hyperion set in 1991, I was as gullible as all other writers (with the exception of Ian MacDonald) in assuming the 1990 performance to be “authentic”, a long-delayed setting down of her interpretation as it had stood when she had worked with the composer on the pieces in 1950-1. Nevertheless, I pointed out that the recording misrepresented Shostakovich’s music, in that Nikolayeva, although aged only 66 at the time, was now having severe problems in getting her fingers around the notes (errors in the society’s retyping of my review invalidated some of my references to her problems at specific places in the score). A further recording by her of Shostakovich piano works, issued by Hyperion in 1992, showed her playing at crisis point, being so inaccurate as to defy belief.
The frequently-quoted influence of Bach’s Forty-eight Preludes and Fugues on Shostakovich’s Opus 87 is minimal; the assumption that Shostakovich suddenly discovered Bach’s music at the Leipzig Bach bicentennial celebrations in 1950 and then immediately set about writing fugues so as to introduce the German contrapuntal tradition to Russian culture is laughable, as Russian music has always had a strong polyphonic element (if one is seeking influences, one is more likely to find one by comparing Shostakovich’s virtuoso Prelude and Fugue No.12 in G# minor with Taneyev’s equally-virtuoso Prelude and Fugue in G# minor, Opus 29, of which Ashkenazy has made a memorable recording). By 1990, Nikolayeva seemed determined to entomb Shostakovich’s pieces beneath a thick layer of pseudo-Bachian gloss, but “Bachian” in the anachronistic 1950s tradition of slow tempi and claustrophobic textures, with a uniform mood of seriousness and weight imposed on the music throughout.
By contrast, Ashkenazy allows each piece its own individual character, so his performance will have the effect of a breath of fresh air on listeners accustomed to Nikolayeva’s unrelieved portentousness, a style of playing forced on her by loss of technique in her later years. Compare their performances of Fugue 15, for instance: here Ashkenazy achieves startling clarity at a genuine Allegro molto, yet Nikolayeva, even at her own impossibly-sluggish tempo, is struggling to play the piece at all, part of a bar even being omitted in the confusion. Fugue 17 provides one of the worst examples of her habit of simplifying the text when the going gets tough: here, at the passage written in two bass clefs, fragments of the lower voices are omitted, leaving scraps of incomplete lines which do not make thematic sense in isolation. With forty years’ experience of playing this music, cheating of this sort should not be necessary; with Ashkenazy, every note is audible and he makes the piece even sound easy. After listening to his recording and taking his professional standards for granted it is a considerable shock to return to Nikolayeva’s, where one finds elementary pianistic challenges such as the left hand octaves in Preludes 3 and 15 totally fouled up.
One of the most tiresome characteristics of the Hyperion set is the exaggerated emphasis of the fugue subjects. So monotonously are they highlighted in this way that when the appearance of a fugue subject passes without emphasis, the listener attributes this to an oversight by Nikolayeva, rather than conscious artistic intention on her part. In any genuinely polyphonic music, all of the individual lines are of interest, not just those featuring the subject, and there is little need to accentuate the main themes when they are heard repeatedly anyway. Moreover, overemphasis of these themes can mask interesting details in the subsidiary voices, details which may occur only once in the music. For much of the Hyperion set, the textures are debased to the level of “theme plus accompaniment” with the accompaniment heavily pedalled, resulting in a warm, superficially attractive sonority in the background, but with no focus or definition. Without the score, I doubt whether any skilled musician could identify the individual voices of Fugue 13 as Nikolayeva plays it: this is the only five-voiced fugue in the cycle, but as the piece is played with no sense of horizontal perspective, with memory lapses too, one’s aural perception in places is of a series of homophonic block chords.
By contrast, Ashkenazy always shows discretion in his handling of fugal entries. His refined keyboard control allows him to bring elements of the texture into prominence without needing to shine a bright spotlight on them in order to do so; often he hints at the material on which he wants us to focus our attention by a slight intensification of dynamic on the relevant notes, a nuance so subtle as to amount to little more than a different shade of tonal colour, thus guiding our attention to the salient notes without distracting our awareness of the remainder of the texture.
Clarity of texture is inseparable from intelligent choice of fingering: Nikolayeva uses the sustaining pedal to cover gaps in her fingerwork, which is often alarmingly uneven (particularly in Fugue 2) but Ashkenazy is so secure of the physical connection from each note to the next that he needs only to employ it in the manner referred to by Claudio Arrau as “the inaudible pedal”, reserving its more extensive use for passages where he requires a particular tone colour. Discriminating use of the pedal enables Ashkenazy to observe staccato markings even when they occur simultaneously with legato elsewhere in the texture. All of this may appear pedantic on paper, but when implemented in performance the effect is of a “three-dimensional” sound world. My only disappointment in this respect was Fugue 1; memories of the 1955 Emil Gilels recordings of Preludes and Fugues 1, 5 and 24 are not easily put aside here, despite the error-prone texts Gilels used, which in the case of Fugue 1 halved the metronome marking.
Polyphonic music can cause problems on the piano: in ensemble music, separate lines are easy to differentiate because of their contrasting instrumental colours, but when on the piano two or more separate lines converge to the same register of the keyboard, the listener is often unable to distinguish which notes belong to each line, because of the similarity of timbre. The problem is compounded when a sustained note in one voice diverts the listener’s attention temporarily onto the others, because when the first voice resumes its activity, its return to the texture can create the aural illusion that these notes are part of the other voices. In a purely acoustical sense, one still hears all of the notes, but the music is not intelligible unless one can identify the individual shapes of the two or more independent (yet interdependent) lines which the composer intended. When two lines cross over each other, it may not be obvious what is happening, with the result that at the crossover point the ear may mentally join up the midway point of line “A” with the midway point of line “B” and vice versa.
Ashkenazy’s judgments concerning the balance of voices and the relative weight of each illustrate the care which has been taken over his preparation. He almost always clarifies which notes belong to which lines (Fugue 4 at 2’10” and Fugue 20 at 3’39” being two examples out of countless which could be cited) and when he doesn’t (Fugue 8 at 2’52”) it is at points where the composer’s choices of spacings and dynamics make the task unrealistic. In general, pianists tackling polyphonic repertoire often phrase the main voice well but neglect to give adequate shaping to the background ones, which are played without finesse, often unsteady in dynamics. If one chooses a random passage and tries to focus one’s attention on one of the subsidiary voices, the chances are that on Hyperion the subsidiary voice chosen will be inaudible, swamped by pedal, whereas in this new Decca set one finds that subsidiary voices are usually clearly audible, and most likely to be well shaped too.
Textually, Ashkenazy’s playing is accurate, whereas Nikolayeva’s recordings of Opus 87 (and other works by Shostakovich) contain misreadings of the text which derive from faulty early editions, which gives one little confidence in the supposedly-definitive 1980 Muzyka edition of Opus 87 which she herself edited. Next to this, the occasional blemishes by Ashkenazy, such as playing the misprint in Fugue 16 at 5’58” (this variant of the figuration applies only to the left hand in the previous bar) or misreading prominent notes in Prelude 14 at 0’58” or Prelude 17 at 0’13” (the composer’s own recorded performances confirm which notes he intended) or Fugue 21 at 2’05”, are insignificant.
The inconsistencies between the composer’s indicated metronome markings and those adopted in his own recordings are well known, and Ashkenazy has reached his own conclusions about tempi, which are always convincing. He ignores Shostakovich’s instructions that the opening of Fugue 4 should be slower than Prelude 4, and although there is no precedent for this in either the composer’s 1952 or 1958 recordings, it should be remembered that Sviatoslav Richter did the same (and to a much greater extent) in a recording which the composer is known to have admired. There is no element of imitation here though, as Ashkenazy keeps the later acceleration of tempo in Fugue 4 more in harness than Richter chooses to (Marios Papadopoulos is superb here, doggedly persisting in a slow tempo to the end, maintaining the tension until the last note). Sometimes Ashkenazy’s rethinking of individual pieces is radical, such as introducing a considerable climax into Fugue 16, which Shostakovich intended to be played pp throughout and he rejects the markings of p and dolce in Fugue 17, changes which take one aback initially, but which one accepts as valid alternative views on subsequent hearings.
Elsewhere the playing is less controversial, achieving its individuality through subtle touches. In Prelude 14, the tremolo is controlled precisely so as to regulate the tension, producing a performance as memorable as Richter’s but again without imitating it: Richter increases the tempo midway, but Ashkenazy does not. It’s a pleasure to hear the voices of Fugue 7 articulated so clearly, as this piece is often presented as a blur of pedalled arpeggios. After an unaccountably unrhythmic statement of the opening theme, Fugue 8 continues with a well-sustained intensity which holds one’s concentration throughout, and although I prefer Papadopolous in this piece, with the astonishing atmosphere of grim oppression which he creates, Ashkenazy’s performance here is in keeping with his refusal to exaggerate. For example, Fugue 13 is rather faster and less introspective than one might have expected, yet, on its own terms, the performance is a fine one, with the five-voiced counterpoint clear. Note too, how a few detached notes in the accompaniment in Prelude 13 introduce a lightweight mood to that piece absent from previous recordings. I particularly liked the insight with which Prelude and Fugue 18 is handled, the hushed and eerie alternation between minor and major at the end of the prelude followed by a fugue played with a cool poise which avoids banishing the introverted mood previously established. In Prelude 20, Ashkenazy plays the sustained bass octaves as notated, without the alterations which Nikolayeva was keen to relate that Shostakovich had designed specifically for her performances (these modifications, like others she mentions, are adopted in the composer’s own recordings, made almost a year before Nikolayeva first performed Opus 87 in public) and the prelude sounds particularly desolate in its original format, as here, with the bass notes allowed to decay. Despite the incisive virtuosity summoned in other pieces when required (the set is worth buying for the stunning accounts of Preludes and Fugues 12, 15 and 21 alone) listeners will find it equally rewarding to return to Ashkenazy’s performances of the more withdrawn pieces such as this.
The sound quality is excellent. It is remarkably consistent too, considering that the recording was made in different locations over a period of two years, and the occasional change in ambience noticeable between pieces (such as between Nos. 7 and 8) is not obtrusive. Combining a pleasant ambience with a sharp focus which suggests that at least one of the microphones was placed closely to the instrument, it is a more intimate sound than on some of the recordings the pianist has made in the last few years in Switzerland at St Charles Hall, Meggen, where he recorded his two Prokofiev discs. Good booklet notes by David Gutman are included.
Vladimir Ashkenazy’s new set is the product of a great deal of thought and painstaking preparation. I have listened to it five times in its entirety and am sure that it is likely to prove to be a recording of lasting value. It would be welcome news if Decca restored to the current catalogue the six deleted recordings mentioned at the start of this article, which would form an interesting 2-CD set. I hope too that Tatiana Nikolayeva’s 1962 version of Opus 87 will be issued eventually on CD. Any artist deserves to be remembered for their best achievements, and it is unfortunate that the 1987 Melodiya and 1990 Hyperion versions, the latter the object of indiscriminate media hype, have both badly misrepresented the true qualities of a respected musician who did so much to promote Shostakovich’s music.
Preludes Nos. 1, 2, 7, 8, 11, 14, 15[a], 17, 18 & 23 from Twenty-four Preludes and Fugues, opus 87; Barber: Excursions 1, 2 & 4 from Excursions for Piano, opus 20; Stravinsky: The Devil’s Dance from L’Histoire du Soldat; Poulenc: Mouvements Perpétuels, No. 1[b].
All works arr. for accordion, electric violin, electric guitar and drums (and tuba[a]) by Evan Harlan, except Mimi Rabson[b].
Excelsior: Evan Harlan (accordion), Mimi Rabson (5- & 6-string electric violins), Claudio Ragazzi (electric guitar), Grant Smith (drums); James Gray (tuba)[a].
Mark Set Go MSG 101 CD. DDD. TT 49:19.
Recorded and mixed April & May 1995 and April 1996, PBS Studio, Westwood, Massachusetts.
World Première Recordings!
After reading Raymond Clarke’s review of Ashkenazy’s new account of Shostakovich’s opus 87, many of you undoubtedly found yourselves asking, “All well and good … but does it rock?” So, without further ado, we now boldly go where no DSCH review has gone before and report on Boston group Excelsior’s radical surgery on ten of the Preludes from the Twenty-four Preludes and Fugues.
Many readers will consider these treatments to be sacrilegious, but the adventurous can ally themselves with the Shostakovich who credited his friend Ivan Sollertinsky for overcoming his snobbish attitude towards light music, and who wrote in 1956, “Now I like music of all genres, provided it is good music.” It is tempting to view the present grouping as a rock interpretation – and the promotional references to King Crimson support that impression – but the four musicians who comprise Excelsior draw on a more diverse range of genres in their highly virtuosic interpretations of these classical pieces, including klezmer, jazz, and folk music.
Evan Harlan (Excelsior is named after his accordion brand) says, “Maybe I’m being perverse, but everything seems to flow from the original compositions in a natural way.” Excelsior’s highly capable musicians are indeed most persuasive when they let the pieces suggest an appropriate response. Prelude No. 15, here labelled Fireman’s Waltz, is a good example, beginning as a playful waltz with fine rhythmic integration of the players – and an “oompah” or two from James Gray on tuba – then disintegrating into a drum solo improvisation before reconstructing the classic waltz form. No. 11, as the painful subtitle Oy Gavotte suggests, is mined for its inherent klezmer potential, following the score fairly strictly until the last page, at which point the violin and accordion take off with a clever improvisation that remains firmly based on the original themes. Prelude No. 8, Stone Polka, also Jewish-inflected, has more improvisation, without the soloists going off entirely on their own, while Prelude No. 1, Sarabande, is a controlled and gentle handling of the dance form.
The Preludes given a more traditional rock treatment are the least successful. No. 17, or Mimi Goes Me(n)tal, is awkward and sluggish, descending into an excessively long violin solo which reminds one of the worst aspects of prog rock (progressive, as in Emerson, Lake and Palmer). The piece most likely to irritate is the last, Prelude No. 23 (Anthem), which falls quickly into a heavy-handed rock-lead mode – where IS my lighter? – in an attempt at a stirring anthem rendition. Here Excelsior sound like an unviable clone of the rock band Journey.
One piece of more mixed merit is Prelude No. 7 (Gigue á la Mode), which has a bad jazz feel at times, with the guitar’s rather noodly (translation: pointless) and over-long improvisation, but very nice accordion work. Similarly, while Prelude 18, subtitled Hora (a Jewish folk dance), sounds authentically klezmerish, it’s somewhat tedious, feeling as if it’s not going anywhere in particular.
The clear standout piece on this album is the arrangement of Prelude No. 14, aptly named Gulag. This interpretation sticks quite closely to the score, with Mimi Rabson on electric violin reading the main melodic line, paying close attention to Shostakovich’s dynamic markings. The raw power of the electrified instruments amplifies the foreboding in the original score, creating a sense of deep, uncontrollable grief, and imparting a siren-like wail to the violin that conjures up vivid prison images. The electric guitar is set on high reverb, and packs a heavy punch in its percussive supporting role. Even those readers interested exclusively in classical music will not fail to recognize the high quality of the playing in this piece or to appreciate Excelsior’s good judgement as to instrumentation.
The mutant bits of Barber, Stravinsky and Poulenc are equally eclectic. Love Declassified or hate it, we guarantee you won’t be bored!
Martha Hurley and W. Mark Roberts
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Twenty-four Preludes for piano, opus 34; Piano Sonata No. 1, opus 12; Piano Sonata No. 2 in B minor, opus 61; Prelude and Fugue in D minor, No. 24, from opus 87.
Raymond Clarke (piano).
Athene ATH CD18. DDD. TT 75:44.
Recorded Djanogly Recital Hall, Nottingham University, U.K., 6-7 January, 9-10 July & 7 September 1998.
Raymond Clarke may be best known to DSCH readers for his recording of Ronald Stevenson’s Passacaglia on DSCH for piano (Marco Polo 8.223545, 1994). His reputation as a performer of the works of Shostakovich himself, however, is well-established in British music circles. The release of Clarke’s new all-Shostakovich recording is the product of his long-term commitment to the promotion of these works in the piano repertoire.
These pieces on this CD span the years 1926 to 1951, the period during which Shostakovich composed his most important contributions to the solo piano repertoire. Whilst a single CD cannot provide a comprehensive survey of the Shostakovich output for the piano, this disc provides a very solid sample of the composer’s best.
The disc commences with the Twenty-four Preludes. The absence of technical difficulty in the opening C Major Prelude leaves the performer entirely free to capture its pure and beautiful simplicity. Not such a simple task it would seem. Clarke’s performance of this opening item does not entirely convince the listener. Further numbers in the set similarly disappoint. Why? In the pieces requiring greater technical facility, Clarke handles the difficulties with ease, yet throughout the set he too often pays insufficient attention to melodic and expressive detail. Indeed, it would seem he almost pointedly ignores the composer’s liberal requests (present in fifteen of the twenty-four pieces!) for espressivo playing. A notable exception is his sensitive treatment of No.10 in C# minor. Generally Clarke seems much more at home in the quirkier pieces, particularly No. 24. Overall, however, this is a very ‘straight’ interpretation of a set of pieces that provides plentiful opportunities for marked contrasts and characterisation. It is a very competent performance, but one that leaves the impression of a somewhat academic approach.
The First Sonata is the obvious showpiece of the disc. Clarke leaves no doubt that he possesses the dual requirements of a formidable technique and an attendant stamina to perform this work. Obvious adjectives to describe this work are: fast, loud, percussive and dissonant. All of these are demonstrated decisively in this performance, yet the contrasting ppp sections and the achievement of a sinister ghostliness are equally well-realised. Atmosphere is paramount in this work and Clarke’s interpretation is completely successful. Throughout the piece, and despite the precariousness of its very nature, there is never any doubt that the performer is in command. Neither is there any doubt about the amount of thought that has gone into Clarke’s interpretation. Tempo and its modifications are well-chosen throughout. Some of the accelerando passages are quite hair-raising in their intensity. This work should be experienced on the edge of your seat, a state usually only achieved in the presence of a live performance. It is no mean feat that Clarke has succeeded in making this possible for the home listener.
Ironically, Clarke’s mastery of the First Sonata highlights the deficiencies of his opus 34. Is it possible to hear from this recording that the first two Preludes of opus 34 encompass the same dynamic range as the First Sonata? The answer is a most definite “no”. To what extent this can be attributed to the recording process is a question for the technical expert. Purely from a listening point of view, however, it is very disappointing.
The Second Sonata perhaps provides the most pleasant surprise on the disc. Considered by many to be overshadowed by its flashy predecessor, this work has a history of being disregarded as a worthy performance item. Whilst not possessing the technical hurdles of the First Sonata, the work does present the performer with a considerable interpretational challenge, not the least of which is its length.
Clarke chooses a fast but well-controlled tempo for the opening of the first movement. The melody is immediately in evidence in contrast to the semiquaver figuration. A surprise comes in the second subject when Clarke maintains a similar tempo (rather than the standard più mosso), thus setting his interpretation apart from all known previous recordings. Musically this works well, though it is not known if this is what Shostakovich intended. Clarke pre-empts criticism on this point with the philosophical observation in his notes that whilst the pursuit of authenticity in performance is a worthy one, its achievement is always illusory. Whilst Clarke is disdainful in his notes about the musical worthiness of this section, the choice of a slower tempo reveals lyrical qualities which almost all previous recordings have failed to uncover. There are a few rough corners between sections in this movement – largely a result of Clarke disallowing himself any “time” during the transitional passages, but overall the movement is handled admirably.
Prelude No.17, opus 34, in which the second movement of the Second Sonata surely has its roots, should prepare the listener for the fact that expressive playing is not Clarke’s strong point. As with the Preludes, performance of this movement is fairly square. Molto rubato is the opening instruction for this movement and additional tempo modifications of ritenuto and accelerando are scattered throughout. Unfortunately, these are largely disregarded; much opportunity for expressiveness is therefore lost. The ppp requirement of the central meno mosso section is not achieved in this recording, the accompanying chords unfortunately sounding more prominent than the melody. Clarke’s interpretation of this movement is drier than that heard on earlier recordings, a choice that could have worked well if the other details had not been ignored.
Like so many of Shostakovich’s large-scale works, the primary performance challenge of the Second Sonata is the divulgence of its overall dramatic form. In the third movement Clarke redeems any earlier shortcomings as he rises to this challenge. Careful consideration has obviously been given to each of the variations that comprise the long finale. This movement (in fact, the entire work) has no real climax. Rather, it waxes and wanes through its variations until it simply subsides sublimely into the key of B Major. Clarke sets himself apart from other performers in his appreciation of this important architectural fact. Central to this understanding are the tempo choices throughout. Clarke’s interpretation differs most markedly from previous recordings in the very slow tempo he adopts for the dramatic Adagio variation. This is crucial to the success of both the movement and the overall work. It is difficult to comprehend why more performers have not appreciated this fact. Clarke’s understanding is sustained right until the end of the mesmeric coda. So often the final bars are tossed off as though they constitute a mere afterthought. Clarke, however, accords the coda its rightful significance and the overall shape of the work is thus revealed as making perfect musical sense.
Quite a fast tempo is chosen for the Prelude of opus 87, No. 24. Not too fast, but maximally fast. Again, Clarke covers himself on this point with the comment in his notes that weighty tempi in this Prelude and Fugue should be reserved for when the piece is played at the end of a performance of the entire opus 87 cycle. This is a very personal opinion and definitely a point for debate. Does No. 24 not assume equal profundity as a concert finale, or, as in this case, the culmination of a 76 minute recording? Regardless of its performance context, it can never be ignored that these are the final significant notes and bars composed by Shostakovich for solo piano. Whilst this point seemingly has little relevance to discussion of this recording, perhaps it is relevant to the fact that this performance of No. 24 fails to arouse the emotions normally associated with this work. The exact reason is difficult to pinpoint. Clarke’s energy never flags and the music builds inexorably toward its climactic ending. Furthermore, the recording is devoid of the split or wrong notes often heard in performance of this work. Clarke’s performance, however, seems to be lacking in passion. Whereas in the Second Sonata control is a key factor in the successful realisation of the work, in this Prelude and Fugue there comes a point where control should be thrown to the wind and pure passion given its head. Perhaps relocation to the concert hall might bring this final vital dimension to Clarke’s performance.
The notes written by Raymond Clarke which accompany this CD provide both interesting background for the newcomer to Shostakovich study and some original insights for the aficionado. In either case they reinforce what is already evident from the recording – that Clarke himself has a profound interest in Shostakovich and a highly developed understanding of his music. This CD is a worthy item for Shostakovich collectors and piano enthusiasts alike.
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Twenty-four Preludes for piano, opus 34; Three Fantastic Dances, opus 5; § Iouli Galperine: Cahier Dominical (Sunday Notebook).
Mikhail Markov (piano).
Suoni e Colori SC 53009. DDD. TT 64:24.
§ World première recording.
Dmitri Shostakovich: Piano Works
Piano Sonata No. 2, opus 61; Twenty-four Preludes for piano, opus 34.
Johan Schmidt (piano).
Cyprès CYP2622. DDD. TT 57:05.
Recorded Royal Conservatory of Liège, Belgium, 23-24 February 1998.
Pianist Mikhail Markov was born in 1951 and schooled in the Tchaikovsky Conservatory in Moscow. He now lives in the Netherlands, teaching and giving concerts. On the evidence of these Twenty-four Preludes, he is thoroughly immersed in the Shostakovian idiom, with a style that is deliberate and strongly articulated. In this he is assisted by a warm and intimate recording free of the cavernous reverberation that afflicts Tatiana Nikolayeva’s well-known version on Hyperion (CDA66620).
Speaking of Nikolayeva, she could still turn her keyboard into a palette in 1992, and her C# minor Prelude, No. 10 is far more atmospheric than Markov’s, painting a Nocturne in heady hues. To his credit, however, Markov seems more content than Nikolayeva to let the music speak for itself, and in the other twenty-three Preludes I greatly preferred his approach. His gait is sprightlier than hers, which pays off in greater excitement in the faster Preludes like the G# minor, No. 12 and the Db Major, No. 15. The wisdom of Markov’s choice of tempi is even more apparent in the B minor and F# Major Preludes, Nos. 6 and 13, which sound downright bloated in Nikolayeva’s ponderous readings. In side-by-side listening with Markov’s of the same two pieces it took an effort to force myself to sit through hers.
A quite different approach to the Twenty-four Preludes can be heard in the new Cyprès disc featuring the multiple-award-winning Belgian pianist Johan Schmidt. This reading is, in the main, light and impressionistic. In the fast Preludes, Schmidt is more daring than Markov, coming in significantly sooner without sliding off the tracks. This difference feels most dramatic in the A minor Prelude, No. 2, which lasts 54 seconds in Markov’s hands, but only 43 in Schmidt’s [because track timings include varying amounts of dead space, all times in this review were measured by stopwatch]. Whether this greater speed is justified is open to debate. Certainly, in the case of the G# minor Prelude, the Allegro non troppo marking would tend to support Markov’s time of 1:16 rather more than Schmidt’s breathless 1:06 (Nikolayeva is even longer-winded, at 1:25).
Even in the slower pieces, Schmidt usually chooses brisker tempi, as can be illustrated by the G minor Prelude, No. 22, which takes Markov 2:21, but Schmidt only 1:59. Schmidt’s speed is felicitously balanced by a correspondingly lighter touch than Markov’s, so his pace in these slow Preludes does not seem excessive. Nevertheless, in the Eb minor (No. 14) and G minor Adagios, which plumb the deepest emotional depths of all the Preludes in this opus, Markov’s firmer and more deliberate attack yields a much darker mood, with a greater sense of introspection.
Conversely, when Schmidt does invest more time in a Prelude than Markov, I find myself wishing that he hadn’t, as in the Bb minor Andantino, No. 16, which sounds quite flaccid next to Markov’s jaunty reading. The F Major Prelude, No. 23, however, gains almost Beethovenian grandeur from the extra time he invests in it (1:22 to Markov’s 1:09).
One startling discrepancy in Schmidt’s reading comes in the F# Major Prelude. He apparently misreads the ottava marking on the treble staff that extends from the second note of the thirty-second bar to the thirty-fourth bar, instead applying the octave up-shift only from the thirty-third bar. It is also possible that this is a conscious alteration, for the change assaults the ear like a knee to the groin and I don’t see how a performer could miss it. If intentional, this departure from the score is ill-advised, disrupting the thematic symmetry of the Prelude’s opening and closing melody.
For technical precision, neither Markov nor Schmidt is as impressive as Raymond Clarke in his new version of Opus 34 (Athene ATH CD 18; full review above). The intellectual rigour of Clarke’s reading offers longer-term rewards than Schmidt’s impressionism. For better exposing the full emotional range of these pieces, however, Markov’s is the set to live with.
Markov is equally fine in the Three Fantastic Dances, those tasty and calorie-free Gallic bonbons penned by the 14-year-old composer. Nikolayeva supplies this coupling too, however, and I find her Dances to be more vividly coloured than Markov’s. Her second Dance is delightful, redolent of Ravel. Perhaps I am wrong to prefer it over Markov’s, which admits slightly less dynamic variety and significantly less atmosphere, for, strictly speaking, his does sound more Shostakovian. For whatever it’s worth, Markov is closer than is Nikolayeva to Shostakovich in his handling of dynamics in any of his three recordings of Three Fantastic Dances (the 1946 and incorrectly-pitched 1956 transfers on Revelation RV 70008 and RV 70003 and the 1958 Paris recording on EMI CDC 7 54606 2 are no longer in the catalogue[since this review was written, the EMI release has returned to distribution]).
This Suoni e Colori release apparently marks the first recording of any work of Iouli Galperine, who was born in Kiev in 1945 and now resides in Paris. Sunday Notebook consists of eight impressionistic tableaux. The musical influences are diverse, with Shostakovich’s ghost flitting in occasionally, but these pieces are by no means derivative. It is telling that the listener’s interest is sustained without resort to pianistic special effects, and many of the scenes are economical to the point of austerity, in particular, the monomaniacal Méditation. This is clearly the product of a serious and talented mind, and makes a valuable addition to an already-attractive release.
Philippe Mercier’s notes to Cyprès’ release take pains to draw parallels between Schmidt’s coupling, the Second Piano Sonata of 1943, and the style of Gabriel Fauré. A generic “Frenchness” is indeed audible in Schmidt’s interpretation, which is phrased with admirable finesse. As accomplished as his performance is, one senses that the obsessive quality that permeates the work is foreign to Schmidt’s constitution, for he tends to soften and round the corners of its repetitive themes.
A more rough-hewn Sonata No. 2 appears on Nikolayeva’s Twenty-four Preludes/Three Fantastic Dances CD considered above. Nikolayeva is not loath to bang out her part jerkily when called for, and there is more of Shostakovich the satirist in her version. Unsurprisingly, Schmidt is significantly faster than Nikolayeva in the outer movements, which last only around eighty percent as long as in her recital. Neither he nor she, however, matches Clark for grasping the overall structure of the work – in particular its third movement, whose elements fall so neatly into place in his hands.
Cyprès’ acoustics are, if anything, too revealing, for one makes out all of the mechanical noise of Schmidt’s pedalling. This does not obscure the fact that his readings offer pianism of a very high order, and the non-specialist collector may well find that the Cyprès disc sits better with them than the alternative versions I’ve considered. Shostakovich-lovers will prefer Markov for the Preludes or Clarke for the Sonata.
W. Mark Roberts
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Miniatures for Young Pianists
Berceuse[a], Dance[b], Contradance[c], Spanish Dance[d], Nocturne[e] (from The Human Comedy, opus 37[a], Michurin, opus 78[b], and The Gadfly, opus 97[c,d,e], arr. for piano by Lev Atovmyan); A Child’s Exercise Book, opus 69; Tchaikovsky: Children’s Album, opus 39; Prokofiev: Music for Children, opus 65.
Rimma Bobritskaya (piano).
Saison Russe RUS 788034. DDD. TT 60:15.
Recorded Moscow Conservatory, February 1991.
Hats off to veteran Russian pianist Rimma Bobritskaya, graduate of the Moscow Conservatory and ex-Neuhaus student, for investing in these Russian miniatures, which, while being within the technical grasp of the young music student, brim over with the distinctive musical personalities of their authors.
The first five Shostakovich movements on this new release are straightforward piano arrangements of music from three stage and film scores. The Berceuse is a pretty transcription of a theme from incidental music he wrote in 1933-34 to an adaptation of Balzac’s The Human Comedy. Shostakovich recycled the same music in 1952 as the Elegy of Ballet Suite No. 3. The irresistibly bouncy theme of the second piece, Dance, will be familiar as Dance 2 from the eight-movement Suite for Variety Orchestra, an arrangement of film and light music scores which is often misidentifed as the lost Jazz Suite No. 2 of 1938. The last three pieces come from The Gadfly, with Contradance and Nocturne from the movements with the same name in the suite (opus 97a). The Spanish Dance is better known as Folk Festival or Fair. Bobritskaya is flexible with the beat, and derives a range of moods from these short works. Beginners should not expect to be able to emulate her bravura performance of the whirlwind Spanish Dance anytime soon!
A Child’s Exercise Book, which Bobritskaya previously recorded for a 1983 Melodiya LP, is more obviously didactic. To encourage his daughter, Galina, in her piano studies, Shostakovich promised her a collection of piano pieces, with a new one to be given to her each time she had mastered the previous one. He completed the first six pieces in December 1944, and Galina premièred them soon afterwards at a concert of the Children’s Music Section of the Moscow Union of Soviet Composers. The seventh piece, entitled Birthday, was written in time to present to Galina on her ninth birthday on 30 May 1945. It opens with a fanfare that Shostakovich elaborated in his Festive Overture of 1954.
Owing to the process of their creation, these miniatures increase in complexity – and in interest for the listener – from first to last. The March and Waltz that begin the set are quite bland, while the third piece, The Bear, is only weakly evocative of its namesake. Even in a pedagogical opus like this, however, Shostakovich couldn’t suppress his wry sense of humour, submitting, as Nos. 4 and 5, a Merry Story in E minor and a Sad Story in G Major!
The composer was the first to record A Child’s Exercise Book, in 1946, announcing the title of each piece in turn. That recording was reissued on the sixth entry of Revelation’s Shostakovich Plays Shostakovich series (RV 70007), which saw very limited distribution before being withdrawn from the catalogue. As was typical for him, especially in light repertoire, Shostakovich tore through these pieces, taking most of the movements very nearly twice as fast as Bobritskaya on the current CD! Bobritskaya’s performance is greatly to be preferred for its superior dynamic variety and expressive range. Still, Shostakovich’s own reading of the sixth piece, Clockwork Doll (an adaptation of the first theme of his Opus 1 Scherzo), does indeed sound far more like a mechanical contrivance than hers, which she perhaps unwisely spins out over fifty percent longer. Still, in Clockwork Doll and the other pieces, by applying colour and texture Bobritskaya makes a persuasive case for the musical value of these miniatures, and I see little scope for improvement on her account. In any case, it is the only one currently in the catalogue, and would have been the CD première but for the brief appearance of the Revelation disc.
I can’t sum up Tchaikovsky’s Children’s Album any better than annotator André Lischke, who writes that, “this music for children is by no means infantile. Its most striking feature is its sensitivity, the sensitivity of the adult who understands the world of childhood with a tenderness enhanced by a touch of nostalgia.” Such understanding is evidenced by the delightful triptych of The Sick Doll, Burial of the Doll, and The New Doll. While the degree of difficulty of the twenty-four pieces in Children’s Album varies, all offer scope for expressive adornment, which Bobritskaya applies with discretion.
Also here are the twelve miniatures of Prokofiev’s Opus 65, sparkling with all of the wit and intricate inventiveness one would expect from this composer. On average, these call for a higher level of skill from the student than do Tchaikovsky’s pieces, and Bobritskaya is able to inject even more of herself into them.
Closely and warmly recorded, the disc is self-recommending to Shostakovich completists, and would also make an excellent present for any young pianists on one’s shopping list.
W. Mark Roberts
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Dmitri Shostakovich: Complete Works for Piano Duo
Concertino in A minor, opus 94; Suite in F# minor, opus 6; Tarantella[a] (from Tarantella and Prelude; incorrectly printed “from the Filmmusic to ‘The Gadfly'”); Waltz and Polka[b] (incorrectly printed “from ‘The Golden Age'”); Stravinsky: Concerto per due pianoforte soli 1935; Prokofiev: Schubert Waltzes, Suite; Grigorasch Dinicu: Hora staccatto (arr. for two pianos by Pantscho Vladigerov)[c].
Klavierduo Genova & Dimitrov: Aglika Genova, Liuben Dimitrov (pianos).
CPO 999 599-2. DDD. TT 70:16.
Recorded Hans Rosbaud Studio, Germany, 4-5 May 1998.
World Première Recordings[a,b,c].
DSCH – Hommage à Dmitri Chostakovitch, Volume 2
Sonata for violin and piano, opus 134[a]; Merry March [printed “La Petite Marche Joyeuse”] for two pianos[b]; Suite for Two Pianos, opus 6[c] [incorrectly printed “opus 61”]; Concertino in A minor, opus 94[d] [incorrectly printed “opus 84”].
Alexandre Brussilovsky (violin)[a], Pascal Godart[a], Thérèse Dussaut[b,c,d], Serge Polusmiak[b,c,d] (pianos).
Recorded Espace Fazioli, France, 1997.
Suoni e Colori SC 53008. DDD. TT 70:40.
World Première Recording[b].
As the presence of Merry March for two pianos on the Suoni e Colori disc demonstrates, CPO’s title is inaccurate. Among other missing piano duet works are the composer’s own arrangements for two pianos of both Piano Concerti, and The Chase from the film The Adventures of Korzinkina, opus 59 (see film music reviews below).
Furthermore, the Tarantella on the CPO disc is not, as the track listing and notes claim, the Tarantella from The Gadfly. Shostakovich did indeed arrange a piano four hands Tarantella from The Gadfly‘s Folk Festival (a.k.a. Spanish Dance), and this would have been a world première recording and an appropriate addition to the current volume if it were here.
Instead, we are given the far more interesting world première recording of the Tarantella from Tarantella and Prelude, an opus-numberless piano duet for children from 1954. The Prelude was simply Elena Koven’s four hands arrangement of the Prelude No. 15 from opus 87, and Derek Hulme explains that the Tarantella is a reduction of Scherzo No. 4 in the suite from The Unforgettable Year 1919 film score. It is an impetuous frolic, lasting under a minute and a half. The main melody is strongly reminiscent of the Polka, Number 26 from Act II, Scene 4 of Shostakovich’s operetta Moscow, Cheryomushki, which he began three years later, and it may well be the musical germ of that tune. The present performance by Bulgarian-born Aglika Genova and Liuben Dimitrov is effervescent and full of good cheer.
The Waltz and Polka are actually not the familiar movements from The Golden Age. The Waltz is the Waltz from Ballet Suite No. 4, originating in the film score to Song of the Great Rivers, opus 95, while the Polka is the Polka from Jazz Suite No. 1, later used in Ballet Suite No. 2. This release would seem to present the world première recordings of these arrangements, and Genova and Dimitrov give characterful readings.
The Suoni e Colori release also contains a world première recording. I believe that Michel Le Naour must be thinking of the Fantasy for two pianos, one of the juvenilia the composer destroyed in 1926, when he writes in the notes that, “The Little Joyous March, which is little played, counts among the first works of the master.” In fact, Shostakovich composed the Merry March as a children’s piece for four hands at the ripe old age of 42, in May 1949, numbering the score Opus 81 but then removing this designation and applying it to his oratorio The Song of the Forests. It seems that he did not intend these four pages of music (one page’s-worth is repeated during play) to be published. It is a cocky little piece, and Dussaut and Polusmiak play it with light-hearted alacrity.
The four-movement Suite in F# minor was the 16-year-old Shostakovich’s most ambitious piece to date. He wrote it after the death of his father, and dedicated it to him. While its interval progressions have the predictability one would expect from an immature composer, it is uncanny how fully developed Shostakovich’s personal style already was by this point – listening to the Suite, nobody would mistake the author. The work opens with a sombre Prelude, patently funereal, which is painted in emphatic oils by Genova and Dimitrov and pastel watercolours by Dussaut and Polusmiak. The Suite then moves into a highly attractive Fantastic Dance which the Bulgarians serve with a stronger Spanish flavour. The Nocturne begins as an impressionistic reverie, then is disturbed by the reappearance of the tragic opening theme. Consistent with their tactics elsewhere, the Suoni e Colori team invest almost twenty-five percent more time on it than do CPO’s duo; both approaches sit well. The emotionally varied Finale mixes new themes with reworkings of material from the earlier movements, and the opening theme features prominently at the end. Genova and Dimitrov generally suggest the young pianist-composer more idiomatically than do Dussaut and Polusmiak, but the latter’s tack is attractive as a light suite.
In the Concertino, both duos are equally fleet-footed in the faster passages, but Genova and Dimitrov devote much less time to the slow bars. This is a light work, and I’m not sure that it gains from investing as much contemplation into the slow outer pages as do Dussaut and Polusmiak. Though both duos take the whirlwind note runs at virtually identical gaits, the Bulgarians somehow give the impression of enjoying them more than do the Suoni e Colori team.
Of CPO’s couplings, the most enjoyable is the arrangement of Hora staccato, an encore staple that Romanian violinist and composer Grigoras Dinicu wrote in 1906 for violin and piano. You probably won’t identify it by name, but will recognise it right away when you hear it. The original scoring has appeared on disc before, but as far as I can determine, this appears to be the world première in the piano four hands arrangement of Bulgarian Pantcho Vladigerov.
The one truly weighty piece of music on these two new releases is the Sonata for Violin and Piano. Alexandre Brussilovsky and Pascal Godart are a strong partnership in this work, and give an impressive display of technical assurance and stamina in the demanding second movement. Particularly good is their matching of dynamic expressiveness to the ever-shifting tonalities of the Largo. This is also a very emotive reading. Shostakovich wrote the Sonata in 1968 during the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, and you can tell how much is at stake from the shrill terror in Brussilovsky’s double-stopped shrieks from Bar 273/5:10 of the second movement. This is a performance that stands up well to comparison with my first choice, the even more incorporeal reading from violinist Shlomo Mintz and pianist Viktoria Postnikova on Erato (2292-45804-2). Certainly, the acoustics of this new disc are less “ambient” and more clearly revealing of the instruments’ original notes than were the Erato disc’s, fine as they were.
I can recommend both releases without hesitation, but their documentation should have been handled with more care, especially in CPO’s case.
W. Mark Roberts
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Oleg Kagan Edition, Vol. XVIII
Sonata for violin and piano, opus 134; Brahms: Sonata for violin and piano in G Major, opus 78.
Oleg Kagan (violin), Sviatoslav Richter (piano).
Live Classics LCL 183. ADD. TT 56:47.
Recorded Tchaikovsky Conservatory, Moscow, 13 May 1988.
Were it the only documentation of the dream team of Oleg Kagan and Sviatoslav Richter in Shostakovich’s neurotic Violin Sonata, this new release on Live Classics would be most welcome. Kagan and Richter were close friends and collaborators since the late Sixties, and the notes to the present release tell of Kagan’s empathy with Richter’s distaste for studio recordings and “almost religious devotion to the inspiration and spontaneity of open performance.”
However, the same duo in the identical coupling, plus Haydn’s Piano Sonata No. 39, remains available on Vol. 10 of Olympia’s Sviatoslav Richter series (OCD 579). The performances on the DDD Olympia release were recorded live in Germany in 1985, and the Shostakovich Violin Sonata has that kind of white heat that is the best side-effect of a live recording. The German audience are virtually inaudible throughout, and the acoustics are very good indeed.
By contrast, the Muscovite concert-goers on the analogue Live Classics recording are themselves a recital of fidgeting and hacking coughs. The performance itself is first-rate, but not as flawless as the Olympia version, and anyway the audience is too distracting to allow one to concentrate fully on the notes. The choice is clear.
W. Mark Roberts
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The Gamblers (complete)[a]; The Nose, opus 15 (complete)[b].
Gennady Rozhdestvensky, Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of the Moscow Chamber Theatre.
[a]Vladimir Rybasenko (bass-Alexei), Vladimir Tarkhov (ten-Ikharov), Valeri Belykh (bass-Gavryushka); Nikolai Kurpe (tenor-Krugel), Ashot Sarkisov (bass-Shvokhnev), Yaroslav Radinovik (tenor- Uteshitelny); [b]Edvard Akimov (bar-Kovalyov), Valeri Belykh (bass-Ivan Yakovlevich), Boris Tarkhov (ten-District Inspector), Boris Druzhinin (ten-Ivan), Aleksandr Lomonosov (ten-The Nose), Lyudmila Sapegina (mez-Pelagia Podtochina), Lyudmila Ukolova (sop-Podtochina’s Daughter), Nina Sasulova (sop-Barber’s Wife).
BMG/Melodiya 74321 60319 2. 2 disc set. ADD [incorrectly printed “DDD”]. TT 72:59 + 76:56.
Recorded [a]live Grand Hall of Leningrad State Philharmony, 18 September 1978; [b]Moscow, 1975.
Reissues of World Première Recordings.
While the orchestral works of Shostakovich have been receiving healthy attention from record companies in recent years, his operas still remain largely neglected. There are but a handful of recordings readily available: two of Lady Macbeth (EMI 49955; DG 437 511-2), one each of The Gamblers fragment (Saison Russe RUS 788115) and Krzysztof Meyer’s completion (Capriccio 60 062-2; both reviewed in DSCH 9), practically none of Katerina Ismailova. Not much of a handful, even if you include his completion of Fleischmann’s Rothschild’s Violin (RCA 68434). Which is a shame when we recall that Shostakovich was essentially a master of the theatre, and that one of his greatest passions had been opera.
This latest BMG reissue of two Melodiya recording premières is, then, nothing short of a landmark. Finally, listeners get to hear on CD the pivotal early Shostakovich work The Nose in its entirety (previously only available on Praga as a suite accompanying Serov’s Shostakovich 15th Symphony; the Le Chant Du Monde’s re-release of the 1979 complete recording is now no longer available). It is amazing that such a seminal work has been missing from the discography for as long as it has. The importance of this cannot be understated: once one experiences The Nose, the missing link to the creative genius of Shostakovich is finally restored. The opera throws light on much of his later work: for example, the tone and style of Lady Macbeth, or what otherwise seems a major philosophical upheaval in the sound-world of the 4th Symphony. In The Nose one also hears the roots of that mysterious percussion writing that has haunted listeners from the 4th Symphony to the 15th Symphony. Above all, The Nose puts into perspective the vigorous and remarkably mature mind of the young Shostakovich, the yurodivy in the making, already hinted at by the portentous 1st Symphony but otherwise masked by the deceptively lightweight ballet trilogy and the two sacrificial symphonies that had dominated his early output prior to Lady Macbeth.
The two works on this double-CD could not be more different, yet there is a consistency and a clear logic to their coupling. As the first and the last works in Shostakovich’s operatic cycle, one gets to appreciate the way his style evolved while remaining essentially unchanged: it is quite clear that the young Shostakovich knew what he was doing from the very start of his career. Both are also heavily reliant on the male voice, which is one of the enduring timbres of his music. And as the very insightful CD notes point out, they are both operas about scoundrels. Put together, these two works present a veritable encyclopaedia of Shostakovichian humour and musical characterisation and satire.
The set begins with the live recording of the 1978 world première of The Gamblers performed in Leningrad. This recording is special because Rozhdestvensky cleverly concludes the unfinished opera with a reprise of the Gavryushka ballad spliced with a few bars from Scene 3. The music is on the whole glorious, and the cast of singers perform with a sharp sense of character and plenty of humour. Their style may elude some of the melodic shape of the vocal parts but you will not want to do without a truly gleeful recital of the oafish Gavryushka’s balalaika song. And while Chistiakov on Saison Russe launches the opera with far greater excitement than does Rozhdestvensky’s more deliberate curtain-raiser (whose music curiously recalls the opening of Stravinsky’s L’Histoire du Soldat), the former loses out in terms of orchestral detail and momentum in the final scene. The highlight of the Saison Russe recording is the singing; Chistiakov’s cast delivers a more melodic vocal style and are generally more full-bodied and emphatic than the Moscow singers. Unfortunately, the forward placing of the vocals in relation to the muddier orchestral soundstage obscures much of the delicious detail.
Rozhdestvensky, on the other hand, has the benefit of a superb recording and engineering (it doesn’t sound at all like a 1970s recording!), so well balanced that every orchestral detail is vividly captured. I found myself hearing music that I had not noticed before, and the entire work resonates with new life. The performances are deliciously sharp, and the maestro picks up his pace as the action unfolds so that his last scene far outplays Chistiakov’s. (In fact, so transparent is the sound that I suddenly notice a “DSCH” motif on the descending trombones at 1:40 of Track 18!) So, although I rather prefer the singing of the Bolshoi cast, Rozhdestvensky delivers an all-round winning performance. And, as icing on the cake, BMG provide a full index to the 20 tracks, which is a great relief to anyone who owns the Saison Russe disc, which contains an absurdly scant 4 indices.
Act 1 of The Nose takes up the rest of the first disc, and, as I mentioned, the two operas have so much in common that one seems to flow seamlessly into the other. But only just; once we get to the first of the opera’s notorious moments of total hysteria (the barber’s wife literally barks non-stop in her uppermost register upon discovery of the Nose at the breakfast table), we know for sure we are entering a whole new world. The Nose is groundbreaking on many counts, and its music is daring and undeniably brilliant. Shostakovich may be telling the truth when he commented that the opera was not a comedy but a horror story, but its satire is unmistakable. The underlying motive of this work is rightfully not funny at all, but you are forced to laugh at the horror all the same, and Shostakovich knows just how to do it.
Juxtaposing terrifying moments with the ridiculous and banal, and using all manner of orchestral and vocal devices, the score constantly assaults your senses. Sometimes you laugh with disbelief, but some moments are genuinely comic (for example, intensely unnerving interludes tend to cut sharply into music of unbelievable idiocy, and solo instruments run amok with mimicry). What may be horrifying is the audacity of this work set against a time when the country was experiencing social upheaval. The Nose may well be Shostakovich’s most outspoken and unguarded commentary on Soviet life in the period preceding Lady Macbeth and “Muddle instead of Music”. The swipes are obvious: the police inspector is given a ridiculously high voice (perhaps to insinuate impotency) and truly stupid vocal lines; the characters are prone to alternating moments of hysteria and pure inanity; whole scenes are dedicated to mocking the banality of everyday life and the people’s tendency for hysteria; and the entire drama of the missing Nose is trivialised.
As madcap as it sounds – and in some places, like the scene outside the police station, the music is pure mayhem – the music never sinks into the banal. It is vintage Shostakovich of the highest order through and through. Do not expect to find cheap tuneful polkas and gallops, or popular melodies and dances like in Limpid Stream. The Nose is very serious music indeed. If Lady Macbeth‘s satire is hidden in the tragic, then The Nose‘s tragedy is hidden in the gaudy satire.
The performance by the Moscow Chamber Theatre is absolutely brilliant. Shostakovich personally oversaw this production, which makes this present recording practically definitive. The singers take on their roles with plenty of zest: the women scream hysterically, Kovalyov weeps pathetically, the police are superbly moronic, and, like in The Gamblers, the balalaika song by Ivan is priceless. The overtly sexual implications are delicious too, as in Kovalyov’s wake-up yawns in his first scene, which, together with gurgling contrabassoon and detumescent trombone, unmistakably evoke the sort of vulgarity notorious in Lady Macbeth‘s sex scene. Rozhdestvensky, who was responsible for rescuing the score from the bowels of the Bolshoi Theatre, thus catalysing the revival of the opera, leads the forces through this complex work with amazing authority.
Do not pass over the opportunity to experience the brilliance of Shostakovich’s writing, one-off music that would never be heard elsewhere in his genre, like the vocal double-canon octet at the newspaper office or the strange choral vocalises at the Kazan Cathedral. The scenes of complete mayhem will have to be tolerated (and these are taken with devilish abandon by the cast); mercifully they are not as recurrent as one is led to believe.
With such stunning performances, credentials and excellent sound, this set ought to be a priority addition to your collection. The Nose is truly an outstanding work, albeit a harshly challenging audio-sensory experience (the faint-hearted are hereby warned). The only downside is the absence of libretti, but Sigrid Neef’s summaries and CD notes are extremely thought-provoking and perceptive – I daresay one of the best I have ever read. And do not believe Shostakovich when he told Nikolai Smolich in 1929 that the music “loses all meaning if it is seen just as a musical composition” divorced from the stage action – again I believe he was, in his usual style, saying just the reverse.
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Complete Songs and Romances, Volume 1
Six Romances to Verses of Raleigh, Burns and Shakespeare, opus 62 (1945); § Four Songs to Dolmatovsky Lyrics, op 86 (1951); Spanish Songs, opus 100 (1956); Five Krokodil Romances, opus 121 (1965); Seven Romances to Verses by Blok, opus 127 (1967).
Victoria Evtodieva (soprano), Mikhail Lukonin (baritone), Fyodor Kuznetsov (bass), Yuri Serov (piano), Lidiya Kovalenko (violin), Irina Molokina (cello).
René Gailly/Vox Temporis VTP CD92 041. DDD. TT 74:30.
Recorded St.-Catherine Lutheran Church, St. Petersburg, 23 March, 2, 7 & 24 April, 4 May 1998.
§ World première recording.
With Shostakovich’s major orchestral and chamber works having settled fairly well into the mainstream, the single most important source of repertoire enrichment remains the composer’s song cycles. At last, a record company is taking the matter into their own hands with a project entitled “The Complete Songs and Romances of Shostakovich”. The new series, launched by the independent label René Gailly, will make history, when and if completed, by being the first to offer an exhaustive survey of this chronically under-represented portion of the catalogue. This ambitious undertaking follows Neeme Järvi’s superb three-volume survey of the composer’s orchestral song settings on Deutsche Grammophon. By contrast, René Gailly is pursuing their survey on a smaller scale by focusing on the versions with piano accompaniment. As a result, their collection is sure to cover a lot more territory and include some long-awaited world premières – one of which appears on the first volume under review.
The panoramic overview that will eventually emerge will allow us to reassess the composer’s work in a genre that I have always felt was not his most natural form of expression. Though Shostakovich was an unquestioned master of chamber and symphonic music, his relationship to the art song remained somewhat tentative throughout his career. Only with his increasing attention to vocal music in the final years did he at last carve out a highly individual language in that genre that was capable of the same depth of expression of his instrumental music. The belated ripening of his art song efforts was a result, in significant part, of the late period’s fertile boundary crossings between chamber, symphonic and vocal genres. The Fourteenth Symphony, for example, takes the unique form of a cycle of songs, and calls for chamber-like instrumentation. Likewise, the surrounding song cycles assume a symphonic breadth of expression missing in earlier cycles. From this period, more specifically the last eight years, come the three supreme towers of his art song writing: the daringly original Michelangelo Suite, the profoundly expressive Tsvetaeva Suite, and the unquestionable masterpiece of them all, the Seven Blok Romances.
Preceding these peaks, Shostakovich composed one work worthy of this company, the brilliant From Jewish Folk Poetry (FJFP) cycle. It uniquely stands apart from his other vocal music of 1940s and 1950s because of the novelty and raw power of its lyricism, a result of a remarkable cross-fertilization of the composer’s own expressive and lyrical gestures with that of Jewish folk music.
The composer’s remaining song cycles, numbering roughly a dozen, fall into very different categories. For decades after his landmark opera, Lady Macbeth, the composer tended to reserve his more benign inspirations to the realm of vocal music, perhaps because of the traumatic associations the genre invoked. Evidently, the shattering Pravda denunciations of 1936 that permanently destroyed Shostakovich the opera composer also had derailing effects on every other aspect of the composer’s vocal music.
Of the at least half-dozen cycles that Shostakovich wrote during the 1950s, the two contained in the current disc are representative of the period. They are the Four Songs to Dolmatovsky Lyrics (1951) and the Spanish Songs (1956). Neither work follows the fresh, creative initiatives forged in the recently completed FJFP of 1948. Rather, the cycles of the subsequent, and for the composer, most prolific songwriting decade, are characterized by a smaller creative investment, a retreat to more conservative technical means and conventional lyricism. The composer may have been writing “for the bureaucracy” during this period, as the shadow of Stalin was still looming heavily over Russian culture well after his death in 1953. Still, the musical quality of these works is not totally compromised. Within the given conservative boundaries, Shostakovich was able to write some charmingly inspired melodies.
The Four Songs to words by Yevgeny Dolmatovsky, op 86, of 1951 (not to be confused with the subsequent Five Romances, opus 98, also to Dolmatovsky texts) appears here in its world première recording in complete form, though songs #s 1 and 3 of the set have appeared separately elsewhere. The cycle is a jewel box of beautifully written songs in the Russian style. They are gently flowing little gems that were originally written as incidental music for a failed play and subsequently revised by the composer. Though the work was not originally conceived as an independent cycle, the songs share a warm, graceful lyricism, each one pleasing and unassuming in its formal simplicity of repeated two-part phrases.
Archivists will take particular delight with the first song, Motherland Hears, as it achieved independent fame as the first song to be sung from space by Yuri Gagarin in 1961, as well as having been used for many years as the theme song of the All-Union Radio broadcasts. The rest of the cycle invites the listener to play “name that cross-reference”. For example, the third song, Loves or Loves Not, bears similarity to the main tune of the film Unforgettable Year 1919 which Shostakovich scored the same year (1951). This particular song, as well as the two that surround it, contain accompaniment figurations similar to Prelude No. 17 of the opus 87 cycle, also completed the same year.
Until now, my only representation of the opus 86 cycle was of its lead song, the celebrated Motherland Hears, from an old 1959 10-inch Melodiya mono LP [D 5062-63] containing a collector’s grab bag of the composer’s songs performed by various artists. The performers in this isolated extract were the State Academic Russian Choir and an unidentified soprano, who projects it with a husky, emotionally wrapped zeal that could rouse patriotic fervor in the most torpid listener. On the current album, soprano Victoria Evtodieva offers a gentler style of performance that makes a very civilized case for the cycle. Her voice’s natural sweetness is well suited to this music, as she carries off these songs with a direct and unassuming manner that borders on neither excess nor blandness.
In 1956 the periodical, Soviet Music (Sovetskaya Muzyka), asked Shostakovich to write a short work to publish as a supplement to their issue commemorating the composer’s 50th birthday. The result was the Spanish Songs, opus 100, a colourful opus, yet surprisingly one of the most un-Shostakovian works in the catalogue. Here the composer pursues a kind of Albeniz-like impersonation, fragrantly recreating some of the authentic rhythmic and harmonic inflections of Spanish music – this at the expense of any idiosyncrasies that would reveal the identity of the composer to an unwitting listener. Another measure of perceptual dissonance arises from the fact that these Iberian settings are sung in the Russian language, as they always have throughout their recording history, a fact that argues strongly for an original language version of the work. That alteration, of course, would make seamless the transformation of Shostakovich into Albeniz.
As in the Dolmatovsky songs, the music adheres to conventional symmetries and the simple aesthetic of good, straightforward tunesmanship. Unlike the FJFP cycle that contains original melodies cast in a Jewish style, the Spanish Songs are exclusively made up of pre-existing folk material and can, therefore, be considered an arrangement rather than an original composition.
One is compelled to consider the political and artistic ramifications of the work’s stylistic disguise, especially in light of the humble vocal offerings of the surrounding years. Is this work simply a modest little offering submitted in response to the modest parameters of Sovetskaya Muzyka’s request? The almost total concealment of musical self no doubt had become an instinctual reflex to the heightened pressures of the Zhdanov era. Were the Spanish Songs left over from that dreaded period when the bureaucracy needed to be appeased with folkloric-derived hackwork? Was the total self-negation in part a wry commentary on the gulf separating the composer’s private and public persona? One might also consider whether these Spanish Songs and the never-recorded Greek Songs (1952-3) were tossed off to make it seem that FJFP was merely part of an ongoing series of ethnic songs, thus diverting attention away from FJFP’s dissident edge (note that the public première of FJFP, delayed until 1955, falls between the appearance of the Greek and Spanish songs). On a purely artistic basis, one may ask whether Shostakovich sought (though evidently did not find) in the Spanish and Greek musical idioms the same potent catalyst that Jewish folk music had provided a few years earlier.
Whatever the case, Spanish Songs achieved immediate and enduring popularity. The songs are delightfully lyrical, emphasizing more the courtly elegance than the sultry abandon of Spanish music. Over the years it has been well represented in the bins, proving itself viable not only for mezzo-soprano, for which it was originally written, but for male voice as well. Among the vinyl fossils worthy of mention is Melodiya’s version of the work in 1964 (D 14787-8, mono) featuring mezzo Nina Isakova (accompanied by Yevgeniya Bruk) who meticulously savours every note and phrase in her most expressive, detailed interpretation, one quite worthy of rerelease. (For the record, the world première of the work took place only a few years earlier on a Decca 7″ 45 rpm, SEC 5500, and features the rather unstable intonations of Oda Slobodskaya, a bit past her prime, accompanied by Ivor Newton). In the 1980s, Melodiya released very effective versions sung by basses Artur Eisen and Alexander Vedernikov (the reissue of the former can be found on Olympia OCD 194 from 1988).
More recently, Philips released an album entitled Bolero, A Spanish Songbook (289 446 708-2), featuring the highly commendable talents of mezzo-soprano Olga Borodina. That album mixes Iberian pearls by mainly Russian and Spanish composers, and includes a wonderfully charismatic performance of the opus 100 set with an absolutely sparkling piano accompaniment by Semyon Skigin. Another successful recent issue features a lively performance by bass Paul Plishka with fine accompaniment by Thomas Hrynkiw (Dinemec DCCD 016).
Mikhail Lukonin, who I believe is the first baritone to record this cycle, makes a very successful case for the work in his vocal range. He negotiates the melismatic embellishments of the first song, Farewell to Granada with a graceful flair missing in Artur Eizen’s bass version. He also rises nicely from a somber to a festive tone in the tripartite First Time I Met You. Lukonin has a naturally bright tone with a nice, clear centre. He is also gifted with fine articulation and an appealingly energetic presence, features wholly appropriate to these primarily faster songs of lighter content.
Also contained on this CD are two works for bass voice and piano separated by more than twenty years, the Six Romances to verses of Raleigh, Burns and Shakespeare, and the Krokodil Romances. The British Romances are a wartime work that I discussed in some detail in DSCH 9. Written contemporaneously with his unfinished opera (I should rather say prolonged series of recitatives), The Gamblers, the songs have the melodramatic contour of operatic arias, such as the opening Sir Walter Raleigh… and the Sonnet LXVI, and have a developmental quality missing in the Opp. 86 and 100 discussed above. Some songs, like Jenny and the final King’s Campaign, are like jester’s intervals, not without their own moral message, that provide short fillings between the more serious songs. The shifting aesthetic directions from one song to the next robs the work of a strong cumulative impact. However, the colorful variety of moods and warm, lyrical character of each song make for a very appealing, if oddly fitting, collection.
Between 1960 and 1966 Shostakovich was drawn to the art song three times by verses of a satirical nature, the 1960 Satires cycle, the isolated song Preface of 1966, and the Krokodil Romances of 1965. The focus on satire during these years indicates a shift occurring in the composer’s attitude toward the art song. In the Krokodil cycle, recorded herein, the verses were drawn from five tongue-in-cheek letters plucked from a single issue of the popular satire magazine of the same name. The arbitrariness of the text choices also suggests that the composer was searching for new challenges in the genre, a break away from the musical and textual conventions that dominated his song writing of the previous decade.
The Krokodil experiment is a curiosity, if not a complete artistic success. It is awkwardly balanced in that the first song is more than twice as long as any one of the remaining four. Each of the last consists of little snippets lasting only about a minute or so that unfortunately come to an end just as they become interesting. Shostakovich-the-redirected-opera-composer again surfaces in the first song, a melodramatic recitative in which a disgruntled passenger grumbles fiercely about a rude bus driver. The remaining songs consist of similar verbal and musical trifles that, for their brief length, carve a pungently memorable set of musical profiles using original or borrowed tunes. Given the work’s flaws and spur-of-the-moment quality, both musical and textual, the Krokodil cycle cannot be considered a major work by the composer. However, it does have a number of amusing theatrical moments that offer an all too brief sampling, as does the later, more substantial Lebyadkin Romances, of what comic opera might have sounded like in the years of the composer’s advanced maturity.
In my review of the orchestral version of the work in DSCH 9, I was impressed with the tone and dramatic presence of bass Alexei Mochalov on an all-Shostakovich song disc (Triton 17 008) that I still regard as a most desirable library item. Mochalov set quite high standards for the lighter fare that he offers on that release, which contains both the British and Krokodil Romances.
On the current disc, Fyodor Kuznetsov’s strengths lie in the rich resonance of his basso – one that I found even richer than that of Mochalov’s – and the dramatic intensity he brings to these songs. In the British Romances he responds well to the declamatory moodiness and punctuated phrases in the opening, Sir Walter Raleigh to his Sonne, and brings a pastoral warmth to the droning caresses of the following O Wert thou…. At the same I found him a bit lacking in the playfulness called for in some of the songs of satirical content; for example in the final King’s Campaign of the British songs and a number of the Krokodil songs where more campiness would have been a plus. Kuznetsov sings straight from the shoulder. He lacks the theatrical flexibility of Mochalov’s performances, yet compensates with a vocal heartiness and commanding intensity that establishes a thoroughly solid and convincing presence. He shines in the opus 62 No. 4, MacPherson’s Farewell, where one could imagine him as an ideal choice of soloist in the Thirteenth Symphony, the main theme of whose Humor movement derives from this song. He also builds nicely to the dramatic crest in the substantial opus 62 No. 5, Sonnet #66, and in the final Krokodil song, Exaggerated Delight, whose ominous music completely contradicts the trivial content of its text. If Mr. Kuznetsov’s interpretations tend to be on the serious side, they are also guided by an intelligence and musical sensibility that bring these works very much to life.
The Blok Romances occupy a unique place in the Shostakovich oeuvre as the work marks a profound transformation in the composer’s approach to the song genre. In these Romances Shostakovich achieves a new and potent fusion between vocal and chamber styles, incorporating the expressive immediacy of the former with the complex language and broad dramatic structure of the latter. The Romances also reach a new psychological depth missing in his previous songs as the composer transforms Blok’s melancholic verses into a highly personalized, darkly haunting journey into the soul.
The lofty quality of the lyricism and intense level of concentration sustained throughout each of the seven songs is remarkable. With its extraordinary economy of writing, such that not a single note is either wasted or out of place, combined with its uninterrupted flow of exquisitely elevated lyricism, the Blok Romances holds the position, in my view, of Shostakovich’s unequalled masterpiece in the genre of the song cycle.
The work’s bleak character is no doubt related to the fact that it was written in 1967 while Shostakovich was in hospital recovering from his first heart attack. In addition to being the product of a great mind focused by the confrontation of his own mortality, the songs also seem to have been written in a single, inspired sitting, as they are joined on many organic levels: motivically, atmospherically, instrumentally, etc. These interconnected facets embrace an overarching unity unprecedented in the composer’s song catalogue. They are the first of the composer’s cycles to boast a structure and breadth of vision that can be called symphonic, and as Dorothea Redpenning has pointed out, form a prototype of the subsequent Fourteenth Symphony.
The piano trio is also unique in the Shostakovich song canon. Rather than taking on the usual accompaniment role, the cello, violin and piano assume a status of almost equal importance with that of the vocal line. The interlocking scheme of instrumentation that is used from one song to the next, exhausting every possible combination of the three instruments, in solos, pairs, and in the final song, all three together, imposes yet another binding structure to the work.
The essential axis of tension that bonds these songs together is the contrast established between two very Mahlerian poles, one of sweet, yearning innocence (as in the opening Ophelia’s Song and the third, We were together) and the other of dark, almost morbid agitation (as in the second and fifth songs, Gamayun and Tempest). These two diametric opposites alternate with each other over the course of the first five songs, and are ultimately brought into direct confrontation with each other in the sixth (Secret Signs), and finally reach their startlingly bleak point of resolution – or rather irresolution- in the final song (Music). The drama forms a complete arch of conflict/resolution that, as noted above, is found in the composer’s pure instrumental forms. This dark universe of expression places enormous demands on the part of its performers, especially the soloist, insisting upon not only interpretation, but the projection of a fully formed gestalt, a premeditated frame of mind that is fully immersed with the conflicting yet continuously unfolding states of anger, depression, tenderness and despair that lie at the work’s core. That and the unforgiving dynamic demands in the soprano part make this a daunting challenge for any set of performers.
Though I have never heard a recording to my complete satisfaction, Elizabeth Soderstrom’s performance with members of the Fitzwilliam Quartet and pianist Vladimir Ashkenazy (Decca CD 411 940-2DH) is one of particularly fine merit. While Ms. Soderstrom’s unrestrained vibrato may be of some distraction, her concentration and overall grasp of the work is remarkable. The performance also benefits considerably from strongly profiled performances on the part of the supporting players, in particular, Ashkenazy’s superbly intense pianism.
Soprano Victoria Evtodieva, who appears earlier in the disc in the Dolmatovsky songs, brings to the Blok Romances a well-matched combination of timbral purity and the ability to meet the extraordinary dynamic challenges of the work. In the opening song she captures the rarefied atmosphere of longing and vulnerability that will reverberate throughout the rest of the cycle. Likewise, the bittersweet simplicity of the third song, We were together, and the moonlit beauty of the fourth, City is asleep, are carried off with much tenderness. If there is one aspect to her performance that I found less than ideal it is that she did not offer as nuanced an interpretation of the words as she might have, and thus did not fully penetrate the work’s psychological dimension. Otherwise, she summons an impressive volume in the more agitated songs, especially in the climactically revelatory moments in the final two of the set. It is essential that in these passages the innocent yearning of the earlier songs is fully betrayed with outcries of heartfelt despair. Ms Evtodieva, with her impressive dynamic range, makes good on these climactic moments and delivers a solidly moving realization of this magnificent work.
The three instrumentalists in this performance are to be commended for their musicianship and level of involvement. Pianist Yuri Serov, who wrote the album’s very informative liner notes and who accompanies throughout the disc, earns his honorary medal as a wholly sympathetic Shostakovich interpreter in full command of the idiom. The recorded sound throughout is excellent.
My advice is to mark this disc prominently on your purchase list. René Gailly has assembled an impressive roundup of talent in an equally impressive first entry of their ambitious song project. The series promises to contain the most interesting and valuable new releases of the composer’s music.
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Symphony No. 15 in A Major, opus 141; Musorgsky: Khovanshchina Prelude (orch. Rimsky-Korsakov); Songs and Dances of Death (orch. Shostakovich)[a].
Sir Georg Solti, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Sergei Aleksashkin (bass)[a].
Decca 289 458 919-2. DDD. TT 64:56.
Recorded Orchestra Hall, Chicago, 20-29 March 1997.
I must confess that I was dreading the arrival of this disc, for despite being an admirer of Sir Georg in other repertoire, I have considered his previous outings in Shostakovich to be wayward; indeed, the main advice I give friends seeking recommendations for the Fifth Symphony is to “Stay away from Solti’s!” What a pleasure it is then, to be able to report that I find this performance of the Fifteenth to be one of the most successful to come my way in recent years.
To be sure, for chilling intensity Sir Georg’s new entry is handily bested by Kondrashin (Icone ICN-9408-2/Melodiya 74321198462; reviewed in DSCH 10), Sanderling (Berlin Classics 0090432BC) and Ashkenazy (Decca/London 430 227-2; deleted). This is not to say that fright is missing entirely from Solti’s account, as the climaxes in the second and fourth movements are truly formidable. Indeed, after hearing those crucial cymbal clashes as they are unleashed here, it is perplexing how one could continue to uphold Bernard Haitink’s 1978 recording with the London Philharmonic (disc 444 441-2 of Decca/London set 444 430-2), in which they resemble nothing more fearful than aluminium pie plates landing on a linoleum floor. Still, I don’t feel the revelation of personal terrors in this new release to the degree that Kondrashin, Sanderling or Ashkenazy depict, and if you cannot tolerate a lower level of that revelation, this is decidedly not the performance for you.
What Solti and his Chicago players do convey as successfully as anyone else are the sensations of remembrance and leave-taking that permeate this valedictory work. The second movement here is especially close to the grave, and the entry of muted strings following the central climax at Fig. 75/10:34 had my hairs standing on end.
Throughout, tempi are sane but not sober, Solti maintaining forward momentum. The players are outstanding at passing the baton from one instrument to another seamlessly. Additionally, I don’t get the sense that the American orchestra is too well-nourished for this material, with the instruments sounding downright unhealthy at appropriate moments (take, for example, the febrile violin solo at Fig 26/4:03 of the first movement).
In the accompanying notes, Ian MacDonald speculates that the number of quotations in this symphony might reflect not only programmatic logic but also the composer’s ill health during its composition, writing that it is “possible that he needed their innate spiritual energy; that without them, he might have found it difficult to muster meaningful thematic resources sufficient for a forty-five minute work.” True or not, in Solti’s hands the themes flow so naturally that one is convinced of the inherent necessity of the symphony to be just as it is, without any suggestion of paucity of thematic invention.
It is tempting to imagine that Sir Georg, the consummate Wagner conductor, connects so much more deeply with this Shostakovich symphony than he did with the earlier ones he recorded precisely because of its deployment of leitmotif. Oh, and how he must have revelled in the Wagner quotations of the final movement! But fear not that such quotations are unduly highlighted, for Solti shows no inclination to reduce the symphony to a pastiche – nor, for that matter, does he appear interested in stamping his name on it. This is perhaps the most unidiosyncratic performance of the work I’ve encountered. In the final analysis, it is Shostakovich whom I hear, not the conductor.
Ian MacDonald’s notes do a fine job of explaining Shostakovich’s fascination with the two Mussorgsky works partnering the symphony. In the end, though, this recording gives us Rimsky-Korsakov’s beautiful orchestration of Musorgsky’s Prelude to Khovanshchina rather than that of Shostakovich. Its rich colours come across clearly – the strings really do shimmer – but the performance errs on the side of robustness and I would have preferred a lighter touch.
Shostakovich’s gloomy orchestration of Musorgsky’s Songs and Dances of Death suits well the stentorian voice of Russian bass Sergei Aleksashkin, who delivers his lines with such operatic flair that one can almost picture his hand gestures. The Chicago players really are first-rate here, never overpowering the soloist while fully revealing the variety and, yes, subtlety of Shostakovich’s scoring. It really is a coin toss between this performance and the fine job that Robert Lloyd does with Mariss Jansons and the Philadelphia Orchestra (coupled with the Tenth Symphony; EMI CDC5 55232-2). Although Aleksashkin’s greater projection is attractive, there is also much to be said for Lloyd’s well-timed restraint and superior command of the hushed whisper. In any case, nobody who already has a rival version is likely to regret the duplication of this essential work in this splendid new performance.
Recorded just months before the conductor’s death, these performances do not hint at any waning of Sir Georg’s artistic powers, and the release is a fitting testimonial to his ability to deliver the thought and emotion behind the notes of a score. Aside from some fairly unobtrusive stage noises, the sound is as clear and bright as one would expect from this label. Recommended.
W. Mark Roberts
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Symphony No. 13 in Bb minor, opus 113, Babi Yar.
Valeri Polyansky, Russian State Symphonic Cappella, Russia State Symphony Orchestra, Ayik Martyrosyan (bass).
Chandos 9690. DDD. TT 62:05.
Recorded Grand Hall of Moscow Conservatoire, November 1996.
The Thirteenth Symphony, for all its popularity on disc, is a hard one to pull off. First there are the problems of finding a suitable chorus and soloist (incidentally I’ve always been puzzled by Testimony‘s aside “Unfortunately the soloist… is a bass” [my emphasis]. Why unfortunately? Are they notoriously unreliable?). But more than that, the work’s complexity and deliberate confusions of tone have proved to be beyond a surprising number of world-class conductors.
Valeri Polyansky enters the fray in the middle of what has proved a variable cycle and provides a variable addition to the catalogue. The very opening is disappointing. Both choir and orchestra seem disinterested and have a matter-of-fact tone. Soloist Ayik Martyrosyan is hardly more involved, unconcerned at his fate of being “…persecuted, spat on, slandered”. As we move to Byelostok the orchestra lacks a Jewish ‘snap’ and I was losing interest myself. The icy strings that follow are an improvement but the celeste in the Anna Frank episode is too recessed. This passage’s climax and the later condemnation of anti-Semitism are both disappointing. The first is too slow and lacks weight and the second simply lacks conviction. And a last point: at the return to the cliffs of Babi Yar the howling wind of the strings is covered by the brass, making it less of a recapitulation than simply another episode.
Hardly an auspicious start but things pick up considerably with Humour which opens with pungent woodwinds at a quickish tempo and brings the recording’s first real insight. As the soloist teaches the choir that humour is “eternal…artful and quick” they don’t share his defiance as expected but sound hangdog. Rather than putting them in league with the soloist this casts them against him, like apparatchiks who have finally had the tables turned against them.
As we queue In the Store, Martyrosyan sets the scene with a gentle shiver to his voice but the clarinet (so important in gently changing the early mood in this movement) and strings are bland. Any art attempting to portray boredom runs the danger of becoming boring and some interpreters are tempted to inject ‘interesting’ details to avoid losing the audience. Of course there are many things in this movement other than boredom, but if the accelerando at Figure 82 (“These are the women of Russia”) is meant to convey the soloist’s anger at their ill-treatment, it doesn’t work for me. Still, things are improving and Fears is even better. The serpentine tuba is beautifully shaped, the choir has a fearful, held-in tone but doesn’t go too far in underscoring the real meaning of the line, and the central march (“We were not afraid of construction work in blizzards”) is weary yet determined. Finally, A Career, one of Shostakovich’s most complex utterances and the movement that shows best the strengths and weaknesses of any performance. The balance of bitterness, comedy, irony, accusation and self-accusation opens it to multiple interpretations. Yet this relativism shouldn’t blind us to the fact that some (e.g., the incomprehensibly-praised Haitink) are blatantly wrong. Polyansky is pretty much on-track with it and continues the soloist/choir relationship of Humour. When they repeat the name “‘Lev”, they respond sullenly, forced to retract any advocacy of other Tolstoys. It might go against the score, inverting the soloist’s f, and choir’s ff, but it is consistent. The choir’s role in this work is complex; sometimes an impassive Greek chorus, sometimes a larger version of the soloist and sometimes evoking the forces against which the soloist fights. Shostakovich said that in writing the symphony he was dealing with “public – specifically public – morality” and Polyansky seems to have taken this as his cue.
So this still isn’t a 13th to challenge the likes of Kondrashin or Previn (just reissued on EMI in tandem with the 10th), and of modern recordings I’d probably prefer Järvi (deleted) but it still has some things to make it worth hearing. On a final note, the booklet continues Chandos’ excellent annotation with texts in English, French, German and Cyrillic. Gramophone recently carried a correspondence about whether transliterations were to be preferred to Cyrillic texts with Russian works. Personally I’m for the latter, but whatever form it takes, the text should be there; it is the composer’s inspiration. Shostakovich is sensitive to every nuance of Yevtushenko’s poems and it is important to be able to follow them.
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Symphony No. 8 in C minor, opus 65.
Yevgeny [printed Yevgeni] Mravinsky, Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra.
Icone ICN-9411-2. ADD. TT 59:38.
Recorded live in Large Hall of the Leningrad Philharmonic, 27 or 28 March 1982 [incorrectly printed “Recorded live in the Concert Hall of Radio Moscow, 15 March 1983”].
Symphony No. 8 in C minor, opus 65; Bonus Disc: Mozart: Symphony No. 33 in Bb Major, K319.
Yevgeny [printed Evgeny] Mravinsky, Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra.
BBC Legends BBCL 4002-2. ADD. TT 59:53 + bonus disc 22:36.
Recorded Royal Festival Hall, London, 23 September 1960.
Mravinsky Edition, Vol. 17
Symphony No. 8 in C minor, opus 65.
Yevgeny Mravinsky, Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra.
BMG/Melodiya 74321 29406-2. ADD mono. TT 63:51
Recorded Leningrad, 2 June 1947.
Reissue of World Première Recording.
Among its peers, the Eighth Symphony occupied a privileged place in Mravinsky’s repertoire. It is the only one that Shostakovich dedicated to him – or, indeed, to any conductor. Although he premièred five other Shostakovich symphonies, Mravinsky claimed never to have suggested any changes to orchestration in all his years of collaboration with the composer except in the case of the Eighth, in the second and third movement of which he persuaded Shostakovich to incorporate doubling of woodwinds by trumpet and horns, respectively.
Mravinsky’s last recording of the work, from his final year as the Leningrad Philharmonic’s principal conductor, has had a troubled history on compact disc. Philips were the first to release it, in 1989 (422 442-2). By the time listeners with perfect pitch noted that Philips’ remastering was a semitone sharp, the release had already won critical acclaim, and it is undoubtedly firmly entrenched in the libraries of thousands who have never discovered that the disc is flawed. This matters. Although it is true that listeners without perfect pitch are unlikely to suspect that anything is amiss with a recording that is a semitone sharp or flat, it is not true that the effect is imperceptible to them. As the pitch error is caused by incorrect transfer speed, a performance transferred sharp is faster than at the correct pitch, and will be interpreted by even the most tone-deaf listener as having greater “drive”. Most listeners will also describe the sharp recording as “brighter” or “airier”. Furthermore, the track timings that reviewers often use as a cue to interpretation will be misleading.
With little fanfare, Russian Disc released this performance again in 1996 (RD CD 10 917), this time at the correct pitch. Compared with the sharp transfer, it is notably darker and more tension-ridden. As will become clear in a moment, this is now the only version of the recording currently available at the correct pitch.
Philips re-released the same recording in European markets late last year, using the identical catalogue number as before but under their budget Virtuoso badge. This release was not made available in North America, and Philips inform me that they have no plans to do so in the foreseeable future. Perplexingly, after only a few months on the market, the Virtuoso reissue was withdrawn and deleted from Philips’ catalogue. Although I was unable to obtain a copy before it disappeared to verify the pitch for myself, Kathryn Maloney at Gramophone tells me that the total timing was the same as on the original release, indicating that the transfer was sharp again in the reissue. If any DSCH readers bought the Virtuoso issue and can report to me on the pitch situation, I will share that information in our next issue. [Update: Thanks to reader Arthur Cook, who has allowed me to hear his copy of the Virtuoso reissue, I can confirm that this transfer is precisely as sharp as on the original Philips issue.]
How many Shostakovich lovers browsing in record stores will thrill to read the label of Icone Classics’ new release of a hitherto-unheard Mravinsky Eighth recorded live in the Concert Hall of Radio Moscow on 15 March 1983? If it seems too good to be true, it is; simultaneous listening reveals that this is exactly the same 1982 performance as already available on Russian Disc (thanks, for once, to the cough-afflicted in the audience, who make this determination trivially easy!). To add insult to injury, the Icone transfer is almost exactly as sharp as was the original Philips release!
To be fair to Icone, they have acknowledged the poor quality of their documentation (see my comments in DSCH 10), and have been consulting with DSCH to find more competent annotators for future releases. Nevertheless, while Icone’s release is beautifully cleaned of analogue hiss, I cannot counsel buying this release due to the incorrect transfer speed, whether or not you are possessed of perfect pitch. Go for the version on Russian Disc – and don’t wait around too long to do so, for I’ve noted that Russian Disc releases have a short lifespan in the catalogue. The bass extension doesn’t always do justice to massed low strings, but the ear rapidly adjusts. Audience noise is tolerable, as is hiss (this is an AAD remastering). My review comments are based on the Russian Disc release, though, funnily enough, they apply even more strongly to the semitone-sharp versions!
Of the three available Mravinsky recordings, I find this to be the least pictorial. It feels more fluid, with a generalized legato that focuses the attention on symphonic connection rather than the mind’s eye on extra-musical plot. Consequently I experience this as less frightening than either earlier performance. There will be some who will consider this to miss the point of the work, but there is no denying what a fine piece of music-making the 1982 interpretation is, especially with the attention Mravinsky pays to internal detail, which is cleanly exposed by miking that tends towards the uncomfortably close. The third and fourth movements, in particular, are not to be missed, the former for its impetuous drive, the latter for an almost howling edginess in the reed winds.
One striking personal touch, in all three performances under consideration, is that Mravinsky omits the cymbal crash at Fig. 161/Bar 431 in the final climax (8:38 in the finale of the Russian Disc pressing; the same decision is taken by Rozhdestvensky on Melodiya). This casts the brass notes that follow in a very different light: conventionally, they are the aftershocks of one final all-consuming and demarcating blast of violence; with Mravinsky, they are the fizzling out of a climax that leaves one with a similar existential bemusement as one experiences in Samuel Beckett.
The BBC Legends discs document the extraordinary London concert on the Leningrad Philharmonic’s 1960 European tour, with Rozhdestvensky and Shostakovich in attendance. At the time, this concert was announced as the U.K. première, and both the performers and the audience took it as such. So it is advertised on the cover and in the notes of the BBC Legends release. The Hulme catalogue, however, reports that the true U.K. première had actually occurred on 13 July 1944, with the London Philharmonic Orchestra under Sir Henry Wood at the Royal Albert Hall.
I hasten to add that the notes to this release are otherwise excellent, being penned in a most readable style by David Lloyd-Jones. He personally attended the orchestra’s appearance earlier in the month at the Edinburgh Festival, at which Mravinsky delivered what Lloyd-Jones recalls as a shattering Shostakovich Fifth. My favourite gem is Lloyd-Jones’ recounting of a meeting with Mravinsky in Leningrad in 1964, during which Mravinsky told him that, “These days I have given up consulting Dmitri Dmitriyevich about tempi; if I do he sits down at the piano and plays the passage almost twice as fast as it could possibly be correct to perform it.”
The rare fluffed entry or questionable note does not interfere with the overall sweep of this interpretation. More than in most performances, one senses that this is about a specific war and not generalized conflict or oppression, and it is surely as such that many members of the original audience must have interpreted it. The brass and timpani pound out the march beginning at Bar 231/15:05 of the first movement with such barbarity that it very nearly ceases to be music, just noise made by boots and artillery. After the smoke clears, the English horn solo taking up at Bar 301/16:59 strongly evokes a lone bugler on the battlefield, while the brief trumpet solo that closes the movement is without question the most martial I’ve come across on record.
As for the rest of this 1960 performance, the second movement is all angles, strutting with sharp precision. The relentless third suggests blitzkrieg scudding like clouds, an unholy hybridization of nature and machinery. One could ask for a greater feeling of loss in the fourth movement, which is served up fairly matter-of-factly, but the intensity of the finale fully justifies the enthusiastic applause that follows.
The acoustics are surprisingly good, even if the audience could have done a much better job of stifling their coughs, which are all recorded with perfect clarity. As for the bonus CD, Mozart’s Symphony No. 33, although it’s probably beside the point for most DSCH readers, it is a fine reminder that Mravinsky was equally adept in non-Russian repertoire. With the Leningrad Philharmonic’s massive sound, it is just the punishment to inflict upon any period-instrument zealots whom you haven’t yet evicted from your circle of friends. All in all, BBC Legends should be congratulated for adding further value to what would, in any case, be a most desirable performance of the Eighth to add to your collection.
Still, neither of these later performances of the Eighth is as searing as the same team’s mono recording from 2 June 1947, released three years ago on Melodiya. That reading is almost unbearably painful to listen to – and not only due to its fluctuating signal levels and virtually continuous overload. The first movement is the most strikingly different component of this performance. It lasts around two minutes longer than in the 1960 and 1982 recordings, but subjectively it grinds onward even more slowly than this time difference would suggest. Mravinsky takes the majority of the movement in first gear, and one can almost hear the orchestra’s engine rev to overheating just to inch forwards. Then, without warning, he shifts them into overdrive for a brakeless hurtle into the main climax. Without feeling contrived, this sudden tempo change evokes a visceral fright response befitting the terrors behind the music.
The Passacaglia, by virtue of its quietness, comes across best sonically, and in terms of performance qualities is as desolate as any. It is this version more than the other two that makes clear what Shostakovich meant when, the day after the 1960 London concert on the ferry to France, he told violinist Yakov Milkis (who had just commented on the resolution to C Major – “like a ray of sunlight” – in the transition from the fourth movement into the Finale), “My dear friend, if you only knew how much blood that C Major cost me.”
It would be unfair not to warn prospective buyers of the Melodiya version that the playing throughout is less than perfect and one must assist the recording with imagination and tolerance. Furthermore, Raymond Clarke points out that the transfer pitch in first three movements is flat by a fraction of a semitone, though this improves in the fourth and is rectified by the final movement. This pitch discrepancy is slight enough not to enter the equation of whether or not to purchase.
The recording occupies Vol. 17 of Melodiya’s Mravinsky Edition, which North American buyers appear to be unable to acquire outside the boxed set of Vols. 11-20 (74321 29409 2).
W. Mark Roberts
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Gennadi Rozhdestvensky has undoubtedly been the single greatest proponent of Shostakovich’s lesser-known works, having resurrected, renovated and reconstructed many for Melodiya’s From Manuscripts of Different Years LPs. But no less than this has been his advocacy of the “core” orchestral works, and in the 1980s he recorded all the symphonies with the USSR Ministry of Culture Symphony Orchestra. The cycle has appeared in various transfers, either integrally or singly, and now BMG has recoupled them with some interesting fillers in a series of “twofers” which sell for about the price of a single disc. As an appendix there are two discs of Orchestral Works, mopping up some of From Manuscripts of Different Years. There are even some première recordings, which BMG unaccountably fails to flag.
Sadly, the original recordings were given “Soviet” recording treatment – an incredible combination of a cavernous acoustic with bizarre spotlighting. Perspectives and acoustics change (half the orchestra might suddenly disappear into an echo chamber) and there’s a feeling that at any moment a player might leap into your lap. These are problems with the masters, so there is a limited amount that any transfer can do to ameliorate them. BMG has applied the NoNOISE system which has attracted some criticism in the past for making recordings unduly harsh. At first the transfers sound similar to the Olympia incarnation, apart from being transferred at a slightly higher level. However they are a little brighter and, though the bass is largely unaffected, the upper frequencies (in particular the cymbals) can become almost painful, especially as the original recordings tended to highlight these instruments.
Symphonies 1, 5, 6, 9.
74321 49611 2.
Presumably BMG intend this as a “basic Shostakovich symphonies” set but it also shows the strengths of Rozhdestvensky’s performances. With tempi that generally err on the steady side, he concentrates on the composer’s sardonic side without going to the extremes of some of Rostropovich’s recordings or Maxim’s aborted Collins cycle. The Fifth is a particularly recommendable performance and, if you like a deliberately and ironically crass Ninth this may be one for you. The First is probably a bit too slow but the Sixth is another worthwhile performance, though you’ll have to wait till the very end before the real terrifying insanity of this music becomes obvious.
Symphonies 2, 3, 4, Hamlet Suite, opus 32, Overture to Poor Columbus.
74321 63462 2.
Having designed its “starter pack”, BMG spread the rest of the symphonies out basically chronologically. However this is the most uneven of the sets; Rozhdestvensky takes the Second and Third symphonies too slowly, draining them of revolutionary fervour. The Fourth, however, is a different matter. Though Rozhdestvensky took it into his repertoire soon after its reappearance in 1961, the talk that filled the fourth side of the LP shows how quickly he had got to the heart of it. It may not be the neatest performance in the catalogue and sadly it’s one of the more wayward of the recordings in terms of sound, but the performance demands to be heard despite that. The 21-minute selection from the theatrical Hamlet receives a typically ebullient, Rozhdestvenskian performance and has never appeared on CD before (it isn’t to be confused with the Eduard Serov-conducted pieces that accompanied the Tenth Symphony on Olympia). Finally the Poor Columbus Overture, infuriatingly shorn of its partner. Both pieces would easily have fitted onto the CD but the Finale crops up as a bizarre pendant to the Eleventh Symphony.
Symphonies 7, 8, Songs from King Lear opus 58a.
74321 53457 2.
Better grouped are these two symphonies and the first appearance on CD for Rozhdestvensky’s recording of the songs from Kozintsev’s wartime staging of King Lear. Though Natalia Burnasheva is a bit cool in her one contribution, it’s hard to imagine a more characterful performance than Nesterenko’s unless it were to go over the top. In the Seventh, as so often in the cycle, Rozhdestvensky often takes moderate tempi but manages to avoid the impression of sluggishness. The Eighth is a more uneven matter and he takes a little while to get into his stride – it’s only about halfway into the first movement that things become really gripping. After that, things are more secure, though this might not be the first version I’d recommend.
Symphonies 10, 11, Pushkin Songs opus 91, Finale to Poor Columbus.
74321 63461 2.
Symphonies 10 and 11 appropriately come with the Opus 91 Pushkin Songs and, as has been noted, the much earlier Finale to Poor Columbus. Rozhdestvensky’s orchestration of the songs is sensitive and very Shostakovichian and both the symphonies receive dramatic performances. The end of the Eleventh is particularly exciting and, if the Tenth mightn’t be the first I’d turn to, it’s still very recommendable. The only real downside is that the Poor Columbus fragment sounds strangely out of place.
Symphonies 12, 13, First Cello Concerto, Eight Preludes, opus 34.
74321 63460 2.
To go with the 12th and 13th symphonies BMG have resurrected Mikhail Khomitser’s rendering of the First Cello Concerto – neither outstanding nor terrible – and Milko Kelemen’s orchestration of Eight Preludes, opus 34. Rozhdestvensky’s recording of the Twelfth has always seemed to me one of the most convincing readings of this symphony, turning it into a much darker work than the programme would imply. The Thirteenth also can be considered amongst the best – Anatoli Safiulin brings a whole range of emotions to the music and the choir is superb. The Eight Preludes are a pleasant makeweight, though Milko Kelemen’s orchestration veers oddly in and out of a Shostakovichian vein as if he couldn’t quite make up his mind which way to go.
Symphonies 14, 15, Six Japanese Songs, Four Pushkin Romances opus 91, Six Romances to Texts by British Poets opus 62a, Eight English and American Folk Songs, sans opus M.
7321 59057 2.
The last three symphonies are particularly difficult to bring off and there is certainly no completely satisfactory Fourteenth in the catalogue. However Rozhdestvensky’s is better than most and his soloists Anatoli Safiulin and Makvala Kasrashvili match him every inch of the way. This is one of the ‘better’ recordings (relatively speaking) but it is still fairly relentless, a quality which ironically helps project the music’s pitiless moments. Against that gentler songs have an inappropriately ‘etched’ quality and there is a weirdly creative use of reverb at the end of The Zaporozhian Cossack’s Reply. One thing that BMG has not corrected is the excessive gap between the fourth and fifth songs which should be played attacca. The Fifteenth has had more than its fair share of failures in the studio but Rozhdestvensky revels in its grotesquerie (sadly matched by a grotesque recording), particularly in the chill coda. The symphonies bring with them a miscellany of songs. Tenor Alexei Maslennikov sings the Japanese Songs in the orchestral version with Safiulin giving the Pushkin songs in Rozhdestvensky’s idiomatic orchestration and though the earlier set seems to me a lesser work, both are given fine performances. Yet again BMG miss a trick by not pointing out that both the British Poets and the English and American Folk Songs are première recordings. The latter might be a byway too far for some; about the only moment of pleasure I got was the rhyming of “Billy Boy” and “mily moi” – Russian for “my dear”. But the early orchestration of the British cycle is a different matter and it’s fascinating to hear; heavier than the more familiar opus 140 version though often similar. Perhaps that heaviness encouraged Rozhdestvensky to lighten things by upping the tempi but I did find it occasionally a bit hurried, particularly in the Sonnet No 66.
74321 59058 2.
This collection trawls From Manuscripts of Different Years mopping up many of the pieces not coupled to the symphonies, though obviously not all of the six LPs are here. Hopefully BMG will continue the series and release the rest of From Manuscripts of Different Years (piano pieces, the two reorchestrated cello concertos, the Harp Duet and the Satires). Meanwhile this is a varied selection with orchestral pieces (the Scherzi, opus 1 and opus 7, the Theme and Variations, opus 3 and the First Jazz Suite), vocal items (the Krylov Fables and the song Spring, Spring…), parts of incidental music to The Tale of the Priest, Alone, The Big Lightning, The Adventures of Korzinkina, The Golden Hills and The Bedbug as well as the orchestrations of Scarlatti, Beethoven, Strauss, Rimsky-Korsakov and Youmans. Generally light-hearted, though sometimes more bitingly satirical, these are all enjoyable pieces needing no profundity of interpretation. Of course this is not to say that they play themselves, and Rozhdestvensky’s wit is a perfect foil for them.
Sigrid Neef’s notes spend some time critiquing the recordings, which isn’t as redundant as it may seem as they give information on when Rozhdestvensky first conducted some of the works. More seriously, the sets omit all the texts of the vocal items, making the discs less friendly than they might have been. Incidentally, there seem to be more typos than normal, with names and even titles of pieces annoyingly misspelled, such as the last song of the opus 46 cycle – not Stances but Stanzas.
As I’ve noted, some of the couplings to the symphonies are sometimes less than ideal and the recording quality is a drawback, but all in all this is an important rerelease. As some of it has appeared before, what you choose to buy may depend on what you already have, and the interesting couplings often make up for less good performances of the symphonies. The Orchestral Works is a welcome addition to the catalogue but even symphonies 2-4 and 7 and 8, for me the least recommendable sets, are worth considering for the couplings. What would be best would be if Rozhdestvensky were lured back into the studio to make better quality recordings.
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Shostakovich: Film Music
The Golden Mountains, suite, opus 30a[a]; Tale of a Priest and His Worker Balda, opus 36; Adventures of Korzinkina, opus 59; The Silly Little Mouse, opus 56, one-act children’s opera[b].
Walter Mnatsakanov, Belarus RTV Symphony Orchestra;State Cinematographic Symphony Orchestra[a], Yevgenia Kazantseva (soprano – Mouse, Little Mouse)[b], Leslia Liut (soprano – Cat)[b], Nina Tishina (mezzo-soprano – Duck)[b], Sergei Schapov (tenor – Horse)[b], Oleg Gordinets (baritone – Pig)[b], Mikhail Druzhina (bass – Toad, Dog)[b], Antinina Ivanova (narrator)[b].
Citadel CTD 88129. DDD. TT 62:24.
Recorded Mosfilm studios April 1997[a]; the SKAT Studios, Minsk, February 1997[all others].
World première recording[b].
Devotees of the irreverent musical escapades of Shostakovich’s youth will not be disappointed with this colorful cross section of his pre-War contributions to the cinema. The disc also has the distinguishing feature of calling attention to two significant yet unacknowledged operatic works, one a world première, that may revise our assessment of the composer’s work in that genre. This programme of rarely and never-before recorded scores is performed by two Byelorussian ensembles led by the resilient Walter Mnatsakanov. Since 1994, Mnatsakanov has emerged as something of a specialist of Shostakovich’s film music, having since filled at least four Russian Disc CDs with this esoteric repertoire. Here he returns on the Citadel label with a period-bound programme of four scores spanning the years 1931 to 1940.
Two of these scores are the result of the composer’s work in the unlikely genre of the animated cartoon and are more than passing curiosities: the instrumental suite from Tale of a Priest and His Servant, Balda (1934), and the attention-grabbing world première recording, in complete form, of The Silly Little Mouse (1939).
What is more surprising than Shostakovich’s double dalliance in the world of the animated cartoon is the remarkable fondness with which the composer/Volkov speaks of these scores in Testimony (p. 19): “I wrote two small operas for [the film director Mikhail] Tsekhanovsky. They’re listed as music for cartoons, but actually the films were made for my music, real operas, small…. There was a lot of music. Too bad it’s all been lost somewhere.”
Not only does the composer express regret over the loss of the scores, both of which have been fully recovered, but he regards them well enough to repeatedly refer to them as operas. Let me repeat that last word: operas! The significance of this statement is greater than first meets the eye. It is very telling from a composer whose serious operatic ambitions were crushed beyond repair in the infamous political aftermath of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk (1934). And telling for the fact until now the only post-Lady Macbeth opera that has been generally acknowledged is the unfinished The Gamblers.
It is a hard to believe that there are in existence two Shostakovich operas in the comic genre that have until this time remained in the shadows. They are not even mentioned in such major surveys as Boris Schwarz’s (1983) or Elizabeth Wilson’s (1994). Fortunately, for at least one of these works, the current disc makes a welcome rescue for the cause.
As one of only a few works of Shostakovich’s written expressly for children (another one being the opus 69 Children’s Notebook for solo piano; see review above), Silly Little Mouse takes its place in the composer’s catalogue as a delightfully unjaded excursion into the light opera category. The fifteen-minute drama is based on a Samuel Marshak fairy tale about a mouselet whose chronic insomnia attracts the help of various creatures – a duck, a pig, a toad, a horse, and finally, a cat – each of whom takes a turn crooning the mouselet to sleep. In the end, the protagonist must be rescued from the jaws of the cat, whose ulterior motives are concealed behind his singularly successful serenade. The narrated story, along with its zoological cast and musical character shadings, invites inevitable comparison to Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf (1936), written three years earlier and which evidently was still lurking in Shostakovich’s imagination.
Although the score is full of Shostakovich’s fingerprints, listeners may be surprised by its disarming innocence and total absence of the usual sarcastic assaults and inflections. Instead the music is handled with the benevolent restraint of a relatively new father (Maxim was a year old and Galya three at the time of its composition) and seems exceedingly well-judged for children. It is music that is genuinely charming, warm, and witty, with enough sophistication to keep an adult entertained and amused after repeated hearings.
The drama unfolds in a single, unbroken stream of music, the composer’s only film score to do so, and is built around the recurring lullaby, individually modified, that each of the animals sings in turn. Though the score was thought lost, Shostakovich was not one to let an idea go to waste as the lullaby tune reappears in the final song, Kreutzer Sonata, of the composer’s 1960 vocal cycle Satires. The cast delivers a lively performance with enthusiastic players who convey all the unadulterated purity called for by the music. Silly Little Mouse is clearly a major little discovery. I predict that record producers will not take long to discover the marketing possibilities of pairing Shostakovich’s Mouse with Prokofiev’s Wolf as classic discmates for children.
The composer’s other work in this genre, Tale of a Priest and His Assistant, Balda, is another matter altogether, its length and ambition well exceeding that of Silly Mouse. The 15-minute instrumental suite that appears on this disc is extracted from a 45-minute version, with narrator and soloists, that appeared on a 1984 Melodiya LP (C10 19323 008). That in turn is an arrangement of the full, never-recorded (and evidently never performed), 75-minute performing version as indicated on the musical score. It is by length alone far too important a Shostakovich work to remain unrecorded to this day.
The story is based on Pushkin’s folk tale, written in rhyme, and set to music in between the completion of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk and the commencement of the Fourth Symphony. Unfortunately Tale of a Priest would become one of the political casualties of the time, having been banned and halted in production during the same month as the withdrawal of the Fourth Symphony (December 1936). The edited-down 45-minute LP version – and I must be one of the few lucky ones to actually own it – is a self-contained musical drama that is presented as a connected series of songs, arias and choruses. The tunes are so fresh and ingratiating and the pace so unflaggingly lively, I am tempted to call Tale of a Priest the yet-undiscovered jewel of the composer’s work in opera comique – the genre in which Shostakovich showed such promise in the experimental The Nose and left sadly unfulfilled in the unfinished The Gamblers. (The finished portion of Gamblers suffers from a principal flaw in that it unfolds as an ongoing series of recitatives with few, if any, dramatic landmarks. Oddly, this work has received repeated recording attention in the face of the almost total obscurity of Tale…).
The instrumental suite offers a tuneful cross-section of the work’s madcap exuberance. The opening Overture‘s instrumental slides, slurs and flamboyantly off-centre scale runs charge the air with peerless Shostakovian satire. Titter-triggering highlights include the Nocturnal Procession‘s blustering brass lead-in, from which follows a devastatingly petty xylophone variant and equally nonchalant curtseys on piccolo and harp. In Balda’s Dialogue, a volley of insistent trombone slides make a positively uncivilized appearance. I fail to see any significant stylistic similarities to Weill’s 1928 Threepenny Opera as mentioned in the liner notes, though there is a melodic resemblance in the sixth number, Dream, to the Ballad of Immoral Earnings from Act Two of the Weill score. Shostakovich’s sentimental tune could very well have been served up straight-laced and slightly drippy. Yet in its unlikely orchestration, featuring saxophone and guitar, framed by a dissonantly bleating chorus of bassoons, all reduces to a splendidly anti-Romantic serenade (one that returns with equal blather, featuring solo trumpet, in Ballet Suite No. 2 of 1951).
The music to Adventures of Korzinkina is yet another sparkling score from the composer’s youthful cinematic gallery. It is the last piece of music written by the composer before the sobering effects of the war, and from what I can surmise, marks the farewell work in that campy-grotesque style so roguishly represented in the youthful ballet scores of the 1930s. After Korzinkina, the composer’s light music loses its tendency toward distortion and oddball instrumental effects in favor of a more stable lyrical style.
The short Overture and the rib-nudging Restaurant Music movements show the earlier tendencies still very much in force. The latter movement is one of the most wryly twisted morsels ever wrought by the composer, as tuba, high winds and other soloists engage in smarmily derisive, oompah-driven commentary that never lets the listener off the hook. The second movement, March, would seem a fairly straightforward military band ditty were it not for the quirky dissonances peppered throughout. The brief Finale, featuring a chorus singing the syllables “nana”, is a surprising moment of melancholy, rare in the composer’s output, whose 90-second existence is far too short given the dreamy quality of the tune.
But the potboiler of the Korzinkina Suite is the third movement, Chase, whose title aptly describes the kind of heart-racing cinematic activity for which this foot-stomping whirligig, scored only for two pianos, is tailored. It is surprising that this high profile polka has not already become as independently infamous as its acerbic cousin from The Age of Gold.
Finally, we arrive at one of the composer’s earliest film scores, The Golden Mountains. The two movements that give the suite its musical stamp of distinction are the mighty organ Fugue and the variously arranged and recorded Waltz. It’s easy to understand the popularity of the delightful waltz. Its tune and accompaniment are very much in the Tchaikovskian mold, though cast in a distinctly Shostakovian instrumentation that includes the unlikely pairing of harmonium and Hawaiian guitar. (Enthusiasts will know the latter instrument’s only other appearance in the catalogue, the subsequent Jazz Suite No. 1 of 1934).
The Fugue for organ and orchestra is one of the composer’s most impressive cinematic compositions with a developmental heft and intricacy that has few peers in the genre of film music (Walton’s Spitfire Prelude and Fugue comes to mind as an ally). After an introductory flourish, the fugue commences as a stream of vertiginously careening eighth notes, its amorphously defined subject designed not so much for articulated argument as for providing a platform of demonically driven energy. The overlays of monstrously heroic brass fanfares and percussion provide the rhythmic muscle that eventually propels the music, with surprising symphonic breadth, to a genuinely hair-raising climactic finale. Though it never reaches quite the same degree of fury, it prefigures the titanic fugue of the Fourth Symphony’s first movement. With its corresponding evocation of overweening complexity and motion, the organ fugue is a true child of the Age of Futurism, which within the same time bracket had produced such landmark representatives as Mosolov’s Iron Foundry and Shostakovich’s own Second, Third and Fourth Symphonies. It is a work that still raises hackles as it surely must have when Golden Mountains was first released in 1931.
With the exception of Silly Little Mouse, the three other film suites have been previously recorded by Gennady Rozhdestvensky on a BMG “Twofer” reviewed elsewhere on this page. Those première recordings made in the 1980s still bear the stamp of Rozhdestvensky’s authority over this repertoire when that conductor was doing his best work.
While Mnatsakanov’s tempi tend not to be as brisk as the elder conductor’s, there is no compromise of wit or liveliness throughout these fine Byelorussian performances. In the organ fugue Mnatsakanov’s tempo is actually faster, gaining him a distinct edge over his predecessor in capturing that movement’s manic grandiosity, with kudos to organist Alexander Nazaruk. Of the two other notable recordings of the Golden Mountains Suite by Jose Serebrier with the Belgian RSO (BMG 60226-2-RC) and Michail Jurowski with the Berlin RSO (Capriccio 10 561), the lively, distinctive performance of the fugue with Serebrier and organist Karol Golebiowski should be noted.
The new Citadel disc has the added feature of including the 4-minute Balda’s Dialogue (discussed above), from the Tale of a Priest, a movement missing on the BMG “Twofer”. In the Korzinkina suite, the rousing Chase movement gets a fiery going-over by duo pianists Irina Kolesnikova and Nina Kavetskaya, if they are ever so slightly exceeded in spunk by the unidentified piano team on the Rozhdestvensky recording. The one movement that has to be singled out as paling by comparison is Restaurant Music, whose wit relies upon split-second reactive timing, so sharply executed by Rozhdestvensky, yet somehow lost by Mnatsakanov’s deliberated pacing. One less-than-perfect track out of a total of nineteen is not bad at all.
Sound on these triple digital recordings is quite fine, though I thought I detected evidence of dynamic compression – still utilized on some classical radio stations these days – at a number of volume peaks during the Silly Little Mouse track. These amounted to very minor distractions that are far outweighed by the many performance and production assets, rounded out by only adequate liner notes, throughout the entire disc. That and the auspicious world première recording of Silly Little Mouse add up to a CD that is highly entertaining for the interested listener and no less than mandatory for the serious Shostakovich follower. Now that the cat is out of the bag, one hopes that an unabridged, full production recording of Tale of a Priest will not be long to follow.
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Shostakovich: The Film Album
The Silly Little Mouse (instrumental version)[a]; Excerpts from the suites to the films Alone, Counterplan, The Gadfly, Great Citizen (Series 2), Hamlet, Pirogov, Sofia Perovskaya.
Riccardo Chailly, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra.
Decca/London 289 460 792-2. DDD. TT 78:02.
Recording Grote Zaal, Concertgebouw, Amsterdam, 6, 19, 22 May, 10-11 September 1998.
World Première Recording [a].
Ricardo Chailly’s spirited and stylish exploration of the light music of Shostakovich continues with yet another theme-oriented release of this abundant, highly diverting repertoire. The previous two issues in this series bear the self-explanatory titles, Jazz Music (Decca/London 433 702-2), and The Dance Album (London 452 597-2), and were quite well received in this venue and elsewhere. Chailly now turns his baton toward another genre with the third and possibly final entry of the set, The Film Album.
If expectations are high, they are not only due to the fact that a world class conductor, orchestra and record label are involved. On his previous two entries in the series, Chailly has assembled his programs and performances with meticulous care, offering world premières and alternate versions that have earned distinguished places in the catalogue. On The Dance Album, for example, he was the first to uncover the original rather than the standard Atovmyan-arranged version of Gadfly. That album also contains the slightly later 1934 version of The Bolt, and a specially arranged edition of Moscow Cheremoushki. Chailly has also been a lively and dedicated interpreter of this repertoire.
The current disc offers a broad cross-section of nine of the composer’s film scores spanning an entire career, from the youthful Counterplan (1932) to the composer’s penultimate cinematic work, Sofia Perovskaya (1967). It is also distinguished by world premières. One of them is a genuine specialty item, the instrumental arrangement of the cartoon-opera, The Silly Little Mouse, a work of Shostakovich’s which has only recently been rescued from total obscurity.
The original “vocal version” of Silly Little Mouse was given its world première recording on the Citadel label (see review above) only a few months before the current release. Written for an animated short, it is a work that Testimony‘s Shostakovich took seriously enough to refer to repeatedly as an “opera”. The cartoon is (or “was”, pending the condition of the celluloid) based on a cat-and-mouse fairy tale by Samuel Marshak featuring a cast of – judging from the music – cuddly-looking animals with the illustrious names Mouse, Duck, Pig, Toad, Horse, and Cat. The comparison to Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf, written three years earlier, is inevitable. Musically, the two works remain stylistically distinct, of course, but in the Prokofiev, each character is identified by their own individual tune. In the Shostakovich, the melodies are not character-specific. Amidst a variety of other musical material, each animal in turn sings an aria consisting of an individually altered form of one and the same tune.
In this recording, the arias are performed by solo instruments substituting for individual roles. The arrangement was approved by the Shostakovich estate and was especially prepared for this recording by Andrew Cornall, the producer of the current Chailly series. The instrumental stand-ins are written with much imagination and performed with plenty of personality. For example, the Toad is represented on a croaking double bass with backboard-slapping embellishments, the Horse with the trombone’s inimitable slurs and raspberry toppings, and the Pig on a bleating bassoon with backup snorts on bass drum. It strikes me as insanely funny to be writing about Shostakovich’s music in these terms, but it does reflect the music’s storybook charm.
All the music, as far as I can hear, is fresh and not recycled from other sources. Though the current arrangement contains every note of the original score, the music is far too dependent on programmatic narrative to stand alone as abstract music. Its handful of merry little melodies alternate with each other in an operatic fashion, boasting just the right balance of sweetness and sophistication. Listeners will be surprised to hear how gentle and free of sarcasm Shostakovich can be throughout the entire 12-minute duration of this delightfully untypical work.
Mr. Chailly’s other programming choices are typically unusual. I found it surprising that more than a fourth of the disc, twenty minutes to be exact, is devoted to the music from the film Alone. The conductor evidently found the music’s alluring atmospheric qualities distinct enough among the composer’s film scores to flesh out in more complete form. Nevertheless, some of the selections within the suite, such as the three-minute Altai movement and the first two and a half minutes of In Kuzmina’s hut are questionable. These sections carry little more than atmospheric interest and are typical of the woodwind noodling found in the composer’s other early film scores.
This is not the case for the rest of the suite. Some stunning special effects occur in the final four selections, especially Storm Breaks, wherein the howling wind is represented by an absolutely bizarre passage for theremin, trombone slides, and growling woodwinds, leading into Snow Storm‘s orchestral stampede. The brief section is such a stylistic departure (Artur Honegger’s film music actually came to mind), it prompted immediate comparison with the corresponding tracks in a different recording. (Two alternate recordings are available of the complete, ca. 75-minute, Alone score, both from 1996, Michail Jurowski/Berlin RSO, Capriccio 10 562, and Walter Mnatsakanov/Byelorussian Radio, Russian Disc RD CD 10 007).
Other highlights of the suite include a delightfully off-centred March and Galop, the latter with an opening pentatonic-sounding xylophone tune suggestive of Gliere’s recently staged Red Poppy. The Barrel organ waltz (not the same music as the Gadfly movement often identified by the same title) is a pensive little dance that acquires its personality by periodically being offset by a series of dissonant snarls on muted brass. Calm after the Storm, reminiscent of Prokofiev’s eerie evocations, brings the suite to a quiet, highly atmospheric conclusion.
The powerful music that Shostakovich’s wrote for Grigory Kozintsev’s film, Hamlet, is often cited as Shostakovich’s greatest work in the genre. Along with the suite to Gadfly, it is also one of the most frequently recorded. Given the time of its composition (1963-64), its concentration of dark forces, and the gestural quality of its material, it is one of the earliest compositions that looks ahead to the style and content of the late period. When I saw Chailly conduct Hamlet extracts at New York’s Avery Fisher Hall on February 14th of this year, I can only blame hall acoustics for my having been less impressed than I am with the superb performance and recorded sound on the current disc. Once again, Chailly’s selections offer surprises.
The potent introduction, with its accented hammer blows and reverberant gong strokes, has never seemed so monumental nor been recorded in such opulent sound. Other familiar selections include the nervously scurrying strings of Ball at the castle, with its Tchaikovskian brass two-step in the trio section, brought off with superb sectional playing. I could have done without yet another performance of the blandly polite In the Garden, considering the omission of such fine movements as the grandiose invocation of The Ghost. Another movement whose absence I regret, and one of the most poignant of the score, is the morbid mini-portrait of Ophelia, whose mournfully lovely melody, her sanity, eerily dissolves into hollow gesture. It would have been nice to hear the Chailly version of these numbers. Compensating that is the inclusion of a few brief, nonstandard fragments, Ball and Military Music, that flesh out the Shakespearian ambiance with boisterous pageantry.
Chailly concludes the Hamlet selections with one of Shostakovich’s finest, most engaging cinematic segments, the mighty Scene of poisoning. It is one of the composer’s obsessively driven ostinato affairs, a smaller cousin to the Eighth Symphony’s Allegro non troppo, where developmental drive, atmospheric foreboding, and motivic interplay are amalgamated in an uncommonly riveting fashion. The one performance of this movement that has always seemed ideal is the Nikolai Rabinovich/Moscow RSO from an old ten-inch mono Melodiya LP (D 17691-2; 1966). The brisk, unflaggingly strict (thus, Mravinsky-like) metronome that is carried throughout the entire ostinato section is precisely what the piece needs to achieve its building sense of accumulation. As subsequent recordings of this movement have demonstrated, deviations from that strictly metred pulse can derail the momentum and detract from the piece’s overall effectiveness. (Some readers may find the following discussion of this four minutes of music excessive. They are advised to skip the next few paragraphs).
I found this to be the case with Serebrier’s/RTBF idiosyncratic tempo changes during the climactic section where the tension momentarily becomes dislodged in an otherwise effective performance (RCA 74321 242122). Leonid Grin/Berlin RSO (Capriccio 10 298) score high atmospheric points in the first part of the movement and finally arrive at a very effective target tempo. However, their ostinato begins and stays slow for too long, sacrificing much of the piece’s cohesiveness. Paul Freeman’s best moments (with the Chicago Sinfonietta, Fanfare CDD 551) come early in the piece, with wonderfully expectant seismic thunderings in the bass drum, an instrument which thereafter makes unfortunately thumpy contributions in a recording that suffers from less than ideal acoustical distribution.
Having been fussy over performances of this movement in past recordings, I was no less than floored to find Chailly’s interpretation (as well as recorded sound) brilliantly on target. He clearly understands the importance of following the unwritten axiom of keeping an unyielding tempo throughout the piece. His ostinato begins with one bar of slower tempo carried over from the introductory material (track 21, 2:22). He falls immediately into a steady sprint (2:28) that is a bit slower than the norm, but one that strikes a successful balance between mood and motion. He unblinkingly follows the metronome throughout the various thematic inserts that are both atmospheric and momentum-maintaining (3:11 to 3:35) and through the statement of the main theme in parallel minor seconds on the winds (3:39) – places where other conductors have made poor tempo decisions. At 4:55, Chailly steps up the pace in his one and only tempo shift that leads, with enormous effectiveness, to the three punctuated chords that culminate the climactic section (5:44). Significantly, Chailly maintains the new metronome through to the last bar. A good move. This follow-through not only leaves intact the spell created by the unwaveringly steady pulse, but reinforces the overreaching sense of inevitability. Leonard Grin, by contrast, who markedly steps up the pace in the post-climactic pages, breaks the spell with lesser results.
The three extracts from the film Counterplan are an altogether different kettle of fish. This is the score that gave us one of Shostakovich’s most frequently arranged and recycled tunes which has gone by a variety of names over the years: Song of the Counterplan, Song of Unity, Song of Meeting, Morning Light, and was even arranged during the war as the United Nations Hymn. In its current instrumental form, the celebrated tune begins quietly on solo flute after which the rest of the orchestra leads it to a high-spirited conclusion. To my knowledge, no other parts of the Counterplan music have been previously recorded, though I am positive that I have heard elsewhere the music of the opening Presto, with its typical early-period stream of mischief. The second movement, Andante, features a lovely violin reverie.
What a wonderfully offbeat choice from the late-period film, Sofia Perovskaya, is its Felliniesque Waltz, a carousel tune that wears a bitter smirk, its twisted melancholy perfectly realized by Chailly and forces. With the simplicity of its minor key melody combined with its leisurely paced brass setting (an ensemble itself suggestive of a Russian funeral), the piece dangles ironically between circus and funeral music. While listening, I couldn’t help associating it with the photo of the composer in his open casket with that erratic indentation of a smile streaked across his face.
The disc also contains two extracts from the Zhdanov-era film, Pirogov. One is a “bottle-smashing” Scherzo that must reflect the composer’s pent-up hostility against his then persecutors and the very piece of cinematic mediocrity he was working on. Chailly goes one better than Jose Serebrier and the RTBF (RCA 6603-2-RC) in hurtling the hellfire needed in this splendidly reckless rouser (one with a double cadence of a kind found nowhere else in the DDS files). Yet this is one place on the disc where the maestro is exceeded by the well-suited excesses of Maxim Shostakovich and his rambunctious reading with the Bolshoi Theater Orchestra. That performance can only be heard on a Melodiya LP and its various vinyl reissues (in the West on Angel/Melodiya SR 40160; 1978), all of which are long out of print. Inexplicably and lamentably, Maxim’s fine, pre-defection era recordings of a variety of his father’s ballet and film scores have never been digitally reissued – Michurin being one of the few, if only, exceptions.
The other Pirogov extract is the Finale, a solidly crafted chorale hymn that is gradually brought, Soviet brass-and-percussion style, from solemnity to a rousing chest-pounding finale. It is the kind of indentured hackwork that prompts us to sympathize with the composer’s post-war political conflagrations. At the same time, it is damned effective stuff, especially in this conductor’s hands.
The disc also contains the Gadfly Romance. Yes, I’m afraid it’s turned up once more, the “Riley, Ace of Spies” theme. One is perfectly justified in crying Not Again!, not only because the work verges on overexposure, but because Chailly includes the same music on his previously released Dance Album. On The Film Album, it does receive a greater amount of expressive detail by comparison, thanks to solo violinist Alexander Kerr, in addition to containing a minute more of repeated material (but not the extended central section included on Emin Khachaturyan’s superb recording of Gadfly). How much fuss, then, can one raise over such a lovely piece and performance?
The Funeral March from The Great Citizen (Series 2, 1938-39) is kind of a preliminary sketch for the slow movement of the Eleventh Symphony that Shostakovich would write eighteen years later. Both pieces are based on the revolutionary song You Gave your Lives in Fatal Battle; both are in ternary form; and in both pieces, the dignity of the quoted song is reserved for the mournful outer sections which surround a heroic central climax. The climactic material in this case differs from that used in the Symphony’s movement (wherein the “1905” motto theme makes its most dramatic appearance). Chailly delivers a beautifully moving interpretation of this march with grief-stricken sensitivity, steering the music’s ebb and flow from hushed beginnings to central peak and back again with arresting effect.
The performance of the Funeral March epitomizes the complete empathy and meticulous care with which Chailly has assembled his interpretations for each of the pieces on this disc. It also reflects the admirable affinity that the conductor has demonstrated for a wide expressive range of the composer’s incidental music. At the aforementioned New York concert, the conductor told me that Film Music probably would be the last entry in the current series. One is naturally led to wondering about Chailly’s potential with more substantial Shostakovich fare. He certainly has raised the performance quality of the composer’s light music to a new standard, as London records has likewise raised the quality of recorded sound in this repertoire. It would be a pity if their collaboration stopped here.
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After Scriabin & After Debussy
Trio No. 1 for violin, cello and piano, opus 8; Roslavetz: Trio No. 3; Tailleferre: Trio for piano, violin and cello; Milhaud: Trio for piano, violin, cello.
Clementi Trio: Daniel Spektor (violin), Manuel Gerstner (cello), Deborah Richards (piano).
Largo CDC 7243 5 56618 2 1. DDD. TT 65:29.
Recorded Studio 3, Bayerischer Rundfunk, Munich, 2 December 1986 & 28-30 September 1987.
Piano Trio No. 1, opus 8; Piano Trio No. 2 in E minor, opus 67; Schnittke: Trio for violin, violoncello and piano (1985/92).
Vienna Piano Trio: Wolfgang Redik (violin), Marcus Trefny (cello), Stefan Mendl (piano).
Nimbus NI 5572. DDD. TT 69:00.
Recorded Concert Hall of the Nimbus Foundation, 6-9 April 1998.
Piano Trio No. 1, opus 8; Piano Trio No. 2 in E minor, opus 67; Aphorisms, opus 13 (arr. for piano trio, bassoon and percussion by Boris Bekhterev and Vladimir Spivakov)[a].
The Moscow Contemporary Music Ensemble: Alexander Melnikov (violin), Natalia Sabinova (cello), Victor Yampolsky (piano), Valery Popov (bassoon)[a], Sergei Ampleyev (percussion)[a].
Triton 17 011. DDD. TT 52:20
Recorded at Mosfilm Studio, Moscow, 1-10 October 1994.
Piano Trio No. 2 in E minor, opus 67; Dvorak: Piano Trio, opus 90, Dumky; Rachmaninov: Vocalise.
Eroica Trio: Adela Peña (violin), Sara Sant’Ambrogio (cello), Erika Nickrenz (piano).
EMI CDC 7243 5 56673 2 8. DDD. TT 66:17.
Recorded St. Stephen’s Church, Tiburon, California, 5-9 March 1998.
Piano Trio No. 2 in E minor, opus 67; Dvorak: Piano Trio, opus 90, Dumky; Suk: Elegy, opus 23.
Ahn Trio: Angella Ahn (violin), Maria Ahn (cello), Lucia Ahn (piano).
EMI CDC 7243 5 56674 2 7. DDD. TT 67:12.
Recorded American Academy of Arts and Letters, New York, 10, 11, 14 & 15 July 1997.
It is regrettable that Shostakovich’s Piano Trio No. 1 is usually dismissed as a poor cousin to No. 2, for, taken on its own merits, it is a fascinating, well-constructed piece, full of emotive possibility and open to a variety of interpretations. It’s difficult to believe that this is the work of a boy who had just turned 17. After hearing Shostakovich play his Trio at his entrance exam for the Moscow Conservatory, Myaskovsky exclaimed that Shostakovich had no need to enter in the Form course: “Why Form, when he already is a complete master of form. I’ll take him immediately on the free composition course.” (Subsequently, events conspired against Shostakovich’s move to Moscow, and he remained at the Leningrad Conservatory).
Dedicated to the love of Shostakovich’s youth, Tatyana Glivenko, the First Piano Trio harbours a tender intermission strongly reminiscent of Debussy at his most idyllic, so the title of the Largo disc is fitting. This isn’t exactly a new release, actually being more of a new distribution, having originally been released in Europe in 1988 but only lately finding a major distributor to get it into North American stores. I cannot say that I fell for the Clementi Trio’s rendition of Opus 8, finding their grip rather too loose to win a firm recommendation. There are however, moments of true pastoral beauty in their reading. The Clementi specialise in out-of-the-way works, so if the rare repertoire coupling the Shostakovich sparks your curiosity, you needn’t hesitate.
The Vienna Piano Trio’s account of Trio No. 1 is the most contemplative of the alternatives under consideration here, capturing well the bittersweet yearning of its outer sections. A more carefree version comes from the Moscow Contemporary Music Ensemble, whose Triton disc turned up in last issue’s reviews in connection with their unusually scored Aphorisms coupling. The central section of the First Trio is more ravishingly beautiful on Triton than on Nimbus. In the end, though, the Vienna Piano Trio’s version reveals more of the complex young author.
I completely agree with David Fanning’s lament, oft expressed in the pages of Gramophone, that most recordings of the Second Trio fail to probe its darkest recesses. Critical to doing so is setting the scene properly at the beginning by imparting the fullest measure of sadness to the long muted introduction. This is not achievable merely by playing slowly and quietly, as the Moscow Contemporary Music Ensemble’s reading demonstrates; it supplies both those qualities without achieving true bereavement. I was none too impressed by the rather shaky tone of both string instruments and the tentative manner in which they tackle their material in the second movement. The Largo is tinged with nostalgia, but not the deepest grief, and I sense a gulf between the players and the music throughout.
It’s an entirely different story as far as the Vienna Piano Trio are concerned. Right from the opening bar they impart a sense of tragedy and profound loss. Try to put your finger on how they do it and you’ll fail; it’s not merely their funereal pace and hushed enunciation, there is that ineffable quality of emotional engagement. At the juncture of the first movement at which most competitors shift to a lighter mood (around Fig. 14 in the score), the Vienna Piano Trio keep their eyes fixed on their starting point. I was quite surprised to discover how long they take to relent in the second movement too. Loss is never far off; listen to how the lugubrious cello line is highlighted from Fig. 41/1:23. A few rays of sunshine penetrate later on, but through only sporadic breaks in the cloud cover. One might have expected even greater pathos in the third movement, but I admire the Vienna Piano Trio’s decision to eschew histrionics in favour of an austere sorrow that is, ultimately, a more realistic expression of genuine grief. They minimize the Jewishness of the themes in the finale, but here again their approach is emotionally consistent.
It should be apparent by now that the Vienna Piano Trio’s interpretation does not supply the full range of colour and mood that resides within the score. To my mind, their rendering is all the more gripping for its clear focus on the darker emotions, but I suppose that some may find it to be unjustifiably single-minded. It is certainly true that greater emotional variety can be heard in the composer’s own 1947 recording with Czech cellist Milos Sádlo and David Oistrakh on violin, available on Vol. 1 of Doremi’s David Oistrakh Collection in a 20-bit remastering (DHR-7701; it appeared briefly on Vol. 5 of Revelation’s Shostakovich Plays Shostakovich series, RV70006, but transferred almost a semitone sharp). That is a recording no serious collector should be without, but technically the soloists are not beyond reproach. Milos Sádlo recalls that they played through in one go, almost without stopping, so there were apparently no retakes (see interviews in DSCH Nos. 8 & 9). Furthermore, tempi are hurried, perhaps gratuitously so, and the Largo is rather isolated in its mourning. For my money, Shostakovich’s 1946 world première recording with the Beethoven Quartet’s Dmitry Tsyganov and Sergei Shirinsky, which Revelation had placed on Vol. 6 (RV70007) and which is currently unavailable on CD, was a superior model to emulate, being less showy and more disciplined in its pacing.
Even so, neither of the composer’s recordings go as far as the Vienna Piano Trio’s performance in giving utterance to the grief latent in this score. Although Shostakovich had conceived of this trio before the death of its dedicatee, his dear friend Ivan Sollertinsky, it would appear that he only began putting it to paper four days after Sollertinsky’s fatal heart attack on 11 February 1944, and he composed the bulk of it the following August. Two days after Sollertinsky died, Shostakovich wrote to Isaac Glikman, “I don’t have the words to express the pain that tears my very being to pieces.” The Nimbus disc demonstrates that he did have the notes.
So transcendent is the Vienna Piano Trio’s reading that I very nearly forgot to mention that the quality of the playing is first-rate. Do not, under any circumstances, ignore this performance!
I described Schnittke’s Trio, in chamber orchestra transcription, in my review of ECM New Series’ excellent Dolorosa album, partnering Shostakovich’s Chamber Symphony, opus 110a (ECM 1620; DSCH 9). In its original instrumentation Schnittke’s Trio is spikier than in Yuri Bashmet’s orchestration. Not for the squeamish; it’s a work that strips the skin from the soul and exposes it raw, and the Vienna Piano Trio dissect it without flinching.
What a bizarre coincidence (for it certainly cannot have arisen as a strategic decision) that EMI should release, within months of each other, two discs of the Shostakovich Second Trio and Dvorak’s Dumky Trio, both performed by strikingly beautiful and fashionable young female Julliard School graduates! And, before I am attacked for what may appear to be a sexist statement, I hasten to point out that both the Eroica and Ahn Trios are unapologetically image-conscious … or, at least, so they have allowed themselves to be marketed. Both Trios have their own websites on the Internet with fashion-mag-style photos of the members (http://www.eroicatrio.com/ and http://www.ahntrio.com/. The Ahn Trio also have their own logo that resembles a Korean character, and this is emblazoned on and inside the booklet, and even on the CD itself. The notes to both discs inform us which fashion designers the musicians are wearing in the accompanying photographs, as well as who did their hair and makeup!
While there is a risk that such focus on image may be interpreted as superficiality and thus turn off a segment of the buying public, it could also attract new listeners to the CDs beneath the pictures, particularly among the young – both Trios regularly give outreach concerts at schools and universities. In any case, the Eroica and Ahn players have reached their present status through hard work and dedication to their musicianship, and these new releases deserve to be judged, without prejudice, on that basis.
As it turns out, there’s really no contest between the two EMI versions of the Second Piano Trio, the Eroica Trio winning by a wide margin. The best thing about the Ahn Trio’s account is Angella Ahn’s ethereal violin tone. There’s nothing wrong with her sisters’ support, technically, but because the trio’s relaxed grasp and lax tempi dissipate tension, this reading would be quite empty of feeling if it weren’t for the plaintiveness of the violin’s voice. Such emotion as manages to manifest itself is pale and watery, and the listener’s attention wanders.
Annotator David Foil reveals that Shostakovich’s Second Trio was the piece that clinched the Eroica’s soloists as a Trio, appearing on their first concert programme almost ten years ago. The performance on this disc still sounds enthusiastically fresh, but also has a greater maturity to it than the Ahn’s. The introduction is handled superbly as a true pianissimo lament, and the Eroica’s changes of pulse within the first movement convince both instinctively and intellectually. There is a richness to their sound that recalls the panache of the Beaux Arts Trio’s performance on Philips (432 079-2), but the Eroica dig much deeper into the music and are not concerned with creating attractive effects, as the Beaux Arts Trio seem to have been. On the contrary, in their enthusiasm, the Eroica players are not afraid to sound downright brutal, as with Adela Peña’s exaggerated up-bowed crescendi in her recapitulation of the finale’s opening theme. The impact of Sara Sant’Ambrogio’s bow in the climax of the last movement (from Fig. 84/5:08) turns her cello into a percussion instrument! Listening to the fervour with which the Eroica Trio chew through the second movement, their imprisoned brooding in the Largo, or their emphatic – even violent – attack in the finale, one is left with no doubt as to their commitment to this opus. They also supply the most authentic-sounding Jewish motifs of any of the discs under consideration in this review. Theirs is a performance I will be taking off the shelf often. It is only the Vienna Piano Trio’s even darker delivery that ultimately tips the scales in favour of the Nimbus account.
As to the main coupling on the EMI discs, I also prefer the Eroica’s take on Dvorak’s Dumky Trio, which is one of the finest (and certainly the most ravishing) performance of the work that I’ve heard. It is more impassioned than the Ahn Trio’s, though no one should be disappointed by their undeniably lyrical account either. Suk’s Elegy is well served by the Ahn sisters, and although I may do a Van Gogh if I have to sit through another Rachmaninov Vocalise anytime soon, the Eroica Trio play their own transcription of it superbly.
Acoustics on all of these discs are good, with Nimbus’ being the most naturally sympathetic. EMI’s for the Eroica Trio is also admirable, and I did not at all mind its faint, echo-induced harmonics on the violin’s line at the beginning of the Shostakovich, which, if anything, add to the sense of atmosphere.
To sum up, then, the Vienna Piano Trio’s entry now takes its place as my top recommendation in both Trios, and the Eroica Trio win an enthusiastic thumbs-up for a reading of uncommon intensity.
W. Mark Roberts