CD Reviews 17
§ = World Première Recording
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Suite on Finnish Themes (1939), sans opus D (ix) [a]; Symphony for Strings, opus 118a[b]; Chamber Symphony, opus 110a[c].
Juha Kangas, Ostrobothnian Chamber Orchestra, Anu Komsi (soprano)[a], Tom Nyman (tenor)[a].
BIS CD-1256. DDD. TT 58:20.
Recorded Kaustinen Folk Art Centre[a]/Kaustinen Church[b,c], Finland, October 2001.
[a]World premiere recording.
It is remarkable that intrigue should have surrounded the premiere of the Suite on Finnish Themes, but such was the fate of this morsel of Shostakovich confectionery when it was unveiled at a Finnish music festival at Kaustinen last September.
With this new BIS issue, Shostakovich admirers worldwide have a chance to listen to this controversial work, one whose reputation far outweighs its purely musical stature. That is neither to belittle the Suite nor the Finns’ reaction to its premiere. On the contrary, it demonstrates how music and politics are sometimes inextricably intertwined, how something as innocuous as this set of seven folksong arrangements can have such far-reaching effects.
DSCH subscribers who have read issues Nos. 15 and 16 will be familiar with the historical background to the Suite, written in 1939 in the shadow of the Sixth Symphony and the Great Terror, and anticipating Stalin’s aggression against Finland. Victor Dvortsov’s article in DSCH No. 15 provided a detailed account of each movement as discussed by Russian musicologist Arkady Klimovitsky, who described the introduction as “the only openly tonal movement”, suggesting a work that might provide some harmonic excitement.
Listening to the Suite for the first time quickly dissipated such anticipations. This is no From Jewish Folk Poetry despite its political implications. In fact, one might say this Suite would have been the right sort of response had Shostakovich really wanted to write a folk-based composition to satisfy his critics in 1949.
Lest I digress, the interesting parallel between the two is that, like the Jewish songs, this set is cast entirely in minor keys and shares some of the later cycle’s bittersweet sentiment. For a work that is supposed to celebrate friendship between two nations, there has got to be some irony in this.
The Suite lasts no more than eleven minutes. As Dvortsov observes, the choice of key signatures makes for awkward and unsatisfying listening in the overall scheme of things, giving the impression of parts strung together haphazardly, without much thought.
The work opens with an instrumental introduction on the folksong Feast Days are For Lads Like These. Here with “full” ensemble (a string quintet, a wind trio, trumpet, piano and minimal percussion) it sounds a little like the composer’s threadbare stage or film scores of the 30s, wry and a little tongue in cheek, a mock pompous Musorgskian parody that is overly earnest.
The square march, full of unisons and pseudo-classical harmonies is contrasted with slithery woodwind lines that characterise Shostakovich’s music from the period (for example the clarinets in Lady Macbeth as noted by Esti Sheinberg). It is all too brief, and the hanging coda leads almost too expectantly to the second movement, Giocoso.
This strident song for soprano sets the formula that will repeat itself throughout the Suite: a perfunctory introduction of about four bars followed by the folksong in rudimentary, barebones harmonisation. Here (as elsewhere) Klimovitsky’s descriptions are slightly exaggerated when he says it “has much in common with the scherzos of Shostakovich’s instrumental cycles.” In reality, it is a simple march-like song opened with a jester’s trumpet and curtain-raising tambourine.
If anything, the blandness of this music is the flavour to relish. Shostakovich refuses to colour the music any more than required, and the pigments he leaves out are almost as telling as those he paints in. We have witnessed the thick, rich textures that the composer is capable of summoning from, say, a string quartet, but here we are presented with almost comical caricatures (a quality also noted by Finnish composer Henrik Nordgern in Helsinki Sanomat in June 2001). Once again, it seems that Shostakovich has short-changed a commission, and I suspect that this is more deliberate than expedient.
The third song turns out to be the hidden gem, a brief instrumental interlude on a folksong that, the notes suggest, would have been somewhat controversial if sung. In response to the silent lyrics, which speak of sadness and a yearning for peace (hardly the sort of thing to keep spirits up in a newly conquered land), Shostakovich creates a touching piece of music that brims with nostalgia and deep sorrow. It breaks through the superficial veneer of the rest of the Suite like a clown removing his mask.
It is beyond doubt that in this one instance the composer is lavishing the folksong with his craftsman’s touch, opening with a beautiful introduction of eventide shades, sighing plaintively as the two-stanza song is taken, first by the mournful clarinet in the chalumeau register, then by the flute against pizzicato lower strings and luminous upper strings.
In a Petrushkan turn of events, this brief moment of solidarity is broken by the piano’s brash introduction to the fourth song. Again the barebones, square formula returns: a rudimentary intro on piano and tambourine that tries to be sophisticated but fails (one is reminded of the Pianists in Saint Saens’ Carnival of the Animals) frames the stanzas where Prokofievan clarinet arpeggi and pizzicato strings give the minor-key song a sense of mock cheeriness.
This ends unceremoniously (literally stops in its tracks) to make way for the inverted introduction of the fifth song, where the unison string declamation sounds more like a coda than an intro. Is Shostakovich pulling a musical joke? If he is, it is discreet enough not to insult the music or its origins. The accompaniment to this moderate stroll has a Musorgskian simplicity and naturalness that is charming, with a wink of the eye.
The sixth song breaks the monotony that threatens to set in with its metrical variations. In the style of a stately gavotte with a feigned grace that stumbles on a calculated extra beat, this cheeky song of skirt-chasing gets a small dose of Shostakovich’s infamous sense of humour – although a Tchaikovskian touch, reminiscent of the limp in the second movement of the latter’s Pathetique, is discernible.
The grand finale, if it can be called that, stands firm for the banality of the work. Again the Petrushkan piano jumps in with a simpleminded arpeggio introduction that bursts forth after each stanza. The verses repeat mechanically to pizzicato strings without any perceptible variation except to speed up on the last stanza (here Klimovitsky’s “three stanzas in precise repetition and variation” might better be described as just “precise repetition”) whereupon the Suite finishes with a conspicuous absence of any sense of finality. Without a flourish, the painful exercise is simply extinguished as if closing the cover on the score with one swift shut, leaving any sort of glorious affirmation out in the cold.
Such is this 11-minute curiosity, a premiere that while insubstantial is nonetheless intriguing. It either begs more questions or total indifference. The singers put in their best, giving the lyrics the lift and lilt that Shostakovich otherwise refuses to, while Kangas and the fabulous Ostrobothnians give the music more than it probably deserves.
In the end, whether you snub the Suite or, more inconceivably, are enraptured by its questionable charm, that brief moment where Shostakovich shows himself in the middle slow movement is an inspired piece of writing that surely deserves to be heard and repeated, at least as an encore piece.
While the Suite is a trifle, and you are unlikely to be hit by the desire to return to it frequently, Kangas and the Ostrobothnians make the experience worthwhile by delivering two of the hottest readings of Barshai’s Tenth and Eighth Quartet orchestrations that I have ever heard.
The Ostrobothnians are indeed a world-class ensemble; with marvellous precision they embrace both the brutal toughness and the deep tenderness of these pieces with equal conviction. From the nocturnal delicacy of the opening movement of the opus 118a (on the dark Tenth Quartet), you will not expect the sheer terror and brutality of the ensuing Allegro furioso with its hammering rhythms and fearsome sequence of donkey-bray chords. Kangas outdoes Turovsky (Chandos CHAN 6617) in this opus, and particularly in this movement, where the latter sounds laboured and plodding in comparison to the Finn’s agile virtuosity.
The following passacaglia movement shows deep sensitivity and poetry, full of little nuances that sing out from an ensemble whose members are fully attuned to each other and to the music. The Ostrobothnians have an extensive palette that ranges from the requisite bleached white tones and diaphanous silky textures to terrifying, rosin-scraping blows.
The Ostrobothnians’ sheer power and delicacy come to no better spotlight than the opus 110a, an unforgettable performance which plays to the hilt the entire arc of emotions from the whispered opening “DSCH” to the gale force of terror of the Jewish dance. It is in stark contrast to the Moscow Chamber Orchestra’s uniformly bleak performance on Delos (DE 3259; reviewed in DSCH 14). Where the latter fail to string together the disparate parts, the Ostrobothnians succeed with their breadth of vision and deep poetry.
Fluency is the edge that Kangas and his forces have over Turovsky’s fiery rendition with I Musici de Montreal. Rarely does an ensemble manage to navigate this pastiche work without showing a seam here or there, but this is one such occasion. I admire the Allegro most, a delivery that manages to balance the immense power and volume of sound with a leanness of tone that etches out its many layers, tearing at the relentless hocketting notes and plunging headlong into the Jewish tune without a hitch and at fearsome pace. At one point I nearly forgot what I was listening to and imagined myself in the middle of Stravinsky’s Danse Sacrale.
It is rare that a reviewer has nothing to complain about, but in this case I really don’t! There is nothing ordinary about this recording. The fine ensemble give blood where it is due, silence where required, and lots of swagger where the premiere of the Suite is concerned. Credit must also go to Kangas for inspired leadership – the conductor shows real kinship with the material and a deep understanding of the nerves beneath the Chamber Symphonies. These add solid value to the chance to listen to a newly discovered but otherwise unremarkable Shostakovich work. Well worth the experience.
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Shostakovich – The Thirties
Suite for Jazz Orchestra No. 2 (1938)[a]; Suite on Finnish Themes (1939; listed as Seven Arrangements on Finnish Melodies)[b]; Two Fables by Krylov, opus 4[c]; The Silly Little Mouse, opus 56[d]; Petrushka – The Archangel Gabriel (orch. McBurney) and Overture – Destruction of the City (original versions)[e] from Hypothetically Murdered, opus 31; March and Waltz from the Suite for Variety Orchestra (1938).
Vladimir Ponkin, Orchestra of the Republican Guard, Alexei Martynov (tenor)[b], Elena Vassilieva (mezzo-soprano)[b,c]/(narrator)[d], and in [d]: Anne-Catherine Picca (sopranino – Mother Mouse), Florence Barreau (soprano – Aunt Cat), Tatiana Martynova (mezzo-soprano – Aunt Duck), Patrick Nogues (tenor – Aunt Mare), Mathieu Bulot (baritone – Aunt Piggy), Valeri Drougovkoy (bass – Aunt Toad), Alexis Konovaloff (bass – The Dog Polkan), Celia Allarty (the Little Mouse; spoken role), Inés Allarty (Aunt Pike; silent role).
Mandala MAN 5039 (distributed by Harmonia Mundi; HMCD 78). DDD. TT 61:46.
Live recording of a concert given on 16th January 2002 in the Amphitheatre of the Sorbonne University, Paris under the auspices of the Association Internationale Dimitri Chostakovitch (see also the review of the concert in this edition).
[a]World premiere audio release.
[e]World premiere recording.
Having no access to the video recording of the world premiere of the “real” Second Jazz Suite (Last Night of the Proms 2000; BBC DVD WMDVD8001-9) this was my first introduction to the work, here in its three-movement guise courtesy of Manashir Yakubov and Gerard McBurney’s unearthing and arranging prowess.
As in the suite that formerly usurped this title, there are plenty of moments here to remind one of the splendidly droll side of Shostakovich’s 1930s output. Wheeled-in saxophones, quirky dance rhythms and the unmistakable tongue-in-cheek melodies are all traits that were to strew the composer’s theatre output from the 1920s to the 1960s.
However, gripe number one: the orchestra, in what has to be said is not the most challenging repertoire, sound a mite dishevelled in the pieces’ tutti. Weren’t there takes available from rehearsals? Gripe number two: the CD box proclaims “World Premiere” while the booklet notes announce the Proms premiere! Good to have these pieces on CD, all the same.
The well-publicised Finnish Folksongs (see review of premiere recording, above) have, in my opinion, received very unfair press up to now. Okay, they are uncontroversial, folksy, light-music pieces, but they nevertheless evoke a gentle national passion through their verses and through Shostakovich’s lilting accompaniment.
But another gripe arises here, I’m afraid, and it’s a fundamentally important one for this disc: soprano Elena Vassilieva’s sturdy, vibrato-laden approach – more akin to Mozart’s Don Giovanni than early-century Soviet Russian titbits – sits very uncomfortably in the majority of the pieces on this disc. The best example is the Two Fables by Krylov, where my preference is for the more lucid character of, say, Larissa Dyadkova on Deutsche Grammophon (439 860-2; deleted).
Another recorded rarity is the music to The Silly Little Mouse, from 1939. This music composed for a short animated film (based on a story by Marshak) is appealingly tuneful and inventively scored (the CD box lists no fewer than 10 soloists). “I took great pleasure in working on this composition,” the composer is quoted in the generously annotated CD booklet. “It was my first experience in film music for children. I would like it to be a success and hope that children will enjoy this work. The music of this film is based on a lullaby in which the mouse, duck, pig, toad, horse, pike and cat sing in turn. The song (lullaby) varies according to the temperament of the character singing it; the music is joyous and lyrical. Unlike Marshak’s version, the film has a happy ending: the baby mouse is not eaten by the cat; on the contrary, he is saved by Polkan, the dog.” Annoyingly, we get too-closely-miked French narration, with the miscellany of sounds and voices (singing in Russian), plus orchestra, relegated to mid-stage.
Finally, to Hypothetically Murdered. Only four pieces are offered here, but two are world premieres, here in their original (i.e., pre-McBurney) versions: Overture and Destruction of the City. Fascinating to compare these recently discovered numbers (which share one track on the CD) with the commercialised version that hit the Shostakovich scene in 1992.
The March and Waltz (the final two tracks on the disc) were played as concert encores (and are announced on the recording as such). They originate from the Suite for Variety Orchestra composed by Shostakovich in 1938 (long catalogued as Suite for Jazz Orchestra No. 2). The ubiquitous Waltz actually prompts the by-now heady audience into a quick round of applause, Piaf-at-the-Ritz style, the moment the melody appears – is this a recorded first?
The origins of France’s Orchestra of the Republican Guard go back to 1848; the current format combined in 1993. As I’ve already intimated, there are unfortunate ragged passages in this disc – counteracted, in part, by some good solo playing and a firm, if at times dogged, sense of rhythmical balance. It is impossible to judge the Siberian-born conductor Vladimir Ponkin’s role in all of this. Given his CV (musical director of the Nemirovich-Danchenko & Stanislavsky Theatre), the reasons for some of the CD’s more “difficult” moments could well come from lack of adequate rehearsals or the orchestra’s unfamiliarity with the repertoire.
To conclude, some real musical gems lie beneath this live concert’s surface. Those interested in “firsts” should be happy with the host of French and world premieres assembled here. Those content to collect these Shostakovich ditties slowly and precisely as they crop up in the standard CD catalogue may well be inclined to do just that.
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The Tale of the Priest and his Worker Balda, opus 36[a]; The Story of the Silly Little Mouse, opus 56[b].
[a]Valentin Kozhin, Leningrad (listed as St. Petersburg) Malyi Opera and Ballet Theatre Orchestra and Choir, Vladimir Pankratov (bass – Balda), Sergei Safenin (bass – Priest), Elena Ustinova (soprano – Priest’s daughter), Anatoly Manukhov (tenor – Bell ringer), Mikhail Kalinovsky (bass – Devil), Nina Romanova (mezzo-soprano – She-devil), German Lyudko (tenor – Baby devil), Vladimir Matusov (Narrator), Mikhail Senchurov (balalaika);
[b]Boris Tiles, Leningrad (listed as St. Petersburg) Conservatory Opera Studio Orchestra, Tamara Psareva (Baby Mouse; spoken role), Nina Glinkina (coloratura soprano – Mouse), Tatyana Sharova (soprano – Cat), Galina Tishchenko (mezzo-soprano – Duck), Mikhail Fedorov (bass – Toad), Mikhail Kalinovsky (bass – Polkan, the dog), Mikhail Tesler (tenor – Horse), Anatoly Timofeyev (baritone – Pig), Boris Ulitin (Narrator).
Boheme Music CDBMR 012192. A_D. TT 59:23.
Recorded Leningrad (listed as St. Petersburg) Recording Studio, 1979[b]/1982[a].
Amazing isn’t it: you wait years for a mouse and then three come along at the same time! After the 1998/9 releases of the film score of The Story of the Silly Little Mouse by Citadel and, in Andrew Cornell’s adaptation, by Decca (CTD 88129 and 289 460 792-2, respectively; both reviewed in DSCH 11, pp. 88-92), a third version enters the fray. Or rather the first version, because, notwithstanding Boheme’s anachronistic claim that the performers are from “St. Petersburg”, this is in fact a re-release of the 1979 Melodiya recording. According to Derek Hulme this was issued three years later in 1982, though Boheme miss both dates and put it down as 1981.
To this is hitched the 1982 recording of fragments of Sofia Khentova’s operatic resuscitation of The Tale of the Priest and his Worker Balda. Not that these are necessarily unwelcome re-releases, but it might have been nice for it to have been made clearer that they aren’t new recordings.
So, just how welcome are they? In 1933 Mikhail Tsekhanovsky was a well-known director, specialising in animation but also venturing into live action films such as Pacific 231, based on Honegger’s orchestral piece (sadly, less well-known than Jean Mitry’s easier-to-see 1949 version). But the film studios wanted him to use various techniques to speed his rate of production and, as he was unwilling to enter the ranks of Stakhanovite animators, he was demoted to work only on other people’s films for several years.
The still unfinished Tale of the Priest and his Worker Balda lay in the archives until the war, when bombing destroyed all but 60 metres of it (this fragment – The Bazaar – can be seen on the Chandos DVD-ROM; reviewed in DSCH 15). The story of the blockhead who outwits the priest must have appealed at the time not only to the irreverent side of Shostakovich himself but also to the authorities with their anti-religion campaigns. But he’s cannier even than that, as everyone in the story is worsted by him.
Shostakovich worked on the score intermittently over the twenty months from March 1933 to November 1934, and unusually returned to reorchestrate fifteen of its numbers in 1935. He also extracted a ten-minute, six-number suite and Rozhdestvensky recorded this in 1980 (BMG 74321 59058 2; reviewed in DSCH 11).
In the same year, indefatigable biographer Sofia Khentova took the surviving fragments and supplemented them with items from various other (mostly contemporary) Shostakovich works to create a 75-minute opera. This and Atovmyan’s Ballet Suites gave a rare chance to hear some of the still frowned-on ballet The Limpid Stream, but it also uses later music including three of the Ten Russian Folk Songs from 1951.
We still await a recording of Khentova’s complete opera, but in the meantime we have the 44 minutes presented here. Oddly, the 17 pieces chosen don’t run consecutively or even chronologically through the opera and we hop to and fro a little bit, so it’s hard to judge the dramatic success of Khentova’s work. At the moment this collection of pieces feels more like incidental music than true opera, and it may be that this impression would remain even at 75 minutes.
Anyone who knows Rozhdestvensky’s recording will have some shocks beyond the opera’s addition of a chorus to several pieces. Listing the textual differences between the two recordings would fill a large amount of space for little good: the opera extends, cuts and repeats several items with different orchestrations. In any case, the opera fragments are four times as long as Rozhdestvensky’s suite, so they are hardly direct rivals.
There has been some attempt to liven up the recording with a stereo image that stretches “from Smolensk to Tashkent” so things certainly are “lively”. One definite downside is the way the demons have been given a weird electronic treatment that the innocent listener might at first think a mistake; perhaps only those familiar with the story would realise that these are submarine characters and the strange rippling effect is deliberate.
We can hardly claim The Priest as a major addition to the Shostakovich canon, but I do hope we’ll see a complete, properly annotated recording at some point – just filling a single disc, it would be a nice project for Rozhdestvensky and Chandos. Certainly for anyone who enjoys Shostakovich’s dramatic works from the 1930s, it’s an enjoyable way to hear some pieces that you may not know and, in another guise, some others that you may think you do.
Accompanying this is Boris Tiles’ recording of The Story of the Silly Little Mouse. Tsekhanovsky was back in favour by 1939 and made this charming little animated children’s film, basing it on Samuil Marshak’s poem. Shostakovich wrote the score in March and the film was made to go with it, which must have been a pleasing departure for the composer.
Tiles edited the score from surviving parts in 1979 and it was included in volume 41 of the old Collected Works edition, published in 1987. He added a narrator whose part is based on the directions Shostakovich wrote in the score, and mixed the other parts between singing and speaking. The speaking parts are sometimes spread out against the music as if to give some idea of the effect that Tiles wanted, though they’re not in Sprechstimme. Given who the conductor in this recording is, it might seem a bit surprising that they’re sometimes a bar or so adrift. But looking again you see that to coordinate the two would necessitate some ve-e-e-ry slo-o-o-ow speaking, which was obviously impractical.
Some of the animal parts are nearer to conventional notation: the duck’s “krya” is given headless notes indicating the rhythm, while the pig’s “khryoo” is usually a minim with an “x” inside it, though at one point there is an attempt to get him to grunt … well, not quite a melody but a rhythm and a couple of different notes, and a few of his utterances are marked to be “snorted”. Thankfully, Anatoly Timofeyev ignores the “khryoo” to give a good grunt and some of the other performers also take an entertainingly liberal attitude, as when Mikhail Tesler adds a little whinnying shake to his melody and the baby mouse occasionally mewls in the background.
This must be one of Shostakovich’s most loveable scores, and from the opening bars its transparency and deft illustration are completely infectious. Tiles’ is the jolliest, most vernal opening, and all in all it’s an enthusiastic and hugely communicative performance. It is preferable to Mnatsakanov’s Citadel recording which, though the narrator is marvellous (a wide-eyed female against Tiles’ more down-to-earth male) and the toad has an impressive swagger, is spoiled by the rest of the cast’s failure to let their hair down, as in the cat’s purring, sung sotto voce as if the soprano were ashamed of making a non-singing noise.
Chailly on Decca undoubtedly has the smoothest playing and best recording but dispenses with all the vocal parts. It’s well done and I wouldn’t want to be without it for the quality of the playing but I’d also want the Boheme version.
The notes are tri-lingual (Russian, English and Dutch) but the English ones are not terribly useful: the revelation that Khentova made her operatic version of The Priest in 1980 and that it was premiered in 1967 might strike some as odd: 1967 was actually when the surviving fragment was premiered at the Moscow Film Festival. Generally the notes give the impression that the writer was not familiar with the music or the films that they accompany. Contrary to what he says, it is hardly unusual for an animated film to be made to fit existing music: if there is going to be any synchronisation between the music and the images, that is by far the best way to do it and is standard practice. And we need not “hope that the films themselves are not utterly lost”: they all exist and some are being restored.
There are no libretti, and although there is a synopsis of The Mouse and a welcome still from the film, there is no indication of what The Priest is about and the image illustrating it has nothing to do with the film. My 1949 edition of Pushkin’s poem has a similar illustration by one B. Dekhterev.
Also, though the stable door may be open and the horse may have bolted, it’s time we sorted out the old canard about The Story of the Silly Little Mouse never having been released – an error that has dogged us since appearing in Testimony. It was released, premiering on 13 September 1940. Hopefully, now that I’ve let the cat out of the bag, there’ll be no more horsing around and future note-writers will be cowed into submission so that no one need risk getting this particular pig in a poke again.
Completists will, in the nature of things, want all the options: Rozhdestvensky, Kozhin/Tiles, Mnatsakanov and Chailly. Each has unique features including, of course, the couplings, and this is one case where duplication is justified. The notes do let the Boheme disc down and did rather set me against it, but with the best Mouse on the market and the fullest Priest currently available, it demands to be heard.
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Elisso plays Liszt & Shostakovich
Twenty-four Preludes, opus 34[a]; Liszt: Mephisto Waltz No. 1[b]; Sonetto 104 di Petrarca[c]; Liszt/Gounod: Waltz from Faust[d].
Elisso Wirssaladze (piano).
Live Classics LCL 306. DDD. TT 53:02.
Recorded live Verdi Conservatory, Milan, 19 April 1995[b,c]/5 February 2001[a,d].
Twenty-four Preludes, opus 34; Prokofiev: Toccata, opus 11; Piano Sonata No. 3 in A minor, opus 28; Ravel: Miroirs.
Elena Rozanova (piano).
harmonia mundi HMN 911757. DDD. TT 71:58.
Recorded Espace de Projection, IRCAM, Paris, May 2001.
Here we have two utterly different experiences of the Twenty-four Preludes. Elisso Wirssaladze, born and schooled in Georgia, is in her late fifties, and is a Professor of Piano at the Moscow Tchaikovsky Conservatory and the College of Music in Munich. She imposes her own aggressive artistic personality on these pithy pieces. Russian Elena Rozanova, in her early thirties and a graduate of the Moscow Conservatory (though never a student of Wirssaladze), is obviously on intimate terms with this opus, but is content to allow it to assert its own moods.
Wirssaladze seeks out the disconcerting in each Prelude. Towards this end, she does not hesitate to toss out the score’s tempo and dynamic indications. No matter that No. 4 is marked sempre legato, and details no fewer than eighteen dynamic shifts, if it sounds more grotesque when played staccato at virtually constant volume. If slowing No. 12 to less than two-thirds the posted speed limit yields the sensation of driving with the parking brake pulled up halfway, then out with the metronome marking.
The end result is a uniquely craggy panorama. How mysterious the isolated note clusters at the heart of Prelude No. 10 now seem, and how unusual it is to find the F# major Prelude, No. 13, wearing such an inscrutable mien. Jaunty No. 24 in Wirssaladze’s hands is a hapless rag doll in the jaws of a Rottweiler. Even stranger is the normally sweet-natured Eb major Prelude, No. 19, whose melodic lines Wirssaladze sets, awkwardly, at rhythmic odds with each other.
This is challenging stuff! I can think of no other rendering that complies so fully with Ian MacDonald’s perception of this work as “uniformly barbed, bitter, and disenchanted”.
Room exists, however, for a more palatable presentation of an opus composed, in part, to pave Shostakovich’s path back to the concert stage. An Impressionist lens forms a prettier image of the Twenty-four Preludes, one that Rozanova sees in closer focus than does the similarly bespectacled Johan Schmidt (see DSCH 11; Cyprès CYP2622).
Like Wirssaladze, Rozanova bends the score quite liberally, but in a far more organic manner. Her rubato seems inherent to the music rather than being dictated from without, even though she toys with tempi much more than does Shostakovich in his own recordings of ten of the Preludes, especially in Nos. 8 and 15 (Revelation RV 70007; deleted).
Rozanova portrays a wider range of dispositions than either Wirssaladze or the composer-pianist, allowing the softer side of many Preludes to emerge. Her Prelude No. 19 is sugary; her No. 24 rolls gently. Wirssaladze and Shostakovich do not flaunt the swooning sexiness in Rozanova’s No. 17.
At the same time Rozanova does not shy away from displays of virtuosity, as in her daring sprint through Prelude No. 21, or her effortless despatching of the No. 9 Presto. Even at such moments, though, she lacks the tense edginess of Wirssaladze. Unsurprisingly, her Eb minor Prelude, No. 14, is nowhere near as ominous as Shostakovich’s 1947 reading.
Rozanova evidently possesses keen musical instincts, which makes it all the more perplexing why she misjudges the bass interval in the last bar of the C# minor Prelude, No. 10, repeating the major third on E of the penultimate bar instead of dropping to the written – and conclusive – perfect fifth on the tonic. It’s hard to imagine that she intended to end on the indecisive triad in first inversion thus completed by the last bar’s C# above the treble staff … but if this was a mistake, why no retake?
Turning to couplings, given Rozanova’s Impressionist mode in Shostakovich, it’s rather surprising that her Miroirs reflect so dimly. La vallée des cloches is adequately evocative, but Noctuelles is too metallic to suggest the fluttering moths Ravel meant it to depict, and the Spanish atmosphere in Alborada del Gracioso is thin. Rozanova’s mechanical delivery of Prokofiev’s Toccata and Third Sonata is a legitimate approach, yet need not be quite this prosaic; she overlooks the self-conscious audacity of these youthful inspirations.
As for Wirssaladze, she is in her natural element in Liszt. Her handling of the Mephisto Waltz is a devilish paradox, simultaneously controlled and spastic. Cracks appear in her stony demeanour in the tender heart of the Faust Waltz, but ruthless absorption is never far away. Her Petrarca Sonetto is equally intimidating.
Wirssaladze’s disc is an idiosyncratic concert event that places stern demands on the listener, but which should appeal to piano aficionados tired of anonymous renditions. Her Twenty-four Preludes is a one-off exploration of how far that work can be forced in a single direction. Like Raymond Clarke’s clever, rarefied account, reviewed in DSCH 11 (Athene ATH CD18), hers is primarily for those Shostakovich shoppers who already own a more versatile outfit for everyday wear.
Rozanova’s version fits that description well enough, and is much to be preferred to Tatiana Nikolaeva’s laboured and poorly recorded Hyperion release (CDA66620). Among currently available versions, Vladimir Viardo’s imaginatively diverse – and often pointedly ironic – account would be my first choice (Elektra Nonesuch 79234-2). With the reservations already noted, though, Rozanova’s recital is worth hearing.
Acoustics in both releases are crisp and natural. Be warned, though, that Live Classics stuff all of Wirssaladze’s Preludes into a single track, turning the selection of any given one into an exercise in frustration.
W. Mark Roberts
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Duets: Five Pieces for Two Violins and Piano (arrangements by Atovmyan of Prelude from The Gadfly, Gavotte and Elegy from The Human Comedy, Waltz from ?, Polka from The Limpid Stream)[a] plus Spanish Dance from The Gadfly Suite, opus 97a (arranged for two violins and piano by Atovmyan)[b]; Wieniawski: Polonaise No. 1 in D major, opus 4[c]; Tchaikovsky: Mélodie in Eb, No. 3 from Souvenir d’un lieu cher, opus 42[d]; Vieuxtemps: Tarantelle[e]; Nathan Milstein: Paganiniana Variations[f]; Paganini: La Clochette, opus 7 (arranged for violin and piano by Kreisler)[g]; Prokofiev: March from Love for Three Oranges, opus 33[h]; Charles-Auguste de Bériot: First movement of Duo No. 3 from 3 Concertante duets, opus 57[i]; Yevgeny Brusilovsky (printed Evgeniy Brusilovski): Boz Aygir (The Wild Horse)[j]; Grazyna Bacewicz: Latwe duety na tematy ludowe (Easy Duets on Folk Themes – listed as Folk Dances)[k].
Amir (violin), Marat Bisengaliev (violin)[a,b,i,k], John Lenehan (piano)[a-e,g,h,j].
Black Box BBM1042. DDD. TT 55:24.
Recorded Potton Hall, Suffolk, 26 – 27 November 1999 and 29 February 2000.
[a,b]World premiere recording of arrangements.
[j,k]World premiere recordings.
Two Pieces (Prelude and Scherzo) for String Octet, opus 11 (incorrectly printed opus 1 no. 1)[a]; Piano Quintet in G minor, opus 57[b]; Five Pieces for Two Violins and Piano[c]; Two Pieces (Elegy – Adagio and Polka – Allegretto) for String Quartet, sans opus D[d].
Brodsky Quartet[a,b,d]: Andrew Haveron (violin 1)[c], Ian Belton (violin 2)[c], Paul Cassidy (viola), Jacqueline Thomas (cello); Jacqueline Shave (violin)[a], Roy Theaker (violin)[a], Jane Atkins (viola)[a], Alexander Baillie (cello)[a], Christian Blackshaw (piano)[b,c].
Challenge Classics CC 72093. DDD. TT 61:22.
Recorded Snape Maltings, Aldeburgh, U.K., 5 – 7 March 2001.
The common work on these two discs, Five Pieces for Two Violins and Piano, is another of Lev Atovmyan’s ubiquitous arrangements of excerpts from Shostakovich’s stage and film scores. Thanks to industrious arrangers – not to mention the composer himself – the tunes found in second-hand suites like this metastasise throughout Shostakovich’s musical catalogue, inflicting chronic headaches on annotators. In this case, errors have crept into the documentation provided by the score’s publisher, Musikverlag Hans Sikorski, and some of these are repeated in Challenge Classics’ notes (Black Box avoid the problem by providing no commentary on this music whatsoever).
Ronald Vermeulen’s CD notes for Challenge Classics are accurate for the romantic Prelude that opens the suite, which many will recognise from No.7, Introduction, in Atovmyan’s familiar orchestral suite from The Gadfly, opus 97a. As Derek Hulme (compiler of the upcoming third edition of the Shostakovich catalogue) has pointed out to me, this movement in Five Pieces is actually taken straight from No. 15, Guitars, of Shostakovich’s original score of The Gadfly, and does not incorporate elements of its fifth number, Confession, which Atovmyan deployed in No. 7 of his opus 97a.
The notes also correctly assign the perky Gavotte to The Human Comedy incidental music, wherein it is No. 18. This is recycled as the second number in Ballet Suite No. 3, another Atovmyan project.
The final movement, a sprightly Polka, comes from The Limpid Stream, as advertised. There it is No. 12, Dance of the Milkmaid and the Tractor Driver, though it is more often encountered as No. 4 in Ballet Suite No. 1.
The third and fourth Pieces, however, are misattributed. Vermeulen copies Sikorski in assigning paternity for the lilting third movement, Elegy, to The Limpid Stream, opus 39. Not so! This originated as The Panorama of Paris theme from The Human Comedy, opus 37, and does not appear in The Limpid Stream. Sikorski do, however, correctly report that Elegy was also arranged as No. 4 in Ballet Suite No. 3.
The fourth movement, an aristocratic Waltz, is more problematic, for despite what Sikorski and Vermeulen state, this does not derive from Shostakovich’s score to the animated film The Tale of the Priest and His Servant Balda. Whence it does originate remains a mystery to me. Louis Blois and Derek Hulme recognised the music as the fifth item in a solo-piano compilation published by Schirmer as Shostakovich: Easy Pieces for the Piano and by Sikorski as Karussell der Tänze (Roundabout of Dances). Mr. Hulme suggests that it may also be a number from Atovmyan’s Choreographic Miniatures ballet suite. Unfortunately, the Shostakovich score that Atovmyan mined for all these arrangements remains elusive.
To make even more of a molehill out of this ant-heap, Five Piece’s Prelude and Gavotte turn up in the same instrumentation in Konstantin Fortunatov’s Three Violin Duets (Fortunatov’s third Duet, a Waltz from the Maxim trilogy, does not feature among Atovmyan’s Five Pieces). Although, as compiler, Fortunatov is usually credited for Three Violin Duets, in fact the arrangements are Atovmyan’s, and Prelude and Gavotte are scored identically in Three Violin Duets and Five Pieces.
The first and most prominent recording of Three Violin Duets was on an EMI album that earned a 1980 Grammy Award in the Chamber Music category for Itzhak Perlman, Pinchas Zukerman and Samuel Sanders. This recording is currently available in EMI’s Matrix reissue series, accompanied by its original disc-mate, Prokofiev’s Sonata for Two Violins, plus a sparkling rendition of Bartók’s Forty-four Violin Duos (EMI 7243 5 65994 2 0).
There is little basis on which to choose between the Prelude from Perlman et al. and the one from the Brodsky Quartet’s violinists with British pianist Christian Blackshaw. A melancholy reverie lounges in both. In contrast, Amir (he goes by this name only), Marat Bisengaliev and John Lenehan sound more syrupy than either rival, and cannot resist taking the Poco piu mosso marking on the central section as licence to twirl gymnastically.
The Gavotte on Challenge Classics is 1.4 times faster, and proportionally less stilted, than the one on Matrix, which purveys a more ponderous brand of merriment. Black Box’s Gavotte is livelier still. The Brodsky players proffer crisper articulation than do Amir and his partners, who prefer a less formal dance.
The remaining three Pieces leave only two competitors, and continue to show Amir, Bisengaliev and Lenehan as supple; Haveron, Belton and Blackshaw as refined. The latter play Elegy with touching gentleness, while the former are more impassioned – Black Box’s intimate recording catches some loud inhalations here, but I cannot say I find these objectionable.
The temper of that obscure Waltz is not as subdued as suggested by its title in the solo-piano score, Waltz of Remembrance. Devoid of sardonic wit, this is unlike Shostakovich’s other visits to the genre, instead comporting itself with fin de siecle grace. Amir and Co. luxuriate in its textures, investing 2:05 in material that their more elegant counterparts grant just 1:47. Lenehan is less prominent than Blackshaw in this movement, following the freer rhythm of his partners rather than marking the beat as Blackshaw does.
In the fifth Piece, Polka, the Black Box team are more vibrant, the two violinists sounding like gypsy fiddlers. On Challenge Classics, this movement has a salon atmosphere.
The positions of the Polka and Elegy are reversed on Black Box, presumably to avoid having the Spanish Dance from The Gadfly – not a member of Five Pieces and not included on Challenge Classics – follow another fast movement. This familiar number (a.k.a. Folk Festival, Tarantella and a handful of other noms de guerre) seems slightly awkward in this dress, but it is played with all possible exuberance.
Amir presents the first recording of Five Pieces for Two Violins and Piano. This is also the premiere recording of Atovmyan’s instrumentation for the same forces of Spanish Dance. You would not, however, learn this from Black Box’s vestigial booklet notes, which title all six pieces “Duets” and offer no information on the sources of these tunes or even who arranged them.
Even more unjustly, the only credit paid to John Lenehan – accomplished British concert pianist, recording artist, teacher, arranger and composer – for his sterling support throughout this programme is his name on the back of the jewel case. The booklet does not once mention his name, much less tell us anything about his career. Amir’s second violinist – and uncle – Marat Bisengaliev gets two sentences.
Nevertheless, if the present performances are anything to go by, it isn’t empty hyperbole when the same notes proclaim Amir, just thirteen at the time of these recordings, as “one of the most profoundly gifted young artists to have emerged in recent years.” In the five encore staples he has chosen to lead off his first recording, the Kazakh violinist displays a magnetic, communicative virtuosity. As breathtaking as is his technique, he is always engaging of the listener, never aloof.
And, heavens, how he conveys his sheer delight at playing! Just listen to his eager anticipation of the final reprise of the main subject of the March from Prokofiev’s Love for Three Oranges. (I’m uncertain who or what makes the squeaky background noises in the first three seconds of this track, but they are instantly forgotten.)
The remainder of Amir consists of less challenging but still enjoyable miniatures of some rarity. Charles-Auguste de Bériot, 19th century violinist and author of a number of didactic compositions, contributes a guilelessly Schubertian – and infrequently recorded – movement, treated touchingly by Amir and Bisengaliev.
Black Box miss two more opportunities to flag world premiere recordings on Amir. Yevgeny Brusilovsky (1905 – 1981), founder of the Kazakh Opera House and co-composer of the national anthem of Kazakhstan, gives us the bouncing Boz Aygir (The Wild Horse), whose simple travelling motif does indeed conjure up the image of an unbroken stallion galloping across the Central Asian steppes. At under two minutes, it doesn’t outstay its welcome or outlast Amir and Lenehan’s enthusiasm.
Also new to disc is Polish composer Grazyna Bacewicz’s Easy Duets on Folk Themes, a pedagogical work for two violins from 1945, consisting of seven movements, none of which exceed a minute and a half. The suite opens with the accordion-like drone of Preludium, an obvious exercise in double-stopping that nevertheless manages to be harmonically intriguing. This makes way for a conventionally folk-dance-inspired Cracovienne, followed by an insomniac Nocturne. At the suite’s heart lies the mysterious Kujawiak (a stately Polish dance from the Kujawy region), whose foreground undulates hypnotically while the background line practices (in sequence) trills, pizzicati and double-stopping. At the end of the lesson, both violinists break the obsessive mood with a boisterous flourish. Another, more spiky Cracovienne is succeeded by a pessimistic Song, and the work concludes with the vaguely Coplandesque Grotesque March.
No premieres lurk among the remaining works on the Brodskys’ all-Shostakovich programme, but we are treated to a very fine performance indeed of the youthful Two Pieces for String Octet. Its Prelude opens with dreamy sloth, transitions through a light and flitting central section, and ends in a disquietingly murky reprise of the opening material. Then comes a Scherzo that is more psychedelic than virtuosic, wringing some ugly sounds from the violins. This approach makes the work feel more consequential than did the ARCO Chamber Orchestra’s version, reviewed in our last issue, desirable though that remains (Phoenix PHCD 151).
This Piano Quintet is relatively expansive, though not to the uncharacteristically extreme extent of Shostakovich’s 1940 recording with the Beethoven Quartet, which lasts three minutes longer overall (Lys 369-370; deleted). Here a gloomy Prelude is followed by a subdued and tentative Fugue. The sensation of withdrawing into isolation is amplified by the spacious acoustics, which impart a delayed reverberation to the piano.
The Scherzo is sly and full of character, while the nostalgic Intermezzo is lighter than in the Esbjerg Ensemble’s reading (Classico CLASSCD 273; reviewed in DSCH 13). In comparison with theirs, the Brodskys’ Finale also wears a sunnier disposition throughout.
Though I prefer the Esbjergs’ dark portrayal of the entire work, much preparation and thought have obviously been invested in this new entry, and its refinement is artistically consistent with the rest of the programme.
Still, no modern version is nearly as transfixing as the composer’s own 1955 recording with the Beethoven Quartet, a reading of striking immediacy, pregnant with momentum in the Prelude, keenly grief-stricken in the Fugue, irresistibly vigorous in the Scherzo, insupportably despondent in the Intermezzo, extroverted in the Finale (Vanguard Classics OVC 8077).
The final work from the Brodskys is Two Pieces for String Quartet, a project that occupied Shostakovich only over Halloween night of 1931. The Adagio derives from Act I of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, on which he was working at the time, and the Allegretto is the Polka from The Age of Gold. I find this to be slightly underplayed – too much restraint in the Adagio, insufficient impetus in the Polka – but not enough to hobble the disc as a whole.
Shostakovich completists will want to have at least one of these recordings of Five Pieces for Two Violins and Piano; although all of the movements are light, and four of the five are available in other instrumentations, this currently seems to be the only format in which to hear the Waltz of Remembrance.
So, whose version to select? To crib a phrase or two from Black Box, Amir’s “open expressivity” stands “in marked contrast to the cooler and more restrained style” of the Brodsky players. If this is insufficient basis on which to choose, the very different couplings should decide the matter.
W. Mark Roberts
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String Quartet No. 3, opus 73; String Quartet No. 4, opus 83; Prelude No. 17 from Twenty-four Preludes, opus 34. Chamber arrangements for strings of all works by Mikhail Turich.
Mikhail Turich, Novosibirsk Chamber Orchestra.
Beaux BEA 2022. DDD. TT 59:12.
Recording locations and dates unspecified (©2000).
World premiere recordings of arrangements.
Time was when one, and only one, of Shostakovich’s fifteen string quartets was scored for a larger ensemble – the Eighth. Today, its title of Chamber Symphony may be shared. Over the past decade, more than half of this canon has been scored for one or another ensemble of instruments, with varying success. If the purpose of these arrangements is to produce an altered and enhanced perception of the music, then Mikhail Turich and his Novosibirsk ensemble have scored one of those rare and subtle victories in this specialised undertaking.
Though arrangements of both the Third and Fourth Quartets have appeared in the past, their suitability to expanded scale has never been as revealing as in the current release. Composed respectively in 1946 and 1949, these quartets are part of the late- and post-War grouping of chamber works that includes the Second Quartet and Second Piano Trio. The Third Quartet, with its vividly contrasting movements and gestures of anguish, offers an in-the-moment response to the War’s aftermath; the more subdued, nostalgia-tinged Fourth Quartet is more of an internalised reflection.
In a sense, the quartets parallel the psychological and emotional content of the Seventh and Eighth Symphonies, respectively (though each lags behind its “companion symphony” by a number of years). In addition, the hefty thematic material in the Third Quartet bears resemblance to themes that appear in Shostakovich’s symphonic works of the time. It is perhaps little surprise that both quartets work so well in their new, enlarged settings.
Accounting for this success is the remarkable synergy that exists between performance and arrangement. At times, it is difficult to tell how much of what works is due to which element. On the performance side, the Novosibirsk ensemble boast a highly disciplined manoeuvrability. With a preference for brisk tempi, Turich elicits from them a fantastic, turn-on-a-dime spontaneity and the kind of detailed interpretive shape that one usually finds with four players. Turich has the notes so well in hand, in fact, that one can favourably compare these performances to those of the original versions by the Borodin or Beethoven Quartets.
Listeners will truly hear these works anew. The aggressive muscle and explosive agitation in the second and third movements of Quartet No. 3 take on fresh levels of intensity. The dotted rhythms and parallel octaves of the Adagio assume a weightiness appropriate to their grief. At the same time, the ensemble have no difficulty maintaining lightness and buoyancy, as in the second movement’s jaunty staccato theme, and delicacy when needed, as in the final movement’s pizzicato-accompanied arioso.
Throughout the Fourth Quartet, Turich is in touch with the pathos that lies beneath each note. The broadly sustained sonorities of the opening pages seem all the more fitting in their larger setting. The ever-diminishing dynamics that characterise this movement, with their shifting focus from collective to individual voices, lose none of their poignancy. Likewise, the varying moods and contours of the final movement take on a fuller dimension as it steers its elliptical, yet lyrically gripping course from bouncy little polka to tentatively triumphant climax to final melancholic reverberations.
On the matter of the arrangements themselves, the scoring is never heavy-handed and avoids the excessive weight of symphonic proportion that has characterised previous re-instrumentations of the same works. This and the restriction to stringed instruments are keys to their success. The scoring also exploits an exceptionally wide range of string colouration. The inclusion of double basses adds a wonderfully dark reinforcement that is well absorbed into the ensemble. The moping cello solo at the beginning of the final movement in No. 3 is given over to solo double bass, as is another cello solo in the finale of No. 4, both with good effects. In other places, the arrangement wisely preserves the various solo passages that appear throughout both quartets, so that they stand out in relief as they would in the original. “Public” and “private” attributes are thus well negotiated.
If there is one place where the arrangement loses a thing or two in the translation, it is in the lyrical slow movement of No. 4. Nothing captures the heartfelt grief of this movement more intimately than the original set of four players. Yet even in its expansion, the music takes on a character of its own, at times recalling the composer’s string writing in the Largo of the Eighth Symphony.
Mikhail Turich’s adaptations differ from Rudolph Barshai’s arrangements of the same works that have appeared on at least three previous recordings, including a 1992 Deutsche Grammophon release conducted by Barshai himself (435 386-2; deleted). The current versions, as mentioned, are for strings only, while Barshai’s scorings include strings, woodwinds and brass, and in the case of the Fourth Quartet, percussion. While they are blended in a fairly standard, homogeneous fashion, I have always found the presence of non-stringed instruments in Barshai’s arrangements to be at odds with the original instrumental conception. They do have their moments, such as the sensitive wind solos in the slow movement of Quartet No. 4. Otherwise, these arrangements have always remained a curiosity.
Barshai’s versions also seem to require a larger number of instruments, both strings and non-strings, so that as an ensemble they lack the agility and tight manoeuvrability of the smaller Novosibirsk group. In the vigorously contrapuntal climax of the opening movement of the Third Quartet, for example, Barshai’s winds tend to hamper the reactivity of the close phrasing which is otherwise handled with impressive dexterity by Turich’s string ensemble.
The disc is filled out with a string setting of one of the syrupy little trifles from the opus 34 Preludes for piano, presumably to push the total timing closer to the 60-minute mark. Would that Turich had chosen a more substantial target from the opus 87 Preludes and Fugues!
The sound engineering is superb. The ambience, appropriately, is that of a small venue rather than the large hall acoustics of the Barshai recording. The microphones place the listener at a most strategic location, on the podium itself, so that each string group is distinctly sectionalised and at the same time suitably blended. The clarity and vividness that result are ideally matched to this engaging music.
Turich and his ensemble have elevated the performing status of these string quartets with distinction. This album is a winner straight down the line.
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Lyric Waltz and Romance from Ballet Suite No. 1, sans opus P; Piano Concerto No. 1 in C minor, opus 35[a]; Lyric Waltz, Dance I, Romance and Waltz from Ballet Suite No. 2, sans opus P; Waltz from Jazz Suite No. 1, sans opus E; Piano Concerto No. 2 in F major, opus 102[b]; Waltz from Ballet Suite No. 3, sans opus P; Allegro (incorrectly listed as Mvt. 1) from Symphony No. 10 in E minor, opus 93; Waltz II from Suite for Variety Orchestra (incorrectly listed as Jazz Suite No. 2).
Mario Bernardi, CBC Radio Orchestra, Angela Cheng (piano)[a,b], Jens Lindemann (trumpet)[a].
CBC Records SMCD 5216. DDD. TT 72:53.
Recorded Orpheum Theatre, Vancouver, 20 – 21 June 2001.
To accompany the film The Overcoat (reviewed elsewhere in this issue), CBC have released a soundtrack CD containing most of the music. They have shuffled it, presumably to make a “listening experience” as much as a soundtrack, but they do include instructions for programming the tracks in the order in which they appear in the film. The usefulness of this is questionable; the CD doesn’t include the finale from the Tenth String Quartet, which appears in the film, so programming your CD player is not the same as hearing the film’s music without the images and stripped of the overlaid sound effects. But since the CD includes both piano concertos bolstered with some other (mostly light) pieces, it is possible to listen to it in a comparable way to, say Chailly’s Jazz Music album (Decca 433 702).
The disc opens with the Lyric Waltz from the First Ballet Suite, a souped-up version of the first movement of the First Jazz Suite. The heavier orchestration makes this the less successful version for me, but the CBC orchestra stay pretty light on their feet for it, with just a hint of sluggishness in the middle.
After the aperitif, onto the starters: the First Piano Concerto, a piece so often played and that so often misses. To bring off the balance of the madcap and the cruel in the outer movements, the changing moods, the careering along without quite losing control … and then, to cope with the wistful slow movement as well! It can all be just too much to manage.
Sadly, though wonderfully clean-fingered, Cheng does negotiate the corners too cautiously too often in the first movement. The corollary, however, is that the slow movement comes off well, particularly towards the end when the orchestra suddenly find the right tone. Sadly, with the finale we’re back to a concern with getting it “right” and occasionally with making the point that this is “funny” music, always the best way to stop the laughs. Meanwhile Jens Lindemann’s contribution to the whole concerto is very enjoyable – perhaps it’s perverse but recently I’ve been spending more and more time with the trumpet in this work.
A couple of palate-cleansers next: the Lyric Waltz and the Dance I from the Ballet Suite No. 2 followed by the Waltz from the Jazz Suite No 1. Perhaps this is heretical, but I find a few of Shostakovich’s waltzes too close to one another for comfort. Against that, the first Dance (later cropping up as At the Market Place in The Gadfly) is always immensely enjoyable. Then we get to the real thing with the Waltz from the First Jazz Suite, a piece I never tire of, here given a nicely balanced performance, swinging without sounding forced.
Now perhaps the main course: the Second Piano Concerto. Cheng starts oddly, pecking at the melody, seemingly in an attempt to make it pawky, but really just risking it becoming a disconnected series of notes. But things improve so much that it begins to look like the best thing on the disc and even the slightly odd slamming on of the brakes just before the first movement cadenza doesn’t really spoil things too much.
The Andante is one of those tricky movements, and in describing it the booklet notes fall into the easy trap of using the phrase “heart-on-sleeve” (even if they deny the possibility that Shostakovich could ever be that). Of course, to play it heart-on-sleeve is to destroy it. There is a corner that Shostakovich keeps to himself even here, and it’s the probing that makes this movement moving. But Cheng is happy to accept the surface (not heart-on-sleeve) leaving this deceptive movement unexplored before we get to the finale and Cheng finds her feet again. Odd that in the First Concerto the slow movement should come off best and in the Second Concerto it’s just the opposite. Is Cheng underestimating the later work? Perhaps so.
It’s the point when the sweet trolley arrives, and it’s packed! The second Waltz from the Third Ballet Suite is definitely one of Shostakovich’s more distinctive waltzes and gets a performance that’s light but still able to show its darker side before the arrival of two Romances: the more overtly wistful one from the First Ballet Suite and the dark-opening and mysterious-ending one from the Second Ballet Suite. Staying with that suite, we next get another of the best waltzes: the first movement. Too easily played crassly, here it’s expertly judged.
In this company, finding room for something a little tart must have presented a problem. I suppose that making the Allegro from the Tenth Symphony the penultimate piece, leaving time for a relaxing coda, is a good attempt, especially as it counters the risk of excessive sweetness from the other pieces. But in the event it doesn’t feel right; it’s hardly the most compelling performance and would you really want it ripped from its context?
To me, the Waltz from the First Jazz Suite is one of the best Shostakovich wrote, but by the time we get to the second Waltz from the Suite for Variety Orchestra (or the Eyes Wide Shut Waltz as it will probably become known!), it sometimes seems like third pressings. Perhaps it’s not entirely surprising that the latter rounds off this programme – the release of the Kubrick collection on DVD seems to have “inspired” a few people and Handel’s Sarabande (from Barry Lyndon) is currently advertising something, while Ligeti is apt to turn up at a moment’s notice in a documentary. But things are better than that in this case. The undeniable similarity of this Waltz to the Waltz from the First Jazz Suite means that it ends the CD with a nice feeling of “the same but different”.
The annotation leaves a bit to be desired, which is a shame, as one of the declared aims of the theatre production was to introduce people to the music of Shostakovich. It would be nice to see fewer mistaken references to the Second Jazz Suite, but citing the wrong movement from the Tenth Symphony is less forgivable. And to learn that the Ballet Suites draw on music “Shostakovich had written in the much happier ’30s” beggars belief.
I wouldn’t necessarily say that this was the recording to have for either of the concertos; dull though it is to repeat, Alexeev, Jones and Maksymiuk with the English Chamber Orchestra still do it for me (Classics for Pleasure CD-CFP 4547), along with Shostakovich’s own EMI recordings (CDC 7 54606 2). As I’ve said, Cheng is impressively clean-fingered if a little too cautious and emotionally detached.
But the selection of pieces is very pleasing. I always find it easy to have too much of the ballet suites, so breaking them up with the concertos is a good way of presenting them. If the programme appeals, this is certainly worth having.
Shostakovich plays Shostakovich
Piano Concerto No. 1 in C minor, opus 35[a]; Piano Concerto No. 2 in F major, opus 102[b]; Concertino for Two Pianos in A minor, opus 94[c]; Piano Trio No. 2 in E minor, opus 67[d].
Dmitri Shostakovich (piano) with Samuel Samosud, Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra, Josif Volovnik (trumpet)[a]/Alexander Gauk, Moscow Radio Symphony Orchestra[b]/Maxim Shostakovich (piano)[c]/David Oistrakh (violin), Milos Sádlo (cello)[d].
Classical Treasures CT-10022. ADD mono. TT 66:25.
Cello Concerto No. 1 in Eb major, opus 107[a]; Cello Concerto No. 2 in G major, opus 126[b]; Satires (Pictures of the Past), opus 109[c].
David Oistrakh (cond.), Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra, Mstislav Rostropovich (cello)[a,b]/(piano)[c], Galina Vishnevskaya (soprano)[c].
Classical Treasures CT-10037. ADD mono[a,b]/stereo[c]. TT 72:19.
Recorded 24 January 1965[a]/12 November 1967[b]/23 (listed incorrectly as 21) October 1967.
These are the first two discs of Shostakovich recordings from Russia’s Ostankino radio archive to resurface on the Classical Treasures label, a California-based subsidiary of the South Korean Yedang Entertainment Company. The identical programmes appeared previously on Revelation: Volume 5 of that label’s Shostakovich Plays Shostakovich series (RV 70006), and RV 10087. The works are even arranged on Classical Treasures’ CDs in the same order as they were on Revelation.
Regular readers know that the British Revelation label was torpedoed by legal intrigues over the copyrights to these recordings (see Industry News, DSCH 10). Although Classical Treasures’ promotional talk of “never-before-released music” (their italics) seems rather cheeky given the 114 CDs that Revelation issued, the renewed availability of this catalogue is a good thing.
Certainly, the historic programme on the Shostakovich plays Shostakovich disc is nothing short of mouth-watering. Despite the haphazard playing in the piano concerti, which do not speak highly of Shostakovich’s keyboard skills (or, for that matter, Josif Volovnik’s trumpeting in the First), both are valuable documents of the composer’s anxious, staccato mannerisms.
The famous Shostakovich-Oistrakh-Sádlo Prague recording of the Trio has appeared on CD umpteen times before, but is welcome wherever it goes for its expressive variety, if not always flawless execution.
Also self-recommending is the alternately poignant and rollicking father-and-son duet in the Concertino, a short work written with the teenaged Maxim in mind and premiered by him two years before this recording.
How tragic, then, that all the recordings on the Shostakovich plays Shostakovich disc have precisely the same flaws in transfer pitch as they did on Revelation! The Concertino, Second Piano Concerto and Piano Trio No. 2 are all sharp by roughly a semitone, while the First Piano Concerto is very slightly sharp.
I have notified Classical Treasures of this problem, but they have not, thus far, indicated that they will correct it. Although few listeners will consciously identify the pitch discrepancies, these will distort anyone’s perceptions of the performances. Consequently, this CD cannot be recommended even to ears that don’t possess absolute pitch.
The Trio can be heard at the right pitch on Eclectra ECCD-2046 (reviewed in DSCH 14), but the release of the concerti at the correct pitch on the defunct Russian Disc label is unavailable (RDCD 15 005).
Another technical glitch on the present issue, this one not found on Revelation: the transition from third to fourth movements of the First Piano Concerto repeats during play.
I reviewed the performances on the new Rostropovich disc in their Revelation incarnation in DSCH 9. This remains a most desirable programme. The First Cello Concerto is played with greater intensity than in the 1961 concert with the same soloist and orchestra under Rozhdestvensky on EMI’s 2-CD set Rostropovich: The Russian Years (EMI 7243 5 72295 2 4). The 1965 performance is so gripping that occasional lapses in accuracy are easily overlooked. Oistrakh’s shaping of the orchestral role is distinctive; listen at the end to the disquieting way he constricts the notes of the concerto’s four-note signature.
This Second Cello Concerto is more restrained than the premiere performance on the afore-mentioned EMI set, and its recording’s narrow dynamic range short-changes the climax in the last movement. Still, the sombre reading is well played, and rewards repeated listening.
Neural Audio’s remastering for Classical Treasures enhances the bass of these recordings. This makes the concerti sound a degree warmer and more “alive” than on Revelation.
Dedicatee Vishnevskaya’s Satires are authentically hot-blooded, and it’s enjoyable to hear Rostropovich on an instrument other than his cello. The identical recording is also available on BMG/Melodiya’s Russian Live Recordings from the Sixties (74321 53237 2). As with Revelation and Melodiya, Classical Treasures supply no texts for this work.
Unfortunately, the noise-reduction operation Neural Audio performed on Satires is contraindicated for classical music; it excises more hiss during quiet periods between notes, so that when the piano plays pizzicato, it comes wrapped in static. This is especially damaging in the last song, Kreutzer Sonata. If this valuable recital is your main objective, go to Melodiya instead, where you’ll also hear the husband-and-wife team in the premiere of the Blok Romances, Prokofiev’s Akhmatova Poems, plus Shostakovich’s orchestration of Musorgsky’s Songs and Dances of Death.
Classical Treasures provide more extensive booklet notes than did Revelation. On Shostakovich plays Shostakovich, Byron Adams’ well-written and interesting description of the First Piano Concerto is followed by over seven pages about Shostakovich as pianist and David Oistrakh’s career, penned by one Boris Gontarev, who also supplies the nine pages of notes on the Rostropovich disc. Apparently, these have not been edited by a native English speaker: “Very often since 1981, when Maxim emigrated to the West, one might see a rare billboard …” And so forth.
There are factual errors too, as when, in discussing how Ivan Sollertinsky, the dedicatee of Piano Trio No. 2, would frequently present concert performances, Gontarev writes, “Naturally, Sollertinsky presented this “Trio” to the audience, when it was premiered on November 14, 1944.” No mean feat for a man who died nine months earlier!
Although these discs have limited distribution in Asia, Classical Treasures have no plans to market them through regular channels elsewhere. Instead, they prefer direct marketing via TV “infomercials” and their own website, www.classicaltreasures.com. They hope to release around twenty new discs per quarter. Five CDs with Shostakovich recordings are set to appear in the next batch – only one of these did not previously appear on Revelation, but none have been reviewed previously in our pages.
One hopes that future Classical Treasures releases will display quality control – in both remastering and annotation – commensurate with the significance of this material.
W. Mark Roberts
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Shostakovich and his Friends
Cello Concerto No. 1 in Eb major, opus 107[a]; Moisei Weinberg: Concerto for Cello and Orchestra, opus 43[b]; Yuri Levitin (printed Levitine): Concertino for Cello and Orchestra[c].
Fuat Mansurov, Kazan Symphony Orchestra[a]/Walter Mnatzakanov, Russian State Cinematographic (printed Cimematographic) Orchestra[b,c], Mark Drobinsky (cello).
Classic Talent DOM 2910 85. DDD. TT 78:40.
This CD partners Shostakovich’s first concerto with two works that will doubtless be new to most buyers. The liner notes are excellent (typos and flawed grammar aside), backgrounding the relationship between the three composers and their shared interest in Jewish music.
The first thing I noticed is that the Drobinsky/Mansurov recording is considerably louder than the comparison recordings of Heinrich Schiff with Maxim Shostakovich and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra (Philips 412 526-2), and Paul Tortelier, Paavo Berglund and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra (EMI CDM 7 63020 2; deleted). The mastering may have pushed the boundaries too far however – the fortissimo horn at Fig. 78/3.33 of the finale produces momentary digital distortion, a minor blemish but one that should have been picked up.
The balance is very good, though some of the passages for high flute and piccolo have a tendency to overpower the soloist. The slightly reverberant acoustic at times lends a depth-charge explosiveness to the timpani and the lower strings’ pizzicato passages in the Shostakovich; exciting as this is, it occasionally blurs details in the scoring.
The first movement of the Shostakovich promises much from the opening but doesn’t quite set the movement alight. It is not an issue of tempo, it seems, the Drobinsky/Mansurov reading being almost the same duration as Schiff/Shostakovich’s. The latter however creates the impression of being in a higher gear due to Schiff’s clinical execution (particularly in the staccato passages) and Maxim Shostakovich’s greater attention to detail.
The clarinet solo at Fig. 14/2:16 is a case in point. The Drobinsky/Mansurov performance (with the reverberant acoustic perhaps contributing) washes out the all-important accents that create the illusion of alternating metre (3-2, 5-2, 4-2) in opposition to the uniform 3-2 insisted on by the soloist and orchestra. It is in this impression of polymetre that the integrity of the music resides, without which the passage can appear to be merely marking time. It only takes one or two such instances to derail the roller coaster of musical invention that this movement is capable of taking us on, and once the momentum is lost, it is very difficult to regain it. I may appear to be overly critical here – it is simply that such details separate a very good performance from a superb one.
The second movement stands up well, though the more voluminous acoustic produces a grander, more symphonic, almost heroic tone. While I prefer the more intimate reverie of both the Schiff/Shostakovich and Tortelier/Berglund recordings, Dobrinsky delivers some fine moments, in particular the glacial duet for cello harmonics and celesta.
Drobinsky takes the cadenza more briskly and with less rubato than Schiff, and while it perhaps loses some of its quality of an inner sanctuary within the work as a whole, the performance is well controlled. Drobinsky effortlessly carries off the two-part invention involving the main theme from the second movement and makes a good fist of the bravura passages leading in to the finale.
Like the first movement, the finale doesn’t quite have the bite of the Schiff/Shostakovich recording, though it compares favourably with Tortelier/Berglund. Again, tempo is not the main issue – Drobinsky/Mansurov are only slightly slower than Schiff/Shostakovich – it is again the rhythmic precision and cohesion between soloist and orchestra that set the latter recording apart.
While the Shostakovich is new to CD, these Weinberg and Levitin recordings appeared previously on Russian Disc (RDCD 10 071; deleted). The acoustic in the Weinberg concerto is less dramatic than the Shostakovich recording but is still sumptuous and warm. It is difficult to compare this with the only other recording of the work, the live recording of the premiere by Rostropovich, Rozhdestvensky and the USSR State Symphony Orchestra (Rostropovich: the Russian Years 1950-1974; EMI 7243 5 72016 2 9) on any grounds other than interpretation, though this reveals merits and shortcomings in both.
The first two movements, both meditations on Jewish-sounding melodies – Lieder ohne Worte, if you will – seem better contrasted in the Rostropovich reading. Rostropovich takes the last two movements slightly quicker than Drobinsky, and while this makes the third movement more exhilarating, it also makes it sound as if it is the finale. The finale proper, the fourth movement, sounds almost redundant (this is compounded by the cyclic return of the first movement theme in the cadenza at the end of the third movement, which somewhat steals the thunder of the culminating reminiscence in the fourth movement). Drobinsky’s more leisurely third movement holds enough in reserve so that the fourth movement sounds a little more justified.
Overall, I find the Rostropovich more compelling, but forking out for the 13-CD set may well make the present disc a more attractive option for those wishing to explore Weinberg’s concerto for the first time.
The Levitin Concertino is pleasant and inventively scored (soloist, wind, brass and percussion), and, like the Shostakovich concerto, features a number of dialogues between soloist and individual instruments from the orchestra. The title “Concertino” perhaps pertains to the technically modest part given to the soloist rather than the work’s duration, though I couldn’t help feeling that this contributed to a lack of balance, the solo part not permitted to dominate the orchestra by either technical display or the duration of individual passages. Compositional shortcomings aside, the Drobinsky/Mnatzakanov performance is crisp and energetic, particularly in the final movement.
Whereas the Shostakovich reading doesn’t quite scale the heights of the best on offer, it is still a very solid performance, and as a package this CD presents a wonderful opportunity to explore Shostakovich’s contemporaries and hear Shostakovich in a wider context of contemporary works. Though the Weinberg and Levitin works might not be flawless masterpieces, they have more than piqued my interest in this repertoire.
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Violin Concerto No. 1 in A minor, opus 77[a]; Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, Suite for Orchestra (arr. James Conlon, 1991)[b].
James Conlon, Gürzenich Orchester Kölner Philharmoniker, Vladimir Spivakov (violin)[a].
Capriccio 10 892. DDD. TT 79:07.
Recorded Philharmonie, Köln (Cologne), live 26 – 29 August 2000[a]/studio 29 June – 3 July 2001[b].
[b]World premiere recording of suite.
The star attraction on this generously filled disc is James Conlon’s Lady Macbeth Suite. This is fortunate, because the Violin Concerto is not a contender; its dramatic line is slack from the first movement, and it’s tough slogging through the Scherzo and Passacaglia to a blasé Burlesque. Conlon and Vladimir Spivakov both share responsibility for the detachment of the performance; the latter sounds uncommitted and lets pass a few questionable notes.
On the other hand, Conlon’s own extraction of orchestral moments from Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk is an enterprise of considerable worth. Until now, there has been no satisfactory Shostakovian equivalent of “The Ring Without Words” for operaphobes or indeed anyone else seeking a condensation of Lady Macbeth’s musical essence. Conlon’s suite aims modestly to “render a part of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk more easily accessible to the non-operatic music loving public.”
True, various instrumental extracts have been recorded before, most notably the fateful Passacaglia, the interlude between the fourth and fifth Scenes. This is overwhelming in its original conception for organ, as demonstrated by Maria Makarova on Olympia (OCD 585).
The Passacaglia also features in two five-movement orchestral suites of Entr’actes, one from Lady Macbeth and the other from Katerina Izmailova, Shostakovich’s 1963 revision of the opera. The two editions differ – to little practical effect – in the instrumentation of the Entr’actes between Scenes 1 and 2 and Scenes 7 and 8, as can be heard by comparing Michail Jurowski’s suite of intermezzi from Lady Macbeth (Capriccio 10 780; reviewed in DSCH 14) with Maxim Shostakovich’s Czech recording using the Katerina Izmailova interludes (Supraphon SU 3415-2 031; reviewed in DSCH 12).
Despite the suggestive parallels, neither incarnation of the Entr’actes suite has the stature of Britten’s oft-coupled Four Sea Interludes and Passacaglia from Peter Grimes. Shostakovich’s Passacaglia has comparable symbolic and musical heft to Britten’s, but his other Entr’actes highlight only flippant and grotesque elements of the opera, ignoring its vital lyrical passages.
On the other hand, Veniamin Basner’s Katerina Izmailova Symphony for Full Orchestra would benefit from being less inclusive than it is. The booklet to the premiere and still lone recording (Calig CAL 50 992; deleted) reports that Shostakovich conceived of composing a symphony based on Lady Macbeth as early as 1934, the year of its first staging, and that he and Basner sketched precise plans for this after collaborating on the music to the 1966 Lenfilm adaptation of Katerina Izmailova. Basner claimed that his “symphony” does not contain “a single note that does not come from Shostakovich.”
The outcome, realised only after Shostakovich’s death, combines material from across the opera into five movements: Katerina, Father-in-law, Night/Ghost, Arrest and Exile/Prison. Notwithstanding the title, and its symphonic scale (it lasts three-quarters of an hour), this suite lacks the thematic development of a true symphony.
But a symphony was not what we were seeking. No, the main reasons I rarely take this exercise off the shelf, despite its apparently impeccable pedigree, are the wearisome length of the vocal lines assigned by Basner to various instruments, plus the occasionally perplexing choice of music included … and excluded. For instance, the boorishness of Katerina’s father-in-law could be conveyed without transcribing quite so much of Boris’ banal nattering. Conversely, other than chunks of the final one that are subjected to a rather silly remix, the Entr’actes are neglected. Are these really superfluous to an orchestral reduction of the opera?
Conlon sets himself a less ambitious task than did Basner, explaining in a short essay that he has supplemented the Lady Macbeth Entr’actes with “brilliant and expressive passages” from the Scenes proper, arranging the music largely in linear sequence following the chronology of the opera’s plot. A limited number of vocal lines have been judiciously relocated to instruments, but for the most part Conlon employs only the pre-existing accompaniment.
Conlon’s eight-part suite starts fearsomely, quoting the orchestral Adagio from the final scene, which signals Katerina’s realisation of Sergei’s betrayal. With destiny foretold, the first movement (In the Court of the Ismailovs) jumps back to depict the oppressive tedium of the Izmailov household.
Skipping the first Entr’acte and Scene 2, the second movement, Dangerous Tension, begins with the manic Entr’acte between Scenes 2 and 3. The mood shifts as Scene 3 opens with Katerina (on oboe) lamenting the boredom and loneliness of her existence.
Sergei’s seduction of Katerina follows, copying the pornophonic details of the original opera, which do not appear in Basner’s distillation of the expurgated Katerina Izmailova. This third movement (Katerina and Sergei I) ends with Katerina’s decision to poison Boris’ mushrooms, conveyed by citing the appropriate passages of concealed intent from Scene 4.
The Passacaglia, consuming its own prophecy of doom, serves as an ominous springboard for Katerina and Sergei II. This features the music underpinning the boudoir setting at the start of Scene 5 – the only truly radiant moment in the opera. Katerina’s blissfully heartfelt aria contrasts painfully with Sergei’s subsequent insincere avowals of love, but the movement ends beatifically with the couple’s last kiss before Sergei falls asleep again.
The Drunkard sets the insipid monologue of the Shabby Peasant and his discovery of Zinovi’s corpse in Scene 6, segueing into the Entr’acte between this and Scene 7. Next, Arrival of the Police presents the bombastic but still threatening Entr’acte between Scenes 7 and 8.
In Exile gives us the opening and close of the final Scene, music of heart-rending depth, in which the Old Convict’s lament is assigned to the trombone.
As this synopsis makes plain, Conlon has balanced the satirical side of the opera with tragic and poetic aspects that are missing from the Entr’actes alone. Lasting just over 40 minutes, his suite does not try to include everything: Aksinya’s rape scene is absent, as is Boris’ ghost, the Police Station, the Seryozha refrain from Scene 9 (recycled in Quartet No. 8) and all traces of Zinovi. I don’t particularly miss any of these, though others might question the exclusion of Katerina’s aria “The foal runs after the filly” from Scene 3, used as the Adagio of the Two Pieces for String Quartet.
That last aria does appear in Basner’s treatment. It has to be said, though, that the title character seems more sedated than dejected in Vladimir Fedoseyev’s 1997 performance of the Katerina Izmailova Symphony with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra, which really d-r-a-g-s. Not having access to Basner’s score, I cannot judge whether this is due to his metronome markings or simply to Fedoseyev’s desire to pad out the CD. Even worse, the rapturous music underpinning the start of Scene 5, so emotive in Conlon’s realisation, is utterly ruined by Fedoseyev’s deathbed tempo.
The present performance is more than satisfactory, though I could imagine an ensemble with a beefier string section making an even greater impact. No need to wait for that, however; the Cologne orchestra give a reading of admirable precision and feeling, as well as great power when requested. The recording is crystal-clear.
I suspect, based on Conlon’s choice of music and which of Katerina’s words to transcribe, that, like Shostakovich, he has fallen a little in love with the heroine. Whether or not that’s true, his suite is surprisingly moving, and I find myself playing it more often than required for reviewing purposes. Recommended to all but the most cynical.
W. Mark Roberts
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Performances of the Fourth Symphony generally cast the work either as a vast Mahlerian dissertation, emphasising musical monumentalism, or else as a hair-raising soundtrack to an unfilmed storyline. Among non-Russian, all-digital recordings, Simon Rattle’s 1994 account with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra falls squarely into the former camp; Neeme Järvi’s 1989 appraisal with the Scottish National Orchestra, the latter (EMI 7243 5 55476 2 0 and Chandos CHAN 8640, respectively).
Myung-Whun Chung’s new release is harder to place. The first two movements are as uncomfortable and descriptive as any committed to disc, yet I am uncertain how to view the third.
Chung propels the symphony from the starting line and maintains pressure on the pedal, pushing us back in our seats. Then, at Fig. 29/5:50, he hits the brakes to expose the wreckage of the full orchestra’s collision, a spectacle that the same orchestra hurry past timidly under Eugene Ormandy (Sony SB2K 62 409).
The first movement continues to unfold with decisive tempo changes, all of which highlight the nightmarish aspect of the music. Anyone wedded to the more consistent pulse of Kondrashin or André Previn (BMG/Melodiya 7432 1198402; EMI 7243 5 72658 2 9) may quarrel with Chung’s accelerations and even more with his longueurs. Listen intently, however, and you may be persuaded that important elements gain in lucidity and impact, generating the sensation of immersion in disturbing events.
The Philadelphians successfully adapt their tonal personalities to this vision. At Fig. 48/12:35, quaking contrabassoon and tuba conjure up a fearful apparition, reminiscent of Boris’ ghost in Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. Later in the same movement come twenty-eight bars of inhumanly perfect frulato on flute and piccolo (Fig. 88/3:46 of track 2, which indexes the Presto). Pay attention too to how menacingly the chugging low strings stalk the violin solo from Fig. 101/8:13, and to the hushed yet ominous knocking of the bassoon triplets at Fig. 106+4/10:41, which sound more percussive than blown.
Such details are revealed by a recording of superior depth and focus, which also benefits the structural clarity of the second movement. In the fugal sections here, Chung makes apparent the predestined futility of the swirling strings and winds’ striving for unison.
Regrettably, I don’t feel that the third movement delivers on the promise of the preceding two. Its first climax is too deliberate to be maximally shattering, and though the long road to the movement’s volcanic eruption boasts exotic vistas, once the players arrive there they hold too much force in reserve. Eluded is the viscerally terrifying apocalypse of Rozhdestvensky (BMG/Melodiya 74321 63462 2), Kondrashin, Previn and — at the snarling extreme — Järvi. What we have instead is a grand and rather academic peroration, whose descending motif sounds incongruously noble.
As for the coda, this arouses none of the chills generated by the quartet of conductors just listed (I have to agree with the late Graham Brooker’s assertion in DSCH 2 that Previn’s desolation here is unmatched). This is partly due to the domestication of what it follows, partly due to the too-prominent bass drum, which should be only a distant rumble.
Still, don’t dismiss this CD prematurely. There is much food for thought in Chung’s interpretation, particularly in his insightful first movement. Orchestral ensemble and precision handily surpass most competitors, including, by a wide margin, the 1963 Philadelphians under Ormandy, who commit several errors (not counting at least one deviation present in old Western manuscripts that also appears in Previn’s 1977 recording). Moreover, the appropriately grainy strings banish the cosmetic sheen that some might have expected of them.
Deutsche Grammophon’s presentation is lavish, granting a new track to the third movement’s Allegro as well as to the aforementioned Presto of the first. Instead of translating one essay into different languages, they have commissioned English, French and German booklet notes from three different authors, a bonus for bi- and trilingual readers that leaves unilingual consumers no worse off than they would be otherwise.
It has taken nearly eight years for this recording to appear on disc; I hope that Deutsche Grammophon allow us to hear more of Chung’s Shostakovich in shorter order.
W. Mark Roberts
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Symphony No. 6 in B minor, opus 54[a]; The Execution of Stepan Razin, opus 119[b].
Valeri Polyansky, Russian State Symphony Orchestra, Russian State Symphonic Cappella[b], Anatoly Lochak (bass)[b].
Chandos CHAN 9813. DDD. TT 59:00.
Recorded Mosfilm Studio, Moscow, 18 June 1999[a]/Grand Hall of the Moscow Conservatory, 14 June 2000[b].
It is scarcely possible to conceive of a performance of The Execution of Stepan Razin that erred on the side of excess – listeners, though, are hereby advised that Polyansky has come up with a performance that is as steadfast and insistent as the musical drama’s iconoclastic hero. This Razin is pushed to the extreme and permeated with Shostakovian intensity. Some may find it over the top. But for those with a penchant for fiery executions, musical and otherwise, what a glorious specimen of immoderation it is.
Any new performance of Shostakovich’s explosive cantata is cause to sit up and take notice. Since Kondrashin’s 1965 premiere recording (Lys 568-573; deleted), subsequent listings in the catalogue have been scarce – only half a dozen, including the one under review – and not all have been equally successful.
The two previously most-recent versions represent the best and the worst of traditions. One, by Michail Jurowski (Capriccio 10 780, reviewed in DSCH 14), is a strong performance that will remain a classic for years to come. The other recording, by Andre Andreev (Koch 3-7017-2 H1), is poor because of, among other things, the thumpiness of its recorded sound and a soloist who croons the part as though it were Razin’s cocktail hour instead of his demise.
Shostakovich’s cantata, his second and last collaboration with Yevgeny Yevtushenko, at last seems to be getting its deserved place in the limelight. The work is important, partly for its politically charged payload, and partly for offering a glimpse of where Shostakovich might have taken his operatic career, aborted at its peak with Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk and subsequently entering a cul de sac with the sadly misguided Gamblers five years later. Stepan Razin is arguably the closest Shostakovich came to writing another opera in the last three decades of his life.
The work takes the form of an extended scena depicting the public execution of the 17th century legendary folk hero, with a bass soloist in the dual role of narrator and Stenka himself. The chorus echoes the words of the narrator and the protagonist as well. The work underscores all the reference points of the composer’s own real-life conflagrations: fist raised against oppressive authority, public betrayal and humiliation, and ultimately, a victory of the spirit tainted with the blackest irony. The pent up anger so explosively released touches a raw nerve like nothing else in the composer’s canon.
The music that Shostakovich wrote in both of the Yevtushenko collaborations is tailored to the blunt, extroverted character of the verses themselves. This is particularly true of the music of Stepan Razin. In matters of interpretation, therefore, bolder strategies take precedence over subtler ones, a notion that Polyansky seems to have latched onto with a vengeance. While the bass soloist pursues the nuances of phrasing, Polyansky takes a firm grip on the music’s throttle with the full support of the superb musicians of the Russian State Symphony Orchestra and Cappella.
If a performance of Stepan Razin lives or dies on the strength of its brass and percussion, then there is plenty in this performance to raise the dead in Novodevichy cemetery, including Stenka himself. The brass, first of all, show that they are capable of all the fury in hell’s furnace. It is a distinction that is somewhat compromised during the course of the introductory episode where the brass, entering midway, almost totally obscure the final dozen of the chorus’s twenty hair-raising glissandi. Though pushed a tad forward in this passage, their aggressive presence is otherwise welcome in the all-important opening bars, in the powerful culminating statements that mark sectional boundaries, and notably, in the shattering finale.
Another element in this rendition that will prove rather extreme for the mild-mannered is the percussion. Never before in Stepan Razin’s history have the percussion section been recorded with such stupendous clarity and forward presence. Gong strokes swell and decay with long, plush resonance; the mighty strokes of the timpani and bass drum boom firm and solid; the staccato hammer blows that punctuate the piece constitute an exorcism in progress. This is the way Stepan Razin was meant to be heard.
But the feature that will most take the listener’s breath away is Polyansky’s choice of tempo; by all measure, this is the fastest performance of Razin on disc. Comparisons to previous performances help make the point: Polyansky 26:16, Jurowski 27:17, Kondrashin 27:51, Slovak 29:40 (Praga PR 254 055; deleted), Andreev 31:05, and Kegel 31:18 (Philips 434 172-2; deleted). Numbers, of course, do not a performance make. And it should be noted that the longest of these, under the scrupulous baton of Herbert Kegel, ranks among the most passionately eloquent of the lot.
In this performance, Polyansky’s pace in the faster sections, especially the sections of regular rhythm, is pushed to the brink. From the opening bars, the music is brazenly taut and displays Polyansky’s characteristic edginess. For example, after chorus and orchestra reach the first climactic peak in the opening five minutes, conductors generally observe the poco meno mosso indication in the score (Fig. 15), retarding the tempo in the instrumental aftermath as a kind of “catch your breath” post-climactic recovery. Polyansky takes a brief ritardando just before the indicated bar (4:38), but then breaks with tradition and proceeds to drive the brassy postlude with undepleted momentum. The effect is invigorating if a bit startling.
The spring-loaded quality of the performance is also reflected in the manner in which Polyansky negotiates tempo transitions. At the end of the long, eerie Adagio section just preceding the execution, where other conductors gradually speed up the music, Polyansky’s tempo shift is sudden (Fig. 38-1/16:16). The same abruptness characterises other slow-to-fast sectional junctures (for example, at Fig. 30/11:14).
Still, the slower sections of atmospheric anticipation and extended arioso are unrushed and duly savoured. While it’s not fair to claim that the interpretation has only two gears, fast and slow, I did find myself at times missing the slightly greater breathing room and judiciously placed rubato preferred by conductors such as Jurowski or Kondrashin. Polyansky’s tempi, however, are quite effective in forging a unified vision of the work and sustaining its volatile tension.
The various bass soloists that have appeared throughout Stepan Razin’s recorded history have brought to bear many different qualities. Artur Eisen in the Kondrashin performance is still the role model for all subsequent basses with his commanding authority. The performance I find most electrifying, however, is the one by Stanislaw Sulejmanow in the Jurowski recording. His volatility and teeming sense of outrage consummately capture all the boiling anger of Shostakovich and Yevtushenko’s hero. The quality of the recorded sound on that Capriccio disc is not bad even compared to Chandos’, and the performance is not one to miss.
In the current performance, Anatoly Lochak has a heft that is singularly fitting. He emphasises more of the lyric aspects than does Sulejmanow, and does so with an emotive quality that is rich with nuance. He also pays detailed attention to text.
In the presence of the broad strokes of the orchestral interpretation, almost all shading in this performance falls on the bass part. Lochak’s is a uniquely personalised Stepan, one that brings to the part both the requisite eruptive quality and a surprising element of vulnerability as well. One feels in Lochak’s reading not only Razin’s outrage and defiance, but more than in any previous rendition, his palpable sense of terror at his impending decapitation. In this, Lochak elicits a dark pathos and humanizing element to the role of Stepan that immediately draws the listener in.
This, indeed, is a Razin to be reckoned with!
One of Shostakovich’s most popular works today, the Sixth Symphony seems to have taken Soviet critics and conductors by surprise in 1939. It initially elicited lukewarm reviews from the critics, and, if one can judge from studio recordings made 20 years after the fact, its first conductors seemed wary of a Shostakovich symphony so relatively free of conflict. Unlike the neoclassical apologetics offered in his Fifth Symphony, here Shostakovich seems to have set out to defy expectations rather than meet them head on. Written at the end of a turbulent decade, the lofty meditations of its opening movement followed by two exuberant scherzi represent something of a retreat from troubled waters as well as from traditional form.
The opening Largo, the work’s centre of gravity, is necessarily the focal point of discussion. Rarely have recorded performances of this movement been as fast-paced as those of its earliest interpreters, Kondrashin (13:26; BMG/Melodiya 74321 19847 2), Gauk (15:23; Artia ALP-167; deleted) and Mravinsky (16:02; BMG/Melodiya 74321 25198 2), each of whom overlooks the roomier ambience explored by later conductors. More recently, Temirkanov’s 15:40 revives this early tradition (reviewed in DSCH 12; RCA Victor Red Seal 09026-68844-2). Of Russian recordings of the LP era, the most successful – and the one still waiting for digital reissue – is that of the recently deceased Yevgeny Svetlanov, the first major Soviet conductor to give the opening movement its meditative due (18:11; Melodiya C10 14899-900).
Among earlier Western recordings, Fritz Reiner’s strongly defined interpretation remains a classic (Sony Classics MHK 62343). Leopold Stokowski, whose flair for gesture and mood would seem tailor-made for the Largo, provides a disappointingly pedestrian account in his 1968 recording (RCA Victor 09026-62516-2; deleted; see John Riley’s Leopold Stokowski on Record in DSCH No. 12). It was Sir Adrian Boult’s daringly protracted but superbly atmospheric 1960 performance of that movement (19:56; Everest EVC 9005) that led the way for other Western conductors to adopt much broader tempi, as we find in the luxuriously delineated Previn reading (19:08; EMI CDM 7 69564 2; deleted) and in perhaps the most elaborately pampered version on record, Leonard Bernstein’s second (22:29; Deutsche Grammophon 419 771-2; deleted). Performances by Haitink (17:41; Decca 425067), Berglund (17:35; EMI CDS 7 47790 8; deleted), and Järvi (17:28; Chandos CHAN 8411) fall somewhere in between the tempo extremes.
In the current version, Polyansky takes the Largo at the broader end of the tempo spectrum (19:04), showing the same meticulous attention to atmosphere as he does in previous recordings of his Shostakovich cycle (note the opening movement of the Tenth Symphony). The long, reaching lines in the strings are shaped sensitively – if cautiously – at each turn, bringing a genuine depth of feeling to the climaxes and crescendi. The peroration at 6:00 (fig. 12 +3) is thunderous, though the trombonist veers off the beat during his prominent solo (6:06, two measures before Fig. 13) in the very same bar as the errant trombonist in the Previn recording. That small annoyance aside, the various solos by oboe, English horn, piccolo and flute are evocative if subdued.
This is a relatively relaxed Largo in which the music seems to flow from a rather distant spring. The trancelike moods of the latter part of the movement are conveyed, mainly by flute, almost as a series of steady whispers, as if some ultimate secret of the universe were being held at bay. The hypnotic sense of detachment so conveyed – quite different from, say, Järvi’s Largo – is in the end very effective. One almost gets the impression that Polyansky sought to act as a neutral conduit in these pages, allowing the music to flow with as little intervention of the baton as possible.
The two faster movements that follow, Allegro and Presto, have often been criticised for their superficiality. However it must be said that they contain some of Shostakovich’s most fascinating and inventive melodic turns. Conductors such as Bernstein and Previn take the Allegro at slower tempi and thus bring out that movement’s rich tapestry of solo work – with no small sacrifice of its overall cohesiveness. Järvi and Berglund, on the other hand, prefer the excitement generated by faster tempi. Polyansky takes a median range of tempi in both movements, a choice that allows him to negotiate their kaleidoscopic shifts of mood with spirited momentum as well as admirable attention to detail.
As with the Razin performance, Polyansky’s edgy choices of tempo are offset by a versatile control of dynamics and enhanced by thrusting upsurges of energy. The wrenching irony of the wide-interval melodic leaps in the Allegro do not escape him, nor does the sense of innocent exuberance in the ensuing fanfares, nor the nature-struck passion of the central climax, nor the melancholic disintegration of materials at movement’s end. He may not get as much devilish glee out of the final Presto as Järvi, whose Sixth ranks first to these ears among digital renditions. Yet the performance is robust, the instrumental solos well executed, the climaxes superbly shaped.
The quality of the recorded sound is once again a pleasure. The climactic timpani solos in the Allegro and in the finale of the Presto stand out with uncommon clarity. This leaves me to nitpick only about the small but colourful tambourine part (starting at 2:36, Fig. 101) in the Presto, which gets a bit swallowed up in the mix. And one more thing: since the final track of the disc is over 26 minutes long, it would have been helpful if it were followed by a short, blank track so that points within the cantata could be accessed conveniently from both ends – an idea for future recordings.
The label can now be affixed: this disc offers a Sixth Symphony that will delight your heart and a Stepan Razin that will rend it. A very good pair of disc-mates, indeed.
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Symphony No. 7 in C major, Leningrad, opus 60.
Rafael Kubelik, Concertgebouworkest (Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam).
Audiophile Classics APL 101.557. ADD mono. TT 73:22.
Recorded live Concertgebouw, Amsterdam, 9 February 1950.
Audiophile Classics deserve praise for the fine production qualities they have bestowed on this historic concert. The recording arrives on a gold audiophile disc, claimed to deliver superior reflective qualities, while Paul Janssen’s five-page essay (in Dutch and English) does a superb job of connecting the Leningrad Symphony’s creative context to its first performance and reception in the Netherlands.
This concert is indeed a special event, coming the night after the Seventh Symphony’s Dutch premiere. Furthermore, Rafael Kubelik cannot be heard on disc in any other Shostakovich performance, while no alternative releases exist of the Concertgebouw Orchestra playing the Leningrad (the London Philharmonic take their place for this opus in Haitink’s symphonic cycle).
Shostakovich’s symphonies were late to appear in the Netherlands (and later still to receive critical acceptance there), so although the Leningrad’s received programme was no longer topical by 1950, the newness of the music is palpable in the often-unorthodox shaping and tempi. Consequently, this recital sounds as historically momentous as Toscanini’s 1942 broadcast premiere (RCA Victor Gold Seal 60293-2-RG; deleted). Listen, for example, to how the fast-forward applied after Fig. 53/16:47 in the first movement conjures up images of jerky wartime newsreels.
There are, however, less felicitous symptoms of the score’s unfamiliarity. Although there is playing to admire, like the flute solo in the third movement, in general the orchestra do not sound fluent. Conspicuous errors arise at different junctures on the tuba, timpani and violas. Also, some critical sections are underplayed, like the revving passage beginning at Fig. 177/5:26 in the last movement. Here, the pizzicati are not plucked with nearly enough force, disobeying the explicit instructions in the score that they should be executed so violently that the strings strike the fingerboard.
Important components are also obscured by the abysmal source recording, which no amount of technical heroism on Audiophile Classics’ part can redeem. The orchestra seem to be at the far end of a long tunnel lined with cotton wool. As a result, the snare drum solo at Fig. 133+4/10:30 in the third movement is virtually inaudible. Throughout the performance, background hiss fluctuates but never dips below distracting. The audience is also quite noisy during the concert, though their loud applause (which occupies nearly one-and-a-quarter minutes of the fourth track) indicates that they appreciated what they heard.
This CD, then, is a historical document. On those terms, it succeeds. Anyone seeking a performance to live with should look elsewhere.
W. Mark Roberts
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Symphony No. 10 in E minor, opus 93[a]; Stravinsky: Violin Concerto[b].
Karel Ancerl, Czech Philharmonic Orchestra[a]/Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra[b], Wolfgang Schneiderhan (violin)[b].
Deutsche Grammophon Originals 463 666-2. ADD mono[a]/stereo[b]. TT 69:15.
Recorded Herkulessaal, Munich, October 1955[a]/Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Berlin, 3 – 5 December 1962[b].
Karel Ancerl’s Shostakovich discography is small but indispensable. Of the six opuses granted commercial recordings with his Czech Philharmonic team, the most celebrated is the taut Fifth Symphony he set down in 1961, which Supraphon have repackaged with a mercurial First from 1964 (11 1951-2 011). The present Tenth, recorded not quite two years after the work’s premiere, plays in the same league.
I suspect that it is no coincidence that Ancerl negotiated the emotional terrain of a Shostakovich score so unerringly, himself having suffered 20th-century tyranny to an even greater degree than the composer. During the war the Nazis interned Ancerl at Terezin, their concentration camp for Czech Jews where artistic activities were permitted only to portray a fraudulent image of a “model ghetto” to foreign eyes. Under appalling conditions, Ancerl managed to assemble a string orchestra, later writing, “One thing became clear to me, namely that the power of music is so great that it casts its spell over every person who has a heart and unclogged senses; and it lets him endure the hardest hours of his life.”
The price for the vital spiritual nourishment Ancerl’s ensemble provided to fellow inmates included a command performance to a gullible team from the International Red Cross, who returned home to report that Terezin’s Jews were being treated humanely. Having extracted what they wanted from the orchestra, the Nazis transferred Ancerl and his colleagues to Auschwitz. Ancerl was one of only four members of his orchestra to survive the death camp. He was the only member of his family to do so.
Precisely how such unimaginable horrors might inform a conductor’s reading of an opus like the Tenth Symphony, it is impossible – even improper – to speculate. Suggestively, though, Ancerl’s direction frequently casts the listener deep into treacherous rapids that offer no eddies from which one might escape. Breathless terror is the only possible response to submergence beneath the overlapping waves of sound in the first movement’s climax and throughout the pitiless second movement.
Underpinning such impressions is a hyper-connected construction. Ancerl’s interpretation spills forth as a continuous dialogue, overflowing the commas and semicolons with which other conductors punctuate the work. Even Herbert von Karajan’s 1966 version, notable for its legato phrasing, is parsed into far more discrete musical paragraphs (DG Galleria 429 716-2).
In any case, the Czech players have scant opportunity to inhale; Ancerl shaves three and a half minutes off Karajan’s already short total duration. On record, only Dimitri Mitropoulos, in his lacerating 1954 report from the podium of the New York Philharmonic, even comes close to beating Ancerl to the finish line, matching his movement timings until falling behind in the fourth by a minute (CBS Masterworks Portrait MPK 45698; deleted). Like Karajan’s, though, Mitropoulos’ Tenth is much more sectional than Ancerl’s.
Effective as Ancerl’s treatment is for the most part, a less fluid, slower gait could have benefited the winds’ defeated recapitulation of the first movement’s opening subject at Fig. 65/18:09. The score prescribes 96 beats per minute for this episode, but Ancerl hurries through at 108 bpm, somewhat short-changing its mournful potential.
This is not to say, though, that Ancerl evokes naught but fear and panic. Time after time, he imposes barely perceptible tweaks to generate complex and varied moods. After the first movement’s climax, for example, the clarinets wander briefly in stunned counterpoint before dancing off together with the movement’s third main theme … but shakily, doubled at a minor third (Fig. 57/15:14). Ancerl leaves the opening phrase of this theme mired in the post-climactic debris, then applies just the hint of an accelerando to its echo at Fig. 57+4/15:22. This tiny adjustment is enough to suggest that the realisation that it is time to dust off after the preceding cataclysm is delayed, due perhaps to caution, perhaps to scepticism.
A far less cryptic amendment to the score is the addition of one last clash of the cymbals in the symphony’s closing bar. If we read the coda as a defiant declaration of survival, this otherwise rather theatrical trick works effectively as a final flip of the middle finger.
The success of this performance owes as much to the superhuman playing of all members of the Czech Philharmonic as to Ancerl’s direction. Their minutely nuanced intonation creates the increasingly surreal atmosphere of the third movement, in which the winds are particularly outstanding; pay close attention to the disembodied evocations of the Elmira motif by the horn soloist. The sombre strings are just as successful in supporting the plaintive – not maudlin – atmosphere of the finale’s opening passages.
Yes, this is a mono recording … but what mono! The transfer has a surprisingly wide dynamic range, and if occasionally the acoustics make the low strings sound anaemic, the drums in the second movement pack a wallop. Analogue hiss is audible but unobtrusive at volume settings that yield adequate vehemence in tutti. Even those addicted to triple-D sound should find this recording more than serviceable.
Why, then, should we have had to wait this long for Ancerl’s Tenth to land on CD? In fact, five years ago Deutsche Grammophon’s French subsidiary featured it on the 1956 volume in their commemorative series Les Grandes Années Deutsche Grammophon (DG 457 080-2). This, however, is a very rare bird outside France, and its minimal annotation is in French only.
DG Originals’ pressing of the symphony is audibly indistinguishable from DG France’s, but differs as to partners. The new release supplies Wolfgang Schneiderhan’s dazzling recital of Stravinsky’s Violin Concerto, with Ancerl leading the Berlin Philharmonic. The dark velvet textures in Aria II (the third movement) contrast satisfyingly with Schneiderhan’s effervescence elsewhere, his bow touching the notes as lightly and precisely as butterfly feet on petals. The performance receives a clean, well-balanced stereo recording.
The all-mono French disc offers Ferenc Fricsay at the helm of the Berlin RIAS Symphony Orchestra in his teacher Kodaly’s Dances of Galanta and Ravel’s Bolero. Few would guess that the chef who prepared these Dances was Hungarian, as Fricsay marinates them in urbane French seasonings that lack rustic pungency. A delicious meal they make, regardless. As for this Bolero, it is played as well as it needs to be.
Regardless of coupling, Ancerl’s unique view of Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony is a milestone in the discography; those who have not yet heard it should consider this new release a mandatory acquisition.
W. Mark Roberts