CD Reviews 16
§ = World Première Recording
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Shostakovich: Theatre Music
Piano arrangements by the composer[a]/Lev Solin[b] of music from The Human Comedy[b]: March, The Panorama of Paris, Police March§, Waltz, Sarabande, Gavotte and Trio; The Bedbug: Intermezzo[b]§, Scene in the Boulevard[b], Waltz[a]§, March[a], Foxtrot[a]§, Galop[a]§, Closing March[b]; Conditionally Killed[a]: The Field, Polka, The Flight of Angels, The Jugglers§, Dance, Bacchanalia; Hamlet, opus 32: Lullaby[b], The Players’ Pantomime[b], Dead March[b], Gigue[b], March of Fortinbras[b], The Hunt[a], Night Watch[b], Dance Music[b]; Salute, Spain![b]: March, Funeral March; Russian River: Football (piano reduction by V. Samarin); King Lear: A Scene from Act III[a]; The Age of Gold: Polka[a]§.
Rustem Hayroudinoff (piano).
Chandos CHAN 9907. DDD. TT 67:59.
Recorded Potton Hall, Suffolk, 7 & 8 August 2000.
World premiere recordings of arrangements except §.
The ever-fascinating world of Shostakovich’s incidental music takes the form of solo piano arrangements on this delightful new disc from Chandos. It is a programme that features rarely and sometimes never-before recorded repertoire, providing top-drawer entertainment and archival value.
To date, recordings of the composer’s light music for solo piano have concentrated on a few works written for children (e.g., Children’s Notebook, Dances of the Dolls), as well as arrangements of isolated numbers from a handful of ballet scores, including the famous Polka from the Age of Gold. The current disc takes the laudable initiative of expanding this repertoire into rich and often unexplored territory. In delving into this literature, pianist Rustem Hayroudinoff has struck a gold mine of raw material.
Almost all of Shostakovich’s music for the theatre and stage dates from a youth yet-untraumatised by the notorious Pravda attacks of 1936. Regrettably, the condemnations shifted his focus away from this genre to which he was so instinctively drawn. The legacy that remains, representing the finest work of his early years, sparkles with wit, idiosyncratic humour, and abundant imagination. The sampling on this disc offers a broadside view of this fertile period of creativity.
The programme spans the entire period during which Shostakovich wrote incidental music. It focuses on four works written between the years 1929 and 1934: The Bedbug (1929), Conditionally Killed (1931), Hamlet (1932), and The Human Comedy (1933-34). The programme also contains selections from Salute, Spain! (1936) and two final contributions dating from the 1940s. Within these brilliant miniatures we find the composer exploring the diabolical calculus of irony and the grotesque. With a lyrical gift that is as ingratiating as it is idiosyncratic, the music today preserves all of its original freshness and irreverence.
The incidental music to The Bedbug was the 23-year-old Shostakovich’s first contribution to the non-operatic stage. Tailored to the progressive tastes of its illustrious director (Meyerhold) and playwright (Mayakovsky), the score has not lost its power to amuse or raise eyebrows. The suite is made up of the traditional dance forms that are found in almost all of Shostakovich’s work. Here they appear as a melancholic Waltz, a defiantly dissonant March, a Foxtrot whose mood remains wistful despite many sharp turns, and a gleeful Galop that also turns up in his music to the film New Babylon. The opening Intermezzo is one of the most fascinating numbers on the album. With its many cinematic transitions and sudden mood shifts, it is vividly suggestive of Shostakovich’s teenage job experiences improvising on piano to the silent screen. The image so conjured is alone worth the price of the disc.
Another highlight is the oft-recorded suite written for the staging of Hamlet by Nikolai Akimov. In this revisionist production, composer and director take a decidedly humorous slant on Shakespeare’s tragedy (this stands in diametric contrast to the predominantly dark vision found in Shostakovich’s music to the Kozintsev film of the same name some 30 years later). In this score we find Shostakovich probing more sophisticated levels of satire in a broader and somewhat more unified lyrical context. The piano version is a pure delight. The eight numbers recorded here include a Lullaby, the skittishly syncopated Players Pantomime; the mercurial Hunt; Dead March, with its quasi-regal bearing; and not least, the finely turned March of Fortinbras, which has gained some fame independent of the suite.
The music hall production of Conditionally Killed came to light in 1993 with the performance of Gerard McBurney’s reconstructed version of the score on Cala 1020 (released as Hypothetically Murdered). The work’s irrepressible jollity is represented here in six numbers that include the giddy Jugglers, a pensive reverie, The Field, that well might have served as one of the composer’s opus 34 Preludes, and Flight of Angels, as seraphic a miniature as you’ll find in the Shostakovich repertoire.
The Human Comedy consists of a set of merry-making dances that proffer a more conventional brand of lyricism. Many of its memorable tunes would be later recast in a more sanitized form in the three Atovmyan-arranged Ballet Suites of the early 1950s.
Football, the only extract from Russian River, is a first-rate little discovery that reaches its line of scrimmage fleet-footed and virtuosic. A set of august marches makes up the two extracts from Salute, Spain!, and the dignified music to King Lear, dating from 1940, is also represented by a march tune.
Of the 32 arrangements on this disc, 13 were made by the composer, himself, while 18 are credited to one Lev Solin, and the remaining one, from Russian River, to V. Samarin. Not much more is revealed about these elusive arrangers either in the pages of the score or in Eric Roseberry’s liner notes. The notes are otherwise very informative about the plot outlines of these often-obscure productions.
Chandos’ claim that all but Police March from The Human Comedy and Intermezzo from The Bedbug are world premiere recordings requires some clarification and correction. Shostakovich himself can be heard playing his piano arrangement of Polka from The Age of Gold on a deleted Revelation CD (RV 70008). In 1981, Swedish label Bluebell issued an LP with a selection of piano arrangements of Prokofiev’s and Shostakovich’s music that included the latter’s The Age of Gold Polka, Jugglers from Conditionally Killed, and the Foxtrot, Waltz, and Galop from The Bedbug (Bell 126). Pianist Inger Wikstrom’s lighter touch and more playful tempi on that album made a good first sampling of this music.
Of related interest, Saison Russe recently issued a non-standard selection of the composer’s piano miniatures, performed by Rimma Bobritskaya (RUS 788034; reviewed in DSCH 11). For the record, that album includes a Berceuse from The Human Comedy that contains the same tune, but in a different arrangement, as The Panorama of Paris on the current disc.
While these miniatures, with their standard accompaniment figurations, do not make the greatest technical demands, they are pleasingly pianistic. The gauge of its performance is how well the pianist can thread together the music’s many melodic and harmonic eccentricities, and recreate its uniquely satiric spirit. This is no easy task. The combined classical and vaudevillian character allows a wide range of interpretation. How campy should the playing style be and how much of the music’s dignity should be preserved?
Hayroudinoff makes a wonderful case for these miniatures, with a decided nod to elegance. His performances are buoyant, energetic, full of swagger, yet marked by the polish and grace of a conservatory-trained pianist. In a movement such as Scene on the Boulevard from The Bedbug, he effortlessly segues in and out of the tremolo octave inserts, and negotiates its sly elisions as if passing winks to the listener from the keyboard. In the Closing March, the wonderfully off-balance tune in the bass register is captured with all of its intended mordancy. The manic side of the composer also comes across in mercurial movements like The Hunt from Hamlet. The quietly lyrical movements are played with sensitivity, such as the lovely Sarabande from The Human Comedy, and the delicate Lullaby from Hamlet.
There are times when one wishes for a little less finesse and more of a rough-hewn approach, especially when the music is at its most villainously prankish. The sharp turns in the Age of Gold Polka, for example, are just a bit too polished; the episodic Foxtrot and the dissonant March from The Bedbug could tolerate being a tad more rough-and-tumble. These few tamed moments do not, however, mar an otherwise handsome set of interpretations.
By delving into this obscure repertoire, Rustem Hayroudinoff has reopened a musical Pandora’s Box. Listeners who may wonder whether there is more of it waiting to be discovered may be reassured: yes, there is. Consulting Volume 28 of the Moscow Publisher’s Edition of the Complete Works, entirely devoted to piano arrangements of the composer’s theatre music, one finds, for example, that the seven extracts from The Bedbug recorded here do not comprise the complete suite, but leave behind movements with such enticing titles as Wedding Scene, Pioneer March, March of the Father’s Town, Fire, Fire Alarm, and Chorus of Fire. Similarly, there are yet-to-be-recorded morsels found in the scores of The Human Comedy, Russian River, etc. Many of these selections include vocal parts and could obviously not be included on a solo piano album. Hopefully, the endeavour of recording this volume in its entirety will be undertaken some day.
In the meantime, Chandos have given us a glowing showcase of Shostakovich miniatures from the years of the composer’s theatrical prime. A sure pleaser.
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String Quartet No. 5 in Bb major, opus 92; String Quartet No. 7 in F# major, opus 108; String Quartet No. 9 in Eb major, opus 117.
St. Petersburg String Quartet: Alla Aranovskaya (violin 1), Ilya Teplyakov (violin 2), Alexei Koptev (viola) and Leonid Shukaev (cello).
Hyperion CDA67155. DDD. TT 73:07.
Recorded St. Petersburg Recording Studio, December 2000.
When listening again to these three middle quartets I was forcefully struck by the debt they owe to Beethoven. The textures, the motivic construction of the material, the end weight, the fugal sections, as well as the emphasis on form as the main focus of the musical material, all make them part of the Classical Art Music tradition that is quite alien to the music flooding the world today. This music is now historical, no longer modern. The programme notes with earnest descriptions of both formal features and Shostakovich’s “genius” also seem more appropriate to Vienna 200 years ago than to the global culture of the 21st century.
Unfortunately, I can find very little positive to say about this particular CD. Firstly, the acoustic ambience of the recording studio was definitely not advantageous to the performances. Usually, recordings of string quartets are made in small, very dry rooms, but things could have been better here. Surely Haydn, Beethoven and probably all composers down to Bartók expected their quartets to be performed in rooms with some reverberation? Shostakovich presumably wrote with the auditoria of the Russian conservatories in mind, which are somewhat bigger, and surely not as dry as this venue.
Worse, there is an unemotional, rather mechanical feel to these performances, which could partly be explained by the poor acoustical environment; organists in particular change their articulation, speed and phrasing depending on acoustical feedback, and string quartet players, having to concentrate so profoundly on listening to and interacting with one another, can easily be inspired (or otherwise) by the vibrancy and warmth of a room’s acoustics. The cello in particular sounds weak and ineffective throughout.
Specific instances can be cited. In Quartet No. 5, the highest note of the first movement is an Ab more than four octaves above middle C (Fig. 31 or measure 274-75). One need not be an analyst to find this important, because at this point Shostakovich writes A-flats for all four instruments, in four octaves, and marks them fff espressivo. Yet in this recording they are not noticeably emphasised either dynamically or rhythmically. In the second movement of this same quartet the two violins often play the same melodic line doubled at the octave, but this unusual textural sound is much less conspicuous than in some other recordings. In Quartet No. 7, there is a fugue reminiscent of the Fourth Symphony in the third movement (Fig. 34) with the countersubjects in a distinctly different rhythm, which unfortunately is less audible than it should be.
My favourite comparison is always my old records of the Borodin String Quartet where everything (except the lack of clinical digital sound) seems to go right (Melodiya/Seraphim SIC6034 and 6035; not reissued on CD). In my opinion, their perception of large and middle-dimension formal aspects and their grasp of tension and drama are unequalled.
The last movement of the Ninth Quartet is a good case study. It is the longest and “heaviest” movement of the piece (again in the Beethovenian tradition), and has a complex structure with changes of tempo, texture, metre, and reminiscences of earlier movements – especially the fourth. The Borodin Quartet emphasise the one-beat to the bar from the very beginning, perhaps accentuated by going slightly faster than the prescribed tempo of 116 bpm. Their performance breathes of urgency, becoming almost frantic and nightmarish in Shostakovich’s unique way, starting off in 3/4 metre. The present recording by the St. Petersburg Quartet, on the other hand, is slower, matter of fact, with little sense of urgency.
The next section, or theme group, is in 2/4 metre but with a clearly specified dotted half note now equal to an un-dotted half note – in other words, like Elliott Carter’s metric modulations. Here it means that the discourse seems slower, because the basic one-beat to the bar remains the same, but there is only a duple instead of triple subdivision. Thanks to the heavy accents supplied by the Borodin Quartet, in their recording this impresses as a logical, assured and effective change with continuity, and a rather miraculous but very convincing change of mood (even though, like the first theme, it also begins with a Bb). The St. Petersburg Quartet, sadly, simply change gear like someone in a car on the highway chatting away about something else when suddenly having to go up a hill.
One of the most interesting aspects of Shostakovich’s use of form is what I refer to as “interwoven seams”, meaning that changes of texture, key, tempo and/or metre often occur in small fragments and then the previous material continues for a few moments, then the new material recurs, and so on, back and forth, until the new material takes off on its own and the old material is memory. In the change of metre discussed in the previous paragraph, this happens quite clearly, with the composer writing two dotted quarter-notes per bar in the two lower instruments from m131, though the change of metre in the score only occurs at m152 (here the interweaving is more horizontal than vertical).
A similar process happens in reverse when the 3/4 material recurs from m311. Here again the St. Petersburg Quartet make this just a mechanical exercise. In contrast, the Borodin Quartet evoke the mysterious, mixed with the subtle and the witty, creating an exciting beginning of a long crescendo (textural as well as dynamic), getting faster and faster, louder and louder, more and more frantic, hardly pausing for the beginning of another Fourth-Symphony-like fugue from m414, which then explodes from this second great crescendo with an extended tremolo in the upper strings, and a long recitative in the cello that effectively shatters the emphasized, steady one-beat to the bar into alternatively triple and duple subdivisions, so that the discourse can start over with increasing metrical complexity for the ending of the whole composition. The St. Petersburg Quartet do not make anywhere near so frantic a crescendo leading up to the cello recitative, so it does not feel like climactic release when it comes. On the other hand, in the Brodsky Quartet’s version (Teldec 9031 71702 2), the upper-string tremolo at this point is virtually inaudible, which at least is not the case here.
Further, on the Hyperion disc the fourth note of the cello recitative, a G above middle C, is prefaced with an added appoggiatura apparently on the G-string, which is not in the 1966 Russian score from the State Publishers in my possession. Couldn’t they have done another take?
It would seem that the St. Petersburg Quartet have little feeling for large-dimension aspects of Shostakovich’s formal structures, or at least do not articulate or convey them in a way that touches me personally. As mentioned above, perhaps the poor acoustics of the recording studio compounded this problem.
J D Drury
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Shostakovich: Complete String Quartets, Vol. 3
String Quartet No. 9 in Eb major, opus 117; String Quartet No. 13 in Bb minor, opus 138; String Quartet No. 8 in C minor, opus 110.
Sorrel Quartet: Gina McCormack (violin 1), Catherine Yates (violin 2), Sarah-Jane Bradley (viola), Helen Thatcher (cello).
Chandos CHAN 9955. DDD. TT 72:22.
Recorded Snape Maltings Concert Hall, 28-30 March 2001.
Government Health Warning: This is a CD with serious oomph! It is not for the faint-hearted, the easily scared, or the squeamish. But then, readers of this Journal are Shostakovich devotees, so none of the above applies. This is the Sorrel Quartet’s third volume in a projected cycle of the Shostakovich Quartets. The first two volumes contained Quartets Nos. 6, 7 and 10, and 3, 4 and 11 respectively, and were reviewed in DSCH 13.
I have long awaited the Sorrels’ recording of the Eighth Quartet, ever since their live performance at Cratfield, England, in September 1999, which left the audience in stunned silence. At that particular concert, the Sorrels performed the Eighth as the last piece before the interval, and unfortunately the effect it had on everyone – players included – rather overshadowed their performance of the Twelfth Quartet in the second half. Perhaps because of the potential emotional devastation that the Eighth can wreak, it is the last item on this CD. However, it is the extraordinary performance of the Thirteenth Quartet on this disc that has me going back to it again and again, with a kind of fascinated horror. But more of that later.
The CD opens with the wild and bizarre Ninth Quartet. What are we to make of such a work that contains so much music? In terms of simple bar counts, it is the longest of the Shostakovich quartets, and the amazing last movement, with 709 bars, has more than half the music: a kind of bewildering synthesis of all the elements that have gone before.
In the hands of the Sorrel Quartet, this opus is a highly entertaining tour de force, with great clarity and precision in the playing, and breathtaking speed in the final pages. Additionally, the Sorrels are very strong on dynamics; in the last movement, there are some sudden ff harmonics played in unison on the two violins, and Gina McCormack and Catherine Yates really make these count, uncorking some truly piercing and startling shrieks.
Moving from the Ninth Quartet, so full of life and defiance, we progress to the deathly Thirteenth, perhaps the most disturbing piece Shostakovich ever wrote. The Sorrels make this one of the most excruciatingly painful performances of the piece I have heard, and that is meant as a compliment.
There is an unearthly quality about the playing of the strange chant-like music of descending semi-tones just after the beginning, suggesting some living, breathing, yet mortally wounded beast. It is not long before this picture of disquiet builds to agonized screams. In the section just after Doppio Movimento, there are waves of sustained discords punctuated by ffp markings, which feel like blows to the face in this recording. Later, the big accumulating chords at Fig. 17/6:55 leading to sfff again have tremendous impact, and the hammered out back-to-back minor ninths at Fig. 18/7:03 are completely shattering. Here these are forceful, scrunching, metallic blows – a highly memorable sound.
The central section, with its jagged phrases over a walking bass is played with great precision and rhythmic emphasis, and is icy cold – a poker-faced kind of jazz, or perhaps a grim puppet-dance with a lunatic puppeteer pulling the strings. It succeeds brilliantly on this recording.
Finally, as a word of warning, the high Bb “scream” which ends the work is terrifying in this performance. I almost had cause to regret turning up the volume to hear quiet parts of the final passage, with the viola playing against the ghostly tapping. The scream builds up relentlessly and at the end increases suddenly to a formidable level, leaving me desperate for it to stop. And that, I think, is how the composer intended it to be. If you like your Thirteenth Quartet to be truly “nasty” (and I do), then this is a recording that will appeal to you.
After the shock waves left by the Sorrels’ performance of the Thirteenth Quartet, it is perhaps best to stop the CD, and listen to their performance of the Eighth in isolation. As mentioned earlier, they reduced the audience to total silence in their live performance at Cratfield, which I attended. Of course, the CD performance cannot recapture such an intense experience, and in a sense I’m glad it does not. Such experiences should be of the once-in-a-lifetime kind, to be treasured, and not to be recreated on demand at the touch of a button.
However, many of the qualities the Sorrels showed in Cratfield are apparent here as well. There is an almost timeless feeling at the opening of the Eighth quartet, as if the music is coming to you across centuries (and in this sense the quartet bears much resemblance to the opening fugue of Beethoven’s C# minor Quartet). The Sorrels manage to play the quiet passages with great intensity – there is a sense of something sacred happening over the long, sustained drone notes that occur in the quartet. The impression is inescapable that this is a personal requiem for the composer, with all the self-quotations woven seamlessly into the music, and the ever-present DSCH motives welling up like a gigantic presence. Again the explosive dynamics are present in the second and fourth movements, helped by a wonderful recorded sound. In the final movement, the climax is played with great passion and commitment. At the end, as it subsides, the performance is heartbreaking, without ever descending into sentimentality.
This is a strongly recommended disc. It is only to be hoped that we do not have to wait so long for the next volume to come out in this cycle.
String Quartet No. 8, opus 110, arranged for wind ensemble by Dmitri Smirnov; Alone, Suite arranged for wind ensemble by Dmitri Smirnov; Dmitri Smirnov: Portrait, opus 121; Edison Denisov: Sonata for Alto Saxophone and Piano arranged for Alto Saxophone and Wind Ensemble by Dmitri Smirnov[a].
Nederlands Blazers Ensemble, Bas Pollard (conductor)[a], Arno Bornkamp (saxophone)[a].
Meladina Record MRCD0021. _DD. TT 74:00.
Recorded Concertgebouw, Amsterdam, 22 March 2001.
All world premiere recordings.
Available for £10 plus P&P from firstname.lastname@example.org
Promotion. Limited Edition.
Before I begin, let me say that an all-wind Shostakovich concert could be in no better hands than those of the Dutch, who have raised the level of wind ensemble playing to a fine art. As the host of one of the most prestigious wind festivals in the world, Holland has heard wind performances of not only Shostakovich’s Ninth Symphony but Babi Yar as well.
The Blazers make a fine addition to the Shostakovich wind repertoire with nothing short of a, well, blazing performance of the Eighth Quartet, one that even Barshai would never have imagined. To say I am enthusiastic about this issue would be a gross understatement; I would go further, to urge that if you have planned to acquire only one Shostakovich disc this year, then this ought to be it.
The meat first. Forget Barshai’s Chamber Symphony. Forget even the Eighth Quartet. Think of a brand new work from Shostakovich, perhaps written after coffee with Schnittke, and this is what Russian composer Dmitri Smirnov offers us. This 1999 arrangement of the quartet for an ensemble of two oboes, clarinets, bassoons and horns with a double bass takes us to a world beyond what the original composer may have envisioned when he penned his anguished suicide note.
Not content to substitute a wind equivalent for various string timbres, Smirnov takes the score afresh and works out a startling composition for the ensemble. The work takes on strong, bitter colours that hit you from the outset. Through the highly individual colours of the wind instruments in their various registers and combinations, the complex interplay of voices within the quartet is fleshed out in new light, offering new perspectives to this familiar opus.
The transformation is particularly notable in the outer movements, which acquire more bite and personality. Smirnov delights in picking his voices carefully to create a nightmarish interplay of characters, and the drama is abundant throughout, even in the most still passages.
Particularly interesting is Smirnov’s imaginative use of the horn’s full gamut of effects, from its smooth woodwind timbres to its biting brassy tones: for example in the final movement the stopped horn delivers the lines in a spectral whisper that brings an unexpected twist to the music.
The Blazers are simply an amazing lot. Their quick double-tonguing in the Scherzo and Waltz is astounding; the agility with which they take this music faultlessly through its madcap tumble is a feat that even an experienced string quartet like the Borodins can occasionally fail to deliver. Add to that an amazing palette and dynamic range that is fully exploited by a palpable passion for the music, and what you get is an unforgettable experience of this quartet.
The disc is supplemented by a spirited performance of Smirnov’s special ten-movement arrangement of Shostakovich’s music from the film Alone, for an ensemble augmented by trumpet, trombone and percussion. This is typical 30s Shostakovich, as good as we have come to expect, and special because Smirnov includes three fragments that Shostakovich left out of the final film score. Again, Smirnov is fully tuned in to the grotesquery of his predecessor, and the spirited Blazers serve it all up in sizzling style. There is much that is recognisable, from the brittle, insistent xylophone that is a Shostakovich trademark to the cheeky gallops and some wonderful lyrical music that makes this more than just an entertaining filler.
Things get even more interesting with the inclusion of Smirnov’s own tribute to the composer: Portrait, composed in 2000, gets into the Eighth Quartet spirit by weaving variations of the DSCH theme around key quotations from the dedicatee’s body of works, including a fascinating interplay of the main themes of the Fifth to Ninth Symphonies put together in a highly provocative manner. The connoisseur of modern music will enjoy Portrait’s contemporary sound-world, a little like Schnittke in one of his happier moods. The less impressed will nevertheless find it excellent for a party game of “Guess The Shostakovich Tune”.
From grand-teacher to teacher – Smirnov makes a dedication to both masters at one go with another colourful wind ensemble arrangement, this time of Edison Denisov’s own dedicatory Alto Saxophone Sonata of 1970. The work revolves around the theme of the day and is built on contrasting sections of nervous activity and quiet meditation. This highly popular alto sax work is a virtuoso piece that has little to do with the music of Shostakovich in any stylistic sense; the DSCH theme itself appears illusively and quickly disappears into a work that is very much in Denisov’s own voice.
The DSCH theme lends itself to a jazzy feel, which suits the instrument at hand and more or less dictates the mood of the sonata. I confess I hear a little more late Tippett in some of the fast music than anything remotely Russian. The final movement is a maniacal bluesy jam session that ends on a high note to a cacophony of toms and to rousing applause from the live audience. And well deserved it is! This is one disc that any Shostakovich admirer with a sense of adventure will be grateful to have.
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The Music of Dmitri Shostakovich
Two Pieces (Prelude and Scherzo) for string octet, opus 11; Piano Concerto No. 1, opus 35[a]; Chamber Symphony, opus 110a.
Levon Ambartsumian, ARCO Chamber Orchestra, Damon Denton (piano)[a], Fred Mills (trumpet )[a].
Phoenix USA PHCD 151. DDD. TT 58:09.
Recorded Hugh Hodgson Hall, University of Georgia Performing Arts Center, Athens, Georgia, 2000.
Few readers will have heard of any of these performers or indeed the label, a small independent that focuses on modern repertoire. But sit up and take notice, for this is not a CD to pass by!
Relatively unknown they may be, but there is no shortage of first-rate talent in this line-up. Levon Ambartsumian is an international prize-winning former violin student and subsequent professor of the Moscow Tchaikovsky Conservatory, where he recruited the founding members of his ARCO (“bow” in Italian) Chamber Orchestra in 1988. Since 1995, he has been Professor of Violin at the University of Georgia, Athens. The ARCO Chamber Orchestra crossed the pond with him, and now consists of a mixture of American musicians and some of Ambartsumian’s Russian students.
A most successful melange it is, too, as evidenced by the appetiser on this disc. Shostakovich’s Prelude and Scherzo for octet from 1924-25 is a polystylistic crystallisation of the musical impulses of the composer’s youth: spiky drama, wilfully grotesque irony, and a brand of wistful nostalgia that proved too sweet to survive in his music after his travails over Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk.
The players shift skilfully between each of these moods, revelling especially in the modernistic exuberance of the Scherzo, in which they are preferable to the Ricercata de Paris (Suoni e Colori SC 53006; reviewed in DSCH 10). Particularly entertaining in this movement is the stereophonic spectacle of pizzicato notes ping-ponging back and forth across the stage. In the Prelude, although the Ricercata de Paris make more of the Impressionistic passages, the ARCO musicians handle the Classical stylings with greater angularity.
Next comes a First Piano Concerto that is as unlike Shostakovich’s own recorded recitals as one could imagine. “Inauthentic” it may be, but I honestly cannot remember another performance of the work that I’ve enjoyed more! Hats off to young American pianist Damon Denton for conveying the tongue-in-cheek nature of his lines in the first movement without recourse to overt buffoonery. He is also to be commended for his expert characterisation of the divergent voices he is called upon to represent simultaneously.
Unsurprisingly, this team does not keep up in the first movement with Shostakovich’s scandalously rushed recording with Samuel Samosud and the Moscow Philharmonic (Russian Disc RD CD 15 005; deleted), and is still half a minute slower than his later, saner appearance with André Cluytens and the French National Radio Orchestra (EMI CDC 7 54606 2).
However, the following Lento is where the new release is truly iconoclastic. At 8:55, the ARCO players deliver the slowest version of this movement I’ve encountered, drawing out events more than a minute longer than on Shostakovich’s French recording, which was expansive enough. I imagine that some listeners will find this unpalatable. Yet what delirious nostalgia can be wrung from the work at this speed! It is uncanny how Ambartsumian is able to weave textures from Shostakovich’s melodic threads that sound as if Khachaturian had spun them; perhaps this is the Russian-born conductor’s Armenian heritage asserting itself. Veteran trumpeter Fred Mills, a former member of the Canadian Brass, is wholly supportive of this Oriental atmosphere, and the purity of the violin tone in the movement is breathtaking.
Denton impresses again in the concluding movements, teasing with the syncopations, and Mills charms with his impish handling of the final movement’s main theme. Neither, however, is more delightful than the prankster strings who undermine the pontificating trumpet’s central solo with whispered, pizzicato mockery.
Next, the ARCO Chamber Orchestra leap the yawning chasm that separates the concerto from Rudolf Barshai’s arrangement of the Eighth Quartet. To their credit, they cross a different gulf than the one annotator Laura Tomlin maps; she informs us earnestly that Shostakovich “was overwhelmed with emotion after learning of the complete devastation of [Dresden], a result of Allied bombing raids,” and that the quartet is “at the very least an extremely personal outcry against war.” She appears unaware of Shostakovich’s nervous breakdown and suicidal frame of mind in the weeks prior to composing the quartet, a result of being coerced into joining the Communist Party – a more probable stimulus to such a personal outcry as this.
Tomlin also muddles the Chamber Symphony’s title and genesis by claiming that Barshai’s transcription “was given the title of Chamber Symphony, subtitled immediately after a visit to Dresden.” The missing label Tomlin alludes to is not “Chamber Symphony” but rather “To the memory of the victims of fascism and war,” the official subtitle of the quartet (later transferred to the transcription), which was not suggested until two months after the Dresden visit. Her notes do not mention Shostakovich’s declaration to Isaak Glikman on 19 July 1960 that “if some day I die, nobody is likely to write a work in memory of me, so I had better write one myself. The title page could carry the dedication: ‘To the memory of the composer of this quartet.'”
Fortunately, Ambartsumian’s direction is more adept. His Chamber Symphony is morose and restrained, opening with appropriate world-weariness. The pessimistic mood never tips over into melodrama, yet there is plenty of power on reserve: the Jewish “dance of death” theme, recycled from Piano Trio No. 2, is screeched with wide-eyed terror, and there is deadly percussive force behind the three-note cell that heralds the fourth movement.
Clearly, Ambartsumian sees this work as valedictory; the Seryozha refrain holds no reproach, and serves only as a sad farewell. More heart-rending is the cascading DSCH motif of the final movement, sounding utterly defeated.
This is one of the most uncompromising readings of the Chamber Symphony available, posing stiff competition to the similarly exhausted and exhausting version on ECM New Series’ Dolorosa album by Dennis Russell Davies and the Stuttgarter Kammerorchester (ECM 1620; reviewed in DSCH 9).
Take note that all works receive a warm, intimate recording, and the CD has a definite volume “sweet spot” above which it sounds excessively reverberant. Keeping the dial low is particularly important in the concerto, to avoid having the piano overpower the orchestra.
If you have any level of interest in either the First Piano Concerto or the Chamber Symphony, put this disc high on your shopping list. The fine performance of the Two Pieces for Octet is icing on the cake.
W. Mark Roberts
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A Musician’s Musician: Steven Staryk
Violin Concerto No. 1 in A minor, opus 77 (99)[a]; Prokofiev: Violin Concerto No. 1 in D major, opus 19[b]; Fritz Kreisler[c]: Caprice Viennois; Liebeslied; Schön Rosmarin; La Précieuse; Praeludium & Allegro.
Andrew Davis, Toronto Symphony Orchestra[a]/Kazuyoshi Akiyama, Vancouver Symphony Orchestra[b]/Jane Corwin (piano)[c], Steven Staryk (violin).
CBC Records PSCD 2023. ADD (as listed). TT 75:03.
Recorded Roy Thomson Hall, Toronto, 1986[a]/Hotel Vancouver, Vancouver, 1973[b]/Eaton Auditorium, Toronto, 1976[c].
This release is a fitting testimonial to the album’s namesake, whom the booklet notes do not hesitate to proclaim “the finest violinist ever to come out of Canada.” Never entirely comfortable in the soloist’s spotlight, Staryk instead channelled his prodigious talent into the role of concertmaster to the Royal Philharmonic (at the ripe old age of 24!), Concertgebouw, Chicago Symphony and Toronto Symphony Orchestras.
The Prokofiev concerto that opens the disc demonstrates Staryk’s outstanding fluency even at breakneck speeds and his knack for finding the right rhythmic groove. This is a bravura performance, perhaps a bit self-consciously so. Certainly, it is all about the virtuoso, with the Vancouver orchestra relegated to the background in all senses of the word.
Unfortunately, the Shostakovich work is also reduced to not much more than a violin showpiece. This is less Staryk’s fault than that of the reticent Toronto Symphony, whose strings sound far too light. Most disappointing is their toothless bite in the opening of the third movement.
Staryk’s wide vibrato is less well suited to Shostakovich than to Prokofiev, and soon grows tiresome. I also found his tone in the passacaglia to be rather adenoidal, resulting in the concerto’s emotional core being not nearly as imploring as it might be.
Indeed, the concerto suffers throughout from a missing sense of direction, not remotely matching the symphonic development on Neeme Järvi’s recording with Lydia Mordkovitch and The Scottish National Orchestra (with Violin Concerto No. 2; Chandos CHAN 8820).
The Fritz Kreisler miniatures are much more successful, and with over 17 minutes of them, they greatly increase the value of the release. Here Staryk and Jane Corwin conjure up a heady atmosphere of Old World charm and gentility.
Digital remastering has banished analogue hiss (I suspect that the Shostakovich was originally a digital recording), but cannot make the recording balance more democratic in the concerti. Tight sonic focus on Staryk captures his loud inhalations in the Shostakovich work, breaking the listener’s concentration in the cadenza.
A disc for fans of the soloist, then, but not for most Shostakovich enthusiasts.
W. Mark Roberts
Mravinsky: 1973 Tokyo Live
Symphony No. 5 in D minor, opus 47.
Yevgeny Mravinsky, Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra.
Altus ALT-002. ADD. TT 44:05.
Recorded live Bunkakaikan Large Hall, Tokyo, 26 May 1973.
First release of this performance.
If ever a work should be experienced communally (even via a live recording) it is Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony. Given the history of its premiere, the attendant sounds of stifled coughs, breaths drawn in relief or held in anticipation should, especially with Mravinsky conducting, transport the listener not only to Tokyo in 1973 but Leningrad in 1937. Yes there is a sense of “being there” (the audience can be heard, though rarely is this unduly intrusive) and we sense that electric current of anticipation before the first downbeat.
The performance as a whole, however, did not deliver the emotionally overwhelming experience I was used to. This was possibly due to the recording itself, which, while clean enough, is quieter and acoustically drier than comparison studio recordings and consequently lacked pure sonic grandeur at the points of climax (though it compares more than favourably with Dmitriev’s live recording with the Leningrad Symphony Orchestra; Linn Records CKD 004). I found that the euphonium-like warmth of the first horn seemed at odds with the music at times, much preferring the more cavernous and menacing brass on Previn’s recording with the London Symphony Orchestra (RCA Victor GD 86801, reissued as 74321 24212 2).
Mravinsky’s comparatively brisk first movement also contributed to my lack of engagement. I felt I had been whisked through the development and out the other side before I had time to fully digest its contents, and the recapitulation seemed to shrink to more of a coda and as such failed to provide the desired counterbalance to the more expansive exposition. Certainly the faster tempo does offer a more thrilling (or less brooding) experience in some passages, but I felt it came at the expense of structural balance. Structural issues aside, there are some high points, particularly Mravinsky’s masterful control of the ebbing dactylic accompaniment to the second subject and the suitably haunting final pages.
With the Scherzo, the orchestra seems to really hit top gear, the playing jaunty and crisp. Mravinsky avoids the Viennese lilt of other interpreters in the Mahlerian trio section – the result being, on a first hearing, a distinct lack of irony. This initially struck me as an odd interpretative decision given that Shostakovich is clearly evoking Mahler’s Wunderhorn scherzi, including a near quotation of the accompaniment figure from the Fischpredigt movement of his Second Symphony; a carefully planted cipher suggesting that this movement too is about the meaningless “turmoil of appearances”. Having said that, it did cause me to consider whether this section needs to be played as if it were in fact Mahler. After repeated listenings, I came to the conclusion that it didn’t. The irony is intact, albeit less extroverted, vouchsafed by the notes themselves (the ungraceful diminished triad in root position and the consecutive-fifths sound of the harp accompaniment) without recourse to overtly parodic performance gestures – a dangerous undertaking in 1937, perhaps.
Coming from my familiarity with the work via Haitink (Decca 410 017-2, reissued as 425 066-2), I found the Largo (like the first movement) somewhat brisk. At 13:04 it comes in over two minutes shorter than with Haitink … and three minutes shorter than with Previn! It seemed to me that this less expansive treatment of the Largo damaged the symphonic design, the symphony seeming to lose its centre of gravity, but I began to wonder whether the fault lay with Mravinsky or my own preconceptions based on Haitink. Perhaps the movement’s tragic overtones have led many conductors to wring every last tear out of the audience by playing it as slowly as possible. Similar arguments have been forwarded (and rightly so) regarding the Adagietto of Mahler’s Fifth, with Bernstein initially saddling the movement with funereal associations the composer never intended, setting in motion a misguided performance tradition. In this case, however, it seems clear to me that Shostakovich did intend a wordless requiem, and that for the movement to be successful the audience needs time to immerse itself fully in its glacial stillness. But how slow need it be? By the composer’s metronome markings, the movement should come in at around 14:20. Mravinsky’s assertion that these markings are incorrect aside, he may well be closer to the composer’s intentions than Previn’s 16-minute interpretation, or at least offer no greater a distortion.
Any initial reservations felt in the Largo were totally dispelled in the finale. The brass are brutal, and the movement careers away with frenetic Tchaikovskian energy. Even though Mravinsky runs longer than the comparison recordings, I hardly felt aware of it, such is the momentum he sustains. The coda carries due weight (more satisfying than Previn’s galloping tempo) and the bass drum mercilessly bludgeons the work to its conclusion, letting loose a maelstrom of approval from the audience.
In many ways Mravinsky’s reading of the Fifth is emotionally understated compared to others but I began to warm to it particularly because it challenged me to reassess the work as a whole. Returning to the Largo, Mravinsky, Dmitriev and Maxim Shostakovich (with the USSR SSO; RCA Victor 74321-32041-2) all take it faster than Haitink and Previn, perhaps reflecting the influence of Mravinsky’s performance tradition, and while the movement loses some of its pathos it gains grit and determination. In a recent review of the Fourteenth Symphony, David Gutman chastised Mark Wigglesworth’s excessively slow tempi and his “claustrophobic determination to brood on . . . death at the expense of the anger and defiance of those still living” (Gramophone, November 2001; see also the review by CH Loh, below). Mravinsky’s Largo ensures the balance between the poles of grief and defiance that I suspect is no less at the heart of Shostakovich’s earlier work.
Those well acquainted with Mravinsky’s interpretation will doubtless enjoy this disc. Others may well gain reward from engaging this symphony on Mravinsky’s terms.
|London Shostakovich Orchestra|
Symphony No. 6 in B minor, opus 54; Khachaturian: Suite No. 2 from Spartacus; Barber: Violin Concerto[a].
Christopher Cox, London Shostakovich Orchestra, Adrian Varela (violin)[a].
Dunelm Records DRD0173. DDD. TT 77:19
Recorded live St Cyprian’s Church, London, 19 May 2001.
This is not a commercial recording, as Dunelm is a small private outfit that lends its services to non-professional musical endeavours such as this: a recent concert in which the London Shostakovich Orchestra tackle their namesake’s deceptively simple Sixth Symphony.
Cox and his band of amateur and semi-professional musicians, probably having rehearsed after work, deliver a first movement that has all the weight and intensity that we have come to expect. The first climax (of the exposition), for instance, is frighteningly brutal, and the orchestra show an intimate knowledge of the power behind the music.
Although the opening Largo is impressive, the latter part of the symphony suggests that this dedicated amateur ensemble may have bitten off more than it can chew. Unfortunately, emotional maturity is not enough for the Sixth Symphony, for its fast movements are diabolical, and especially in the Finale the LShO’s weaknesses show starkly. The Allegro and Presto demand razor-sharp precision lest the music fall apart, and the transparent scoring in many passages throws harsh spotlights on the players. The last moments of the symphony are laboured as the orchestra struggle to keep together, and the audience response is tentative, perhaps not out of a lack of appreciation but rather sheer suspense in seeing the orchestra come through intact.
It would be unfair to measure this release against commercial issues of an entirely different level of professionalism. All things considered, the recording is good, and the orchestra show plenty of promise and buckets-full of attitude. You will hear some very fine individual playing. The LShO’s orchestral tone is quite impressive for their stature, and the power they can muster is certainly noteworthy. Where they disappoint is in their frequently shaky ensemble playing, and a lack of maturity in the technical arena when faced with a live audience.
Still, I found the performers managed to convey a true sense of commitment to the music, a redeeming quality that makes the Spartacus Suite quite a success. This is marred less by technical flaws than is the symphony, and despite a slight lack of subtlety, Khachaturian’s score comes across as powerful and passionate. The Barber Concerto has its moments too, although the soloist’s stoic composure comes across as cold and mannered, as if he is focused solely on getting the notes right. That this does not always happen is a shame, because the orchestra shine through with quite lovely playing.
The live concert, I imagine, must have been a memorable affair, and if you were there you might want to remember this occasion. But as a recording this is a good documentary effort at best, a milestone along the road to what is hopefully a better future for the orchestra. Serious collectors of the symphony may not be so forgiving in their verdict, especially since the asking price could pay for the best the market can offer.
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Symphony No. 8 in C minor, opus 65.
Mariss Jansons, Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra.
EMI 7243 5 57176 2 7. DDD. TT 75:10 (includes 12:41 rehearsal track).
Recorded live Heinz Hall, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, 9-11 February 2001.
With EMI Classics cutting back on new releases in these lean years, this ninth entry in Jansons’ Shostakovich symphony cycle might not exist but for an unusual arrangement with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. In exchange for EMI editing, packaging and marketing the CD, the PSO agreed to shoulder the recording costs, contributing the use of their own recording equipment. The unionised musicians were paid at a lower rate under a Limited Pressing Formula that allows a maximum of 10,000 CDs to be produced, 500 of which are already reserved for resale by the PSO to patrons. Of course, the compilation of the final product from tapes of three live concerts over one weekend defrayed costs further. As PSO managing director Gideon Toeplitz explains, the orchestra was willing to take a financial hit on this recording, their first in five years, “because when we go on tour we have nothing to show for ourselves. We need at least one CD with Mariss in front of us.”
The CD shows Mariss in front of the PSO not only in the symphony proper but also in a substantial bonus track pasted together from tapes of rehearsals. Most DSCH Journal readers will appreciate being able to eavesdrop on Jansons as he explains his conception to the musicians, drawing links between how they should play various passages and the messages he reads into them. Take the swaggering march at Fig. I-7/14:29: “Everything is connected with the time when he [Shostakovich] lived. Is a parallel between war/Nazi and dictator and the terrible time with Stalin. So it could be, in his mind, he had all this terrible time when you sent to Siberia the people. So everything negative – this should be [here he growls the notes fearsomely to illustrate what he wants].”
This and other rehearsal passages reveal that to Jansons this symphony is, though not primarily pictorial, nevertheless a representation of the psychological consequences of oppression. Indeed, he suggests that he will precede the concerts with a talk on the symphony’s context, “because I think it’s extremely necessary that people know what this music is about.”
How well, then, does the performance itself convey this view of what the symphony is about? Very, so long as one admits the possibility that oppression need not inflict only shrill terror, but also grinding tedium. For this is a grey reading that at times requires greater patience of the listener than does a more colourful depiction, such as Semyon Bychkov’s (Philips 432 090 2; deleted) or Andrew Litton’s (Delos DE 3204; reviewed in DSCH 9).
As intended, everything here is negative. Depression grips from the first movement, where Jansons dissipates the forward momentum of the opening flourish by reining in the section at bar 10 where the strings bow over the fingerboard. It is as if the notes are mired in temporal quicksand, unable to progress. As animated as the subsequent discourse is allowed to become, a sense of futility is never far away, leaving us unable to offer any resistance to the first movement’s inexorable climax.
Jansons’ approach tests most severely in the final movement, which takes slightly longer to play out than in most other conductors’ hands. This results in its wandering theme sounding disproportionately more pointless, which is, presumably, just the point.
This does not imply that Jansons’ pacing is uniformly lethargic – far from it. This performance is another fine example of his rhythmic fluidity, and it is clear that his tempo transitions serve a larger structural purpose. For instance, the dramatically subdued close to the first movement makes the following goose-stepping parade sound all the more brutally prideful, a contrast that is regenerated by expanding the calm passages within the second movement.
If some listeners may regret the occasions of strategic restraint, none should be dissatisfied with the sharp vehemence of the climaxes of the outer movements, whose percussion rolls rise up and submerge us in violence.
Indeed, the PSO earn high marks throughout this meticulously nuanced performance. In the first movement, Harold Smoliar supplies a bereft English horn solo whose emptiness is amplified with remarkably precise ensemble by oboe and clarinet. Noteworthy too are the snarling bassoons that torment the piccolo solo of the second movement.
Special praise goes to the expressive shadings of all instruments in the passacaglia, for while Jansons concludes this movement over three minutes sooner than does André Previn in his second recording of the Eighth with the London Symphony Orchestra (Deutsche Grammophon 437 819-2), the Pittsburghers’ darker, more introspective handling of the notes suspends time more convincingly.
The recording is commendably realistic, with a wide dynamic range and a perceived acoustic depth that casts the trumpet solo in the first movement’s closing bars miles away. All instruments are captured clearly, yet only a few audience noises intrude.
A warm welcome, then, for a reading that refuses to thaw its cold message and that confirms Jansons as an essential intellect in modern Shostakovich interpretation. I can only hope that EMI will be quick to let us hear the rest of this rewarding cycle.
W. Mark Roberts
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Symphony No. 10 in E minor, opus 93[a]; Symphony No. 6 in B minor, opus 54[b].
Andrew Litton, Dallas Symphony Orchestra.
Delos DE 3283. DDD. 2 disc set; TT 52:43[a] + 29:56[b].
Recorded live Eugene McDermott Concert Hall, Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center, Dallas, 21 – 24 September[a], 30 November – 2 December[b] 2000.
This is Andrew Litton’s second recording of the Tenth Symphony, arriving just in time to replace his first, with the London Philharmonic Orchestra in 1988, which Virgin Classics have recently stopped pressing (Ultraviolet 7243 5 61134 2 8).
Actually, “replace” is a poor description, for no blindfolded listener would attribute both performances to the same conductor. Litton pushed the London Philharmonic harder (and closer to their technical breaking point) than he does the Dallas orchestra, so that the new release seems slower paced throughout even though only the first movement lasts longer than before.
Instead of engaging us in continuously flowing conversation as on Virgin, Litton now seems preoccupied with underlining individual slogans. His musicians answer this sectional emphasis with distinctive sonorities: syrupy clarinets, gravel-voiced double basses, fluty violins. The first movement’s climax supplies shrieks from the massed winds that no competitors surpass in their hair-raising quality. If your primary interest is to hear a characterful orchestra reinvent the sound world of this familiar work, look no further.
As an interpretation, however, Litton’s new Tenth stresses the grand gesture at the expense of purposeful exposition. The diagnosis is simple: more than the recommended daily allowance of rubato, with an overdose of sudden tempo changes not prescribed by the score. Symptoms include a fainter impression than in the earlier recording that the symphony has a single musical protagonist whose fate we can follow, and a sense that this personality is no longer as nervous, vulnerable nor indeed sympathetic.
To be fair, there seems to be a long-range plan to at least some of Litton’s amendments. Take, for instance, the development of the first movement’s opening theme on low strings, where Litton introduces an unmarked tenuto on the second A# in Fig. 2+4/1:08. This has no precedent in any other performance I’ve heard, including Litton’s former recording, and at first seems gratuitous. Yet, go to the end of this movement, and where the theme is restated by cellos and double basses you will find that the matching A# (Fig. 68-14/21:27) is also drawn out. The parallel is clear – and clearly intentional – though I remain at a loss to explain its purpose.
For all the passing interest of Litton’s tweaks, I find that they result in an episodic melodrama rather than the all-consuming experience that this symphony can, and should be. A more unified, engaging tale is told in his previous version.
Delos’ up-front balance worsens matters, placing the cymbals perilously close to one’s nose. True, this close miking does allow the listener to dissect each instrumental voice despite the rather woolly background acoustic, as well as reduce to near inaudibility any contribution from the live audience. Nevertheless, the artificial soundstage only adds to the sense of emotional detachment.
The Sixth Symphony is granted a more natural recording on its own CD (at no extra charge), and fewer unmarked ritardandi intrude than in the Tenth. Unfortunately, its Largo is so relaxed as to be positively pastoral, and the scherzi are played straight, missing many an opportunity for a sly nudge. In the end, we are left with a brilliant showpiece that neither dispirits in the first movement nor recruits us as conspirators in the two that follow.
In this coupling, anyone seeking new and distinctive interpretations will find Mark Wigglesworth’s tinkering (BIS CD-973/974; reviewed in DSCH 12) to be more thought provoking than Litton’s. Traditionalists will not find a more compelling pair of performances than those by Mravinsky that appear on a ridiculously cheap single disc from BMG/Melodiya (74321 25198 2).
W. Mark Roberts
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Symphony No. 14, opus 135.
Mark Wigglesworth, BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Joan Rodgers (soprano), John Tomlinson (bass).
BIS-CD-1173. DDD. TT 56:34.
Recorded St. George’s, Brandon Hill, Bristol, 18 & 19 March 1999.
Mark Wigglesworth continues his highly individual Shostakovich cycle with a No. 14 that demands attention. His Fifth, Seventh and Tenth Symphonies may not be benchmark, but they are definitely worth exploring. This current effort far exceeds my initial expectations of a Western orchestra and soloists attempting to recreate what I believe is a uniquely Russian experience.
With Rudolf Barshai having set impossibly high standards from the very start of the symphony’s lifespan (Russian Disc RD CD 11 192), and Rostropovich with Vishnevskaya practically making the work their own (Revelation RV10101), anyone attempting this symphony has two extremely hard acts to follow.
With this in mind, I approached the current recording with some scepticism, but was pleasantly surprised; Wigglesworth has done his homework well. The BBC Wales Orchestra try to respond with the kind of tough, razor-sharp urgency required to match Barshai’s white-hot Moscow ensemble of 1969. While they may not always deliver this kind of precision, they pull no punches in creating just the right sound for this symphony. The percussion section is especially deserving of praise – they know that the score demands from them not mere rhythmic support but all-out bloodletting.
While this band cannot match the Muscovites in sheer power and grit, they do bring a wonderful subtlety to the more delicate sections of the score. In this way, Wigglesworth’s Fourteenth is one of dramatic contrasts, and this aspect is perhaps its most attractive feature.
Joan Rodgers is impressive in the soprano role, delivering a searching, passionate performance that is long on drama. Although she has a weak start on the opening note of the Malagueña, she recovers and rides the work’s roller-coaster emotions with great style. She makes her mark in The Suicide, which is as chilling as it is surreal, and elsewhere displays great sensitivity, for example in the recapitulation of On The Watch.
John Tomlinson brings some nice dramatic touches to the bass part, but occasionally sounds a little uncomfortable with the language. As an experienced Wagnerian bass, his delivery is solid and aptly dark, although his presence on this recording is not as distinguished as Rodgers’.
The question, then, is does this new entry measure up to the competition? In terms of sound quality, it offers as spacious and exciting a sound as do Järvi (Deutsche Grammophon 437 785-2) and Turovsky (Chandos CHAN 8607) in their respective issues. However, the acoustics are a little reverberant, and the excessive dynamic range that Mark Roberts reported in his review of Wigglesworth’s Tenth (see DSCH 12) resurfaces on this recording, impeding appreciation of the softer passages.
Performance-wise, this account tries but does not quite manage to recapture the ferocity of Barshai. It is far better in many areas than Järvi’s, which I believe is the closest peer to the present recording. Both conductors approach the symphony in similar style.
Technically, Wigglesworth handles the Lorelei movement far better than Järvi, but his extremely slow and soft handling of the pizzicato-col legno sections of In Santé Prison, which barely rise above a whisper, is a major setback. This movement ends up being weak, with no advantage taken of the sudden appearance of what appears to be a DSCH motif in the tutti strings at the end of the pizzicato section.
Wigglesworth, for all his finesse, also fails to make the most of some of the more startling effects in the score, such as the crescendo pile-up of consecutive seconds that lead to the bell toll in Lorelei, or the swarming block chords that plague the climax of The Zaporozhian Cossack’s Answer.
But while Järvi offers an evenly good performance, and can boast Sergei Leiferkus in the bass role, it is Wigglesworth who delivers surprises that make listening to this disc memorable. For instance, On The Watch gets some rare subtle playing in the softer passages to provide stark contrast with the relentless fortes. The percussionists and soprano take on split personalities, playing out shadows and harsh lights with great success.
What I believe is this issue’s most serious shortcoming is the lack of any couplings to fill the remaining 20 minutes of playing time on the disc. Järvi offers the excellent Shostakovich orchestration of Musorgsky’s Songs and Dances of Death with Brigitte Fassbaender. The historical issues of Barshai and Rostropovich have substantial companions (the Ninth Symphony and Blok Romances respectively), and performance-wise they are practically definitive. Benjamin Britten, in his flawed but furious English premiere, has his own Nocturne as a fascinating coupling on BBC Legends (BBCB 8013-2; reviewed in DSCH 13).
To his credit, Wigglesworth has written the highly interesting CD notes, which, besides offering detailed historical information, also provide plenty of food for thought on the symphonic structure of the music. The notes are accompanied by the Cyrillic and English texts to the score.
Enthusiasts of Wigglesworth’s cycle will be more than pleased with his new effort – it is certainly a performance worth experiencing. However, I would still recommend hunting down the Barshai and Rostropovich. For the moment, they still reign supreme, and no amount of improvement in sonic quality in modern recordings can justify giving up the sheer thrill of listening to these remarkable recordings.
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Symphony No. 1 in F minor, opus 10; Symphony No. 15 in A major, opus 141.
Jesús López-Cobos, Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra.
Telarc CD-80572. DDD. TT 76:51.
Recorded Music Hall, Cincinnati, Ohio, 24-25 September 2000.
A logical pairing, this, as Shostakovich’s bookend symphonies share bare-bones orchestration and superficially similar thematic material. For all their parallels, however, the two inhabit utterly different emotional universes: the First offers only a precocious but vague premonition of the psychological minefields that the sage Fifteenth negotiates. No other two works in Shostakovich’s oeuvre offer greater potential to illustrate, within a single structural framework, his expressive development virtually from musical cradle to grave.
López-Cobos and his Cincinnati players assert the First Symphony as a masterpiece of avant-garde writing. Here we find almost slavish adherence to every marking in the score; nothing added, nothing taken away. All is delivered with crisp articulation. As technically impressive as the performance undeniably is, however, I find it rather sterile. Surely, there is more melancholy waiting to be mined from the slow movement? And, this may be only my imagination, but the orchestra do not sound as if they are enjoying the symphony’s impetuous passages.
Of course, fixing the First Symphony squarely as no more than the opening statement of callow genius heightens expectations that the Fifteenth must seem dramatically more consequential by contrast. Frustratingly, here too the underlying moodiness remains buried.
Compare the first movements of both opuses: it cannot be right that the toy shop of the Fifteenth is no more grotesque than the one in the First Symphony, yet for all the Cincinnati orchestra’s ear-splitting efforts, it remains obstinately academic.
Hopes are raised early in the Fifteenth’s second movement by the cello solo, which immediately impresses as being downright ghoulish. But this is not backed up by what follows, and the frissons dissipate. López-Cobos’ pacing here is to blame. His base tempo is too slack to maintain tension without tasking the orchestra far more than he does. Yes, Sanderling takes almost as long as López-Cobos’ 15:45, but he winds up the Berlin Symphony Orchestra to a state of wide-eyed intensity that leaves the listener afraid to breathe (Berlin Classics 0090432BC). Indeed, one could stretch the movement even longer, providing its surreal textures are exploited to the full, as with Jansons and the London Philharmonic (17:03; EMI 7243 5 56591 2 5; reviewed in DSCH 10). But if you wish to play the movement as straight as López-Cobos does while having a prayer of matching the hellish landscape painted by Kondrashin (BMG/Melodiya 74321198462; reviewed in DSCH 10) or Ashkenazy (Decca 430 227-2; deleted), plan to come in two minutes sooner.
Thankfully, López-Cobos does not emulate Sanderling’s excessive longeurs in the following two movements, but anyone with tickets to the circus nightmare of the third will find the clowns playing only to the children in the audience. Sir Georg Solti better evoked the valedictory sensation of the finale (Decca 289 458 919-2; reviewed in DSCH 11).
I regret not being able to recommend this new entry when the musicians’ technique is virtually flawless throughout (but for one warbled horn note in bar 184/7:28 of the Fifteenth’s final movement). Both symphonies receive bright, open recordings that allow you to make a fearsome racket at quite a low volume setting; they should, therefore, sound well even on equipment of modest wattage. Only the direction comes up short.
W. Mark Roberts