CD Reviews 19
§ = World Première Recording
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Sviatoslav Richter Archives: Volume 9
Four Preludes and Fugues from Twenty-four Preludes and Fugues, opus 87: No. 19 in Eb major, No. 20 in C minor, No. 21 in Bb major, No. 22 in G minor; Miaskovsky: Piano Sonata No. 3 in C minor, opus 19; Prokofiev: Piano Sonata No. 8 in Bb major, opus 84.
Sviatoslav Richter (piano).
Doremi DHR-7806. ADD. TT 69:23.
Recorded Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory, 22 December 1974.
Russian music was Richter’s passion and domain. Throughout his life he premiered and tirelessly promoted contemporary Russian works. Presented on this disc, through an artful restoration by the Doremi team, is a 1974 recital featuring an all-Russian programme. Richter wisely combines a famous Prokofiev work, Sonata No. 8, and four less familiar Preludes and Fugues from Shostakovich’s Opus 87, with Miaskovsky’s rarely performed Sonata No. 3.
Opening the recital with Miaskovsky’s Sonata, Richter instantly captures one’s attention. Written by one of the most interesting yet greatly underrated Russian composers, this single-movement composition is reminiscent of Scriabin and Medtner. Although revised by the composer two decades after its original publication in 1921, the Sonata’s second version, played by Richter, is still as difficult as it is beautiful. However, in Richter’s nearly perfect technical execution you can hardly notice the Sonata’s pianistic challenges. His playing is romantic yet noble. Due to strong temperament, clarity, rhythmic discipline, and dynamic explosiveness, he renders this not extremely communicative composition magnetic and exciting.
The excitement of the Sonata lingers on and influences the performance of the next piece, Shostakovich’s G-minor Prelude, No. 22. Richter’s tempo seems to be too agitated, and the repeated chords in the accompaniment sound too loud at times. The mood and tempo calm down only with the beginning of the Fugue, in which stark dynamic contrasts contribute to the vitality of the interpretation.
The following perpetuum mobile Prelude No. 21, in Bb major is rendered brilliantly with an impeccable evenness of tone in both hands. The energetic Bb-major Fugue is equally captivating, with bright accents, volcanic dynamics and sustained rhythmic power throughout. Richter plays with the piece like a child with a toy, his huge supple hands catching together extended chords (see bar 193) and easily executing all the varied technical difficulties of the Fugue.
There is also a surprise in store in Richter’s interpretation of Prelude No. 19, in Eb major. Although Shostakovich indicated only one tempo in the score, Richter plays the Prelude’s two themes in two different tempos. The majestic first theme (with chords in dotted half notes, forte) is faster, while the mysterious second theme (with quarter notes staccato, piano) is slower. This reading convinces me, especially the ominous character that the second theme acquires at the end of the Prelude. However, many may find taking such liberties to be unacceptable. The Fugue is also on the slow side, but the voicing is clear and the dynamics bold. In this tempo, the pianissimo ending sounds more unsettling and mysterious, uniting the Fugue with the second theme of the Prelude.
Prelude No. 20 is slow as well. Whereas the precision of Richter’s piano and diminuendo is bewitching, the several-bar-long basses do not survive at this speed – we simply do not hear them in bars 10-11, 13-15, 27, and at the end of bars 32 and 56. In his own performances, Shostakovich repeated these basses but did not indicate this in the score (Revelation RV70003; deleted; reviewed in DSCH 9). As is clear from the present recording, either the tempo should be faster, or the basses must be repeated ad libitum. Richter’s interpretation of Fugue No. 20 is also slow and calm, but all “non-thematic” voices have a great vitality, and evolve as intensely as the theme itself.
Richter’s recital concludes with a magnificent performance of Prokofiev’s Sonata No. 8. In the first and third movements, Richter’s grasp of structure, tempo proportions, variety of tone colours and orchestral scope of dynamic contrasts are arresting. The poetic second movement has a flowing tempo, and its rich tapestry of inner voices is clear and expressive. The Sonata as a whole seems compact in Richter’s interpretation. This is one of the best and most authentic performances of this work I’ve heard. Don’t miss this remarkable issue!
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Shostakovich String Quartets 1-13
Disc 1: String Quartets No. 1 in C major, opus 49[a]; No. 3 in F major, opus 73[a]; No. 12 in Db major, opus 133[b]
Disc 2: String Quartets No. 4 in D major, opus 83[a]; No. 5 in Bb major, opus 92[a]; No. 6 in G major, opus 101[a]
Disc 3: String Quartets No. 7 in F# minor, opus 108[a]; No. 8 in C minor, opus 110[a]; No. 9 in Eb major, opus 117[a]; No. 11 in F minor, opus 122[a]
Disc 4: String Quartets No. 2 in A major, opus 68[a]; No. 10 in Ab major, opus 118[a]; No. 13 in Bb minor, opus 138[c]
Borodin String Quartet (original members): Rostislav Dubinsky, Yaroslav Alexandrov (violins), Dmitri Shebalin (viola), Valentin Berlinsky (cello).
Chandos Historical CHAN 10064(4). ADD. 4-CD set TT 5:12:24.
Listed as recorded 1967[a]; 1968[b]; 1972[c].
More than a quarter century after vanishing from the catalogue, the traversal of the Shostakovich quartet cycle by the original members of the Borodin Quartet is at last back in circulation. Having achieved almost mythical status as the sine qua non for this repertoire, its comeback arouses curiosity and prompts re-evaluation.
As many performances of the Shostakovich quartets as have come our way, including later versions by the Borodins themselves, listeners still swear by the unassailable authority of the performances with the original members. It is hard not to be impressed by the unanimity of approach, the confidence bordering on boldness, the ease with which they convey not mere familiarity but complete consolidation with the complex, often difficult Shostakovich idiom.
The current recordings feature the group’s earliest studio sessions with its original members. The first eleven quartets were recorded in 1967 and circulated in the US on two Angel Seraphim LP boxed sets (SIC 6034, 6035; deleted) in the early 1970s. The Twelfth and Thirteenth Quartets, recorded in 1968 and 1972, were subsequently added to a single-box British issue (SLS 879; deleted). The Fourteenth and Fifteenth Quartets were not recorded by the original members.
Some may be familiar with the later recording of the Borodins on a 6-CD set released in the 1990s on EMI and BMG/Melodiya (74321 40711 2; deleted). These were performances recorded between 1978 and 1984 with a regrouped ensemble, Mikhail Kopelman and Andrei Abramenkov having replaced the original violinists in 1974. The same team also recorded Quartets Nos. 2, 3, 7, 8 and 12 in 1990 for Virgin Classics (reissued as 2-CD set 5616302).
The Borodin is one of a number of revered Soviet-era string quartets – along notably with the Beethoven and Taneyev Quartets – that made a speciality of the Shostakovich canon. The oldest of these is the Beethoven. Founded in 1923, it enjoyed a long-standing reputation by the time the Borodin and Taneyev emerged, also as young conservatory graduates, in 1945 and 1946, respectively. It is the Beethoven Quartet to whom Shostakovich entrusted the premieres of all but two of his quartets, and again the Beethoven members who are the dedicatees of six of the works. And yet, it is the Borodin, with neither claim to a premiere nor a dedication, whose performances of Shostakovich are more widely known and celebrated. This recognition can be partly attributed to the wider distribution of their recordings, which, unlike those of the Beethoven and Taneyev Quartets, include more than one passage through the cycle. Another reason is the charisma of their interpretations.
The original Borodins bring a remarkable mixture of character and concentration to one of the great quartet cycles of Western music. A more daring set of tempo choices and meticulous technical precision one will certainly find elsewhere. What sets the Borodins apart is their uncanny attention to detail, their ability to impart breathing room and nuance to almost every phrase of the music without losing its essential spontaneity, inner tension or architectural solidity. Compare, for example, the wiry, hard-driven manner of the Beethoven Quartet; the emphasis on formal elegance proffered by the Fitzwilliams (Decca 289455776-2), or the enunciatory freshness of the Eder (on Naxos) and Emerson Quartets (Deutsche Grammophon 289 463 284-2; reviewed in DSCH 13). The fabric of the Borodins’ performances, by contrast, is woven from the inside out, from an emphasis on the expressive colour and the dramatic content of each individual moment.
Well before the days when Bakhtinian inflections and hidden agendas were being discovered in Shostakovich’s music, the Borodins had already found an unerring recipe for interpreting a Shostakovich idiom richly layered in semantic ambiguity. Perhaps they were at an advantage having had the opportunity to approach the music from an intuitive rather than an intellectualised perspective. In their hands, everything seems to fall into the right place – and at the right time. They are thoroughly immersed in the various moods and attitudes of the music, and convey, in a natural, unselfconscious way, its idiosyncratic, often contradictory, overlays of emotion.
A prime example of the Borodins’ unique style can be heard in the finale of the Third Quartet. In this rondo-sonata movement one finds a labyrinth of contrasts that wends its way through wistful contentment, mock jollity, tragic culmination, and final melancholy. Midway through, a climactic recollection of the slow movement’s main theme gives way to a sombre cello solo, then the quiet return of an insouciant little theme now turned bittersweet in its new context (Fig. 111). Timing in this passage is paramount. In the Borodins’ hands, the final notes of the cello solo are fleshed out with an air of temporal stillness; the succeeding pause is one of prolonged, yet breathless anticipation, the returning violin theme capturing a forlorn matter-of-factness that is simply heartrending. No other performance I have heard elicits as much drama and poignancy from this pivotal moment, and indeed from the entire movement. Compare the rather stiff versions by the Beethoven (Russian Compact Disc RCD 16617) and St. Petersburg Quartets (Hyperion CDA 67153; reviewed in DSCH 13), the more assertive take of the Fitzwilliams and Eder Quartets (Naxos 8.550974), even the very sensitive rendition by the Taneyevs (Leningrad Masters LM 1325; deleted).
With the Borodins, it is from the strength of such individual moments that the solidity of the larger structure emerges. Note the high and mighty declamatory force with which the passacaglia theme recurs throughout this fourth movement. And the pleasures taken in the numerous dynamic shifts and stylish rubati of the opening Allegretto.
Breadth and contrast mark the five attached movements of the Ninth Quartet, where light and dark materials alternate through a variety of sectional links. The early Borodins accentuate these sections slightly more than the later Borodins. They shine with particular brilliance in the Allegretto‘s amalgamation of glee and nervous energy. Just before the Allegretto’s perky theme is sprung, they play the final attached bars of the previous Adagio absolutely deadpan, providing a lead-in free of anticipatory clues. As elsewhere, contrast and contradiction are maximized. Other ensembles tend to drop the poker face a phrase or two sooner, giving the game away. Listen to the equivocal shades of mirth the early Borodins bring to the Allegretto‘s gypsy-inflected passages, as, for example, when the cello’s rambunctious variant briefly plays foil to the elegantly arching notes of the first violin’s upper register (Fig. 45).
In the final two movements, the luxurious expanse given to the passages of massive pizzicato chords allows these breakaway totems to occupy a unique, unrushed meditative space of their own. The Borodins make cohesive drama of the complex turn of events in the finale, where a climactic ascent preemptively dissolves and leads into curiously deflected territory. Throughout, they are well attuned the anticlimactic episodes in the music, a key to Shostakovian irony.
In the compact Seventh Quartet, the Borodins’ instantaneous reflexes more than meet the task. They shape the quick-exchange contours of the third movement’s fugue with a demonstrative sense of arrival, allowing the peak phrases to stand out against the frenetic background activity – more so than does the formidable competition, the Taneyevs (on deleted Melodiya CD SUCD11 00309 or, mislabelled, on Praga PR 7250077; reviewed in DSCH 14) and the Emersons. In the opening movement’s thread of clipped phrases, the Borodins achieve an inner tension combined with a seamless continuity that cannot always be taken for granted. The Emersons, admirable for the fresh, vital rhythms they bring to this repertoire, here leave some of the stitches exposed. With the Borodins, the rarefied atmosphere that begins the second movement, and the sudden dissolve to wistful contentment in the finale are memorable.
Their skill in blending continuity and contrast is evident everywhere. In the five linked movements of the Eleventh Quartet, note the anticipatory pauses in between movements, the sly, parabolic arcs of their glissandi in the Scherzo, the expansive reading of the Recitative‘s opening spasm and its aftermath, the powerful climaxes. Compare these to the clipped, business-like versions of the above offered by the Beethovens.
With what one might paradoxically call “carefully judged spontaneity”, the Borodins pry out the exuberance and wistful irony of the third movement of the Fourth Quartet, and the vibrant ascendancy of the Hebraic themes in its final movement. Vibrancy again marks the finale of the Second Quartet, though the Emerson Quartet show what new life can be brought to these variations with more flexibly steered tempi.
The Borodins certainly understand the necessary brutality of Shostakovich’s music and they fearlessly engage it on that level. Listen, for example, to the animal ferocity that leaps from the jagged rhythms and grinding dissonances of the first movement of the Fifth Quartet. Here the original Borodins are particularly aggressive in building chilling climactic peaks – compare the Taneyev (Praga PR 7250077), Shostakovich (Olympia OCD 532), and later Borodin Quartets.
The short, pulsing phrases in the opening movement of the Second Quartet have a similar muscularity, as do the sharp rhythmic attacks in the Eighth Quartet. And take one of the most barbaric-sounding examples in the quartet literature, the second movement of the Tenth Quartet. In few performances will one hear such unmitigated agitation delivered and sustained. The successive high, low register dissonances in the Borodins’ hands sound like great heaving inhalations and exhalations, anguished breaths of fire issued from the lungs of a dragon.
You may gather (correctly) that I have difficulty finding fault with a set of performances I have long admired. One of the few instances where I found the Borodins lacking their usual lustre is in the last two quartets of the set. The Twelfth Quartet’s cryptic lyricism makes it one of the most difficult to interpret convincingly. The Beethovens take an aloof approach, bringing out the Sphinx-like character of the opening movement (Consonance CD 81-3008; deleted). It is one of the most poetic renditions on record. The Eder Quartet, on the other hand, take an opposite perspective and give a stunning, highly engaged performance (Naxos 8.550975). The Borodins are uncharacteristically cautious in both movements. A more confident, seasoned performance of this work is found in the Borodins’ 1981 recording.
In the Thirteenth Quartet, the original Borodins take the central “dance of death” section at a relatively brisk pace, bringing out the jazzy downward riffs and col legno ticks with due neurotic tension. In the slower outer sections they are desolate and solemn. They are outdone by all measures, however, in the painfully intense performance of the Shostakovich Quartet (Olympia OCD 535), whose general approach to the cycle seems directly influenced by the Borodins.
The character of the Borodin Quartet owes much to the strength of its individual players. Rostislav Dubinsky, first violinist and founder of the ensemble, and cellist Valentin Berlinsky, deserve special mention. Notable are Dubinsky’s expressiveness in the prominent solos throughout the Fifth and Eighth Quartets and the recitatives of the Second Quartet’s slow movement, as well as the playfulness he lends to the sweet chromatic waltz theme in the second movement of the Sixth Quartet.
Likewise, cellist Berlinsky brings a gripping intensity to the Fifth Quartet from its opening page, and to the vehement declamations of the Tenth Quartet’s Allegretto furioso. He also brings distinct shades to the lighter moments: the lightfooted glissandi in the opening movement of the First Quartet; the self-mocking confidence of the solos found in the finales of the Fourth and Sixth Quartets. It is no small accomplishment to lend this much character to each part and at the same time preserve the cohesiveness of the ensemble.
Given the time span between the first and second Borodin cycles (anywhere from 11 to 17 years) and the 50% change in personnel, there are more instances of similarity than one may expect. However, in the early Borodin, one will hear an unmistakable exuberance, a freshness and a focus that are its exclusive property.
On the technical side, the stereo transfers are well balanced, with good analogue frequency range though some rough edges at peak levels. There is also a small editing gaffe or two. No technical details about the transfers are provided. Rather than the flat, uniform hiss characteristic of a master tape, the crumply background noise (very faint, yet wisely overlapped through the pauses between movements) as well as the faint periodic “swish” heard in the Thirteenth Quartet, reveal direct LP transfers. The sound processing is clean and consistent. Packaging and liner notes are adequate, though I lament the absence of the fine analytical notes with musical examples by Yoritoyo Inouye that accompanied the original Seraphim LP set (not to mention – but I do! – the inclusion of a vigorous performance of Shostakovich’s Two Pieces for String Octet with the Borodin and Prokofiev Quartets, which last resurfaced in the BMG/Melodiya set of the Borodins’ second cycle).
Listeners will no doubt find much in these robust and deeply focused performances that they have never heard elsewhere. If the Borodins lack some of the finesse of other ensembles, they bring a vitality and level of involvement that defy comparison. They are not the last word in interpretation, nor are they curators of a bygone performing tradition that is to be looked upon with nostalgia. Rather they offer an idiomatic grasp, an intensely absorbing penetration into the music’s soul that bears fruit for both listener and future performers. It is one traversal of this cherished canon that must be heard. Bravo, Chandos, for a landmark reissue!
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String Quartet No. 10 in Ab, opus 118; String Quartet No. 12 in Db, opus 133; String Quartet No. 14 in F#, opus 142.
St. Petersburg String Quartet: Alla Aranovskaya, Ilya Teplyakov (violins), Alexei Koptev (viola), Leonid Shukaev (cello).
Hyperion CDA 67156. DDD. TT 79:22.
Recorded St. Petersburg Recording Studio, December 2002 and January 2003.
This CD features some of the most glorious and opulent string sounds you could hope to hear, but is not recommended as an introduction to three of the greatest masterpieces in the medium from the last hundred years. Previous volumes of the St. Petersburgs’ cycle have met with a near-universal warm reception, but on this occasion the evident dedication, concentration and refulgent sonorities on offer do not disguise an apparent lack of engagement with the heart of the matter, in comparison with the usual suspects; especially, in the case of these three works, the Borodins, Beethovens (Consonance 81-3008 and 81-3009; deleted) and Fitzwilliams (Decca 289455776-2). I hope the final volume of the St. Petersburg cycle will bring a return to form.
The St. Petersburgers have also had the ill fortune to see this latest release timed to coincide with a reissue of the early, incomplete Borodin Quartet cycle, in a transfer from LP, which all collectors need to own, if they don’t already have the same performances in another format (Chandos CHAN 10064; reviewed above). The Borodin Quartet set features a reading of opus 118 of incomparable range, conviction, subtlety and power. No other recording has come close to surpassing their achievement.
The Tenth Quartet achieved early acclaim when Shostakovich’s stock was running quite high in the early ’60s. Following its 1964 premiere, it was hailed in the UK as possibly the composer’s greatest quartet to date; there was a very fine early Viennese recording on Decca from the Weller Quartet, with distinguished successors from the Fitzwilliam and Taneyev Quartets. The St. Petersburg Quartet take an approach in strong contrast to all of these older versions, generally slow and steady in all four movements, recalling thereby the String Symphony arrangement, opus 118a. Perhaps in line with the booklet-note writer’s theory that the Tenth marks the beginning of the Composer’s “late” cycle, the St. Petersburgers allow each combination of sounds to register without added emphasis, making opus 118 seem more modern than is usual, and more a child of its times.
All other interpreters known to me take the middle movements by the scruff of the neck, accepting both that in the second, Shostakovich did indeed mean furioso, and that in the Passacaglia he was directly exposing deep human feeling, after which the finale’s dissolution seems all the more moving. The St. Petersburgers emphasise slow and quiet alienation throughout the second movement, and the third sounds more like a Hovhaness prayer than impassioned Shostakovich. If that is in line with your own view of the work and Shostakovich at the time he composed it, then hear their performance.
The Twelfth Quartet might be heard as Shostakovich’s response to the Beethoven Grosse Fuge – with which it shares an opus number – and to late Beethoven in general. With a general shape that recalls the late-Beethoven piano sonatas, especially opp. 110 and 111, Shostakovich produced in 1968 an authentic miracle of creative self-reinvention: one of the greatest quartets ever written, its vast, trilling second movement matching Beethoven’s opus 133 in length, emotional scope and formal ambition, without emulating the Beethoven fugal model – though after writing opus 87 No. 24, Shostakovich could surely have made a fight of that, too.
Like the Grosse Fuge, the essence of the Twelfth has eluded most performers. On disc, the Fitzwilliam Quartet have come closest to a satisfying reading, a cogent, potent view of the work that accumulates expressive energy as it proceeds, culminating in a genuine release. The St. Petersburg Quartet once more take a low-key approach. Their reading of the second movement is a couple of minutes faster than the Fitzwilliams’, but seems to go on for much longer. Interestingly, in this performance, parts of the movement seem to anticipate the Third Quartet of Britten, composed a few years later. The St. Petersburgers play beautifully, but the architectural concerns flounder, and all sounds too careful.
The Fourteenth receives probably the most successful performance on the disc. Despite the work’s late-late nature, the players invest its first movement with a good deal more energy than they did opus 118. In the succeeding movements, however, the St. Petersburgers once more seem too slow, without any compensating increase in expressive yield. The unearthly beauty of the transfigured night of the work’s final five minutes can hardly fail, of course, but the emotional and structural peaks and troughs seem evened out, lost in the cultivated tone and steady tempi. Heard at its best, this music can bring the strength of late Janacek to mind in its nostalgic passion, recalled with anger, irony and exhaustion, dying away with the faintest memory of Lady Macbeth. The St. Petersburgers manage the dying away part very well, but not the passion, and I assume this approach is deliberate. On disc, the Borodins in their 1981 recording (BMG/Melodiya 74321 40711 2; deleted) – there is no early Borodin recording of opus 142 – are matched by the ardour of the Fitzwilliams, and possibly surpassed by the Beethoven Quartet, who seem to combine the best features of all other versions in their bleak premiere recording.
Booklet notes are quite extensive, but again promulgate the notion that the 15 quartets form three cycles: 1-6; 7-9; and 10-15. This isn’t the place to discuss this idea in depth, but in the context of this release there seem all sorts of reasons why 10 belongs with 9, and 7 with 8, for example; and why 9 seems more ‘late’ than 10. Indeed the best companions for any Shostakovich Quartet would seem to be its closest neighbours, which begs the question: why have Hyperion recorded and issued the cycle in this disparate order?
More to the point, why are the even-numbered quartets on this disc presented not in composition order, but as 12, 14 and 10? Perhaps the current order was chosen so that the concert would end with the whispered close to opus 118. If so, an unfortunate consequence is to emphasise a few extraneous bronchial noises in the CD’s final minute, to the right of the quartet, as though someone had fallen asleep behind the players. This is no worse than the assorted bird and traffic noises that are, together with tape-hiss, so much a feature of the outstanding Fitzwilliam cycle, which I’d still prefer, as sound, to all the others. It has a more open atmosphere and ambience than the new Hyperion, the players placed more precisely in the soundstage.
Newcomers to the world of the Shostakovich Quartets should note that the complete cycle from the eponymous Shostakovich Quartet (Regis RRC5001) can be found for around the price of this latest single Hyperion release. At its best, that set – which also includes a fine performance of the Two Pieces for String Quartet – challenges the most distinguished rivals, and the recordings are never less than good. Other super-bargain cycles are announced. Competition is hotting up; full-pricers will have to be on their mettle, and look a good deal livelier, if they hope to stay in the game.
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String Quartet No. 15 in Eb minor, opus 144[a]; Schnittke: Piano Quintet[b].
Keller Quartett: András Keller (violin I), János Pilz (violin II), Zoltán Gál (viola), Judit Szabò (cello), Alexei Lubimov (piano)[b].
ECM New Series 1755. DDD. TT 65:02.
Recorded Propstei Sankt Gerold monastery, Austria, 20-22 June 2000[a]; Radio DRS, Zürich, 4-5 June 2000.
Shostakovich’s most remote of quartets, the six-Adagio Fifteenth, provides the Keller Quartet with the perfect vehicle for their continuing ECM discography. With their trademark sound, an austere, glassy, almost medieval glow, combined with ECM’s hallowed acoustic that exudes the atmosphere of hollow ancient cathedrals or starless arctic nights, this Budapest ensemble take Shostakovich’s quasi-requiem to the limit, imbuing it with such an extravagance of stillness and quiet that it can be suffocating.
Before I continue, a word of warning: this disc is meant to be played loud. The louder, the better, lest you get left out in the cold as I was in my initial auditions. This is an intimate affair, unlike the raw and immediate recordings of the historic Taneyevs (Melodiya SUCD 11 00313; deleted) or Fitzwilliams (Decca 289455776-2), and it is captured with perhaps too much finesse for those of us who like our Shostakovich raw like a glass of Russian vodka neat. To appreciate the full power of the Keller Quartet’s reading, crank up your amp and be prepared for a journey with a difference.
The entire work is taken in hushed, reverent tones from start to finish, giving the entire quartet a funereal glow. It is a fascinating approach, but one that may, for some, outstay its welcome, as it becomes, by the end, a singularly grim affair. Many other approaches work with this music, and I tire from the constant focus on death in a work where shades of life should also come into play. Listen to this performance a few more times and the Kellers do grow on you, revealing an interesting world of delicate nuances. In the long run, though, I still find the more humane approach of ensembles like the Shostakovich Quartet (Olympia OCD 534), who find a middle ground between minimal vibrato and passionate expression, easier to warm to.
The opening threnody is played almost entirely senza vibrato, an approach that the composer apparently favoured. The resulting effect is like a harmonium reverberating in an empty cathedral, a lone player intoning prayer in the stillness of solitude. It can be comforting, powerful, numbing, or disturbing, depending on your mood. What it lacks is real passion; there is an oppressive sense of detachment that the Keller hone into a rich language of its own.
The famous crescendo screams that usher in the Serenade don’t quite have the impact of the more historic performances, but I believe the fault, if it is one, lies in the engineering. But even here, the Keller use their vibrato sparingly, contributing to the continued feeling of emotional distance.
The waltz is taken with mock tenderness and grace, a wan smile from beneath the weight of death that permeates the work. Against this, the violence of the thick chords are harrowing, as is the sudden intrusion of the cadenza in the Intermezzo. Again, comparing their approach with the Shostakovich Quartet finds the latter with a greater sense of irony and even humour, contrasting well with the violence of the pizzicato and multi-stopped chords.
The Nocturne succumbs to the deathly pall of the overall sound; again the harmonium tones and a stifling absence of vibrato start to disturb, so much so that the arrival of the Funeral March comes as a matter of course. However, towards the end (starting with the cello pizzicato) a moment of rare beauty reveals a fleeting moment of humanity that is deeply touching.
Sadly, such tender moments are few, and the Keller fail to make the most of the Epilogue, for while there is plenty of urgency in the flurry of notes, the overall sense of drama drawing to a conclusion is somewhat lacking. There is a final word here that is left unspoken – compare this with the Fitzwilliam Quartet, who give it a more palpable sense of arrival. For all their delicacy the Keller miss out on the textures that transport this final episode into the next world. The Quartet concludes as it begins; we have travelled but not moved.
Turning from this to a blood and guts performance like the Fitzwilliams’, which has tough energy and passion in the face of death, one appreciates the composer’s dying struggles as defiant and unresigned. The Keller Quartet do a remarkable job of characterising this closing chapter in Shostakovich’s life with one of the nuances he is reported to have wanted, namely, to create a sound so stifling that flies would fall from the air. Yet there is much more to the score, and this issue is by no way definitive. Then again, the Fifteenth Quartet deserves an exploration such as the Keller have delivered, as it is a work that has yet seen exhaustive treatment. I would recommend a listen, especially since they could not have coupled it with a better companion than Schnittke’s Quintet.
This work bears kinship with the Shostakovich in many ways, and it is a pity the Keller haven’t applied in the Shostakovich the same sort of unbridled passion they unleash here. It is a nightmarish work built around a few bare-boned motifs. Getting right to the point, Schnittke reveals his theme from the start with an extended piano soliloquy on a strangely nostalgic motif oscillating around two adjacent semitones. A curious cascade of thirds hinting at Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, and a recurring tolling motif on the piano that resembles – probably out of pure coincidence – Shostakovich’s own early Suite for Two Pianos, make up the building blocks of this Schnittkean trip through hell.
Out of an extensive exposition on these basic materials that swings between poignant lyricism and grating dissonance emerges a real surprise, a bittersweet waltz that instantly connects us with the pivotal waltz in Shostakovich’s Opus 144. Here, though, Schnittke lets the demons loose, and the strings join in with a sickly soup of clashing semi and quarter tones that is to become a significant harmonic feature of this quintet.
As the work progresses, the tolling piano gains an upper hand, first from the dry bones of the upper register to the rich death knell of the deep timbres, while the strings shriek to disrupt the inexorable advance of time suggested by the piano. The duel between the two reaches a horrifying climax, and like the wheezing of a harmonium the work deflates into a Finale taken straight out of the closing bars of Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony or Babi Yar.
The piano takes on the tones of a celesta, playing bell-like arpeggios of child-like simplicity while the work unwinds into an uneasy major chord, evaporating into the night air like a moment’s madness or a fleeting journey into the underworld. This fascinating odyssey through human suffering benefits from an excellent partnership between the Keller Quartet and pianist Alexei Lubimov. The latter’s palette of colours and rich expression – especially in the bell sections – provide sparkles of illumination amidst the terrifying textures that the Keller create.
The Keller Quartet are noticeably more inspired in this opening work, plunging headlong into the maelstrom of emotions that Schnittke stirs up, emotions that for most part remain buried in permafrost in the Shostakovich. If you prefer the latter direct rather than elusive, this performance may leave you cold. However, the coupling puts both works into an interesting perspective that makes for compelling listening.
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Violin Concerto No. 1 in A minor, opus 77[a]; Mendelssohn: Violin Concerto in E minor, opus 64[b].
Marek Janowski, Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra, Hilary Hahn (violin).
Sony Classical SK 89921. DDD. TT 63:50.
Recorded Oslo Konserthus, 20 and 22-23 February 2002[a]; 17 and 19-20 April 2002[b].
There is no denying Hilary Hahn’s technical ability in the Shostakovich work here; the more demanding passages are rendered with astonishing agility. This is nowhere more in evidence than during the cadenza, with stratospheric harmonics and dazzling runs the equal of any competitor. I was however underwhelmed by the performance on first and subsequent hearings, despite some fine moments to which I will refer later.
At the heart of my lukewarm response is the issue of dynamics and balance, particularly in the two slow movements. Across the entire recording it seems the dynamics are somewhat squeezed between mp and mff. Symptomatic of this is the soloist’s piano entrance in the opening movement, which is mp at best. In comparison, Ilya Gringolts (Deutsche Grammophon 289 471 616-2; reviewed in DSCH 18), Lydia Mordkovitch (Chandos CHAN 8820) and especially Maxim Vengerov (Teldec 4509-92256-2) ghost in beautifully, with a tone at once haunting and apprehensive (this is surely what the composer intended; the soloist’s first note should be blurred by the simultaneous sounding of the same A in the violas … significantly, at the same dynamic). All three achieve a wonderful dynamic arch up to figure 3, whereas Hahn is very much flatter and emotionally less engaging.
Hahn, Janowski or the engineers have kept the orchestra in check throughout, presumably to keep the focus firmly on the soloist. The effect is more akin to a lark confidently ascending than to an altogether different songbird frightened it might be overheard (the aforementioned opening and figure 13, for example). In other passages, such as figure 16-17 in the first movement and 74-76 in the Passacaglia, the soloist should sound as if desperately engaged in self preservation, as if the orchestra – some evil leviathan rising from the depths – are hell bent on smothering and silencing it. With the present recording, everything sounds a little too effortless.
This is particularly apparent in the Passacaglia. Undeniably one of Shostakovich’s most inspired creations, it is by no means easy to pull off. The secret is creating plateaux of increasing intensity with each variation (up to figure 76 at any rate) without which it can, as it does in this case, sound fatally pedestrian due to its essentially repetitive structure. If the Passacaglia fails, it rips the heart out of the work and the finale in particular suffers, its barbed wit needing a suitably tragic tone in the preceding movement to react against (the relationship perhaps not too dissimilar to the first and second movements of the Thirteenth Symphony).
If the slow movements are not entirely successful, the two fast movements, the Scherzo in particular, fare much better. In her programme notes (thoughtfully written, I might add) Hahn suggests the movement is rarely played at the indicated tempo. By my calculation the movement should last about 6:30 (more or less what the comparison recordings take it at). Hahn rattles through it in 5:36 – and with remarkable accuracy given the breakneck speed. The fugue chortles like a drain in a downpour. Again, though, it appears that the soloist is very much “first among equals”, as I missed the sense of play that Vengerov masterfully produces, of the soloist ducking and weaving in and out of prominence. Hahn’s brisk tempo here makes for an exciting performance, but the down side perhaps is that it glosses over the grimacing dissonance that provides the movement’s mordant wit, replacing it with a more ebullient brand of humour.
Hahn handles a potentially treacherous passage, the seven bars after figure 41, particularly well. Shostakovich renders the phrase structure deliberately confusing (is it 4+3 or 1+ 4+2?) and the rhythmic displacement of the final falling whole-tone motive in parallel sixths is both unexpected and essentially dislocated (does it belong to the triple-stopped anacrusis that precedes it or is it itself an anacrusis to the ensuing semiquaver passage … or both?). Such is the difficulty that some performances sound awkward, suggesting the composer somehow miscalculated. Hahn does the composer the service of making it sound purposeful and logical without losing any of its inherent tension. Brava!
The finale is similarly fleet of foot and technically assured, though, like the slow movements, the orchestra are kept on too tight a leash. An example of this is the reprise of the Passacaglia theme (figure 100). That Shostakovich intended it to dominate seems abundantly clear from the score. He routinely marks the orchestra one dynamic gradient below the soloist but here both are at ff. The clarinets (at that register) reinforced by the xylophone should blare in mock triumph over the soloist scurrying around in the middle ground – and more importantly, the soloist should be heard to emerge unscathed at figure 101 (which Mordkovitch and Vengerov do to telling effect).
Hahn is clearly immensely talented, and as with Gringolts it will be interesting indeed in years to come if she tackles this work again (or indeed the Second Concerto). On balance this is a creditable performance but one that doesn’t quite scale the heights of recent competitors. The ingredients are there, but the emotional charge is not at the same intensity. Perhaps there is a tendency here to treat this work as a display concerto, which, compared to the Mendelssohn (which Hahn performs beautifully) and in spite of its technical demands, it isn’t. At the heart of many passages is the Bach and Mahler-inspired two and three part counterpoint, Shostakovich being very much concerned with the interplay between the soloist and other “soloists” drawn from the orchestra (under the influence of Stravinsky’s Violin Concerto, perhaps). The prominent role assigned to the horn in the First Cello Concerto suggests this concertante idea was central to Shostakovich’s thinking. It is this vital element of interplay, more than anything else, that is not allowed to breathe in this performance, to its ultimate detriment.
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Berliner Sinfonie-Orchester/Kurt Sanderling
Violin Concerto No. 1 in A minor, opus 77[a]; Symphony No. 5 in D minor, opus 47[b]; Symphony No. 10 in E minor, opus 93[c]; Prokofiev: Violin Concerto No. 1, opus 19[d]; Violin Concerto No. 2, opus 63[e]; Stravinsky: Violin Concerto in D major[f]; Beethoven: Romance No. 1 for Violin and Orchestra G major[g]; Schubert: Symphony No. 2 in Bb major, D125[h]; Wagner: Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde[i]; Brahms: Variations on a Theme of Haydn, opus 56a[j]; Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 24 in C minor, K491[k]; Schumann: Symphony No. 4 in D minor, opus 120[l].
Kurt Sanderling[a,b,d-f,i-l], David Oistrakh (cond.)[c,g,h]/(violin)[d-g], Berliner Sinfonie-Orchester, Igor Oistrakh (violin)[a], Mitsuko Uchida (piano)[k].
Harmonia Mundi HMX 2905255.59. AAD[a-i]/DDD[j-l]. 5-CD boxed set TT 5h:59min.
Recorded live Metropoltheater Berlin, 3 October 1966[a,b], 8 March 1965[e,g,h], 6 April 1970[i]; Deutsche Staatsoper Berlin, 29 September 1972[c], 19 April 1971[d], 7 March 1972[f]; Konzerthaus Berlin, 19 May 2002[j-l].
This boxed set commemorates last year’s fiftieth anniversary of the Berlin Symphony Orchestra (not to be confused with the more illustrious Berlin Philharmonic), and the partnership with Kurt Sanderling that put them on the map. Most of the radio broadcasts assembled here were taped during Sanderling’s tenure as principal conductor, from 1966 to 1977.
It is fitting that Shostakovich occupies two of the five CDs in the set, not only because it is with his music that Sanderling and the Berliners are most closely associated in the minds of many record collectors, but also because of the personal connections between the composer and conductor. As a Jew, Sanderling had to leave his native Germany in 1936 for Moscow, and six years later was appointed permanent conductor of the Leningrad Philharmonic, sharing the post with Mravinsky. He first met Shostakovich in Siberia during the War.
While Sanderling credits the USSR with saving him from the Nazi Holocaust, it was Shostakovich who, in the early fifties, saved Sanderling’s career from the Communist Party. Attacked by an official at a Party committee meeting for a supposed ideological transgression, Sanderling was for a time barred from performing, and was in danger of losing his career … at the minimum. Shostakovich intervened with higher-ups on Sanderling’s behalf, and the conductor was soon able to return to work.
The first performance of a Shostakovich work marking the composer’s rehabilitation following the 1948 Zhdanov affair was a 1949 Leningrad concert featuring the Fifth Symphony, with Sanderling at the podium. The performance of opus 47 in Harmonia Mundi’s set, with the conductor back home in the German Democratic Republic, comes almost precisely midway between then and his justly praised 1982 recording for Berlin Classics (BC 2063-2; deleted).
Despite the close quarters in which Sanderling and the exalted Mravinsky worked, Sanderling’s approach to the Fifth Symphony is distinctively his. As on Berlin Classics, in the Harmonia Mundi release we hear him omit the work’s final cymbal crash, something Mravinsky never countenanced. More striking yet is his flight through the opening pages of the finale, which in both recordings he takes at a supersonic crotchet = 150. Compare that to Mravinsky’s crotchet = 100 in his first recording of the symphony (Doremi DHR 7810/11; reviewed below), or even his faster approach late in life, still under crotchet = 140. In an interview in DSCH No. 6 (pp. 11-15), Sanderling recalls “one of the first performances of mine of the Fifth Symphony in Moscow – [Shostakovich] was there with Khachaturian. And I played the beginning of the finale a little bit more quickly, more aggressively than most of the other conductors of the time – as in fact Shostakovich actually asks for himself. And after the rehearsal, the two of them came to the conductor’s room. Khachaturian had very friendly words in general, but he asked me, ‘Isn’t the beginning of the finale a little bit too fast?’ But Shostakovich interrupted him: ‘No, no – let him play it like that.’ So, you see that he was open to various different interpretations of his works. He was not stuck with one tempo or one style.”
The new release also demonstrates that Sanderling was not stuck with only one version of this symphony. In the approach to the Finale’s climax, he drops to F instead of rising to Ab at Fig. 127-2/8:01, an infelicitous relict of an earlier version of the score, which has the effect of dissipating tension just when it is most in need of winding up. Sixteen years later, on Berlin Classics, F is out, Ab is in. Mravinsky, on the other hand, never saw fit to update this detail.
Sanderling’s 1966 interpretation has the structural assurance of a score fully absorbed, perfusing the smallest capillary. Regrettably, this particular performance does not do it full justice. A consistent lack of incisiveness in the strings’ attack is the fundamental problem. This is largely to blame for the muddy handling of the first movement’s tutti (the overly reverberant acoustics don’t help matters either). An otherwise powerful account of the third movement, its spaciousness triggering agoraphobia, is weakened by the strings’ inability to really bite during the climax. The cheeky violin solo of the second movement is also found wanting in technique. Finally, the percussion often deliver only a dull thud, lacking in resonant power. Overall, this is a weak substitute for the Berlin Classics recording.
Orchestral playing is better in the performance of Violin Concerto No. 1, featuring Igor Oistrakh as soloist. This is the only currently available recording of Oistrakh fils playing any Shostakovich work. His taut, sinewy tone suits well the brooding first movement, and his vehemence in the second is impressive. I was disappointed, however, by what I found to be a lack of emotional engagement in the tersely phrased Passacaglia. The steely athleticism of soloist and orchestra in the Burlesque scores points, but overall the recital is not as involving as the best we’ve had from Oistrakh’s father, David (RCA Red Seal 74321 72914 2; deleted).
Oistrakh senior is almost as well represented in this boxed set as is Sanderling. A prize here for DSCH Journal readers is the only recording of David Oistrakh conducting Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony. I cannot recall a more uncompromisingly bleak view of the symphony than this; Mark Wigglesworth comes close, though is more detached (BIS CD-973/974; reviewed in DSCH 12). All the life has been drained from the opening theme of the first movement, and this exhausted demeanour reappears in the reprise of this theme in the third movement. The clarinet and flute solos of the first movement are morose, seemingly sedated, and Oistrakh’s slow gait makes the musical protagonist seem utterly defeated. The coda is ghostly to the point of transparency.
The concert is similarly praiseworthy for a shrill second movement, and for the desperation of the DSCH motto in the third. The various solos in the finale boast distinctive tonal personalities.
Sadly, there are less felicitous aspects. As in the accompanying Fifth Symphony, the strings are sometimes rather blunt edged and flabby, most detrimentally in the first movement’s climax. One of the violins misreads the ottava marking at Fig. 10/4:40 as applying one note too early. Even more distracting is a strange recurring noise that sounds like a fingernail running along a giant comb, somewhere close to a recording microphone at stage left. This is especially startling during a quiet passage of the third movement. In sum, Oistrakh’s interpretation is far better than either the orchestra or the recording deliver.
David Oistrakh remains at the helm of the orchestra for an affectionately nimble traversal of Schubert’s Second Symphony, and does double duty in the Beethoven Romance (though it has to be said that his violin tone here is thin). He passes the baton to Sanderling and picks up his violin again for some commendable Prokofiev. A take-no-prisoners Violin Concerto No. 1 highlights the score’s otherworldliness. Oistrakh is daring, though not always accurate, in the Second Concerto, where the Berlin strings shine, imparting a wonderfully ethereal atmosphere to the second movement. The Stravinsky concerto digs no pitfalls for soloist or orchestra, though inevitably it seems rather academic following Prokofiev’s pair.
Sanderling and the Berliners are the furthest thing from academic in the oft-performed extracts from Tristan. The languid Prelude is followed by a swift-flowing yet achingly beautiful Liebestod, glittering with death-transcending emotion.
The three performances in the set that were taped just last year comprise Sanderling’s farewell appearance with the Berlin Symphony Orchestra, the conductor having decided to retire with grace. Mitsuko Uchida took a sabbatical from her sabbatical to share a warm, capital-“r” Romantic stroll through Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 24 with her long-time collaborator. Schumann’s Fourth Symphony receives a more relaxed and genial treatment than some might like, but I warmed to Sanderling’s joyfully expansive take on Brahms’ Haydn Variations. Harmonia Mundi have thoughtfully indexed each variation with its own track.
Perversely (from our perspective, anyway), the live audiences are in much better pulmonary health for the non-Shostakovich works on offer. Applause is edited out for all works.
The executive summary? The main draw here for DSCH Journal readers is Oistrakh’s Tenth Symphony. Those serious about this opus will find the interpretation worth hearing despite the flaws of execution I mentioned. The two remaining Shostakovich performances on offer are less attractive, but the deal is sweetened considerably by desirable versions of works by other composers. At the cost of two full-priced CDs, the five-disc set offers good value.
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Legendary Treasures: Yevgeny Mravinsky – Volume 2
Symphony No. 5 in D minor, opus 47[a]; Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 6 in B minor, Pathétique, opus 74[b]; Francesca da Rimini[c]; Berlioz: Symphonie Fantastique, opus 14, Movement II[d]; Weber: Invitation to the Dance, opus 65 (orch. Weingartner)[e]; Oberon Overture[f].
Yevgeny Mravinsky, Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra[a,e,f], USSR State Symphony Orchestra[b,d], Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra[c].
Doremi DHR-7810/11. ADD mono. 2-CD set TT 67:04+72:08.
Recorded 27 March [to 3 April] 1938[a], 1949[b,d], 1940[c], 2 January 1951[e,f].
There are very few ‘historic’ recordings. We may like or admire ‘great’ recordings but ‘historic’ recordings give us unequivocally great music recorded in extraordinary circumstances, and Mravinsky’s first recording of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony undoubtedly counts. Or rather his first recordings – a film of a 1938 or 1939 performance was distributed both at home and abroad and though the soundtrack was not released at the time, it appeared on CD on BMG Melodiya Japan, BVCX- 8020.
The score was first published in 1939; this is particularly fascinating since the performers were probably using the same parts they had in the premiere. In this light I will discuss briefly one moment where the recording is at odds with the published score (I used Boosey and Hawkes’ HPS 628).
The fourteen 78rpm sides (matrices 06820-33) were released on CD in 1998 by BMG Melodiya Japan (B0CC3; deleted), sourced from the Rodgers and Hammerstein Archive of Recorded Sound. Doremi do not reveal their source and claim that one side (the first 3’46” of the largo) comes from matrix 08755. As far as I can ascertain, no Shostakovich Fifth has used this number and the scant annotation (exemplified by the incomplete recording date for the Shostakovich), though mentioning problems in transferring the Pathétique, remains silent on this. BMG’s restoration is minimal and changing levels of surface noise signal each side change. Doremi removed much of the hiss but took with it the music’s upper frequencies. The sound is mellower but details such as the flute’s doubling of the strings are inaudible. The timings vary slightly but not enough to alter the pitch.
So what of the interpretation? Obviously this is not exactly what the audience heard on 21 November 1937 but it is a fascinating insight into Mravinsky’s general approach to the work, which we must presume was approved by the composer. One striking facet of the interpretation is the strong Tchaikovsky feel of it, particularly the bassoon and the very recognisable Russian vibrato-filled horns. Mravinsky seems to be concerned to place the work firmly in the tradition, and perhaps, even at that stage, the canon. If so, this reintegration may have been a factor in the composer’s rehabilitation.
Mravinsky starts a little under the score’s quaver = 76 but his tempi are endlessly flexible and he gently eases into the slow descending violin line. The new conductor- orchestra relationship was obviously working well, and Mravinsky appears happy to let soloists mould their own lines. The woodwind take particular advantage of this, and in the coda the piccolo’s dotted notes (bar 306) have a more than usually jazzy, hopping quality. However the violins’ high E in bar 17 (the start of the dotted-rhythm descent) is uncertain and wobbly. I was also surprised by the lack of ferocity in the march. It’s not exactly genial but neither is it the grinding power-display that some have made it, and though initially it continues at the same tempo as the previous section, once it gets going, the slight quickening to something nearer the score’s crotchet = 92 further undermines its implacability. At figure 38 Mravinsky moves the rushing orchestra’s molto rit forward a bar so that he doesn’t need to slam on the brakes so hard but the following climactic chord doesn’t really qualify as con tutta forza, being less forceful than the previous one. Finally, after a very prominent glissando leading to figure 46 there’s another rit for the actual end of the movement.
Just as the first movement’s march is not as ferocious as it has since been made, so subsequent interpreters have turned the second movement into a Mahlerian Totentanz. But here death does not scrape his fiddle so violently. Still, it is hardly benign despite its decidedly steady tempo (it comes in at 5’38”). The coda drives straight through to the end without a rit.
Whatever Doremi’s source for the Largo’s opening, the sound is noticeably poorer. The score is peppered with espressivo markings and these are played for all they are worth, especially the first big one (bar 19-20) where the hairpin from piano goes a lot further than mezzo-forte. Perhaps it is this intensity that leads to the three-repeated- notes motif sometimes being blurred into one. Throughout the disc the side changes are handled well except for one. At figure 39 the cellos sink to rest before ethereal violins climb once again into the light, but Doremi have overlaid the violins’ entry over the cellos’ morendo, effectively cutting a bar, creating a rhythmic mess and destroying the last moment of repose. This is a transfer problem (it does not happen on the BMG disc or on the film soundtrack) but in the coda there is a change from the score when the harp is excluded from its famous duet with the celesta. Though unlikely, this could be a simple mistake, but there are other possibilities. Since the harp recorded particularly well on 78s it may have been deliberately dropped to avoid covering the celesta – it does play on the film where it would have been less of a problem. Another possibility is that it was added by Shostakovich after the first recording but before the film. More investigation is in order.
Since the revelation of the incorrect tempo marking for the finale’s coda, it sometimes seems that this has become a lodestar for interpretation at the expense of the rest of the score. Overall timings vary from 8’35” (Koussevitzky, 1948) to 12’50” (Rostropovich, 2003), and there has been a slight tendency for them to become slower. For the interested, both Mravinsky’s first attempts are in the middle; the studio version 10’55”, and the film 9’47”.
But the overall timing is only part of the story and a lot also happens before we get to the coda’s minefield. Mravinsky and Toscanini both gained (often undeserved) reputations for ‘objectivity’ and ‘fidelity to the score’. However, in this case what you hear is remarkably close to what you read; pretty much exactly crotchet = 88, an accelerando in bar 8 to crotchet = 104 by bar 12. One downside is the timpani which, due to the engineers’ fear of overloading the recording, are distant if not as disconcertingly ‘ploppy’ as Stokowski a year later. There is also some surprisingly scrappy string playing, especially around figure 101 (a recapitulation of the main theme), though a little later they have a marvellous glassy quality as they gently oscillate beneath the woodwind. One other oddity is figure 116-118 where, in the violins’ repeated crotchets, majoring on an octave leap on a C, there is some uneven counting before the last crotchet begins to sound a little like two quavers.
So, to the big question – just how does Mravinsky take the coda? The answer is that from figure 127 (the beginning of the violins’ stabbing A’s) he employs a quite steady quaver = 184 (the score asks for quaver = 188), with a very small rit at the very end. Certainly not the grinding end á la Rostropovich, leaving us with a question: if the original tempo marking was a mistake why was it that Mravinsky did not ‘correct’ it in his first recordings? Perhaps the ‘mistake’ was more of a ‘reconsideration’, or perhaps they felt that to perform it that way in 1937 would have been suicidal! Whatever, it is an invaluable, if potentially ambiguous, piece of evidence.
No recording, however ‘historic’, and this certainly qualifies, is a holy grail of interpretation. It does not render all others redundant, but it is extraordinarily valuable and should inform, though not dictate others’ approaches. Unfortunately Doremi’s highly interventionist restoration makes me wonder just how close we are getting to the original. The famous weight and brightness of the orchestra’s strings is dulled and details of ensemble lost. I realise that for many people high levels of surface noise are a black mark but Doremi have simply gone too far. Though the Japanese Melodiya disc may prove difficult to find, I recommend that for those who wouldn’t mind the noise. Alternatively, wait for a transfer that steers a middle course.
The other items on this two-disc set have their own points of interest, including rare outings for Mravinsky with orchestras other than the Leningrad Philharmonic, and Felix Weingartner’s orchestration of Weber’s Invitation to the Dance, a pleasant alternative to the usual Berlioz.
 The film was shown on 26 November 1939 at the Academy Cinema in London. (Annual Report of the Society for Cultural Relations, 1940).
 A reel of 35mm is eleven minutes long so there would have been no technical constraint on the finale’s length, though the first and third movements (respectively 14’48” and 15’48”) would need a second reel. The film probably ran over five reels:
I Opening of first movement.
II End of first movement and Allegretto
III Opening of Largo
IV End of Largo
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Symphony No. 5 in D minor, opus 47[a]; Kodaly: The Peacock – folksong arrangement for chorus[b]; The Peacock – Variations on a Hungarian Folksong, for orchestra[c].
Istvan Kertész, L’Orchestre de la Suisse Romande[a], London Symphony Orchestra[b,c] and Chorus[b].
Testament SBT 1290. ADD. TT 71:33.
Recorded Victoria Hall, Geneva, 13 and 14 May 1962[a]; Kingsway Hall, London, 8-10 September 1970[b,c].
Kertész died young in a drowning accident, and has a cult following in some parts of the world, which explains in part the existence of this Testament re-issue of Decca recordings from the great days of analogue recording. The original Decca LP pressings are highly sought-after by vinyl-addicted audiophiles, the Shostakovich Fifth being especially prized and hard to find. Whilst clearly not a new recording, it sounds a good deal younger than its forty-one years, with plenty of headroom. Current digital producers please take note: it is a cliché, but I have heard worse recordings made this year. The early work of Decca, EMI, Mercury and RCA is proof that it can all be done properly without recourse to multiple splicings of live tapes or elaborate post-production arrangements.
The collectable “thing” about the Decca Geneva recordings is the sense of real instruments properly located in a real hall, with natural, warm ambience, and no messing around with the sound-levels once the ‘tree’ of mikes was set up. That, and an indefinably good feeling, which must be down to Decca’s away-from-home, relaxed teamwork, and the location itself. This Shostakovich Fifth recording has those sterling qualities, and it’s easy as a result to become caught up in both sound and interpretation.
The Suisse Romande were Ansermet’s orchestra. Decca sent their younger conductors there on occasional assignments, including Gibson, Kletzki and, later, Walter Weller. This led to some odd national combinations, with Kletzki going Swiss to record Hindemith and Lutoslawski; Weller tackling Rachmaninov 1; and in the case of the present issue, the despatch of an ambitious young Hungarian to Geneva in the Spring of ’62, to make the Company’s first taping of the best-known Soviet symphony, with players for whom the work was new. The Fifth was just twenty-five years old and the Fourth had lain unheard for all that time. Shostakovich was yet to produce any of the magnificent and quirky “late” works, though the disquieting Eighth Quartet was enjoying considerable success just then. Shostakovich’s star had risen following the Tenth Symphony a few years before, the Eleventh generally being received as a step back down from that.
Reciprocal visits to the West had once more increased the composer’s prominence in the marketplace for a time, and, following the ’59 Bernstein and Mitchell recordings of the Fifth from Columbia and RCA, more stereo versions appeared quite quickly from Skrowaczewski on Mercury, and Ancerl on Supraphon. Decca and EMI scrambled to join the fray in ’62. Not to be outdone in the Internationalist stakes, EMI sent a Rumanian, Silvestri, to Vienna to make their own first stereo version of the Fifth. Kertész benefited from what was possibly the best sound of any of these early issues, but they all feature solid engineering values, increasing their own worth as historical documents of orchestral style, and approaches to Shostakovich. The extent to which the stereo vinyl format led to a speeding-up, for a time, in the last two movements of the Fifth is a debate that will have to be aired elsewhere.
The Suisse Romande were famously fallible, and their violins struggle at times in the first movement as Kertész drives them along, whilst an important flute line in the finale also slithers slightly. Nor is every woodwind note bang in tune. But elsewhere all rise to the young conductor’s challenge, and throughout the first three movements, the experience is by turns exhilarating and deeply affecting. The first movement climax is close to ideal in power and pacing.
As David Atherton pointed out in a recent interview, Shostakovich was, with Britten, the 20th century composer best equipped to write down precisely what he meant in the score. Like almost everyone else on disc, however, Kertész and the SRO players ignore many of the composer’s meticulous dynamic and tempo markings in all four movements. Kertész delivers one of the shortest finales to the Fifth on disc, quicker even than Bernstein ’59; indeed of the myriad complete commercial recordings only Mitropoulos has a shorter timing, and then only by five seconds or so.
Yet Kertész starts the movement at a moderate pace. He then maintains a brisk tempo through the more usually slow central section, before delivering what must be the fastest of all recorded codas to this symphony. This comes as quite a shock after two decades of the “our business is rejoicing” approach, and if you grew up with any version from the post-Testimony era, or the earliest versions on 78, Kertész will probably sound absurd, missing the point completely. But if you accept this version of the Fifth as a historical document of a time when it was “PC” and generally “OK” to hear the Fifth as an exciting part of the standard Russian repertoire, then Kertész’s manufactured finale makes sense, and indeed rounds off a well-balanced whole in thrilling fashion. With those hundreds of repeated A’s, that coda still manages to sound hollow as well as triumphant, even at Kertész’ breakneck speed. So perhaps it is we who have missed the point here, by confusing tempo with expressive intention. Kertész makes the customary and conventional unmarked ritardando in the final three bars of the work.
Well over a hundred CD versions of the Fifth have seen circulation at one time or another, making “best-buy” suggestions unrealistic. My “old” favourites are the slowish, brooding and atmospheric Stokowski from 1939 (Pearl GEMM CDS 9044; deleted), and Maxim’s first version with the USSR SO. A good modern choice would be the pragmatic Jansons, recorded live in Vienna in 1997, which has been praised before in these pages (EMI Classics 7243 5 56442 2 0; reviewed in DSCH 9). I don’t know if any of his Viennese players recalled working on the Fifth with Silvestri, thirty-five years before. But Kertész has more energy and passion than just about anyone else in the Fifth, this side of the Iron Curtain. His version should be heard by anyone curious that we might be missing something in an era when it has become the convention to take a more deliberate view of the Symphony; by those nostalgic for the sound and ethos of the early Sixties; and by students of symphonic music and its reception. It is a tragedy that Kertész did not live to set down a more mature and considered interpretation of the Fifth, and indeed all the other Shostakovich symphonies and concertos. He was a very special talent, with clear affinity for the composer’s idiom, and, by-the-by, direct experience of Communist artistic oppression.
If you need additional excuses to buy this Testament issue, then look no further than the Kodaly fill-ups. In terms of sound and performance, this version of the Peacock Variations with the LSO simply has no equal at any price. A work of protest, dating from just a year or so after the Shostakovich Fifth, the Peacock Variations will make an invigorating and inspiring change if your diet has been a little heavy on the Shostakovich of late. In the hands of Kertész, Kenneth Wilkinson and the rest of the Decca team, this is an altogether special musical experience. Even better is the accompanying performance of the composer’s defiant a cappella arrangement of The Peacock in its original folksong guise. From here it is a short step to the rest of Kodaly’s magnificent choral music, and a lifetime’s enjoyment and exploration. Recommended.
|amazon.com / amazon.co.uk|
|amazon.com / amazon.co.uk|
Symphony No. 7 in C major, Leningrad, opus 60.
Valery Gergiev, Kirov Orchestra, Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra.
Philips 470 845-2. DDD. TT 78:47.
Recorded live De Doelen, Rotterdam, Netherlands, 19-21 September 2001.
Symphony No. 7 in C major, Leningrad, opus 60.
Semyon Bychkov, WDR Sinfonie Orchester Köln.
Avie 0020. DDD. TT 72:30.
Recorded Kölner Philharmonie, February 2003.
Now straddling two millennia with its colossal brand of defiance, the Seventh Symphony of Shostakovich has, unlike its ancient, statuesque Dodecanese counterpart, beaten fate. Opus 60 has survived everything to emerge apparently triumphant, a symphony neither analogous to the pile of rubble and scrap at the bottom of Rhodes harbour, nor disguised as the gigantic four-square Socialist Realist war memorial to which the wartime West had paid such enthusiastic homage, before abruptly cancelling the flowers once the Cold War supplanted the real, killing one.
How can the Colossus stand on its own two feet, without the props and scaffolding of the War, the Siege, Lehar, Maxim’s, Stalin destroying and Hitler finishing off, Toscanini and the microfilm, firefighting and marching hordes of Huns? Leningrad is gone forever, a historical blip. The composer has said all he can say. So what’s left for us, beyond a cartoon soundtrack to the Seventh’s own stranger-than-fiction history? Is the work’s renaissance attributable to its innate symphonic qualities? Or to our own current obsession with meaning and specific significance? Or galloping revisionism? Or a cultural dumbing-down that makes respectable once more a second-rate blockbuster with lots of loud bits? Do we just like symphonies that are long, loud and preferably as slow as possible, nowadays? Have we simply run out of good symphonies, finding ourselves forced to pretend the also-rans are better than they really are? Is it all Philip Glass’s fault?
Surviving WWII, the critical backlash and the mythology of its own early history is one thing. Surviving Bartok is quite another. Uniquely, this symphony still experiences the indignity of regular public lampoonery from the work of a senior colleague: the Concerto for Orchestra’s star did not fade, post-war, and it opposes the Seventh to this day with a series of joking, posthumous questions – the Seventh’s very own eternal musical Yurodivy.
That the Seventh, seemingly re-established in the West as a crowd-pleasing concert-hall favourite, is able to face these questions is due in no small part to the continued existence of recordings. Some of those recordings are also a part of the Opus 60 myth, of course. And all along it seemed that if you were going out to buy the Shostakovich Seventh, then you were really buying into the gargantuan minimalism of The March, a section of the work that has perhaps always worried and distracted critics more than audiences.
Sleevenotes for Opus 60 were still apologising to Bartok about the variations that don’t vary when Paavo Berglund made his groundbreaking taping of the Seventh for EMI in 1974 (EMI Double Forte 7243 573839 2 9), twelve long years after the passionate but cut version recorded by Bernstein in New York, in studio-bound Columbia sound (Sony Classical SMK 47616), and seventeen years on from the sure-footed, warm-hearted but thin-sounding Ancerl (Supraphon SU 3683-2; reviewed below), then to be heard only through the noise from unpredictable Supraphon pressings, and soon to be crammed onto a single, low-level LP. With Toscanini in and out of the catalogue too, the Seventh seemed very much a historical work, a blast from the past; always Leningrad; forever 1941; the vast forces compressed and miniaturised – ironically for a work whose notoriety rested as much on the extravagance of its forces, as on the Hollywood aspects of its genesis – reduced to the level of an AM radio signal, fit only to annoy the odd Hungarian emigré genius.
But Berglund, leading a modest British orchestra, played to his considerable Nordic symphonic strengths, and the EMI engineers had one of their finest hours (and a quarter), Mottley and Eltham surpassing their own exacting standards to deliver the Seventh for the first time into your home with a recognisable simulation of concert-hall sound and ambience. Live performances of the Seventh were rare events indeed in the seventies, but critics with good record players sat up and noticed that we might have a proper symphony on our hands after all … except the march, of course, only the rest of the Symphony. We were reminded once more of the physical impact of the Seventh in performance, and of its delicacy.
Looking out from then, the Colossus can survey more than twenty recordings in more-or-less respectable sound that post-date Berglund and the contemporaneous Neumann (Supraphon SU 0177-2; deleted). Back in the harbour are nine or ten Historicals. Toscanini has stayed afloat and available for most of these sixty years (RCA Victor Gold Seal 60293-2-RG; deleted), joined later by the fine Stokowski (Pearl GEMM CDS 9044; deleted); but Mravinsky’s Melodiya reading, which suggests layers of meaning and a range of expressive power not hinted at by most Western performances, has surfaced only occasionally, and remains in the legendary category – an absurd situation (Omega Classics OCD 1030).
Other Russian recordings, compelling at least in part from Svetlanov, Kondrashin and Rozhdestvensky have sunk more often than they’ve floated, in the digital age, despite offering a range of orchestral pigments that were surely included in Shostakovich’s palette, as he composed. The interpretative current has therefore not flowed as freely from East to West as it should have done, when it comes to the Seventh, for reasons partly political and partly economic; and also out of technical considerations.
The old versions will never blow you away, sonically, or hold the market alone; the newer ones, even those with some magnificent aspects like the slowest-of-them-all Bernstein Chicago remake (Deutsche Grammophon 427 632-2), the Rostropovich (Apex 0927414092) and the Järvi (Chandos CHAN 8623), still seem to be missing … something.
The two latest contenders to dive in, as Bartok sits, still chuckling on the quayside, raise questions before the CDs even leave the jewel cases. Two outstanding Russian conductors, yet one is working with a German Radio orchestra, the other combining Dutch and Russian players in an unusual experiment, taped live a couple of years ago, but without applause or audience noise. Having started his recording career with Philips, and a far from negligible Shostakovich Fifth, beautifully recorded in Berlin, Bychkov now finds himself on the Avie label, in direct competition with the ascendant and brilliant Gergiev – on Philips.
Avie’s front-packaging is penny-plain, and laudably lists composer, orchestra, then conductor in decreasing typeface point-sizes. Gergiev has his own typeface, larger than the composer’s name, and the orchestras aren’t mentioned on the cover at all. The two names seem shot through the conductor’s head like an arrow, and he is, perhaps understandably, giving a sidelong glance at the word “Shostakovich”. On the back, just a close-up of Gergiev’s hands, resting on the score. Inside and on the disc itself, some chic Red-Army imagery, and war photos for the inlay and booklet; and, it should be added, at last, two nice shots of the composer, including the ‘shy fireman in gloves’ one. It all speaks of the marketing of the myth, and of 1941, quite as much as the work we’re trying to assimilate afresh in 2003. I sense the Colossus furrowing over his glasses, and Bartok rubbing his hands, before the drawer of the player is even open.
Again before we hear a note, the timings beg answers to some of the nagging questions. Gergiev takes over twenty minutes for the fourth movement, very close to being the slowest on disc, just pipped by Svetlanov. His recording of the second is also slower than all others, bar the Bernstein/Chicago remake. Maxim’s protracted recording of the third movement, and Lenny’s half-hour-and-change for the first are the only comparable aberrations among the surprisingly consistent timings within the Seventh’s discography. The other movement durations from Gergiev are within usual bounds, as are all those of Bychkov, who comes home six minutes sooner than his compatriot. Will the Gergiev, then, be a performance for the Cultural Student; the Seventh freshly manufactured to suit our own ends, easy prey for Bartok’s jokes and suspicions with regard to timing, intent and a contemporary obsession with significance?
Keeping safely to sound, rather than music, Bychkov on Avie is given a consistent, honest and credible WDR recording, clearer than that from Philips, and with some trace of the hall’s ambience. It’s neither ideal nor spectacular – not really expansive enough – but it is less controversial than the quality given to Gergiev, which can sound synthetic as it tries to portray the huge and disparate forces. The shrieking Mahlerian winds at 5:46 in the second movement are differentiated in the Gergiev recording, a reasonable decision, but they move so far towards the microphones that they seem to occupy a wholly different acoustic to the rest of the orchestra. The final crescendo is tremendously extended and impressive, but the drums just before the end create an oddly cavernous effect, sending one back to the very start, and the not-quite-believable string tone. Bychkov’s old Philips recording of the Fifth presented a more convincing soundstage than this, and a truer picture of the Shostakovich orchestra.
Will the Avie/Philips duel be a battle between honesty and significance, as packaging and timings suggest? Well, from Bychkov we get a broadly extrovert, dramatic and forthright reading, and from Gergiev an extended, thoughtful one. Time and again, Gergiev dwells on a quiet string or wind passage in a manner that recalls the Tchaikovsky of the symphonies and ballets, as well as the more expected Mahler. Some parts of the Seventh achieve thereby an unprecedented beauty, and the shade of Sir John Barbirolli is occasionally at hand. More often, though, one is made to imagine the passage’s potential for beauty and expression, rather than the actual achievement; I don’t think this particular taping represents the considerable best that Gergiev has given in the Seventh to date. Wind solos, prepared with great care, can seem to lack character at first hearing, for example from 8:50 in the second movement. Comparisons with Bychkov and the WDRSO in this department tend initially to be all in their favour; but the sustained introversion of such moments in the Gergiev is hard to forget, once heard, part of a laudable emphasis on the work’s quiet aspects.
In the third movement, Bychkov’s more straightforward approach, with less varied tempi, wins the day; though here, of the non-Russians, Ancerl and the Czech Philharmonic seem to know best what this music is about, and how to express it. Neither newcomer moves the emotions in that way, at any stage. Gergiev and his hybrid orchestra build up a sizeable head of steam in the faster section, all sadly dissipated by the start of the finale.
In the last movement, Gergiev avoids the usual impression of a short Allegro non troppo with long denouement, by not having an Allegro at all, leading to a rough consistency of tempo throughout the movement. In this instance Sir John’s shade is absent, and the result is neither inexorable, nor exciting. Bychkov, at a more conventional tempo, is genuinely impressive in the Allegro, though without quite the menacing aspect others have found there.
Played well, this Allegro non troppo, often characterised as pictorial war-music – Bychkov’s note writer refers to the ‘stock images of war’ here – is actually Shostakovich close to his cogent best. Later in the movement, as Martin Anderson once pointed out, the symphony can on a good day sound like orchestral chamber music. With Gergiev, I’m afraid interest wavers … until the roof-raising final bars. Bychkov better holds the attention. He has a more modest conclusion, but creates the more enjoyable impression of conventional and vigorous symphonic coherence throughout the movement.
Leaving consideration of the do-or-die first movement until last, we find neither conductor quite challenging the best. Bychkov starts out brisk and purposeful, Gergiev steady and imposing. Both have impulsive moments along the way, and in neither case do we feel at the end “changed utterly” after such a journey, as surely we should, if we believe once more in the work’s innate qualities, and if the music making has had purpose and meaning. Both conductors bring out the composer’s unique and disquieting instrumental touches with aplomb, especially Gergiev. But … something is missing. Which brings us finally to the march: the arrested development section that dominated wartime airwaves and interrupted Bartok’s intermezzo.
For Bychkov, the Colossus is made to dance a brisk Bolero; Gergiev too features pointed rhythms, the repeated two-note tag more staccato and emphatic than is the norm. Read into that what you will, but both conductors make the march seem an interlude, an orchestral favourite-within-a-favourite, a guise this section has not shaken off since the first performances, those days of crackly radio and the Bartok story. Neither performance is slow enough and Gergiev speeds up.
The lead-in to the recapitulation and the remainder of the movement are disappointing in both cases. Shostakovich’s integration of the march theme into the fabric of the music from then on, right to the closing bars, is masterly, belying the customary programmatic folk-tales told to accompany this movement. The extended climax can make a heartrendingly powerful effect if tension and belief are sustained, as Haitink, Berglund, Kondrashin, Toscanini, Mravinsky, Bernstein and others have shown, in their differing ways. It’s all there in the score, but neither Gergiev nor Bychkov quite pulls it off.
Gergiev presents the more sustained aftermath, leading to the quiet equivocal close. Bychkov makes the section part of his overall, vigorous symphonic vision, sounding at most times livelier than the live Gergiev. Yet consideration of the same section in even the ancient Stokowski aircheck – a broadcast that Bartok might conceivably have heard, to indulge in more spurious myth-making – gives a salutary reminder of the qualities missing from newer performances. The NBC’s principal bassoonist is stretched to the limits of phrasing and breath control by the indulgently slow Stokowski tempo, but on the day he is more than up to the task, shading the extended individual notes with real feeling, and the result, despite the intervening sixty years and the acetate noise, is a compelling, focused, meditative and tragic intensity, which seems right.
The two new discs, then, whilst worth hearing, don’t necessarily make it any easier for anyone wishing to have a single, representative account of Opus 60 in their home. Bychkov and his orchestra give a confident and exciting reading, occasionally brash, which seems shorter than its 72 minutes. It is one of the best of the recent straighter readings, with no hype in packaging or presentation, and it improves on repetition.
Gergiev aims to project something much darker, slower, more subtle and more troubling than Bychkov, and should certainly be heard by admirers of the work; though I’m sure his current performances mark an advance on this one, which lacks that live spark. Philips’ unrealistic and uninvolving sound almost scuppers his ambitions for a fresh consideration of the Seventh.
For less than the price of these two CDs, collectors new to the Seventh should be able to find Barshai’s complete Shostakovich symphony cycle: idiomatic performances and good, modern recordings. All the other performances mentioned above have points of interest. None is perfect, but all the versions by the composer’s Russian colleagues should be required listening for lovers of Opus 60, and any conductor who aspires to record the work.
Booklet notes retell the myths and legends of the Seventh, from varying angles. Gergiev’s writer allows for revisionism, Bychkov’s suggests the march might represent the determination of the Russian people. Neither is especially coherent, nor is much detail given on the music itself. I’d like to have read of the work’s formal innovations, its bold architecture and cross-referencing; the way the inner movements seem to have missing vocal parts, for which the long wind solos seem a not always perfect substitute; above all of the stark originality of the first movement, which now seems arguably the composer’s most wholly original symphonic first movement, and maybe his greatest, the Tenth notwithstanding; a play – and a tragedy – on social and musical expectations, of idioms and forms within a form, without precedent in the composer’s work, forming itself one of Shostakovich’s most successful solutions to the often agonisingly difficult chess problem that was his creative position, in the Soviet Union.
The composer left us a work built to last: a potboiler would never have done, for his home city, or for posterity. Its disquieting personal message is once more becoming apparent, as “peace” is replaced by the oddest of ongoing wars, led by words and attributions. The Seventh challenges us to reject denial and to accept the War, the Terror and the horrors and appalling compromises in our own lives as the real, living facts they are, to be faced and transcended with a tangible, creative response. The Seventh has always done this, telling how it is; but we’ve often made too much critical noise to notice, feeling it simply told how it was. The Colossus looks down at the ever-mocking Bartok, on all those critics who remain snooty about its idiom, all those embarrassed to find themselves enjoying its direct appeal and physical impact – or, heaven help us, tapping a foot to the march before things turn ugly. Like all great art it invites us to think about ourselves, our world, and our responses to the work itself. Surely now it wears a wry grin; the closest our times and history yet allow to the Seventh letting out the last laugh.
|amazon.com / amazon.co.uk|
Karel Ancerl Gold Edition, Volume 23
Symphony No. 7 in C major, Leningrad, opus 60.
Karel Ancerl, Czech Philharmonic Orchestra.
Supraphon SU 3683-2. ADD Mono. TT 70:28.
Recorded Dvorák Hall, Rudolfinum, Prague, 2-4, 6, 17, 18 and 20 September 1957.
Supraphon’s previous CD issue of Karel Ancerl’s legendary Leningrad (11 1952-2), available until recently, has been supplanted by the present remastering, part of the company’s projected 42-album series, launched to commemorate the thirtieth anniversary this year of the conductor’s death.
This is the only recording of the Leningrad in Karel Ancerl’s discography. A two-CD set issued in 1992 by the Praga label included a recording of the symphony supposedly taken from a 1967 concert by Ancerl and his Czech team (PR 254 002/03). However, like several other Praga releases of material licensed from Czech Radio, that recording turns out to have been not only mislabelled but doctored as well (see report in DSCH 15). Last year I compared it to Supraphon’s previous release of the current recording, at the request of Peter Bromley, collaborator on Derek Hulme’s Shostakovich catalogue (reviewed in DSCH 18). Testing revealed that Praga’s “live” recording was in fact the very same 1957 Supraphon studio recording (regrettably, I was unable to render this diagnosis before the Hulme catalogue had to go to press).
The now-deleted Praga release has an overlaid audience track, and a fairly unconvincing one too, with electronically clipped coughs. Audience noises are particularly prominent between movements. This is most absurd in the case of the transition between the third and fourth movements, which should be played without pause. Whoever manipulated the recording didn’t know this, inserting six seconds of dead space between the two movements, time that they filled with hall noises and rustling, giving a completely different acoustic from the rest of the recording.
Thankfully, no such blotches mar Supraphon’s handsomely packaged gold disc. Well, truth be told, ambient noise dips out for a split second at the seam between tracks 3 and 4, whereas it did not (nor should it have) on Supraphon’s previous release. This, though, is an exceedingly picky quibble. The new 24-bit digital remastering delivers marginally airier sound than on the earlier CD, transmitting higher frequencies without a significant change in the level of analogue hiss, which was minimal before too. There is little if any audible compression in loud passages, and excellent delineation of individual instruments for a mono recording. Of course, we miss the bass projection of more recent productions, but the sound here is more than acceptable and is unlikely to diminish one’s appreciation of the disc’s musical content.
Characteristically for Ancerl, this performance stands apart on account of its brisk and generally steady gait. Not for him the recent trend to wallow in the symphony’s many occasions for self-indulgence. Anyone wedded to a more expansive treatment will find that Ancerl’s approach both requires and facilitates a distinctly more active form of listening. The subtlest gesture is here shown capable of profoundly transforming the habitat, though one must pay close attention to notice. Fortunately, almost ever-present momentum allows scant opportunity for awareness to wander.
Two alterations to the printed page that Ancerl treats himself to are particularly ear-catching. The first is an unmarked diminuendo on the military drum at the end of the first movement, thus creating the downward slope of an arch begun 20 minutes earlier, and suggesting that the invading drummer hasn’t stopped, merely moved out of earshot. The second conspicuous tweak is the removal of the cymbal clashes in the fourth- and third-to-last bars of the finale, thus emphasising the cymbal crescendo that closes the symphony. The victory is unambiguous and total.
Otherwise, Ancerl does not make more of the symphony than is in the score, wisely choosing not to overfeed what is already on paper, after all, the most obese of Shostakovich’s children. Throughout, there is an indefinable yet unshakeable impression of rightness to his tempo choices, and his rubati are unpretentious.
Only in the third movement does Ancerl’s refusal to aggrandise the proceedings invite debate. The emphasis here is on the central outburst, engaged with a steely glint. There is less sadness than one might ask for in what precedes and follows; this is, after all, undoubtedly a requiem to the fallen (though, as the new booklet notes point out, to whom these fallen fell is debatable). At the other extreme, Leonard Bernstein’s 1989 performance with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (Deutsche Grammophon 427 632-2) elicits genuine grief by its sweeping, unabashedly heart-on-sleeve treatment of this Adagio. That said, the song on flutes in Ancerl’s version of this movement is of ravishing purity.
Ancerl is at his most persuasive in the athletic final movement. This conflict is no less epic for being the highly mobile and precisely targeted assault of shock troops rather than the ponderous barrage of heavy artillery. The Czech musicians’ scalpel-sharp precision is functional, preserving the membrane integrity of the cells comprising this movement despite the severe stresses imposed by the conductor’s relentless pace.
Indeed, one would be hard-pressed to find superior orchestral execution of this symphony anywhere in the nearly half-century since this recording was set down. Combine this with Ancerl’s unique perspective and we have a performance that belongs on the shelf of all who have any interest in Shostakovich. Those who already have the previous CD release will probably find the sonic improvement too slight to justify purchasing the Gold Edition reissue, but anyone else should not hesitate.
|London Shostakovich Orchestra|
Piano Concerto No. 2 in F major, opus 102[a]; Symphony No. 11 in G minor, opus 103, The Year 1905.
Christopher Cox, London Shostakovich Orchestra, Marina Primachenko (piano)[a].
Dunelm Records DRD0193. DDD. 2-disc set TT 67:27 + 20:32.
Recorded live St. Cyprian’s Church, London, 9 November 2002.
This latest concert recording by the LShO represents a significant advance on their Leningrad Symphony, the recording of which I reviewed in DSCH 18. The Second Piano Concerto, marooned on disc 1, boasts fine ensemble. The relaxed tempos in the bracketing Allegro movements might take some getting used to, especially in the first movement, which lasts a third again as long as the aerobatic display of Shostakovich the composer-pianist with Alexander Gauk and the Moscow Radio Symphony Orchestra (Classical Treasures CT-10022; reviewed in DSCH 17). Nevertheless, the work manages to sustain this genial pace.
In these fast movements, the somewhat blunt keyboard accent of Marina Primachenko (a Leningrad Conservatory graduate) is authentically Shostakovian, apart from an occasionally hesitant cadence. In the melancholy second movement, she finds wider scope for impressive expressive variety. Here the strings are warm and consoling, collaborating in a genuinely moving drama. The recital makes a welcome appetiser to the main course on the second CD.
It seems worthwhile to point out that one would rarely encounter a live performance of as large and complex a work as the Eleventh Symphony that was entirely free of mistakes, no matter the stature of the orchestra. The major labels increasingly save studio and musician fees by recording orchestras in concert, but make the resulting CDs more palatable to the perfectionist consumer by the use of patch sessions. In these, short passages are recorded after the concert to replace sections of the original performance marred by errors or extraneous noises.
The LShO’s recordings, on the other hand, are unembellished documents, revealing what actually transpired in concert, warts and all. Happily, a few conspicuous warts do not prevent their Eleventh Symphony from attracting the listener. The first movement impresses from the outset with eerily slithering divided strings. The Palace Square is dark and foreboding, and the orchestra tread wearily towards it under the grim beat of Cox’s baton. True, the snare drum’s rolls could be steadier in volume, less pulsatile, but then the same could be said of Kondrashin’s hallowed account with the Moscow Philharmonic (BMG/Melodiya 74321198432; deleted). The generally creditable brass solos here admit a slight warble among them.
In the second movement, The Ninth of January, the orchestra are audibly playing with full commitment, allowing no safety margin. The movement rapidly boils over with striking – and well-coordinated – vehemence. Trepidation laces even the brief interlude starting at Fig. 41/3:18, and I cannot recall an equally spooky handling of the contrasting low tuba and high violins at Fig. 62/9:21. Unfortunately, weakness of ensemble bedevils the winds in the Adagio section (Fig. 69/11:26) and the first trombone plays two As instead of A-D at Fig. 71-4/12:37. This, however, is quickly forgotten as the Allegro section begins its remorseless onslaught. By the time we arrive at Fig. 83/15:20, the atmosphere is so overheated that the “machine” is on the verge of disintegration. Under this pressure, the bass drummer loses his place, but soon recovers to support his comrades in a climax of appalling savagery. The stunned Adagio that follows is quite affecting.
The third movement, In Memoriam, spotlights the high quality of the LShO’s brass, and the strings are far more synchronised than in the orchestra’s performance of the Leningrad Symphony. Sadly, the percussion let down the team during the movement’s climax with a cymbal crash that comes two bars too soon, a missing tam-tam clash, and a barely audible first salvo of the bass drum.
Fatigue sounds to be setting in by the fourth movement, for while spirits do not flag, execution is not as crisp as before and the rate of errors increases. Most notably, the trumpet misses his cue entirely at Fig. 150/5:53. Such omissions might be unexpected of an orchestra named after the composer, as one might imagine it to be comprised of musicians who know this repertoire by heart. In fact, not all players in the LShO are Shostakovich fanatics; some participate simply for the chance to perform something new. Furthermore, because of the competing demands on the time of the musicians who contribute to this non-professional ensemble, group practice is limited to an intensive workshop the week before a final rehearsal the day of the concert.
Overall, although these performances bear too many significant errors to be generally recommendable, they offer considerable drama, emotion and a discernable interpretive identity. The recordings make the best entry point yet for anyone curious about the activities of this group.
As the booklet notes caution, one needs to make allowances for St. Cyprian’s acoustics. There are some rather startling creaks and snaps from time to time, and police sirens intrude faintly and briefly in the third movement. That said, recording quality is high. For the concerto, the piano is cast front and centre, with the orchestra some distance behind, an arrangement that sounds well. The symphony’s recording supplies a wide dynamic range; listen to how the mighty percussion blast at Fig. 162/8:57 in the finale melts away to reveal faintly quivering strings. As on previous CDs in this series, Dunelm index applause with a separate track, a practice that other labels would do well to emulate.