CD Reviews 18
§ = World Première Recording
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Romances & Monologues
Preface to the Complete Collection of my Works and a Brief Reflection upon this Preface, opus 123; Five Romances on Texts from Krokodil Magazine No. 24, 30 August 1965, opus 121; Five Romances on Verses of Yevgeny Dolmatovsky, opus 98; Six Romances on Verses by British Poets, opus 62; Four Monologues on Verses by Pushkin, opus 91.
Semyon Skigin (piano), Sergei Leiferkus (bass).
Koch Schwann 3-1095-2. DDD. TT 50:58.
Recorded Saal 3, SFB (Sender Freies Berlin), Berlin, May 2000.
Shostakovich: Complete Songs, Volume One – 1950-1956: Vocal Cycles of the ‘Fifties
Two Romances on Verses by Lermontov, opus 84[a]; Four Songs to Words by Dolmatovsky, opus 86[b]; Four Monologues on Verses by Pushkin, opus 91[c]; Greek Songs, sans. opus R[d]; Five Romances on Verses of Yevgeny Dolmatovsky, opus 98[e]; Spanish Songs, opus 100[f].
Yuri Serov (piano), Natalia Biryukova (mezzo-soprano)[a], Victoria Evtodieva (soprano)[b], Fyodor Kuznetsov (bass)[c,e], Mikhail Lukonin (baritone)[d,f].
Delos DE 3304. DDD. TT 71:00.
Listed as recorded St. Petersburg, May 2001.
[a,d]World premiere recordings.
Shostakovich: Complete Songs, Volume Two – 1965-1974: The Last Years
A Foreword to My Complete Works and a Brief Contemplation with Respect to this Foreword, opus 123[a]; Five Romances on Words from Krokodil Magazine, opus 121[b]; Seven Poems by Alexander Blok, opus 127[c]; Six Poems by Marina Tsvetayeva, opus 143[d]; Four Poems of Captain Lebyadkin, opus 146[e].
Yuri Serov (piano), Victoria Evtodieva (soprano)[c], Lyubov Sokolova (mezzo-soprano)[d], Fyodor Kuznetsov (bass)[a,b,e], Lidia Kovalenko (violin)[c], Irina Molokina (cello)[c].
Delos DE 3307. DDD. TT 69:40.
Listed as recorded St. Catherine Lutheran Church, St. Petersburg, 2 April 1998[b], 4 May 1998[c], 15 April 2000[d], 18 June 2001[a,e].
Delos hereby command the attention of Shostakovich devotees everywhere by announcing plans to record the complete songs for voice and piano. Yes, we’ve heard the claim before, but not from a firm as large as Delos, with the resources to carry such a project to completion. Also under review is a disc of selected Romances and Monologues from Koch Schwann featuring bass Sergei Leiferkus.
The first two volumes of Delos’ projected series are handsome productions, each providing a full set of English and Russian texts, all packaged in bold, distinctive graphics. The plan is to present the songs in chronological groupings. Cycles within each volume also follow each other chronologically, presenting the listener with an evolving creativity.
Those who are familiar with the Shostakovich song discography of recent years may recognise some of the performers’ names among those listed in the above headers. In 1998, the independent label René Gailly issued what was announced to be the first, but alas turned out to be the only, volume of a projected survey of the complete songs, which I reviewed in DSCH 11 (René Gailly/Vox Temporis VTP CD92 041; deleted). A simultaneous A/B comparison reveals that four of the five recordings contained therein have been incorporated into the current releases (the remaining cycle lies outside the chronological boundaries of both Delos volumes). As a consequence of this and other past entries in the discography, a few of Delos’ claims of “first CD appearance” and “world premiere recording” must be amended. However, the duplication does give wider circulation to these fine performances, remastered with slightly longer pauses between songs. They join other recitals by the same musicians.
Delos’ first volume demonstrates that during the 1950s Shostakovich was still writing art songs in a comparatively conservative style. Moreover, his choice of texts at the time – from folklore, from 19th century Russian classics Lermontov and Pushkin, from the perfunctory pen of his contemporary Yevgeny Dolmatovsky – could elicit only the most reactionary lyrical gestures. With the exception of the Lermontov and Pushkin songs, they seem to arise from an alternate Shostakovich, appeasement oriented, sarcasm muted, cleansed of contradictions, stylistically retrograde. One might weigh external against internal necessities coming to bear on Shostakovich throughout the decade, producing parallel shifts toward simplification that can be noted in his work in other genres. Yet beneath the inoffensive musical surfaces of these songs, one should not be too surprised to find occasional textual evidence of defiance and controversial sympathies, at once plausibly deniable yet immediately recognisable to the attuned ear. Nor should one be surprised to find songs that are free of hidden agenda. If Shostakovich’s stylistic fingerprints seem nearly wiped clean in most of the song cycles of this period, these works also boast a number of inspired moments.
The cycles based on the Lermontov and Pushkin poems, from 1950 and 1952, respectively, are easily the most substantial of the decade. They exude, among other things, profound integrity. Both share a gloomy, introspective lyricism that has points of comparison with the near contemporaneous First Violin Concerto and Tenth Symphony, works reflecting the oppressiveness of the final Stalin years.
The two-part Lermontov cycle is a verifiable world premiere recording that fills a long-standing gap in the discography. One may wonder how such a compelling pair of songs managed to remain so long neglected. Lermontov’s verses are nature-inspired, love-tinged, and darkened by suggestions of death. The musical settings hearken back to the traditions of the Russian art song. They share, uncharacteristically for Shostakovich, a weaving, smoky cantilena, pungently gloomy and heartfelt, supported by an accompaniment of searching arpeggiations.
Here, mezzo Natalia Biryukova makes a hauntingly eloquent case for them. The first song is low-keyed, but its incipient passions are carried over and lead to two moving crests in the second song. I frankly cannot think of anything else in the Shostakovich canon that comes close to evoking this foreboding mood. Together these two songs comprise a surprising discovery.
The contemplative Pushkin Monologues are cut from the same dark cloth, but offer a greater degree of lyrical and dramatic contrast. Gennady Rozhdestvensky’s imaginative yet faithfully idiomatic orchestral version with bass Anatoli Safiulin makes a revealing case for the work (BMG/Melodiya 74321 63461 2; reviewed in DSCH 11; deleted). Not only does the orchestration bring out its ever-shifting dark hues, but in this form one can almost hear it as a mini-symphonic conception, with its brooding opening song, followed by a melancholic waltz-scherzo, an impassioned slow song, and a resolute finale. The ominous depiction of impoverished Jewish peasant life in the first song, Fragment, and the anti-Czarist lines (“the heavy chains will drop”, etc.) in the third song, In the Depth of Siberian Mines, carry political currency that evoke comparison with another recently completed cycle, From Jewish Folk Poetry.
It should be noted that although Delos claim the CD premiere of the opus 91 Pushkin cycle, this recording is in fact reissued from the René Gailly disc. Moreover, both releases were preceded by two other recordings: the aforementioned Rozhdestvensky orchestral version, first released on CD in 1994, and, a year later, the CD premiere of the original piano version on Saison Russe (RUS 288 089; deleted) with the rather drab Piotr Gluboky accompanied by Natalia Rassudova.
The Pushkin Monologues’ current appearances on CD feature noted soloists: Fyodor Kuznetsov on Delos and Sergei Leiferkus on Koch Schwann. Leiferkus is no stranger to Shostakovich’s music. He has been the soloist in recordings of the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Symphonies, the Michelangelo Suite, and the Six Romances on English Poets. Noted for his roles in Russian opera, Kuznetsov also includes the Fourteenth Symphony in his repertoire and is featured prominently in Volume 2 of the current Delos series.
Kuznetsov’s bass has enormous presence and is remarkably rich and resonant. Leiferkus’ baritone is more tensely assertive, also possessing much character. Kuznetsov, with his warmer, earthy tones, emphasizes the dark atmospheric quality of these Pushkin settings, while the dramatic element is more pronounced in Leiferkus’ reading. This is especially true in the opening song, whose grimly expansive lyricism is wonderfully invoked by Kuznetsov, but whose cantorial associations with Jewish music are better suggested by Leiferkus. Both have a natural feel for the work’s pervasive gloominess. In particular, they excel in capturing the rising wave of passion in the third song.
Contrasting with the depths of the Lermontov and Pushkin cycles is the straightforwardness of the Four Songs to Lyrics by Evgeny Dolmatovsky, opus 86, originally intended to accompany one of the author’s plays. Each of these graceful songs catches the ear with tunes that are evidently tailored for popular appeal. The first, Motherland Hears, was for many years the theme song for Moscow Radio. It also bears the distinction of being the first song sung in outer space. With few secrets to surrender, the comely charms of the four songs are well captured by the pearly tones of Viktoria Evtodieva, whose talents are heard to even better advantage in the Blok cycle on the second Delos volume.
The second of the two Dolmatovsky settings, opus 98, is represented by the same performance as on the René Gailly issue, its true first appearance on CD. The work is a sunny bouquet of five love songs, the title of each beginning with the words “Day of” (Day of Meeting, Day of Declaration, etc.). Songs of joyful expression that have a less precious, more developmental character than those of the earlier Dolmatovsky cycle surround a more serious central song. The accompaniment to the first song, Day of Meeting, alludes to the famous love aria from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde as a melodic outgrowth of the opening vamp. Both Leiferkus and Kuznetsov again give fine performances in this work, though the latter’s warmer, mellower tone makes a more appealing case for these amorous inspirations.
Each of the four Greek Songs, here in their world premiere recording, is heroic in character and is derived from pre-existing musical material related to one or another episode of Greek history. One is based on a guerrilla battle hymn, another on the Hymn of ELAS, the most popular song of the Greek resistance movement. The unsuspecting ear would never guess that Shostakovich was the composer. In fact, three of the four songs, written in march tempo, sound as though they belong in the repertoire of the Red Army Chorus. The brightness and heartiness of Mikhail Lukonin’s baritone are well suited to these robust settings, whose extroverted, nicely turned melodies immediately catch the ear and raise the spirits.
The Spanish Songs, opus 100, present Shostakovich’s impersonation of Isaac Albeniz, with their five settings of pre-existing folk material in the Spanish style. Delos’ claim that their recording is the first appearance of the work on CD is surprising since the cycle has previously appeared in digital format no fewer than five times. Two recent recordings are noteworthy, one featuring mezzo-soprano Olga Borodina (Philips 289 446 708-2) and another featuring a lively performance by bass Paul Plishka (Dinemec DCCD 016).
The graceful flair of Mikhail Lukonin’s baritone, naturally bright and clear, fits this work well. His fine articulation and an appealingly energetic presence suit these primarily faster songs of lighter content.
It was only after 1960 that Shostakovich’s song cycles began to take on greater emotional complexity, greater depth. The cycles of this later period fall into two very different categories: the satirical, as in Satires, the Preface, the Krokodil Romances, and the Captain Lebyadkin Songs; and the serious, as in the cycles after Blok, Tsvetayeva, and Michelangelo. Volume 2 of the Delos releases contains all of the above except the Satires and the Michelangelo Sonnets.
Among the serious, I have always felt that the opus 127 Blok Romances represent Shostakovich’s unequalled masterpiece. I elaborated on this judgement in DSCH No. 11, and am more convinced of it with each hearing. The work is remarkable for its elevated lyrical flow, its various levels of organic unity (in particular, its interlocking scheme of instrumentation), and its cohesive dramatic structure in which songs of innocent yearning and morbid agitation are set against one another, leading, in the last two songs, to a deeply moving resolution. It is no exaggeration to call its scope symphonic.
The work, in its subtleties and extremes, demands almost too much of its soloist and invites a wide variation of interpretation. A performance that satisfactorily meets its many stringent requirements is hard to come by. The early recording by soprano Elizabeth Soderstrom and pianist Vladimir Ashkenazy (Decca CD 411 940-2DH; deleted) was a sturdy classic that, in its intensity, emotional grasp, and concentration, set a high standard. Another notable offering from the LP era was the 1977 Melodiya release (C10-06875-76) that featured soprano Galina Pisarenko, whose slender tone, blessed with tensile strength, focused on the sheer immediacy of the work. Brigita Sulcová sang the work in Czech with gripping intensity, though her decidedly extroverted manner overlooked some of the more tender moments in the score (Praga PR 250 009; deleted). A BMG/Melodiya release (74321 53237 2; deleted) featured a live performance by Galina Vishnevskaya with Mstislav Rostropovich accompanying on cello. Vishnevskaya’s operatic, at times shrill, approach didn’t quite get under the music’s skin. Of more recent vintage is a remarkable 1993 performance by Natalia Gerassimova, accompanied by the Moscow Trio (Saison Russe RUS 288 088; reviewed in DSCH 14). Gerassimova plumbs the work’s depths with the kind of penetrating drama and verbal engagement that, for me, rank her among the work’s most profound interpreters.
In the current Delos release, Victoria Evtodieva brings her own admirable gifts to the work. As I wrote in my previous review of the René Gailly disc, I find in Ms. Evtodieva’s voice a “well-matched combination of timbral purity and the ability to meet the extraordinary dynamic challenges of the work.” It is essential that in the agitated passages of the final two songs the betrayal of the innocence of the earlier songs is signalled by outcries of heartfelt despair. Evtodieva, with her impressive dynamic range, makes good on these climactic moments, delivering a solidly moving realisation of the work.
In contrast to the head-on emotional collision of the Blok songs, the Tsvetayeva Suite weaves a complex yet richly expressive tapestry of autumnal reflections. The musical ideas are strong. In contrast to the shorter motifs in the Blok cycle, they take the form of longer phrases, a number of them constituting tone rows. The tone rows, the oscillating fourths, the sparse piano textures, and the kaleidoscopic shifts between irony and grief, mockery and pathos represent Shostakovich’s late period traits at their most expressive. The six poems deal in turn with subjects that preoccupied Shostakovich in his later song cycles: creativity, past love, unrequited love, the conflict between ruler and poet. There is also a tribute to Anna Akhmatova.
A number of orchestral versions of the Tsvetayeva cycle have appeared in recent years; particularly recommended are those by Michail Jurowski with soprano Nina Fomina (Capriccio 10 778; reviewed in DSCH 12) and Neeme Järvi with soprano Elena Zaremba (Deutsche Grammophon 447 085-2; deleted). I still listen with pleasure to the performances of Irina Bogacheva, who in the 1970s was the first to record the work, once in the original piano version and again in its orchestral setting.
Delos’ Lyubov Sokolova may not have Bogacheva’s limpid, silvery tone, but her darker, huskier mezzo is very much appropriate to the character of these songs. She responds to their constantly shifting attitudes with admirable agility, drawing in the listener with the kind of moment-to-moment involvement that the music demands. Listen to her expressiveness as she reaches the surprising peak of intensity (“their time will come”) at the end of the first song, My Verses. Listen to the softness she is capable of in Whence Such Tenderness. Sokolova also has a fine sense of drama, as evidenced in the false pomposity she assumes in Poet and Czar whose final, triple-sforzando ending she takes with gusto, even if a tad forced. She also engages the work’s psychological dimension, grasping the dignity and pathos of the final To Anna Akhmatova in full measure, bringing the work to its dramatic, unsettling conclusion.
The remaining three cycles on Delos’ “final years” volume are those of the satirical sort, each written for bass voice and each performed here by Fyodor Kuznetsov. They comprise a quirky, colourful collection, indispensable in forming a complete picture of a composer for whom contradiction and the unexpected were more than just an artistic path. The three works demonstrate Shostakovich’s taste for the ludicrous in no uncertain terms. Each is in one form or another an exercise in nonsense laced with more than a touch of the grotesque.
The variously translated Preface to the Complete Collection of my Works and Brief Reflection on this Preface has, contrary to Delos’ claim, appeared twice previously on CD. Most notable of these is a reissue of the classic Nesterenko/Shenderovich performance. The self-mocking text includes a rote recitation of Shostakovich’s honours and awards. The song brings to mind one or two of Musorgsky’s satirical songs, in particular the dutifully reciting Seminarist.
Leiferkus brings out more of the light-hearted spontaneity of these satirical settings than does Kuznetsov. In the Preface, Kuznetsov’s poker-faced manner is just a bit too sober. His dirge-like intonations of the composer’s name to the climactic notes of “D-S-C-H” don’t quite have the satirical bite they should. Leiferkus, on the other hand, better projects the put-on puffery that was evidently intended as he proudly struts out the list of Shostakovich’s honours and awards.
A pity that this Preface is the leading track on the second Delos album, as Kuznetsov fares better in the Krokodil Romances. The Krokodil Romances (1965), written a year before the Preface, take their text directly from the whimsical letters-to-the-editor page of a single issue of the satirical magazine of the same name. The songs form an experiment in text setting, which, like the Preface, breaks away from the musical and literary conventions that characterised Shostakovich’s previous song writing. The first song is almost twice as long as the remaining four, snippets lasting around a minute that are ultimately all too short to make any claims of artistic completeness. The old Melodiya recording with Nesterenko and Shenderovich makes a bit of an aesthetic rescue effort by rearranging the order of the songs so that they follow a more conventional dramatic arc. Either way, the settings do make an amusing impression, however brief. The longest song reaches its peak when the text, describing a punch in the nose, is punctuated with a thunderous tone cluster on the piano.
In the Krokodil Romances Kuznetsov projects a good amount of buoyancy and reactive drama, but still does not match the impromptu, tongue-in-cheek inflections that have the listener smirking right along with Leiferkus in his more personalised interpretation. Listen to the playful way Leiferkus intones the love-struck lines in the fourth song, Irinka and the Shepherd, which he concludes with a hysterical, improvised hoot; or the campy overzealousness he brings to the final song, Exaggerated delight, a verse about the pleasures of freshly harvested bread that is, to the eater’s horror, tainted with the odour of kerosene.
For Shostakovich’s last song cycle, the penultimate work in his catalogue, he chose the verses of one of Russian literature’s more obnoxious blokes, Captain Lebyadkin, from Dostoyevsky’s The Possessed. Shostakovich’s farewell may more likely lie in his haunting Viola Sonata, but this valedictory vocal work gushes with hysterical abandon. It is also laced with a dark, uneasy madness. Both Captain and composer jointly celebrate the delights of alcohol consumption. The drunken Lebyadkin rambles on in each of the four songs in true saloon fashion. The topics covered are, in turn, improbable courtly pursuits, a disturbingly intrusive cockroach, the pompous ways of the rich, and finally, a rebellion against the Czar with a final swipe against the institutions of the church, marriage, and family. The work has a patently operatic character with its exaggerated drama, spoken asides, and, more fundamentally, since the songs are sung by an evident dramatis persona.
Kuznetsov’s theatrical gifts seem tailor-made for the work as he instinctively steps into character with an aplomb missing from his performance of the Preface and Krokodil Romances. He has a jolly good time with the weaving, tipsy arioso and sudden declamatory announcements in The Love of Captain Lebyadkin. Sparks fly in The Cockroach with its interruptive melodramatic aside that prompts the restarting of the song from the top. Kuznetsov makes a superb case for these songs as he seizes the part with gusto and a sense of freedom that rival, and I might even say exceed, the earlier performances of the work by Yevgeny Nesterenko and Alexei Molchanov. Molchanov’s lively rendition, incidentally, features the work in its orchestral version as part of a programme of lighter song cycles by Shostakovich. Mention also should be made of a very colourful performance of the Lebyadkin Romances by Fischer-Dieskau with Vladimir Ashkenazy as accompanist (Decca/London 433 319-2; deleted).
Leiferkus’ programme also includes the Six Verses of English Poets, one of the most frequently recorded Shostakovich cycles. The work is a charming grab-bag of verses whose diverse moods provide a variegated showcase for the featured bass soloist. Leiferkus excels at projecting the various moods of each song. He is sensitive in the gentle arioso of Burns’ Jenny, particularly expressive in the reverential tones of Burns’ O, Wert Thou, and duly regal in the mock pomposity of MacPherson’s Farewell (the tune of which reappears in the Humour movement of the Thirteenth Symphony). And he gives a reading of the work’s emotional core, Shakespeare’s Sonnet 66, that is stately and moving.
A word is due the accompanists on each of these albums. Semyon Skigin, the pianist on the Leiferkus CD, came to my attention as a Shostakovich interpreter on the aforementioned Spanish Songbook album featuring mezzo-soprano Olga Borodina. On that disc, Skigin gives the most sparkling accompaniment to Shostakovich’s Spanish Songs that I have ever heard. I am delighted to see his name again attached to this repertoire. His distinctively springy, kinetic touch likewise adds character to Leiferkus’ programme, both in the lighter songs as well as the songs of more serious content.
Yuri Serov, the accompanist in both Delos volumes, proves himself to be in full command of every aspect of Shostakovich’s idiom. Through the serious and the satiric songs, he lends character and edge without being at all intrusive. He offers depth and concentration in the demanding Blok cycle. Listeners will also note the cunning rubati and pregnant pauses in the lighter Krokodil and Lebyadkin romances. His consistently fine performances, combined with those of the other artists, signal the listener that the current Delos project is not just a contractual exercise in repertoire expansion, but a deeply committed artistic mission undertaken by those who are fully steeped in the music.
In sum, these are handsome releases with much, very much to recommend them.
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Songs of Glinka, Dargomyzhsky, Musorgsky, Rachmaninov, Schumann, Prokofiev, J.S. Bach, Mozart, Schubert, Liszt, Weckerlin, Debussy, Anonymous.
Nina Dorliak (soprano), Sviatoslav Richter (piano), Alexandre Guédike (organ).
Cascavelle VEL 3041. A_D. 3-CD set TT 206:07.
Recorded Moscow, 1943.
Produced in association with Association Internationale Dimitri Chostakovitch.
A page in the life of the Moscow concert scene of the forties and fifties and a portrait of two outstanding Russian artists – soprano Nina Dorliak and her not-yet-world-famous accompanist Sviatoslav Richter – is for you to enjoy on this three-disc set, courtesy of the Shostakovich Centre. The generous programme offers almost four hours of music and features three song cycles (Schumann’s A Poet’s Love, Musorgsky’s The Nursery, and Prokofiev’s The Ugly Duckling) and various vocal compositions and songs by Bach (nine works, two of which, including an aria from Cantata No. 68, are accompanied by the organ), Mozart (two), Schubert (six), Schumann (two), Liszt (one), Weckerlin (five), Debussy (one), Glinka (thirteen), Dargomyzhsky (three), Rachmaninov (two), Prokofiev (six) as well as French songs (three).
Although Dorliak sings only the French works in French and everything else in Russian (in accordance with the Russian custom of the time), one cannot help but be enchanted by the sheer poetry and expressiveness of her performances. She inherited her musical taste and virtuoso technique from her mother, Kseniya Dorliak, who was also a famous Russian singer and Nina’s vocal teacher. On these discs, her stylistically impeccable interpretations have one trait in common: their warmth. Dorliak’s subtle nuances in Schumann, gracious phrasing in Glinka and Weckerlin, and noble evenness of line in Bach and Mozart have as much emotional power – maybe even more – than a bigger voice may have produced. She effortlessly renders any Dargomyzhsky, Mozart or Schubert trifle into a masterpiece. And, of course, her interpretations of the Musorgsky and Prokofiev song cycles have long been known as classics.
Dorliak’s singing is not only artfully supported but also lovingly enhanced by Richter. Theirs is an amazing ensemble, where Richter’s piano breathes, sings, mourns and laughs together with Dorliak’s voice, following each agogic subtlety and keeping the dynamic balance in beautiful proportion. The young Richter’s playing is much more emotionally open and colourful than in his late years, yet technically brilliant and precise. The breathtaking transparency of his Schumann, lightness of Schubert, and sharp characterisations of Prokofiev and Musorgsky are unforgettable.
It is probably no coincidence that, besides the three song cycles, there are more of Glinka’s romances in this set than any other composer’s works. Dorliak is at her best in these elegant miniatures. I enjoyed the variety of moods and dynamics in her singing as well as her exemplary diction in the fast songs.
My favourite performance in this set is, however, that of Schumann’s songs. Grieg once wrote, “To be able to sing Schumann is a special faculty which many excellent singers do not have.” The same is true of the pianists who must accompany these songs. In the case of the Dorliak/Richter ensemble, we are fortunate to have two superbly equipped artists. Take, for example, the introductory bars of the very first song. Richter’s natural flow and delicate touch are so telling that it seems nothing could be more moving. Yet Dorliak joins the song with equal mastery, reaching the culmination in bar 23 (the G and F# notes) with enchantingly beautiful pianissimo. Richter continues this magic with his rubato and ritardando in the last four bars. As everywhere throughout these performances, it is such subtle details that give their art greatness. The variety of colouring in each dynamic nuance, especially in the piano-pianissimo range, is stunning.
The set’s booklet, containing over 70 pages of the French transliteration and translation of the Russian texts is useful, though it would have been even more so had other languages been provided. Also, while the booklet says that the Dorliak/Richter ensemble’s premiere was in 1945, the set’s cover gives a recording date of 1943.
Whether one is a professional musician or a connoisseur, this set will be a marvellous listening experience despite the far from perfect quality of the recordings’ restoration. If anything, the presence of the audience and the old records’ surface noise, clearly audible throughout, contribute to the documentary aura of these discs. This set is a treasure for any collector.
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Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, opus 29.
Mstislav Rostropovich, London Philharmonic Orchestra, John McCarthy (chorus master), Ambrosian Opera Chorus, Galina Vishnevskaya (Katerina Ismailova), Nicolai Gedda (Sergey), Dimiter Petkov (Boris Ismailov), Werner Krenn (Zinovy Ismailov), Robert Tear (Shabby Peasant), Taru Valjakka (Aksinya), Birgit Finnilä (Sonyetka), Aage Haugland (Sergeant), Martyn Hill (Teacher), Leonard Mróz (Priest), Alexander Malta (Old convict, Mill-hand), Leslie Fyson (Officer), Steven Emmerson (Porter), John Noble (Steward, Coachman), Colin Appleton (First foreman), Alan Byers (Second foreman), James Lewington (Third foreman), Oliver Broome (Policeman), Edgar Fleet (Drunken guest), David Beavan (Sentry), Lynda Richardson (Woman convict).
EMI Classics 7243 567776 2 or Angel Records 7243 567779 2 7 (Americas & East Asia). DDD. 2-CD Set TT 77:50 + 77:03.
Recorded No. 1 Studio, Abbey Road, London, 1, 3, 5-7, 10, 11, 16, 19-22 April 1978.
It may be Shostakovich’s most famous, or more accurately, infamous composition. Yet this opera has had a meagre recording history. Mstislav Rostropovich was responsible for committing the original score to LP in 1979, a recording released on CD only in 1990 (EMI CDS 7499552 8; deleted). Myung Whun Chung put up a worthy fight in his 1993 recording in full digital sound (Deutsche Grammophon 437 511-2). The revised Katerina Ismailova, opus 114, has fared even worse, existing only in a 1989 recording featuring the Kiev Opera led by Stepan Turchak (Le Chant du Monde LDC 278 1021/23; deleted). That makes just three recordings of two versions of the opera in three decades.
Surely a work of such magnitude – a real masterpiece and true work of genius – deserves better than this. However, when one considers the towering achievement of Rostropovich’s pioneering effort, with the white hot London Symphony Orchestra and Galina Vishnevskaya indomitable as Katerina, one might be tempted to ask: do we really need another?
The London Symphony Orchestra, sounding very Russian with their earthy colouring and Shostakovian ruggedness, convey the brutally comic satire created by the young composer to counterbalance the heroine’s tragic circumstances. Rostropovich succeeds in playing the flippancy of such outrageous elements as the gallop and the waltz against the unfolding drama so that the listener can appreciate the irony of Katerina’s earnest quest for love, and watch her approach her downfall like a lamb to the slaughter.
Note, for example, how Shostakovich plays out Aksinya’s rape scene to music from Hypothetically Murdered, taken at murderous pace like a film in fast-forward while the cast sings in stylised Sprechtgesang reminiscent of the mob scenes in The Nose. It is telling that Sergei’s conquest of Katerina draws from this scene in subtle ways, throwing light on circumstances that Katerina is blind to but of which we, as observers, are fully aware. Rostropovich makes these connections, weaving a masterly conception of the whole by seamlessly diving from aria to gallop and back, maintaining a feverish momentum and a feeling of impending doom that is released only when Katerina takes her own life.
Chung’s power-packed reading is aided by the superb Paris Opéra-Bastille Orchestra, who manoeuvre the intricacies of the score marvellously, all their delightful detail brought into clear focus by Deutsche Grammophon’s sparkling engineering. Chung’s interludes are terrifying, especially Katerina’s seduction sequence, although his detumescent trombone glissandi are not as wickedly vulgar as Rostropovich’s! Another orchestral challenge better mastered by Rostropovich is Aksinya’s rape scene, which is diabolically difficult and which starts messily in Chung’s hands.
Vishnevskaya makes the title role her own, untouchable in her portrayal of a woman trapped by the oppressive boredom of her existence and whose parched soul screams for human touch. From the very start Vishnevskaya weaves her magic, conveying the bleakness that permeates the score with her rich, expressive voice and her remarkable power both in the upper and lowermost registers. She draws you into her horrible world, and elicits your sympathy from her very first notes.
Chung’s weakest link is Maria Ewing’s Katerina. Although she brings fresh aspects to the character, she is no match for Vishnevskaya in sustaining a consistent portrayal, nor in handling the extremes of register. Vishnevskaya is unrivalled in her moments of urgent breathlessness where Ewing tends to be weak; the former’s impressive power in the lower registers gives her the edge.
Ewing’s Katerina is a youthful, trapped animal beside Vishnevskaya’s weary, hardened victim. Take the final line of Act 2, Scene 5 – “Ah, Seryozha” – where Vishnevskaya’s voice soars like the complicit figure of Faustian indulgence she is, as opposed to Ewing’s spine-tingling ppp crescendo, suggesting her Katerina’s more sensuous, even innocent partaking of the kiss. Here Rostropovich responds with bleached tenderness, whereas Chung’s more voluptuous sheen, though effective for the moment, contributes to the disjointed feel of his overall structure.
To Ewing’s credit, her dramatisation, well suited to a live stage performance, is delicious even where it does not contribute meaningfully to the development of Katerina’s character. For example, her “Seryozha my love” sounds as if she is still snuggled at home in bed rather than in Siberia in weary search of comfort, yet even here Ewing’s sense of betrayal, if naive, is still touching.
In the end, though, Vishnevskaya begs sympathy for Katerina’s unwavering strength and inevitable descent into hell for the choices she makes, while Ewing’s Katerina, it is fair to say, is a silly, silly little girl.
Nicolai Gedda makes a cockier Sergei than does Chung’s Sergei Larin; just listen to Gedda’s Sergei taunting Katerina as she reproaches him for abusing Aksinya. Gedda sounds every bit the transparent scoundrel to Larin’s more sensual, magnetic character. While Larin displays the sort of animal attraction that one might expect would draw in Katerina, Gedda supports Rostropovich’s conception of the irony of her Faustian bargain, because with him it is obvious that Katerina’s love is a farce, and the opera is all the more poignant for that.
Dimiter Petkov is an unshakeable Boris, his solid performance of controlled drama giving Rostropovich’s satire the dark edge it demands. Interestingly, Rostropovich’s Police Inspector, Aage Haugland, also plays Chung’s Boris, and while he is delightfully comic, this suits the role of the Inspector better than that of Boris, diluting rather than adding to the latter’s sinister presence. For example, Haugland’s over-sexed “Nyet Muzhika” is worthy of the best moments in operatic comic relief, except this is neither the place nor the time for it; after all, Katerina’s father-in-law is stalking her! In the hands of Petkov and Rostropovich, however, this aria, with its complex pastiche of styles, becomes a tightly woven piece that builds tension. With Haugland and Chung, the seams show.
Chung has a tendency to overplay the obvious. This might work on stage, but it gives Chung’s conception a jagged, uneven finish. Compare the way the two conductors handle Boris’ discovery of the illicit affair: Chung maximises the sudden appearance of a waltz to the detriment of the flow, while Rostropovich keeps a tight rein on the irony to keep tension building. Again, though Chung elicits a thrilling response from the orchestra in the first Chorus, “Why are you leaving us, Master?” it is too much, too early. His chorus is a little too earnest and eager to see Zinovy go. By holding back, Rostropovich lets the sinister undercurrent brew while his band of servants serve up a more insolent swagger – hear how they handle the phrase “Zachem?” in mockingly melodramatic response to Boris’ demands.
Similarly, in the fugue at the beginning of the Wedding scene, Chung manages to build to a frightening climax, but his opening is more sparkling champagne than tainted vodka, whereas Rostropovich introduces the kind of grotesque terror found in the Fourth Symphony, reeking of disaster, into the piling timbres of strings and voices. Also, Chung’s Shabby Peasant scene delights in its comic relief, but I prefer Rostropovich’s measured satire. His is a brutal, terror-frozen humour, and his Shabby Peasant is no fool but a dangerous individual. Rostropovich shifts the comic centre to the Police Station, significantly heightening the humour there.
Perhaps this sums up the main differences between the two conductors’ visions for the opera: Chung is colourful and dramatic, and not without terrifying moments, but it is Rostropovich who pulls everything together in a tautly woven work of satire, painted in the bleak, grey shades of his sound world. The tension is unrelenting; the sinister undercurrent festers throughout. Occasionally Chung outshines Rostropovich, as in his final Act which supplies moments of fearsome power and suicidal screams that are marginally less farcical than Rostropovich’s. However, the sum of the parts do not make the whole, and it is Rostropovich who secures a satisfying broad picture, well measured and gripping from first note to last.
Chung offers the only digital version of the original Lady Macbeth, with crystal-clear sound that illuminates many of the intricate details of Shostakovich’s scoring. However, the rebirth of Rostropovich’s recording is part of EMI’s Great Recordings of the Century series, which employs their new Prism SNS system with 20-bit Analogue-to-Digital Conversion to reproduce the original tape masters more faithfully than in the previous CD issue. In fact, critics have noted that of all the recordings in the series, this one stands out in terms of sound quality. I, too, was instantly struck by the natural acoustics of the new issue, and could hardly believe that this was the same recording that I had enjoyed for so many years despite the rather harsh sound of its previous CD release. The new disc produces a warm, smooth sound even through the most trying sections of the opera – and with the score’s high tessitura and relentlessly loud passages, there are many! Spectrum analysis confirms what my ears tell me; the dynamic range is wider in the reissue and the upper frequency spectrum is completely flat where the old remastering rolled off badly. Thus, the full range of high frequencies (the atmosphere and ambience, if you will) is now preserved.
The reissue also provides nearly twice as many track cues as either the original or Deutsche Grammophon’s set, which is extremely helpful for navigating around the opera. I will miss the original booklet notes by Solomon Volkov, which explore with great candour the psychology behind the opera (DG boast comprehensive annotation by David Fanning, a mini study in itself, complete with musical listings of the key motifs of the opera). Perhaps it was political expediency on EMI’s part that led the commissioning of a new set of notes by Richard Osborne, who concentrates more on the opera’s recording history than its controversial background. It includes a fascinating revelation, a claim by Rostropovich that one of the last things Shostakovich had told him was, “If you ever perform Lady Macbeth, please do the first one.”
Listening again to the EMI recording is to relive the thrill of my first encounter with the opera. During the recording sessions, Rostropovich was described as a man “thrice possessed”, and his authority at the baton in a Shostakovich score has never been more compelling. Now that Rostropovich’s classic session is back with a vengeance, Chung’s is likely to take a back seat for a long, long time.
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Five Preludes, opus 2; Three Fantastic Dances, opus 5; Ten Aphorisms, opus 13; Panufnik: Twelve Miniature Studies§; Reflections§; Pentasonata§.
Raymond Clarke (piano).
Divine Art 25018. DDD. TT 77:29.
Recorded King’s Hall, University of Newcastle upon Tyne, U.K., 2 September & 16 December 2001.
§World premiere recordings.
Do we still think size matters, when it comes to the politically sour but musically rich 20th century? Raymond Clarke’s fine, enterprising and intelligently planned new recital begs the scale versus stature question, in offering thirty short, sharp films followed by two longer features from the studios of two well-known producers of tonal symphonies. Shostakovich and Panufnik were victims and survivors of their century’s long night, who retained dignity and promoted a sense of musical order in the decades after the terror, whether writing patiently of death in a still-frosty Soviet Union or, in Panufnik’s case, devising idealistic, symmetrical and symbolic musical structures in the unlikely, leafy-suburban surroundings of Twickenham, England, following his escape from Stalinist Poland in 1954.
Both were also, of course, talented pianists, right from the start. Clarke’s rigorous, strong, patient and thoughtful approach to the five surviving Preludes from the teenaged Shostakovich’s opus 2 brings Medtner to mind; the last Prelude, stylised as it night be, summons a world of feeling in a single breath. In the Three Fantastic Dances, though, Clarke’s performance, while perfectly valid and accurate, substitutes masculine strength and clarity for sensual fantasy.
By 1927 and the Ten Aphorisms, the voracious, butterfly-minded, hypersensitive and allusive young composer had combined the surreal incongruities of a Satie, a Duchamp or a Magritte with that youthful sensuality and fantasy. By the end of the Aphorisms’ thirteen minutes, in this vivid performance we feel we’ve enjoyed – rather than endured! – a far longer and more meaningful musical journey. I wonder what Richter or Paul Jacobs might have made of these pieces, but Clarke’s only serious competition remains imaginary, at present.
Quite different imaginings are suggested by Panufnik’s Twelve Miniature Studies in all the minor keys, written in Poland after the war but before the anti-formalist clampdown: thoughts of being hauled out of solitary confinement without warning to be suspended over a cliff from a hurtling train – then back again; a recurring nightmare. I can also imagine a very different view of the work, with greater capricious abandon, more obvious virtuosity and local colour or character in the fast studies. By the end, however, Clarke makes us feel we have experienced something more akin to a major Beethoven Sonata, than a string of Miniatures. It is an authentic, unsettling masterpiece of mid-century piano writing.
The Reflections and Pentasonata, each lasting about a quarter of an hour, come from a distant future time of exile unimagined by the composer of the war-torn miniatures that precede them on the disc. Clarke’s solemn dedication and power here put me in mind of the Copland Variations, and bode well for his forthcoming all-Copland CD.
Clarke fully exploits all the sustained power his Steinway “D” can offer, and the recording gives a reasonable impression of the instrument’s mighty sound. Shostakovich devotees will have to decide whether full price is justified for the sake of a fine opus 13, and a good opus 2, or whether they want to wait for the ultimate Aphorisms. But all admirers of Panufnik, or indeed of tonal piano music from the era in general, should hear this disc. I wouldn’t want to see concerns over tuning, voiced elsewhere regarding this CD, deter lovers of 20th century piano music from investigating Clarke’s latest, and very welcome release.
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Preludes and Fugues Nos. 1 – 12 from Twenty-four Preludes and Fugues, opus 87, arranged for organ by Elger Niels and Michiel Ras§.
Michiel Ras (organ).
STS Digital 611130. Direct Stream Digital hybrid stereo/5-channel SACD/CD. TT 77:17.
Recorded RC Bartholomeus Church, Zevenbergen, Netherlands, 1 & 2 October 2001.
§ World premiere recording of arrangements.
Available for US$20 (P&P included) from STS Digital: firstname.lastname@example.org; Tel. 00 31 33 4551551; Fax. 00 31 44 4570597; Poortersdreef 55, 3824 DL Amersfoort, Netherlands.
The polyphonic dialogue of Shostakovich’s Preludes and Fugues seems tailor-made for translation to the organ, with its Babel of tongues. No easy feat, as Dutch pianist, conductor and Rachmaninov scholar Elger Niels explains: “By far the most challenging aspect is finding the right timbres, or in a sense, the ’orchestration’ for the organ.” The instrument used here has 36 ranks of pipes, each set having its own unique tonal quality. Church organist Michiel Ras elaborates, “We searched together for the right sound, atmosphere and balance. Elger came up with some really good ideas but he is not an organist, so then I ’translated’ his notions into registrations for the organ.”
Niels and Ras have given birth to music that often differs strikingly in character from the original opus. The scampering scale runs of Prelude No. 2 now seem otherworldly – and less heavenly than science-fictitious. But the organ’s religious associations are impossible to shake, and the pipes transmute the A major Prelude and Fugue, No. 7, into hymns of devotional optimism.
The organ heightens rather than changes the moods that other pieces have in their original garb. Its sustained tones inflate the nursery-time innocence of the opening C major Prelude into a sweetly cloying lullaby, while sprightly Preludes Nos. 8 and 11 become wry circus clown dances. Prelude No. 4 is now a quantum level more mournful, with soul-shaking bass fundamentals from the 16’ sub bourdon pipes. As for the obsessively repetitious F# minor Fugue, No. 8, this seems much more oppressive in its gloomy mixture of flute, string and hybrid stops, to the point of being rather difficult to sit through.
Naturally, the blown organ is less nimble than the percussive piano, so fast music like the D major Prelude and Fugue, No. 5, loses some of its original lightness. This is more than compensated for in other departments, though; no other single instrument could match the multi-voiced organ’s facility for rendering distinctly the polyphony of Shostakovich’s Fugues. Nor, in Prelude No. 3, could any grand piano obey the pesante marking in Shostakovich’s score with as tremendously fearsome a mass of sound as overwhelms here.
This pink-gold disc has technical tricks hidden up its sleeve to maximally deliver the organ’s stratospheric highs and window-rattling lows. It is no ordinary CD, but rather a product of late 20th century genetic engineering: a standard CD layer cloned onto an underlying Super Audio compact disc (SACD) layer that contains both stereo and 5-channel surround-sound versions of the same recording. The SACD layer is invisible to one’s faithful CD player, which will play the stereo CD information without complaint. However, the still-small clique of classical music lovers who have invested in the new format will reap SACD’s significantly increased dynamic range, frequency response, and density of musical information (64 times the sampling rate of a standard CD, to be precise).
Most impressive this sounds, too, as I discovered when I sampled the disc in 5-channel SACD, courtesy of Donald Blouin, Manager of the downtown Montreal Sony Store. At times the engulfing, bottomless organ sound was almost too intense an experience, but I was left in no doubt that, were price of the hardware not an issue, a multi-channel SACD installation would be most welcome in my living room.
But CD is not dead yet, and this disc remains a sonic spectacle in conventional mode. Not, however, that it is a synthetic, sterile showpiece. The acoustics are intimately natural, reporting all the physiological processes of this recital: the creaking of the pedal keyboard, whooshing of air in the pipes, the pneumatic breathing of the organ pump.
The notes give full details of the musical conception, the recording process, and even the vital statistics of the organ and its settings at the start of each of the twenty-four pieces. I was pleased to see Michiel Ras’ assistant, Maarten Boonstra, acknowledged for his expert drawing of the stop tabs, which select the different ranks of pipes.
Overall, this is a highly worthwhile endeavour, and I encourage the team who produced it to turn quickly to the remaining twelve Preludes and Fugues. In the meantime, this remarkable release earns an enthusiastic thumbs-up.
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The Heart of the Andes
Five Preludes from Twenty-four Preludes and Fugues, opus 87 (No. 8 in F# minor, No. 3 in G major, No. 1 in C major, No. 17 in Ab major, No. 15 in Db major), arranged for accordion by Guy Klucevsek§; Guy Klucevsek: Festina Tarde; Portables; Bits and Pieces of Hard Coal; Return of the Microids; The Gift; The Heart of the Andes Suite; Dave Douglas: Variety; Phillip Johnston: Birds.
Guy Klucevsek (accordion).
Winter & Winter WTR 910 074-2. DDD. TT 68:54.
Recorded Sint-Pietersabdij, Gent (Ghent), Belgium, 3 & 4 September 2001.
§World premiere recording of arrangements.
This album by Guy Klucevsek, playing mostly his own compositions for solo accordion, includes transcriptions of five Shostakovich Preludes (without the Fugues) from opus 87 of 1950-52. I was not particularly impressed by the overall sound nor the material included on the disc. At least the Shostakovich pieces added some rhythmic interest to an otherwise very conservative, uninspired and timbrally uninteresting hour-and-nine-minutes of music.
The CD is rather obscurely entitled Heart of the Andes, the last three tracks comprising a suite with this name composed by Klucevsek for an eponymous theatre production. Most of the music on this album apparently derives from similar productions, and the Shostakovich Preludes are the odd men out, possibly added to fill up the CD, or possibly as an indicator of the composition styles that might have inspired Klucevsek’s own music. If the latter is the case, I suggest a much longer course of study and analysis of Shostakovich’s clearly much greater and more interesting music. In any event, Klucevsek’s music has no references that I can hear to anything South American, much less Andean; the interesting rhythmic complexity of that region’s dances is nowhere in evidence.
Transcribing isolated Preludes does a disservice to Shostakovich’s careful and thoughtful structuring of each Prelude and Fugue as a compositional unit. Some Preludes, such as the G major, don’t end on the tonic, so there are tonal problems to consider also. Isolated Preludes presented as isolated tracks on a CD do, however, allow one to savour the flavours of the varied styles, harmonic-contrapuntal textures, rhythmic ingenuity and formal architecture, in small (or short) doses. Yet the solo accordion, at least to my ears, does very little to enhance this experience. Its lack of a sustain pedal detracts especially from long-held bass notes such as the ending of the just-mentioned G major Prelude.
It is enlightening in this regard to compare these transcriptions to a different set by the group Excelsior, who released arrangements of ten opus 87 Preludes on their Declassified album in 1996 (Mark Set Go MSG 101 CD; reviewed in DSCH 11). Four of the same Preludes are found on both CDs. With Excelsior the varied instrumentation – electric violin, electric guitar, percussion, as well as an accordion – makes each cut much more delightful. The F# minor Prelude is too short on its own, as the Klucevsek version demonstrates, but Excelsior make it into a delightful, varied polka, with percussion, varied orchestration, and quite a few bars of added and repeated material not found in the original score.
The Db major Prelude is sparkling and cheeky as played by Excelsior, with the addition of a tuba and a long solo percussion section added in the middle. With Klucevsek, this Prelude contains all the original notes only, and the sparkle is absent. Shorn of piano and a pianist with a light touch, this piece needs percussive sounds like Excelsior’s electric guitar.
In the Ab major Prelude, No. 17, Excelsior include an electric guitar improvisation, which pulls strings often. Klucevsek again includes most of the notes, and the rhythm and speed are correct, but the melody that moves from register to register does not stand out – much less the counterpoint! – anywhere near as well as it does with the varied orchestration of Excelsior.
Lastly, the C Major Prelude, No. 1, is not particularly successful on either album. Neither of the arrangers improvises anything here. The opening diatonicism, then the flats, then the sharps (but always with at least one C Major diatonic note in every harmony) prepare for the tour de force, completely diatonic fugue which unfortunately doesn’t follow on either CD. With this Prelude and Fugue I can almost see Shostakovich’s small, tight, sardonic smile; my vision fades when the Fugue is not played. A pity.
Although both transcriptions of Shostakovich’s Preludes demonstrate the performers’ own musical skills, as a by-product it becomes clear that Klucevsek is more interested in this demonstration, whereas Excelsior reveal that Shostakovich’s music can be lots of fun if you pay attention to re-creating it while making it your own.
In short, this Klucevsek CD throws as little light on Shostakovich as it does on South American music. The sound quality is the same throughout, and sounds to me as though a touch of artificial reverb and stereo enhancement have been added, with the bass turned down.
Sonata for Cello and Piano, opus 40; Schnittke: Sonata for Cello and Piano No. 1; Prokofiev: Sonata for Cello and Piano, opus 119.
Yegor Dyachkov (cello), Jean Saulnier (piano).
Disques Pelleas CD-0109. DDD. TT 76:00.
Recorded Salle Françoys-Bernier, Domaine Forget, St-Irénée, Quebec, Nov. 1998.
This attractive Canadian CD presents three frequently recorded Soviet-era Cello Sonatas. The young Quebec artists are recorded in generally fine sound, although audible breathing and excessive string raspiness of the cellist indicates too-close placement of the microphones. Their approach to all three sonatas is earnest and compelling, without overstatement or dullness. Dyachkov’s vibrato is sometimes too wide and his tone can be a bit steely, but on the whole his playing is clean and precise.
The Shostakovich Sonata begins innocently and becomes more mysterious as the Allegro non troppo goes on, making for an effective contrast with the duo’s forceful beginning of the Allegro. The harmonic glissandi are nicely done – these brief snippets are a true highlight of the entire work for me and for most players, so I pay close heed to them. Dyachkov’s slides sound well, without strain or thinness. His strummed, guitar-like pizzicati shortly after are also effectively played. The Largo is the heart of the work, and here is played with a simple honesty and without exaggeration. For some, this will be insufficiently deep, but I find it refreshing, and it opens the work up to listen anew. However, this interpretation does become overly lean in the final part of this movement. The Allegro finale is spirited and segues into just the right amount of hysterical agitation before the calm returns, ending with the final surprise jolt.
Schnittke’s Sonata is played with similar earnestness while retaining its enigmatic properties. Both Dyachkov and Saulnier play with clear textures where murkiness abounds in many other recordings. The pounding piano passages in the Presto are less harsh than most versions, yet Saulnier can get nasty too – neither musician is reticent to let the music shout and screech when needed. The plaintive wails of the high cello after these poundings have just the right pleading edginess to them. The double and triple-stops in the Largo are arpeggiated so all the components are heard (I’m not sure how this is notated in the score, but many cellists play more of a full stop). This arpeggiation links the latter half more to the first movement with its rather brusque grace notes. Into the ending of the work, one suddenly realizes how far from a normal tonality we are, and the Sonata fades into mysterious despair.
The Sonata by Prokofiev is played with subtle wit and charm, absent of the sentimentalism and cuteness that can mar and even destroy the work. The waltz-like figure in the opening Andante grave is too frequently played with a syrupy nostalgia and gross over-emoting. Dyachkov and Saulnier are thankfully straightforward, and the music is much the better for it. The same holds true for the pianist’s opening of the Moderato – we get the effect of a tongue-in-cheek version of a children’s ballet class this way, with an evident bright-eyed glee. The approach is less successful in the quiet first part of the Allegro non troppo, where the lines drift and focus wanders. As the music grows more animated, the no-nonsense approach regains its applicability, and the ending is forthright without any fanfare.
All in all, this CD presents refreshing and unexaggerated readings of these three seminal Cello Sonatas. The brief programme notes by Barry Corber are helpful for the uninitiated.
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Schnittke/Shostakovich: works for cello & piano
Viola Sonata, opus 147, arranged for cello and piano by Daniil Shafran[a]; Moderato[b]; Adagio from The Limpid Stream, opus 39, arranged for cello and piano by Atovmyan[c]; Schnittke: Cello Sonata No. 1 (1978)[d]; Cello Sonata No. 2 (1993-4)[e].
Raphael Wallfisch (cello), John York (piano).
Black Box BBM1032. DDD. TT 77:59.
Recorded Champs Hill, Pulborough, UK, 28 June 2000[a-c]/St. George’s, Brandon Hill, Bristol, 22 April 1998[d,e].
British Cellist Raphael Wallfisch and pianist John York here present a CD almost entirely filled with disquietude, resignation, and blackness. Both of the Schnittke Sonatas are difficult works for listeners to come to grips with, less so the First Sonata with its Presto central structure, although it ends in mystery and despair. The Second Sonata is fragmentary and frustrated, hard for performers to pull into a coherent whole. Wallfisch and York succeed completely in both. The playing is remarkable: dead serious, intense, full of pondering and anger, yet with flashes of beauty and brilliance throughout. The crazed Presto in the First Sonata is delivered with flawless drive, and the sputtering ending of the piece, like the opening Largo, is world-weary and heavy-hearted. The tortuous Second Sonata, rarely performed, shines here as a strong yet stifled tour de force.
Shostakovich’s last opus, for viola and grand piano, has been arranged for cello by Daniil Shafran and also by Josef Feigelson. The two versions are somewhat different, but there is no recording made of the latter, so comparisons are difficult. This is the third recording of the Shafran arrangement, after Shafran’s own with Anton Ginzburg (Melodiya SUCD 10 00257; deleted), and Alfia and Eleonora Bekova’s (Chandos CHAN 9526; deleted).
I find that none of these three interpretations makes a compelling case for favouring this version over the original. Contrary to what one might predict, the cello sounds rather too thin and high compared to the viola. Shostakovich’s writing for the viola utilized the instrument’s depth of tone and throaty range in unique ways, such as in the Prelude and Scherzo for String Octet, opus 11, the third movement of Symphonies Nos. 8 and 11, and String Quartet No. 13. His opus 147 is no different, written for a master of the viola, using themes from his unfinished opera The Gamblers (written for six male voices). The cello cannot do justice to the peculiar sound of the viola’s icy sul ponticello in the Aria (Moderato), or the fullness of its pizzicati in the opening. Neither can the cello match the human voice like the viola in The Gamblers music (Allegretto).
Although the cello doesn’t fit this music nearly as well as the viola, the arrangement does offer a fresh way to hear the work, and works well thematically on this disc with the Schnittke Sonatas. Wallfisch and York offer a technically fine reading of this arrangement, but they don’t display the same level of depth as in the Schnittke works. The opening Aria is not mysterious enough, the central Scherzo has insufficient black humour, and the last movement ever written by Shostakovich doesn’t have the heartache and longing that can bring me to tears. I attribute most of this lack of depth to the cello arrangement, but some as well to the musicians, given their superior performances in the other works.
The last two pieces on the CD are very short additions. The Moderato is a 2:40 trifle, while the Adagio, at five minutes, is more substantial if even lighter ballet music. Both are played here with conviction and power.
In summary, this CD offers excellent readings of the Schnittke Sonatas and the two slight Shostakovich cello works, as well as the novelty of hearing Shostakovich’s Sonata for Viola performed (albeit rather unconvincingly) on the cello. The programme notes, by John York, are perfunctory and set in a difficult-to-read font.
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Piano Quintet, opus 57[a]; Piano Trio No. 2 in E minor, opus 67[b]; Preludes Nos. 8 and 22 from Twenty-four Preludes, opus 34[c]; Children’s Notebook, opus 69[d]; Three Fantastic Dances, opus 5[e].
Dmitri Shostakovich (piano and introducing pieces in [d]); Beethoven String Quartet[a]: Dmitri Tsyganov (violin 1)[b], Vasily Shirinsky (violin 2), Vadim Borisovsky (viola), Sergei Shirinsky (cello)[b].
Doremi DHR-7787. ADD mono. TT 64:32.
Listed incorrectly as recorded 1949[a], 1945[b], 1946[c,d,e].
We can never have enough of Shostakovich’s own recordings of his own works. It was a great disappointment when Revelation’s discs of the composer’s playing disappeared from the store shelves when that firm ceased operations. Fortunately, some new releases are filling this gap, and the Doremi issues are especially welcome. Listening to the Doremi discs, one might forget that these are remastered recordings, so authentic and clear is the sound.
Although much less important for listeners, the liner notes and the cover of the disc present some questionable information. For example, the disc dates the recording of the Quintet, opus 57 from 1949. This cannot be true since Shostakovich and the Beethoven Quartet recorded this piece only twice: in 1940 and 1955. The variant on the Doremi disc is in fact the 1955 recording, awarded the “Grand Prix” in Paris. It is a very polished and brilliant performance where all interpretive details and tempos are carefully thought through and perfected by the performers.
Unlike the Quintet, the performance of the Second Trio on the disc represents the first of the two recordings made by Shostakovich. The second recording was made during the Prague Spring Festival in 1947 (not 1946 as the notes claim; this date applies to the present recording) with Oistrakh and Sadlo. Although Shostakovich’s playing is as bold and exciting here as it is in the second recording, Tsyganov’s and Shirinsky’s performances are less glamorous than those of Oistrakh and Sadlo. The present performance has different tempos, dynamics, and phrasing. It is an interesting document of the composer’s ability to adjust to different ensemble partners.
In Shostakovich’s playing, his elegant expressive articulation enhances the playfulness of the F# minor Prelude, opus 34. The G minor Prelude, on the other hand, is a good exponent of his dislike of over-emotional outpouring, although it sounds a bit too ascetic to my taste. Doremi’s date for the Preludes is also highly questionable. These Preludes were recorded twice, and Doremi’s variants are identical with the 1950 recordings on Revelation (RV70007).
In the composer’s interpretation of the Children’s Notebook, opus 69, I always enjoy the subtle humour of his musical characterization, though the fast tempos of the March, Mechanical Doll, and Birthdays are hardly possible for young children to sustain. These pieces and the Fantastic Dances, opus 5 were also recorded during the Prague Festival of 1947 (again, Doremi’s date of 1946 is incorrect).
This performance of the Dances is the better one of the two recorded by Shostakovich. When he recorded the Dances in Paris in 1958 (EMI Classics CDC 7 54606 2), his aching hand did not obey. Interestingly, the tempos of both recordings are virtually identical.
This disc differs from others containing the same pieces almost as much as a genuine artist’s copy would differ from a postcard. In this light, the claim that this Second Trio recording is here for the “first time on CD” is not only misleading (it appeared on Revelation RV 70007), but unnecessary; the excellent quality of the restoration done by Jacob Harnoy and his team is what is worth advertising. It is professional, and obviously a labour of love.
There is another unexpected bonus of this issue. On the outer side of its liner notes, together with the pictures of the composer and the violinist Dmitri Tsyganov, are two photographs of the extremely rare original records – those presumably remastered for the present edition. The Russian title Aprelevsky zavod and the production code number of the records are clearly readable. This helps to identify the dates of Shostakovich’s actual recordings of the pieces; there is still much to clarify in this regard.
If you do not have Shostakovich’s performances on CD, this disc is a must. But even if you have previous releases of the same recordings, Doremi’s remastering will make a valuable addition to your collection.
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Piano Trio No. 2 in E minor, opus 67[a]; Rachmaninov: Elegiac Trio in D minor, opus 9[b].
The Compinsky Trio: Manuel Compinsky (violin), Alec Compinsky (cello), Sara Compinsky (piano).
Cambria CD-1130. ADD mono. TT 54:59.
Reissue of world premiere recordings.
The Compinsky Trio are not often mentioned these days, undeserved neglect that is admirably redressed by this Cambria release. Noëlle Compinsky Tinturin, daughter of Manuel Compinsky, provides extensive and affectionate descriptions of the background and activities of this enterprising ensemble. Born in England of Lithuanian émigré parents in the opening decade of the last century, the siblings moved to the United States while still in their young twenties. Notable for their eclectic and adventuresome repertoire, the Compinskys included an entrepreneur among them in the person of cellist Alec, who formed the Alco Recording Company in 1945. One of the label’s first projects was this, the world premiere recording of Shostakovich’s Second Trio, predating even the composer’s own 1946 collaboration with Dmitri Tsyganov and Sergei Shirinsky (Doremi DHR-7787; reviewed above).
It is worth pointing out that before Boris Tishchenko restored lost passages of Shostakovich’s youthful First Piano Trio in 1981, that work was unpublished and essentially forgotten. Until then, therefore, the Second Trio of 1944 was usually referred to simply as the Shostakovich Piano Trio. Mention of the earlier work in Victor Serov’s biography of the composer (published in the U.S. in 1943) muddied the waters into which the Compinskys waded when they took up opus 67; the jacket notes to their original 78 rpm release misidentify this as the trio he wrote in 1923 at the tender age of 17. It is unlikely, then, that the Compinskys knew of the much more recent influences behind the emotionally intense Second Trio: the loss of Shostakovich’s beloved friend Ivan Sollertinsky, a ghastly War, and more specifically, Shostakovich’s horror at accounts from the Nazi death camps.
Happily, any lack of contextual knowledge has not impaired what proves to be a distinctive performance, studded with bold tempo shifts and sensitive modulations of mood, and supplying a number of intriguing tweaks to the manuscript. One of the more subtle of these is the buttressing of the cello’s voice by the piano from bars 115 – 118 of the first movement (4:05 – 4:11), where the score would silence the piano. Another modification follows immediately, this one possibly made more for pragmatic than musical reasons: the insertion of a rest after the accented first chord in measure 118, following which the music picks up again on the bar’s initial downbeat. I would wager that this signals a side-change on the original 78s.
Emotionally varied throughout, this performance of the Shostakovich Trio is most remarkable in its fast-paced finale, with its breathless Dance of Death. So fluent and persuasive are the players that I suspect that even some who know the opus well may not notice three deletions in this movement of repetitious segments (though not written in the score as repeats). These are bars 44-57 (0:54), 67-78 (1:05) and 339-350 (6:56), the last of which I am most sorry to see go, losing as we do a pregnant glissando. The booklet notes don’t mention these cuts, but I assume that the Compinskys took them in their recording sessions to satisfy the timing constraints of the 78-rpm release, a consideration underlying several snips to the Rachmaninov Trio that the notes do enumerate.
Any musical scars left by these surgical procedures are barely perceptible in the overall argument, which the Compinskys sum up forcefully by bringing forward by six bars the ritardando of the concluding page, applying it with a vengeance at Fig. 104 (7:41). Here it imparts the sensation that the dancing motif has been summarily annihilated rather than petering out gently as it usually does. The ghostly shimmer that haunts us to the closing notes reinforces this unsettling impression. It is, as the original 78’s notes described, “like a song disappearing into the twilight.”
The organic unity that the three performers display in the Shostakovich Trio is also in evidence in Rachmaninov’s youthful Elegiac Trio. This account, which we are told was the first available recording of the work, alternately sizzles with electricity and undulates with intoxicated Romanticism. Cambria have chosen well by reprinting Manuel Compinsky’s accessible and well-written synopsis of the piece.
Overall this is one of the finest historical productions I have encountered. The only quibble worth mentioning arises in the course of Marina Ledin’s notes to the Shostakovich Trio, which claim that its dedicatee, Sollertinsky, died in a Nazi camp in 1944. In fact, Sollertinsky was never close to falling into German hands; evacuated from Leningrad with the Philharmonic Orchestra before the siege, he died of a heart condition in Novosibirsk, two thousand miles from the eastern front.
The booklet is otherwise a pleasure to read, and is enhanced by more than a dozen vintage photographs and copies of the Compinsky Trio’s playbills. It also presents contemporary press reviews, and present-day testimonials to the Trio’s members from musical luminaries like Michael Tilson Thomas and the New York Philharmonic’s veteran concertmaster Glenn Dicterow, both of whom studied under Manuel Compinsky. There is a detailed description of the source materials and the sound restoration process used by Cambria’s Lance Bowling. A most successful restoration it is too; both transfers are remarkably clear and listenable. Add two highly individualistic and musically rewarding performances and we have a production to be recommended with all possible enthusiasm.
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String Quartet No. 11 in F minor, opus 122; String Quartet No. 13 in Bb minor, opus 138; String Quartet No. 15 in Eb minor, opus 144.
St Petersburg String Quartet : Alla Aranovskaya (violin 1), Ilya Teplyakov (violin 2), Alexei Koptev (viola) and Leonid Shukaev (cello).
Hyperion CDA67157. DDD. TT 71:21.
Recorded St Petersburg Recording Studio, December 2000 and January 2001.
After the apparent hegemony of groups such as the Beethovens, the Borodins (in various guises), the never widely-available-in-the-west Taneyevs and the Fitzwilliams, the 1990s saw Shostakovich’s quartets being taken up by a new generation of players, bringing a range of new approaches. The St Petersburg Quartet began their cycle in 1999 and now has only numbers 1, 10, 12 and 14 to go, though as this makes more than one disc but a stingy two, perhaps they will supplement them with other works. This disc links Shostakovich’s last three odd-numbered quartets, including two of his bleakest statements in any medium.
But first up is the Eleventh Quartet, the first of several late works to take the form of “suites” (often of genre pieces); its seven movements total well under twenty minutes. It is also the first of four quartets dedicated to each (or the memory of each) member of the Beethoven Quartet, here the recently deceased second violinist and co-founder Sergei Shirinsky (1901-1965). Is it a portrait of Shirinsky himself, of Shostakovich, or of their shared characteristics? If the latter, then they do seem to have been very close personalities, with a wry and private sense of humour expressing (or concealing) itself as a series of contrasting personae which disintegrate before the finale’s gentle evanescence.
In the Introduction’s strange hillocky opening melody, Alla Aranovskaya’s tight vibrato is slightly intrusive, drawing attention to the playing rather than letting the material unfold more freely. The Scherzo, though not in Shostakovich’s diabolical mode – it’s only an allegretto – has certainly been performed more quickly, here reducing the contrast with the first movement, though it dies away beautifully in puzzlement. With the maximum possible contrast, the brief Recitative breaks in, ripping the mask off violently with peremptorily repeated chords before the schizoid Etude with its Czernyesque running line contrasting with interruptions from block chords.
It is only in the next movement, the Humoresque, that the “dedicatee” steps forward to play … nothing but E and G, keeping this up into the following Elegy, the longest movement and the first unalloyed emotional statement. The Finale tries to lighten the mood with first a wistful rocking motif and a gentle echo of the earlier block chords, but sadness repeatedly overtakes the music before a darker glance at the quartet’s opening melody heralds the music’s fragmentation while the violin rises to the stratosphere.
Despite the immediate attractiveness of so much of its material, the Eleventh Quartet is one of Shostakovich most elusive, relying on an odd emotional logic built from its contrasting elements. There are many beautiful moments in the St. Petersburg’s performance – the Elegy is particularly fine – but the contrasts seem to be downplayed whereas they are what define the work.
If in the Eleventh Quartet Shostakovich wrestles with emotion obliquely, in the Thirteenth he faces it head on with one of his grimmest creations. Unlike the Eleventh Quartet, which avoids putting the dedicatee in the spotlight (perhaps a wry comment on the role of this “second” voice), the Thirteenth, dedicated to the Beethoven’s violist Vadim Borisovsky, begins with a solo viola line that uncompromisingly lays out the emotional landscape of the work. As so often with Shostakovich’s twelve-note melodies, this is actually quite tonal from moment to moment, but the overall chromatic stretching seems emblematic of a work where everything is taken to extremes. Here Ilya Teplyakov beautifully colours each note without distorting the line and this is much better than the St. Petersburg’s Eleventh.
The players are often left to their own devices or underpinned by static pedals, but the first screaming outburst comes as a real shock while the repeated trills are as sinister as any. The terrifying knocks on the bellies of various instruments don’t cut through as much as they could – the Fitzwilliams used a cheap violin that could, as their violist, Alan George, put it, be “attacked with a clear conscience”. But Shostakovich seems to have wanted to hear the difference between hitting cello, viola and violin, and here that definitely comes over to make some of the most chilling moments in an outstanding performance of this terrifying work.
What would turn out to be Shostakovich’s last quartet bears no dedication. In the muted key of Eb, it presents an extraordinary suite of character pieces, departing from five adagios only once, and then to slow to molto adagio. But how to approach such music? The first movement, Elegy – a third of the work – presents only the most immediate difficulty, but Shostakovich’s injunction that it should be played so that flies drop dead and fall from the air proves strangely useful. The St. Petersburg Quartet take a slightly fast tempo, whereas the only thing to do is to submit completely to its slowness. While it doesn’t exactly swing, all here seems too easy-going, the effect being underlined by some of the interventionist phrasing. It’s almost as if the musicians don’t have the faith to play as greyly as the score implies. This is not to say that it should be played blandly but that it should present both listener and player with a challenge so that the rest of the work is won.
The bizarre Serenade (imagine playing that underneath someone’s window!) starts with exactly the opposite problem, as the end of the crescendi are not so much cliff-faces as scarps, but thereafter things improve with the dancing figures having a gentle lilt and the irruptive chords a terrible weight. The Intermezzo gets even better while in the Nocturne the ghostly dance and some later warmer moments are beautifully rendered. The Funeral March breaks in wonderfully sternly and the solo recitatives are intensely emotive. The Finale seems to open on a grand gesture but the music almost immediately spins dizzyingly out of control before a series of moments from the last half hour are recalled in a kind of suite-within-a-suite. Here again the St. Petersburg Quartet score highly with their expressive approach giving the music what was deliberately excluded from the first movement by the composer, bringing the work to a truly touching close.
Traditional quartet ensemble playing might seem to be put on the back burner for music such as this, as so much of it relies on solo voices, but that would be to mistake the nature of performance and the necessity of everyone’s involvement throughout. The St. Petersburg Quartet’s Thirteenth Quartet is outstanding but the other performances seem just a shade off having the necessary consistency, and in the last quartet the interpretation of the first movement hobbles the performance. Still, as an overview of Shostakovich’s late quartets this disc is – well, enjoyable is perhaps not the word – but valuable.
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Piano Quintet in G minor, opus 57[a]; String Quartet No. 8 in C minor, opus 110.
Talich Quartet: Jan Talich (violin I), Petr Macacek (violin II), Vladimir Bukac (viola), Petr Prause (cello); Yakov Kasman (piano).
Calliope CAL 9320. DDD. TT 54:45.
Recorded Studio Arco Diva Domovina, Prague, November 2001.
In DSCH 14, I applauded a reissued recording of Shostakovich’s Quintet by the Talich Quartet and pianist Miroslav Langer, a reading of uncommon darkness and emotional intensity (Praga PR 7254042). Of the players who delivered that 1976 performance, only Jan Talich remains in today’s Talich Quartet, yet the new account clearly builds upon many of the elements that made the earlier one succeed.
Take, for example, the third movement, which the former Talich players twisted into a decidedly sarcastic utterance. Now this Scherzo is even more caustically angular. As previously, the second movement contains a real crisis of the soul at its core, bracketed by passages of quiet fragility, but here these are made even more vulnerable in their expanded space.
It is in such drawn out and deliberate tempi that the current performance most clearly distinguishes itself from its predecessor, and indeed the rest of the competition. At 33:35, this version is one of the slowest ever recorded, taking nearly 5 minutes longer to have its say than did the Talich/Langer interpretation. As one would predict, this underlines the gloomier aspects of the opus. In the Finale, extended emphasis on mournful elements sours the atmosphere, and a subtle ritardando on the closing bars reinforces the pessimistic outlook.
Performing quality is high, with particularly fine coordination between Kasman and Talich Quartet in the expressively wide-ranging Intermezzo. Overall, I would have to rank this performance at the very top of the class, alongside the composer’s own, less consistently negative recording with the Beethoven Quartet from 1955, still available on Vanguard Classics (OVC 8077) and newly remastered by Doremi (DHR-7787; reviewed above).
Unexpectedly, the accompanying Eighth Quartet finds the Quintet too hard an act to follow. Not that the Talich players’ uniformly introspective and subdued approach in the slow pages is without merit, but their decision to choose speed at the expense of crushing force in the second and fourth movements evades this autobiographical work’s sense of dread. The musical protagonist has come to terms with his demons, sadly, but with complete resignation. There is not even a hint of reproach in the unusually quiet and passive Seryozha refrain of the fourth movement.
Of course, some listeners may find the Talich Quartet’s shunning of histrionics to be refreshing, and their technique is as admirable as in the Quintet, apart from some raspiness on Vladimir Bukac’s viola in the third movement. But I found myself neither shaken nor stirred.
Whatever one’s need (or lack thereof) for another Eighth Quartet, the profound exploration of the Piano Quintet is reason enough to add this disc to your shelves. Still, one cannot help but regret that Calliope have left so much room on this CD vacant; any one of ten other Shostakovich Quartets would have fit the remaining space.
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The Film Music of Dmitri Shostakovich, Volume 1
Fragments from the music to the Maxim Trilogy, opus 50a (arr. Lev Atovmyan); Music from The Man with a Gun, opus 53; Music from Alone (listed as A Girl Alone), opus 26; Music from King Lear, opus 137.
Vassily Sinaisky, BBC Philharmonic Orchestra, Sheffield Philharmonic Chorus
Chandos CHAN 10023. DDD. TT 75:16.
Recorded Studio 7, New Broadcasting House, Manchester, 16 & 17 May 2002.
This new release of Shostakovich film music comes as part of a major series of issues from Chandos, others in the series covering the film music of William Alwyn, Malcolm Arnold, Alan Rawsthorne, Sir Richard Rodney Bennett, Sir Arthur Bliss, Georges Auric, and Ralph Vaughan Williams. The attractive (some would say “garish”) CD covers, with movie style graphics, punchy three-dimensional typefaces, and still shots from the films, seem designed to appeal to a wide audience. This is a good thing, as it might well attract buyers who are less familiar with Shostakovich into buying the album where they would not think of buying a disc of his regular music. The selection, too, is admirable, containing not only some of the highly accessible (if uncharacteristic) film music that Shostakovich wrote throughout his career, but also plenty of the “genuine article”, in the masterly score for King Lear, which contains music that is comparable in its intensity to anything he ever composed.
The CD opens with a set of eight fragments from the music to the Maxim Trilogy. These films were produced in the 1930s, at the height of the Stalinist terror. They are based on Socialist Realist ideals, and depict the rise of a Soviet “everyman” character from humble worker to head of the national bank. The music draws heavily on revolutionary songs, notably Courage, friends, which opens the disc, sung with great gusto by the Sheffield Philharmonic Chorus, and You fell as victims (which later crops up in the Eleventh Symphony).
This highly enjoyable music was composed during a time when Shostakovich’s career came under threat as a result of the “Muddle instead of Music” article in Pravda in 1936, and during which the Fifth and Sixth symphonies were conceived. This film music bears no trace of the terror that was around during those times. It is by turns stirring, moving, and whimsical, and testifies to the composer’s great versatility in being able to write in any style that was required of him. Of particular note is Death of the Old Worker, a piece combining Tchaikovskian dramatic orchestration with a potently moving lament for solo cello. The hallmark of Tchaikovsky also appears in the Waltz that follows.
It is easy for the Shostakovich aficionado to write off this kind of music as being lightweight and not what the composer was interested in. However, in my opinion it needs to be listened to on its own terms. It is striking to note just how well executed the music is. The revolutionary fervour of the opening chorus is meant to be stirring, and it is; what might be regarded as merely a corny tune is exploited to the fullest extent by Shostakovich’s brilliant orchestration. One has to forget the unwholesome sense that this is propaganda music, written to order, at a time when the conditions under which people lived were very different from the idealism portrayed in the film, and judge whether it succeeds in conveying the intended – if unrealistic – message. It does, emphatically so.
The four fragments from The Man with a Gun which follow are billed in the CD liner as being a premiere recording, but this is incorrect, as the same music appeared on Russian Disc RD CD 10018, played by the Byelorussian Radio and TV Symphony Orchestra under Walter Mnatsakanov (reviewed in DSCH No. 7). The new release of this set of pieces, in similarly accessible vein to the Maxim fragments, benefits from greatly superior sound quality.
If the first two film scores represented on this disc are written in a light music style, atypical of the composer, the set of seven pieces from Alone, dating from 1931, shows greater individuality. The directors Kozintsev and Trauberg invited Shostakovich to write the score to this film as a follow up to the music for their earlier film New Babylon. They had been impressed with Shostakovich’s score, but unfortunately New Babylon was a failure, and the requirement to perform the music live as the film was played meant that performances proved to be failures too. Alone was written as a silent movie, with the score recorded and added in later.
The film depicts the life of a young schoolteacher who is sent on the eve of her wedding to a remote region to teach in a village school. The music shows many characteristic touches of the composer’s humour and satirical mode of writing, particular in the woodwind writing in the opening number Altai. The long soliloquy for oboe in Bai leads the children to tend the sheep presages the woodwind solos one finds in the Seventh, Eighth and Ninth Symphonies. Particularly striking are the humorous trombone glissandi that appear throughout the impressive number The Chief sleeps and gets up. Although bearing a strong resemblance to snores, in the film they accompany the point where the Chief is getting up, having been told by Kuzmina to “wake up”, with intended metaphorical, as well as literal, meaning. The suite concludes with an exuberant Galop, much in the mode of the many Galops that can be found in Shostakovich’s ballet music, including, at one point, a hilarious wrong cadence, which gets resolved only later into the correct key.
The final score on this release is the music from Kozintsev’s film version of King Lear, dating from 1970. The film is described in the liner notes as a biting condemnation of the stagnation of the Brezhnev era. Written at a time when it was more possible to make a political statement and get away with it, the score is a masterpiece, and fully recognisable as the authentic voice of the late Shostakovich, with much of the music strongly reminiscent of the late symphonies, especially the Tenth and Thirteenth. In particular, The Catastrophe Begins uses the same six-note motive that opens the Tenth Symphony. This piece is absolutely hair-raising; perhaps one of the most awesome build-ups of tension that the composer ever conceived, reaching its climax with bells, disruptive percussion, and the shrieking woodwind that is so much a signature of the composer. Anyone who is not familiar with the Lear score should buy the disc for this short piece alone. This is Shostakovich in a nutshell; less than three minutes of music that sums up all that excites, fascinates, and horrifies about the composer.
Another familiar fragment is the three-note motive at the start of The Voice of Truth, which reappears at the beginning of the composer’s setting of the poem Anna Akhmatova, in the Tsvetayeva songs (opus 143). It is intriguing to speculate whether this motive is a leitmotif, and whether the composer wished to acknowledge Akhmatova as a “Voice of Truth”.
The score for King Lear is a tricky one to arrange as a coherent suite, being comprised of around 70 numbers, many of which are very short. The Chandos release does a good job of this, beginning and ending with the Fool’s Waterpipe, a solo for Eb clarinet, to form an artistically satisfying framing device. My one slight complaint concerns the omission of the superb wordless a cappella choral lament Water, which is included on an alternative version with the Rundfunkchor, Berlin, Rundfunk Symphonie Orchester, conducted by Mikhail Jurowski (Capriccio 10 397). This music is a direct precedent to the music in the Thirteenth Quartet that immediately follows the opening solo viola passage (thanks to Judith Kuhn for pointing out this connection to me). A letter from Kozintsev to the composer described the requirements for the music in these terms:
“… associated … with grief, human suffering, which has no limits. Not some individual complaint, but the grief of the whole people. In Shakespearean dimensions it is the lament of the earth itself. A requiem, perhaps? Only not with an orchestra but the chorus alone and without words. Grief has no words, there is nothing but weeping: the women, the children and the men all weep …”
To hear this music for the first time is a revelation to anyone familiar with the Thirteenth Quartet. In particular, I had always mentally dubbed this section of the quartet “the chanting music”, so to hear it as a wordless chorus, with the peculiar harshness of its harmonies so reminiscent of Orthodox chant, made a tremendous impression.
A shame, therefore, that this was not included (especially as the excellent Sheffield Philharmonic Chorus are used elsewhere on the disc). To hear this treat, you will have to buy the comparative version. However, I think that the overall selection on the new release is more coherent as a whole.
With only the above reservation, this is a highly recommended release. It may well be a good album to introduce newcomers to Shostakovich’s music; there is much delightful and easily accessible music here, coupled with material of a more challenging nature. The performances are excellent, played with great impact by the BBC Philharmonic orchestra under the baton of Vassily Sinaisky, and the sound quality, as we have come to expect from Chandos, is stunning.
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The Fall of Berlin, opus 82 (complete score, edited by Adriano)[a]; Suite from The Unforgettable Year 1919, Op 89a[b].
Adriano, Moscow Symphony Orchestra, Moscow Capella and Youth Chorus[a], Sergei Krivobokov (chorus-master)[a], Ellena Alekseyeva (piano)[b].
Marco Polo 8.223897. DDD. TT 75:30.
Recorded Mosfilm Studios, Moscow, March 2000.
Though more of Shostakovich’s film music is being recorded it is usually presented in Atovmyan’s suites, which cut, supplement, reorder and reorchestrate what Shostakovich wrote, and even now a few scores remain elusive. The reason some of them are overlooked may well be the subject matter. By the 1960s the epics of high Stalinism (including The Fall of Berlin, The Unforgettable Year 1919 and Meeting on the Elbe) were an embarrassment to their participants (biographies often omit or pass quickly over such works, and scores and parts can be difficult to locate) and it is only relatively recently that the period and its art have come in for reassessment.
The Fall of Berlin was one of the first films to break through this attitude – its jaw-droppingly cavalier attitude to historical exactitude makes it a fascinating document of its time. (A restoration by Gosfilmofond and the Cinémathèque de Toulouse from the early 1990s has been shown in many countries. It will be screened at London’s National Film Theatre on February 20 and 22, 2003, two earlier showings having been sell-outs.) Mosfilm’s no-expense-spared 70th birthday present to Stalin shows his arrival in the eponymous city despite the minor irritation that he was actually in the Soviet Union at that glorious moment. Conversely Zhukov’s crucial role is downplayed. Yet the makers also seem to have had access to Soviet intelligence on Hitler’s last days, though the portrayal of the deranged dictator will amuse more than terrify.
Shostakovich wrote 45 minutes of music for the film – about 15 minutes of which was omitted from the suite – and Aleksandr Gauk conducted the soundtrack which, containing as it does a fragment from the Seventh Symphony, gives us what is currently our only opportunity to hear him essay any of that work. In the 1950s he recorded the finale and a selection from the suite, while A. Chmyrev led a recording of the song Beautiful Day, after which the music languished unloved until Vladimir Andropov recorded a fanfare in 1982. José Serebrier’s 1990 recording finally made it easy to hear the suite (RCA Victor Red Seal RD 60226; deleted) and Mikhail Jurowski followed in 1995 (Capriccio 10 405). Of course the mononymous Adriano’s recording doesn’t compete with any of these since it is based on Shostakovich’s manuscript and is thus nearer to how the music appeared in the film, though given the crudity of some of the music editing we should be glad it is not exactly as it appears therein. The Seventh Symphony excerpt and the pieces not by Shostakovich (Scriabin, Tchaikovsky and others) are excluded.
For those who just want the suite, Serebrier is generally preferable to Jurowski, who favours ponderous tempi and dispenses with the chorus in a couple of movements, though annoyingly Serebrier shortens The Storming of the Seelow Heights.
But in terms of the amount of music Adriano’s disc is of course another matter. In compiling the suite Atovmyan kept the main themes but excluded or combined shorter cues and dramatically reordered the music (the suite’s Prelude is based on Stalin’s arrival in Berlin near the end of the film!). Most of the excluded music is based on what was left in, but a couple of items would have broadened the scope of the suite and their presentation on this disc is welcome. The popular song Beautiful Day (“The flowers will grow and fall/But I will grow from year to year”) is given a lively performance with brightly vernal children’s voices but more intriguing is Hitler’s Reception. Comedy may not be the first thing you would expect in The Fall of Berlin but this wonderfully brainless satirical march is reminiscent of the youthful Shostakovich. We also get to hear the two pianos in The Storming of the Seelow Heights, apparently a try-out for the more successful mini piano concerto of The Unforgettable Year 1919. As the music for this sequence was particularly badly mangled in the film, it’s valuable to hear what Shostakovich had in mind, though the later example is superior.
The Unforgettable Year 1919 has yet to enjoy a resurgence comparable to The Fall of Berlin’s but who could resist seeing Woodrow Wilson, Clemenceau, Lloyd George and Churchill reacting to the Communist threat? As it is, most people’s exposure to it will be through the two extracts (Prelude and Demonstration) which unaccountably supplement the Maxim Trilogy suite, and Alexeev and Maksymiuk’s recording of The Assault on Beautiful Gorky for Classics for Pleasure (CD-CFP 4547). Gauk again did the honours on the soundtrack, and went on to record an abbreviated suite which made it to the west on Monitor MC2015 alongside the Ninth Symphony and the Festive Overture, a disc that deserves a reissue.
So, again Adriano has the field to himself with the first recording of the complete 30-minute suite. In this case there is less recoverable ‘unknown’ Shostakovich in the film so the suite is a fairer reflection of what he wrote, though there are many snippets of other pieces in the film. There’s also less fat in the suite, so for example there’s no equivalent of the earlier film’s rather aimless In the Garden. While the Scherzo obviously presents the orchestra with a few problems, the biggest interpretative disappointment is the ‘concerto’ (here rendered as The Assault on the Red Hill), which lacks the panache that Alexeev brings to it. A little more tenderness would not have gone amiss in the Romance where the film’s ‘second’ hero – no-one is allowed to overshadow Stalin – meets his fiancée.
Adriano did view both films but was not bound by Gauk’s tempi; the ones he chooses work well and both suites are mostly adequately performed. One problem the disc does have is that the music for the two films is stylistically similar; indeed, as the genre reached a point of ossification, the films themselves have themes and scenes in common. Listening with half an ear you might not even realise that the opening flourishes of The Unforgettable Year 1919 did not belong to the earlier film.
The notes by Adriano himself are useful, particularly for The Fall of Berlin giving those unfortunate enough not to know the film an explanation of each cue’s role and explaining how he edited the music. Notwithstanding his claim that parts are in black and white, it is an all-colour affair though some parts are very faded. The booklet also presents several stills from both films. It’s a pity then that a little room couldn’t have been found for the words of the songs from The Fall of Berlin. This may have been planned, as Dolmatovsky gets a credit in the booklet, though Adriano opines that they need not be translated beyond the opening “Slava Stalinu” (which remains stubbornly untranslated!).
Completists will need no urging to buy this disc; it’s unlikely that anyone will repeat Adriano’s feat with The Fall of Berlin (it would be good to see other films receiving this treatment) and the only complete 1919 suite makes it well-nigh irresistible. Even those less susceptible to the film music will also find much to enjoy. True enough, there are moments of high-Stalinist bombast (and we should not overlook their extra-musical interest) but Shostakovich also manages to slip in some more effective music and even a few touches of comedy and romance that were excluded from The Fall of Berlin suite.
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The Bolt Suite, opus 27a; Suite for Variety Orchestra; Jazz Suite No. 1; Tahiti Trot, opus 16.
Dmitry Yablonsky, Russian State Symphony Orchestra.
Naxos 8.555949. DDD. TT 62:14.
Recorded Grand Studio 5, Moscow State Broadcasting and Recording House, October 2001.
Here is a pleaser of a programme that demonstrates that Shostakovich’s light music is not all of the same stripe. At hand are three delightfully capricious scores from the composer’s early years: the first Jazz Suite, the Suite from the ballet The Bolt, and Tahiti Trot. Also present is the Suite for Variety Orchestra, a compilation of movements from the composer’s film and stage scores long misidentified as Jazz Suite No. 2, as Naxos’ booklet notes explain. Each provides a feast of comic-lyric opportunities for the interpreter in tune with the music’s irrepressible merriment and skiddingly twisted humour. The interpretations are lively, the music very listenable. However, what works for one score does not necessarily work as well for another.
Perhaps typical of the cultured Soviet citizen of the 1930s, Shostakovich’s understanding of American jazz idioms was far from rounded. One might infer as much from the First Jazz Suite, whose musical style bears little or no resemblance to the genre that was then being developed by figures such as Ellington and Armstrong on distant shores. Shostakovich’s Jazz Suite takes on more of a dance hall character with its catchy tunes fitted to standard dance forms and standard metric divisions. As in the Suite for Variety Orchestra, the delights of Shostakovian duality are still to be reaped in these charming settings, which combine the elegance of an Armani evening gown with the mischief of a handshake buzzer.
Conductor Dmitry Yablonsky’s variety orchestra approach is well matched to the music. Listeners will savour the lively quality of the various solos and the clarity of the inner voices in these exceptionally well-recorded performances: the suave accordion filigrees in the Suite for Variety Orchestra’s Lyric Waltz, the piano highlights in the following Dance, the saxophone solos and ornamentations in Waltz I, the parlay of odd instrumental duets in the Little Polka.
The more delicately scored Jazz Suite No. 1 offers additional morsels of dance floor delight as oboe, banjo, glockenspiel and piano take the limelight in the opening Waltz. And this particular interpretation will not let the listener overlook one of the score’s many show-stopping moments, the smarmy appearance in the final Foxtrot of the Hawaiian guitar whose gliding twangs are backed by equally smarmy slides on the trombone. Has musical sarcasm ever sounded as sweet and savoury? Whereas a little more knowing slyness is brought out in Riccardo Chailly’s meticulous performances of the same suites with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra (Decca/London 433 702-2), Yablonsky’s lively pace together with the strong solos keeps the music cheerfully bouncing along. What more can one ask for in these happy little numbers?
Shostakovich’s Bolt ballet score teems with some of the most colourful non-conformities found in his lighter music, from its wayward lyricism and abrupt juxtaposition of phrases to its peculiar instrumental combinations and registral extremes. Such a freewheeling set of parameters invites an interpretation that is just as unconventional. Of the precious few performances of the complete suite, I have never heard one with as much personality as that of its premiere recording by the composer’s son, Maxim, leading the Bolshoi Theatre Orchestra and Zhukovsky Military Air Academy Band (BMG/Melodiya 74321 66981-2; deleted). The unlikely combination of ensembles, in particular with the military band duly unfettered by conventional balletic demeanour, takes the score by storm. Thanks also to the superb soloists and, so the story goes, fatherly supervision of the orchestral rehearsals. Even Neeme Järvi’s fine version of the suite seems rather unnecessarily guarded by comparison (Chandos CHAN 7000/1). Rozhdestvensky’s off-day recording of the complete ballet demonstrates that the score is not so readily airborne (Chandos CHAN 9343/4).
Yablonsky brings to the Bolt Suite the same liveliness as found in the Jazz and Variety Orchestra Suites, though this score calls for something more. He handles the opening Overture, as fine a Shostakovich curtain-raiser as one will find, with exceptional finesse, gliding seamlessly through its expansive thematic episodes and shifting moods. The Drayman’s Dance has a good, swaggering pulse, yet its brazenly whooping trombone figures are a bit clipped in comparison to the lusty bellows heard in Maxim’s recording. Among other recent Drayman’s Dances to appear on disc, one that captures a particularly zesty spirit – incorporated into the pastiche known as Young Lady and the Hooligan – is performed by the Symphony Orchestra of Russia under Mark Gorenstein (Saison Russe RUS 788164; reviewed in DSCH 14). In the Intermezzo, Yablonsky is up-tempo, but less than daring in connecting the variously linked phrases, cutting some comic corners in the process. The Conciliator, on the other hand, is paced somewhat leisurely and as a result its featured xylophone solo does not have the sharp virtuosic edge of the solo in Maxim’s recording. But even Järvi’s xylophonist pales against Maxim’s Leonid Redkin, whose dazzling execution has not yet been equalled. The reader may want to seek out the lively rendition of The Conciliator in an effective performance of the suite by the Czech Philharmonic under Kazushi Ono (Canyon Classics PCCL-00292; deleted). In the final Apotheosis, the elated saxhorn solo rings out with resonant clarity, and the suite is brought to an irrepressibly merry conclusion. Yablonsky’s Bolt Suite is robust and spirited with strong playing throughout. However it lacks the demonic trespasses that would have made it an even more memorable performance.
The suave and sprightly reading of Tahiti Trot, Shostakovich’s tongue-in-cheek variations on Vincent Youman’s Tea for Two, closes the album on a high note. As throughout this album, the recording brings out all the instrumental details with exuberant clarity. A pleaser indeed, from beginning to end.
Harmony in Blue
Suite for Variety Orchestra (listed as Jazz Suite No. 2) arranged for wind ensemble by Johan de Meij; Gershwin: Rhapsody in Blue arranged for piano and wind ensemble by Donald Hunsberger[a]; Jan Van der Roost: Poème montagnard.
René Joly, Ensemble vent et percussion de Quebec, Gérald Levesque (piano)[a].
Atma Classique ALCD2 1029. DDD. TT 54:25.
Recorded Henri-Gagnon Hall, Université Laval Faculty of Music, Quebec City, 12, 18 & 19 January 2002. Produced in association with Université Laval Faculty of Music.
The Suite for Variety Orchestra is not Shostakovich’s true and original Jazz Suite No. 2 of 1938 as described in Atma Classique’s booklet, but rather arrangements by other hands of light pieces from his stage and film oeuvre. Thus, what we have here is a translation of a translation. The Suite wears its new instrumentation with ease, shedding any lingering stuffiness of the concert hall along with the strings.
Dutch composer Johan de Meij’s 1995 wind band version omits two of the eight movements, Waltz I and Little Polka, because he felt that for its intended audience all eight would be rather too long, and, with three waltzes, somewhat repetitive.
René Joly and the Wind and Percussion Ensemble of Quebec face direct competition from de Meij himself, leading the Arnhem Symphonic Winds (Amstel Classics CD 9501). The Canadians have an advantage in Atma Classique’s excellent recording, which has crisper, more open acoustics than Amstel’s, but the two bands are fairly evenly matched in their high level of performance.
In general, the Quebec group have a softer touch than their Dutch rivals. For example, in the Lyric Waltz, which in de Meij’s arrangement feels smoky and less urbane than in its orchestral guise, the Wind and Percussion Ensemble are more restrained. Though I prefer Joly’s lighter approach in the cheeky Dance II, and his relaxed and playful handling of the Finale, the swaggering March and riotous Dance I benefit from their more jaunty treatment by the Arnhem Winds.
When asked what inspired his arrangement, de Meij explained, “The inspiration was simple: I am a big fan of Dmitri Shostakovich! I know almost all of his works, and have played several symphonies [as trombonist]. But there was also a commercial reason: the second Waltz became a huge hit here in Europe, and many bands wanted to play it. The main reason for this success was the version by violinist Andre Rieu and his Orchestra; he sold zillions of CDs just because of this little tune.”
The tune in question, Waltz II, hails from the 1956 film The First Echelon, and also owes some of its popularity to its recycling in another film, Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut. Its humour is decidedly askew, and I find that the Arnhem Winds’ unbridled attitude suits it better than does the Quebec group’s more earnest viewpoint.
Atma Classique partner the Shostakovich Suite with Donald Hunsberger’s arrangement for piano and wind ensemble of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, which is based on Ferde Grofé’s first two jazz orchestra versions of the piece. Also present is Belgian composer Jan Van der Roost’s recent Poème montagnard, which opens with a naturalistic evocation of the mountainous Valle d’Aosta in Italy, complete with wind machine, bringing to mind the sound world of Hovhaness, with distant echoes of Vaughan Williams. The work includes heroic and Renaissance-dance passages that commemorate the Valle d’Aosta’s history, and makes an enjoyable addition to the disc.
Amstel Classics give us a full programme of wind band arrangements by Johan de Meij. Some of these have the same ironic twinkle in their eye as does the Shostakovich Suite, namely Darius Milhaud’s jazz-inspired Trois Rag-Caprices, and three pieces by Satie that de Meij has compiled under the label Ratatouille Satirique. The album as a whole is also entitled Ratatouille, so it is fitting that the other ingredients are varied: joyful arrangements of Polish Christmas carols; the noble anthem from Jupiter in Holst’s The Planets plus the rollicking Jig from his St. Paul’s Suite; and the patriotic trio section of the second movement of Dutch composer Bernard Zweer’s Symphony No. 3. Another rarity is funeral music from Grieg’s melodrama Bergliot, consisting of two fragments, the first a transparent copy of Siegfried’s Death and Funeral March from Wagner’s Götterdämmerung, the second reminiscent of Purcell’s Music for the Funeral of Queen Mary (which, for those keeping score of Kubrick connections, turned up on synthesiser in the soundtrack to A Clockwork Orange). Welcome too are three movements from Nielsen’s Aladdin Suite: Oriental March, Aladdin’s Dream & Dance of the Morning Mist, and Negro Dance, the last mercifully shorn of its embarrassing chorus.
In the end, both performances of de Meij’s version of Suite for Variety Orchestra are enjoyable, so the couplings should be the main basis for choosing.
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Violin Concerto No. 1 in A minor, opus 77; Tchaikovsky: Violin Concerto in D major, opus 35.
Itzhak Perlman, Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, Ilya Gringolts (violin).
Deutsche Grammophon 289 471 616-2. DDD. TT 72:26.
Recorded Frederic R. Mann Auditorium, Tel Aviv, December 2001.
Gringolts’ first entry, accompanied by a clearly audible and purposeful drawing of breath, sets the tone for this recording – this is from the trenches, perhaps how the conductor and soloist hear it rather than your typical concert hall experience. In the Passacaglia, these snatched breaths can easily be mistaken for actual sobbing, and while this degree of intimacy didn’t bother me, some may find it distracting.
Gringolts and Perlman take the Nocturne at a relatively slow tempo – at 12.02 it is somewhat quicker than Maxim Vengerov’s 13:10 with Rostropovich and the London Symphony Orchestra (Teldec 4509-92256-2), but slower than Perlman as violinist with Zubin Mehta and the Israel Philharmonic at 10.51 (EMI CDC 7 49814 2); David Oistrakh’s tempos generally range around the 10 to 11 minute mark (e.g., with Maxim Shostakovich and the New Philharmonia Orchestra; EMI-ASD 2936 LP).
These widely divergent tempi reopen a debate touched on in my previous review of Mravinsky’s live performance of the Fifth Symphony (DSCH 16) regarding excessively slow interpretations. In this case, Shostakovich marks the score Moderato and the metronome markings suggest he intended the movement to come in well under 9 minutes! I think it can be argued that the movement can support the broader tempi favoured in more recent interpretations, though whether this is what the composer intended is another issue altogether. Predictably, the slower renditions create a more elegiac or even morose mood in passages such as the Meno mosso at figure 13 and a sense of desolation in the climax thereafter (up to figure 19). What these slower renditions lose is a certain poignancy that Mehta and Perlman revealed in Shostakovich’s gentle arabesques (such as at figure 13) and a degree of agitation and, dare I say it, nervousness that Oistrakh communicated (the chain-smoking insomniac perhaps?). In occupying the middle ground tempo-wise, combined with the relatively dry and immediate acoustic, Gringolts and Perlman create an intimate reverie that balances the more harrowing moments. The translucent string and harp chords of the final pages are mystical and full of expectation.
Gringolts and Perlman show their mastery throughout the Scherzo. I was particularly struck with the orchestral climax at figure 42 and the reprise of it featuring the soloist at figure 65. While the comparison recordings can range from the thuggish (Vengerov) to the brutal and even slightly deranged (Lydia Mordkovitch with Järvi and the Scottish National Orchestra; Chandos CHAN 8820), Perlman and Gringolts manage to make them dance, partly thanks to some spirited tambourine playing in the first instance and Gringolts’ rhythmic swagger later on. While still retaining a degree of menace these passages sound much closer to the spirit of From Jewish Folk Poetry (The Song of Poverty in particular, with its “almost grotesque glee” to borrow from one commentator). I found the broader emotional range that Gringolts and Perlman explore in this movement uplifting in itself, but also mutually beneficial to the emotional balance of the work as a whole. Elsewhere the playing is crisp and the balance between soloist and orchestra near perfect, revealing some beautifully captured wind tones in the fugato section (from figure 49).
The Passacaglia is of course the emotional core of the work. The opening here is slightly reserved (forte rather than fortissimo perhaps), though the more understated timpani focus our attention on the horns’ stentorian tones. Perlman phrases the wind chorale that follows with subtle pauses, as if suggesting a halting funeral cortege, after which Gringolts’ opening measures sound utterly inconsolable. The next rotation of the passacaglia theme (where the cor anglais and bassoon take up the violin’s lament while the soloist soars above) is beautifully balanced, from which point the movement builds to a riveting climax. Gringolts produces a ghostly yet dignified rendition of the horns’ opening fanfare as the movement’s postlude, which I found very moving.
The cadenza is also captivating. Gringolts uses a good deal more rubato than the comparison recordings (with perhaps the exception of Mordkovitch), reminding me at times of Milstein’s interpretation of Bach’s solo violin works. This is particularly evident in the l’istesso tempo section, which can sound a little robotic if the score is followed to the letter, though I think Gringolts’ rhythmic freedom in the passage quoting the Scherzo theme (marked Allegretto), distorts the composer’s intentions. As the momentum increases, spontaneity perhaps gains the upper hand over precision, and the culminating transition to the finale is not quite as secure as Vengerov’s, but these are minor quibbles.
Like the Scherzo, the finale maintains superb energy and wit. The passage requiring left hand pizzicato (after figure 90) lacks the potency of Perlman and Vengerov, but elsewhere Gringolts more than holds his own technically. The passage over the wonderfully sonorous low E tuba pedal is tremendously exciting and the momentum from here to the end is impressive indeed, particularly the flying glissandi ending on the high E harmonic prior to figure 109 and the frenzied semiquavers that crown the final bars. Vengerov shades him for both speed and precision, but there isn’t much in it.
In the end one would have to say this is an impressive performance. The liner notes quote Gringolts as saying, “I don’t like to play a piece the same way twice.” It will be interesting indeed if, in decades to come, he returns to the studio to have another crack at this. I’m sure the result will be different again but unlikely to surpass this fresh, energetic and compelling rendition. Gringolts takes his place alongside the comparison recordings without necessarily surpassing them – no mean feat, given the standard of the competition! Of the comparison recordings, Perlman as violinist tends to let the notes do the talking without recourse to exaggerated gestures, which is refreshing in many ways. Mordkovitch delivers the most demonic performance, Vengerov the most brilliant. Gringolts and Perlman impress with the individuality of this reading, its passion and commitment and finally the breadth of emotional terrain it traverses.
The Tchaikovsky Concerto is a quality performance though I find the transition from its sound world to Shostakovich’s something of a wrench. Programmed in the reverse order (Shostakovich first) works much better to my taste.
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Symphony No. 1 in F major, opus 10[a]; Symphony No. 12 in D minor, The Year 1917, opus 112[b].
Vakhtang Jordania, Russian Federal Orchestra[a]/Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin[b].
Angelok1 ANG-CD-9916. DDD. TT 70:00.
Recorded Radio Palace Hall, Moscow, February 2000[a]/Berlin Radio, Berlin, 10 January 2000[b].
This is the second entry in Vakhtang Jordania’s projected Shostakovich cycle (his first, an interesting Eleventh Symphony, having filled this spot in DSCH 15). In any set of the complete symphonies the Twelfth has to be done, so it’s probably best to get it out of the way early like this. It is also a good idea to couple it with a stronger work, as Angelok1 do here.
An exercise in thematic somnambulism, the Twelfth Symphony is widely – and justly, in my view – considered to be Shostakovich’s weakest symphony. Jordania and his Berlin players try to make a strong case for it, serving up a performance of deeper feeling than most. Frissons of anticipation are felt as the opening bars of Revolutionary Petrograd swell with far more import than Kondrashin bothers to allot them in his 1972 recording (identically coupled on BMG/Melodiya 74321198482; deleted). One cannot help but feel the victim of a “bait and switch”, however, because this promises more than the score goes on to deliver. Jordania drags out this first movement a minute longer than does Kondrashin, investing its slow passages with genuine introspection, but it is difficult to remain interested in these aimless wanderings at any speed.
I expect that the lonely fan of this symphony would appreciate the gravity Jordania imparts to the second movement, Razliv, and the portentous stirrings of Aurora, but really the vapid, repetitive final movement, Dawn of Humanity, is beyond redemption.
Better to focus on Symphony No. 1, here given a fresh presentation that makes it feel less like an audacious first experiment, more a labyrinth of cryptic signposts. Jordania’s mysterious first movement swirls with disturbing outbursts and enigmatic symbols like the especially discordant brass proclamation at Fig. 45-1/8:05. The dry recording is appropriate to his approach and conveys bass with easy power.
The second movement also bears distinctive touches; take, for instance, the ritardando at Fig. 6/1:01, which Kondrashin applies as a quick gear change, but which here stretches across the semi-consciousness theme that follows like a narcotic haze.
The Russian Federal Orchestra’s edgy, metallic strings offer no sympathy to the plaintive oboe, cello and violin solos of the third movement, and are notably disharmonious at the transition into the fourth movement. It should be admitted that their ensemble is not always razor sharp, and the violin soloist makes an unfortunate mistake at Fig. 22-5/3:46, playing three Cs instead of two Cs and a B as written in the score.
Overall, though, the orchestra are up to the task Jordania sets them. He is clearly a conductor to be reckoned with in this repertoire, and I am very keen to hear what he makes of future entries in this series.
Symphony No. 4 in C minor, opus 43.
Vassily Sinaisky, BBC Philharmonic Orchestra.
BBC Music Magazine MM220. DDD. TT 73:59
Recorded live, BBC Proms, Royal Albert Hall, London, 20 July 2000.
Cover CD to BBC Music Magazine Vol. 10, No. 12, August 2002.
Available for single-issue purchase from: email@example.com; 0044 1795 414 749; Galleon, PO Box 279, Sittingbourne, Kent ME9 8DF, UK.
The Fourth Symphony has acquired a rather special status in the last few decades. It is Shostakovich’s first really mature symphony (a distinction which used to be conferred on the Fifth), and though Shostakovich had not quite finished it when he was viciously attacked in the pages of Pravda, the general consensus has been that it represented the composer’s genuine artistic aims, unsullied by the pressures of official interference. It alludes to other works freely and suggestively; who could miss the references to Tchaikovsky’s Pathètique in the finale coda, or to Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony shortly beforehand? Following on directly from the massive success of Lady Macbeth, the Fourth Symphony effects a similarly powerful fusion of high and low idioms, blending a tender Mahlerian nostalgia with a brutalisation of the kind of polka-march-galop mixture that Shostakovich had made so much his own in ballet and theatre scores. The result is deeply ambivalent, and it is this very quality that makes it a difficult work to get right in performance. Some of the most admired interpreters of Shostakovich’s music have stumbled over it, though there are several fine performances currently available – Simon Rattle’s 1995 CBSO recording in particular still takes some beating (EMI 5 55476 2).
There are many special things about Sinaisky’s Proms performance with the BBC Philharmonic. First, it is live, and that in itself makes it a rarity. None of the mistakes (and there are only a few) are serious enough to be worth mentioning, and a few rough edges may be a price worth paying for the extra frisson of excitement that comes with live performance.
Second, Sinaisky’s grasp of Shostakovich’s dramatic pacing – particularly in the first movement – is extremely impressive, all the more so when considering the often drily propulsive nature of the many build-ups. And his grasp of Shostakovich’s knife-edge lyricism – constantly on the brink of distorting and fragmenting – is also compelling. He isn’t afraid to challenge some of the more dubious tempo indications in the score, or to deviate from normal practice, and on the whole Sinaisky’s tempi are convincing. One potential quibble comes at the end of the cor anglais solo near the end of the first movement: Shostakovich indicates a dramatic slowing down at this point – almost to half speed – which Sinaisky largely ignores. In fact, this solo, which can (and perhaps should) be the most moving passage in the first movement, is somewhat glossed over, which could certainly come as a major disappointment.
There is a kind of glassy, fixated quality in much of the music of the Fourth Symphony, and Sinaisky is clearly well attuned to it. The ghostly waltzes, the second movement’s dry, burbling fugue, the finale’s violent machine-music and superficially charming divertimento all feel as though they have had all the warmth and vitality sucked out of them, leaving a cold, empty shell. And this is fine up to a point: the hollowness of such music is one of its defining features. But there should also be glimpses of warmth, hope and beauty; without them, the whole symphony will sound as though it has died inside. That may possibly have been Sinaisky’s intention, but if so, his view of the symphony is not one I share. The finale’s divertimento, for example, doesn’t need to be quite so unrelentingly shallow. Similarly, the approach to the coda – with its moving allusion to the Resurrection Symphony – should register as a moment of genuine hope, but in Sinaisky’s reading, it sounds brittle and thin. As with so much of this performance, that reading is convincing in its way. But when that kind of cynicism seeps into every corner of the work, the cumulative effect can be too one-dimensional. The symphony’s concluding pages should be devastating precisely because the purity and hope that had been evoked is ultimately rejected. But in this performance, it registers merely as a chilly fade-out, chiefly because it had no real heart in the first place.
|London Shostakovich Orchestra|
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Symphony No. 7 in C major, Leningrad, opus 60.
William Steinberg, Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra.
Classica D’Oro CDO 1045. ADD mono. TT 69:06.
Recorded December 1946.
Two historic recordings here, albeit separated by over half a century. Both represent the most ambitious undertakings of their orchestras for their time, and both deliver more than one might expect of them.
This is the second recording by the London Shostakovich Orchestra, an assemblage of amateur and semi-professional musicians, formed in 1999. As the name suggests, they concentrate on Shostakovich’s orchestral repertoire; their previous recording featuring the Sixth Symphony was reviewed in DSCH 16.
It would be idle to pretend that the LShO are in the same performance class as a professional orchestra. Enthusiasm does carry a great deal of credit, however, and there is an abundance of that here. For example, although the percussionist on snare drum in the first movement’s interminable tattoo does not have quite the rhythmic assurance one expects of a world-class soloist, he puts in a heroic effort, successfully matching his volume to the instruments marching alongside him and never sounding other than grimly martial.
What separates the LShO most obviously from a professional orchestra is, surprisingly, not their brass, often a sore point in even major ensembles but here remarkably powerful and steady of tone. Rather, it is the violin section, which has poor cohesion. Long passages in this symphony demand precise unison bowing, shining a harsh spotlight on the frequent lags and head-starts by individual players. Taking the LShO to the next level of quality will require practice in this area.
That said, high praise is due the woodwinds, and there are especially fine oboe and flute solos in the second and third movements, respectively. All players respond energetically to Christopher Cox’s generally taut direction. Tempi tend towards the brisk side and Cox avoids gratuitous rubato. Throughout the symphony one senses a powerful forward momentum that must have been even more exciting for those in attendance; indeed, clapping follows hard upon the final note, though Dunelm have thoughtfully indexed this with a new track so you can stop play before the applause if so inclined.
After seeing the booklet photo of the LShO wedged into the narrow St. Cyprian’s Church, I was amazed that the acoustics of this disc are as open as they are; only in the loudest tutti does the sound become congested.
The mono sound on the Classica D’Oro CD is much more of a challenge, wrapped in a woolly shroud and reporting a great deal of surface swish from the source 78 rpm platters. There is also an editing glitch that chips the first note at Fig. 29-1/9:17 of the first movement.
Still, with a recording of 1946 vintage, allowances can be made. As Lawrence Cosentino’s brief but informative booklet notes explain, this was the Buffalo Philharmonic’s first recording, William Steinberg having chosen the still-novel Leningrad Symphony as a suitably epic vehicle to showcase his orchestra’s fine string section.
However, the ostensibly anti-Nazi Leningrad likely held deeper significance for him. Steinberg’s promising career in Germany had been crippled when the Nazis came to power and restricted him to conducting all-Jewish orchestras. In 1936 Steinberg emigrated to Palestine, where he co-founded the precursor of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra with Bronislav Hubermann. Conducting the new orchestra’s premiere concert was none other than staunch anti-Fascist Arturo Toscanini. Noting Steinberg’s talent, Toscanini enticed him away to become the Associate Conductor of his NBC Symphony Orchestra. As it was also Toscanini who later recommended Steinberg to the Buffalo Philharmonic for the post of music director, Steinberg’s choice of the Leningrad for the orchestra’s first recording may have served double-duty as a tribute to his mentor, the conductor of the Seventh Symphony’s US broadcast premiere.
Steinberg’s is an athletic, sinewy interpretation, which makes one regret that he never recorded the work again with an even better ensemble. As I mentioned earlier, the brass are often an orchestra’s weak link, and the Buffalo Philharmonic recording reveals that this was true in what was still an up-and-coming group in a minor city without a strong musical heritage. The biggest slip, however, befalls the percussionist at the very beginning of the first movement’s march, at Fig. 19/5:57, when the snare drum’s snares aren’t turned on until two bars late!
In the final analysis, although both of these Leningrad performances have strong points, their technical weaknesses restrict their appeal to completists and to those with a soft spot for the orchestras. In the case of the LShO, that latter category probably describes a good fraction of DSCH Journal’s readership. I am interested to see if, with further experience, future LShO recordings can be more generally recommended.
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This recording is one of the most important recordings of a mainstream Shostakovich work to appear in the past decade. Rostropovich achieved a similar success with his reading of Symphony No. 14 back in 1972, a version that continues to surpass all others before or since. It is likely that this performance of the Eleventh will be the new gold standard for years to come.
The story of the Eleventh, its depiction of the 1905 uprising, its likely genesis due to the 1956 Soviet squelching of the Hungarian revolution, and Shostakovich’s use of revolutionary songs throughout, is all well-known and won’t be covered here. Likewise, Rostropovich’s association and deep friendship with Shostakovich is also very familiar to readers. Both artists saw enormous violence and continued revolution in Russia, while Rostropovich has lived to see and actively participate in the revolution ending Soviet power and establishing Glasnost.
Rostropovich first recorded the Eleventh in 1992 with the National Symphony Orchestra (Teldec 9031-76262-2). This recording has not been highly regarded – the playing was not tight and the interpretation was inconsistent, failing to come across as an architectural whole. Favoured far above it were performances by Mravinsky (1959; Revelation RV 10091; reviewed in DSCH 9; deleted), Stokowski (1958; EMI CDM 5 65206 2), and de Priest (1988; Delos D/CD 3080).
The current recording by Rostropovich is part of the London Symphony Orchestra’s new venture of releasing their own live performances, and was made during Rostropovich’s 75th birthday year. For his birthday celebrations, Rostropovich wanted – and got – to perform a Shostakovich series with the LSO both in London and in New York, which included the Symphonies Nos. 7, 8, and 11. This recording comes from the London performance. It is notable for being one of the longest on record, clocking in at almost 72 1/2 minutes, fully 12 minutes slower than Mravinsky’s and over 18 minutes slower than Kondrashin’s (BMG/Melodiya 74321 19843-2; deleted), and exceeded only by Polyansky’s 73 1/2 (Chandos CHAN 9476). Rostropovich’s previous version was nearly 69 minutes. The huge variability in timings – the score indicates a duration of approximately 60 minutes – is due mainly to differences in tempi used in the first and second movements.
Choosing exceedingly slow tempi in the Eleventh runs great risk of loss of cohesion and diffusion of interest, which occurs in Polyansky’s reading. Nevertheless, Rostropovich maintains firm control throughout this massive work, resulting in an enormous span of uninterrupted tension and attention. The score calls for the first movement to be Adagio, quarter note = 66. Mravinsky’s 15:25 minute version uses a tempo of ca. 72, while Rostropovich’s 20:10 version uses ca. 60. Rostropovich’s tempo seems incredibly slow to those who know the piece. The slowness exacerbates the icy mood of the Winter Palace Square and the huddled masses waiting outside in the cold and snow. The songs here have added weight and a greater sense of futility.
Due to the very slow first movement, the faster tempo of the second, The 9th of January, starts it off with a great sense of urgency. The tensions rise and then abate, until the infamous shooting sequence begins in the Allegro climax. Here, the score calls for half note = 108. Mravinsky’s 18:20 minute version uses a much faster tempo of ca. 136, while Rostropovich’s 21:27 version uses ca. 104. The latter’s slower tempo, corresponding more closely than most to the score, intensifies the terror, and the gunshots and knifings are ever more violent. The quarter note – rest – quarter note beat on the bass drum sounds as huge, brutal thwacks, whereas in faster versions, they are less menacing poundings.
Directly after the climax of this section, the sound breaks off to the strings playing pianissimo, trilled, long-held notes. This part brings out one of the problems with this recording: the dynamic range is extreme, so that parts such as these become inaudible after turning the volume down during the battle scene so as to not scare the neighbours. Those with an isolated home (or isolation chamber) will revel in the extreme volume range, but practically it is excessive. In this quiet after the battle, Mravinsky’s Leningrad strings play with great eeriness, and the effect is hair-raising. Rostropovich’s LSO strings play too softly, and the effect is muted.
The third movement, In Memoriam, Adagio, commences with immense sorrow in the wonderful viola section solo. The solo figure sounds hesitant to those who are accustomed to a faster tempo, with the eighth note rest now being heard between the phrases. The halting nature of this passage can be viewed as a representation of the wounded and deceased.
The polemics that start up in the fourth movement, The Tocsin, are more studied and deliberate than in Mravinsky’s version. The propaganda-sounding tunes and false cheery mood get jumbled and implode in Mravinsky, whereas in Rostropovich, they rise and then ineffectively sputter out, and suddenly all plunges again to the quiet, eerie trills in the strings. This brings back the revolutionary songs and builds into a fervour of determination and warning.
The chimes at the end often pose a problem: in Stokowski, the percussionist skips a rest and his last figure comes in a beat too soon, robbing the performance of a strong last beat. In Mravinsky, the chime seems to fail to sound in its last eighth note, again leaving the final note with less impact. In several versions, the chimes are almost inaudible. Rostropovich’s chimes are appropriately loud and on the mark. He chooses to let the last note ring, and clearly this note was added after the live performance, as the chime fades to nothing and there’s no audience noise. This effect is amazing, but not what Shostakovich indicated. The score calls for the final note in all instruments to be a single eighth note ending on the first beat of the last full measure, with rests following the eighth note, even for the chimes. The note is accented for instruments holding the same note into the last bar. For the effect Rostropovich ends with, Shostakovich would have written the chime’s last note as a full note or at least tied over the rests. In recordings, I favour this added effect to the score, but in live performance, the ringing chime is immediately drowned out by the audience clapping, as happened at de Priest’s performance with the Juilliard Orchestra in the fall of 2002, despite his arms being upheld to try to delay the ovation.
Throughout this long, live performance, the LSO are impeccable. The playing is exceptional in technique and intonation, and the musicians clearly feel and understand the song melodies. The solos are wonderful, with no major flaws to comment on. The CD notes, by Andrew Huth, are good but rather short. The cover art, a hard-to-decipher silhouette of Shostakovich hidden by grey abstract overpainting, is strangely and unfortunately very similar to the grey abstract painting on Rostropovich’s earlier version of the 11th. The CD is priced quite low, making this an incredible bargain, and adding to it being a truly important and valuable recording. A must for every reader, and top choice for this symphony.
[Recording Editor’s note: this recording has been nominated for Grammy Awards in two categories: Best Orchestral Recording and Best Engineered Classical Recording.]