CD Reviews 20
§ = World Première Recording
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Shostakovich – Complete Songs and Romances, Volume 3: Early Works (1922-1942)
Two Fables by Ivan Krylov, opus 4[a]; Six Romances on Lyrics by Japanese Poets, opus 21[b]; Four Romances on Words by Alexander Pushkin, opus 46[c]; Ophelia’s Song from Music for Shakespeare’s Hamlet, opus 32[d]; Cordelia’s Ballad[e] and The Fool’s Songs[f] from Music for Shakespeare’s King Lear, opus 58; Six Romances on Verses of Walter Raleigh, Robert Burns, and William Shakespeare, opus 62[g].
Victoria Evtodieva (soprano)[b], Liudmila Shkirtil (mezzo-soprano)[a,d,e], Mikhail Lukonin (baritone)[c,f], Fyodor Kuznetsov (bass)[g], Yuri Serov (piano).
Delos DE 3309. DDD. TT 62:41. Recorded St. Catherine Lutheran Church, St. Petersburg, 23 March 1998[g], 10 May 2001[b,c], 25 January 2002[a,d-f].
World premiere recording of arrangements[a,b,d,e].
Delos hereby release the third volume of what is shaping up to be a landmark series in the Shostakovich discography: the first ever survey of the complete songs. Concentrating on the settings for voice and piano, the series extends beyond Neeme Järvi’s important collection of the orchestral songs on Deutsche Grammophon (439 860-2; deleted) and has turned out some significant world premiere recordings. The previous releases in the Delos series have received well-deserved praise for their distinguished performances and overall presentation. The series is neatly divided into chronological periods; the first album was dedicated to the songs of the 1950s, the second to those of the final years. The third album now takes up the early songs, embracing the 20-year span (1922 – 1942) that takes us from the composer’s student years to the Great Patriotic War. The album also contains a few world premieres that, surprisingly, are acknowledged nowhere by Delos.
The programme begins with the 16-year old Shostakovich’s first published vocal setting, the Two Krylov Fables, written while a student at the St. Petersburg Conservatory. Though the vocal style owes a debt to Rimsky-Korsakov, Shostakovich’s trademark irony and abrupt transitions abound. In the piano accompaniment, parallels to his Three Fantastic Dances, written the same year, are evident as never before. This is, after all, the world premiere recording of the work in its arrangement for voice and piano. The three previous recordings that we have are of the orchestral version, featuring soprano in the first song and chorus in the second. The recording here also marks the debut of soprano Liudmila Shkirtil in the Delos series. Her clarity of tone and experience in the opera house are much in evidence. In the first song, The Dragonfly and the Ant, she takes the music’s quick turns and wide leaps with ease and agility. Compare the constant, robust tones of Galina Borisova in the Rozhdestvensky version (BMG/Melodiya 74321 59058-2; deleted) or the aristocratic inflections of Larissa Dyadkova in the Järvi version. In the second song, The Jackass and the Nightingale, Shkirtil offers a colourful set of characterizations not possible in its original version for chorus. She affects the Jackass’s ungainly staccato with whimsical intonations. She then delivers the elegant cantilena of the Nightingale with perfect loveliness. In her readings, these songs come to life as never before.
Shkirtil is also featured in the world premiere recording of Ophelia’s Song from the Hamlet stage music of 1932. The music is identical to the orchestral number of the same name found in the fairly often-recorded suite. It is a delightfully offbeat tune that reflects Ophelia’s charms as well as her impending madness. Here, Shkirtil emphasizes the lyrical rather than the ironic aspects of the music, where perhaps more of the latter would have been welcome.
Shkirtil is also the soloist in Cordelia’s Ballad from the King Lear incidental music. The song is a fine melodic inspiration, a dignified minor key march that can sound proud and ceremonious, as when sung by Yevgeny Nesterenko with pianist Yevgeny Shenderovich (HMV Melodiya ASD 3700; deleted), or mournfully expressive, as in soprano Nina Romanova’s broadly paced version with orchestra (Olympia OCD 5006; deleted). By contrast, Shkirtil’s relatively fast tempo and soft, pliable tones offer an attractive rendition that plays up no particular angle. The recording, incidentally, is a world premiere of the version for female voice and piano.
The subject matter of the Six Romances on Japanese Poems makes it one of the few vocal settings in the Shostakovich repertoire not susceptible to political ramifications. Lovelorn and morbid, the brief verses take up the subjects of devoted love, lust, parting, hopeless attachment, suicide, and death. In a kind of lyrical experiment, Shostakovich shuns melodic patterns altogether in favour of a freely weaving arioso. Though there is little that is memorable within, the vocal line is nonetheless sensitively tailored to the texts and captures the ardour of youthful love. All previous recordings of the work have been with tenor voice, as indicated in the original score. The songs are sung here by soprano Victoria Evtodieva, whose estimable gifts I praised in my review of her performance of Shostakovich’s Blok cycle in Volume 2. Evtodieva possesses a sensitivity and mournfulness that makes a convincing case for these Japanese lyrics from the female perspective. Her ethereal quality at times makes her seem less involved in the text than noted tenor Alexei Maslennikov, whose equally fine interpretations have been recorded in both piano and orchestral versions (Melodiya C10 15501-2 and BMG/Melodiya 7321 59057-2; deleted). Evtodieva nevertheless elicits much depth of feeling. She makes the wide melodic leaps of the first song, Love, seem effortless. She arrives at the final crescendo of the second song, Before the Suicide, with building intensity, and likewise captures the heartfelt tenderness of The First and Last Time.
The melodic stability and individuality of Shostakovich’s next cycle, the Pushkin Romances, mark a consolidation of his gifts as a composer of songs. As these settings fall in between the notorious Pravda attacks and the reactionary Fifth Symphony, their texts cry out for multiple interpretation. Much has been written about the reference in the Fifth Symphony finale to the distinctive rhythmic figure in the first song, Resurrection, here brought out with signal prominence by pianist Yuri Serov (the song also contains a phrase that could have provided Galt MacDermott with the opening notes of his hit song, Age of Aquarius). While the text of this poem rails against barbarous fools who tamper with artists’ work, the music here and in most of the songs has more of a benevolent than a defiant tone, save the last song.
Among the orchestral versions of these pieces, we have the stout, well-rounded tones of Anatoli Safiulin backed by Rozhdestvensky’s conducting of his own outstanding orchestration (BMG Melodiya 74321 59057-2; deleted), and the more steely character of Sergei Leiferkus’s bass in the Järvi version, which uses Shostakovich’s original scoring. Both are fine performances, but neither captures the intimacy of the versions for voice and piano. Sergei Yakovenko in an early Melodiya release with pianist Mariya Grinberg (C10 05567-8; deleted), boasts a dark, hard-edged bass in a performance of breathless rapture that deserves attention.
In the Delos version, baritone Mikhail Lukonin brings a distinctly pastoral quality to these settings. He takes the verses to heart, projecting them with deep feeling. In the second song, A Jealous Maiden, he exhibits a fine sense of delicacy. The rising and falling phrases of the third song, Anticipation, are moving, and Lukonin convincingly captures the outrage and subsequent resignation in the powerful last song, Stanzas.
Lukonin demonstrates another side of his talents in the ten Fool’s Songs from the King Lear stage music. The songs are based on the well-known tune, Jingle Bells, and trot out a quick succession of witty, interlinked melodic variants. It is particularly entertaining to hear a no-nonsense bass like Stanislav Suleimanov submitting to these capricious escapades, especially with the feisty orchestral accompaniment provided by Mikhail Jurowski (Capriccio 10 397). The notable team of Yevgeny Nesterenko and Yevgeny Shenderovich (HMV Melodiya ASD 3700; deleted) offers execution that, while buoyant, is only satisfactory, lacking the jovial edge provided by Mikhail Lukonin. Lukonin is not afraid to personalise these short songs with campy spontaneity. He and Yuri Serov seem to have worked out the timing, delivery and pauses between each of these songs. The result is a delightful blend of irony and elegance. Lukonin is a baritone of impressive flexibility.
The performance of the Six Romances to Words of Raleigh, Shakespeare and Burns, with bass Fyodor Kuznetsov, was previously released on a now-deleted René Gailly disc that I reviewed in DSCH 11. As I wrote in that review, Fyodor Kuznetsov’s strengths lie in the rich resonance of his basso, and the dramatic intensity he brings to these songs. His vocal heartiness and commanding intensity establish a thoroughly solid and convincing presence. He responds well to the declamatory moodiness and punctuated phrases in the opening Sir Walter Raleigh to his Sonne, and brings a pastoral warmth to the droning caresses of the following O Wert Thou in the Cauld Blast. Although I find that he lacks the playfulness called for in some of the satirical songs, such as the final King’s Campaign, he shines in Macpherson’s Farewell, suggesting that he would make an ideal soloist in the Thirteenth Symphony; the main theme of that symphony’s Humour movement derives from this song. Although Kuznetsov’s interpretations tend to be on the serious side, they are also guided by an intelligence and musical sensibility that bring these works to life.
In all, this is another handsome edition in the ongoing Delos survey. Pianist Yuri Serov again deserves praise for the impressive authority he demonstrates in conveying the wide range of expression in Shostakovich’s songs. His liner notes are informative and well written. The graphics department at Delos deserves mention for the very attractive and distinctive album design of the series.
For the Shostakovich aficionado, indispensable.
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Katerina Ismailova, opus 114.
Yuri Ahronovich, RAI Orchestra and Chorus, Gloria Lane (Katerina), William Cochran (Sergei), Kari Nurmela (Boris), Georgi Chokalov (Zinovy), Anastasia T. Schepis (Aksinya), Bernardino di Domenico (Peasant), Dimitri Lopatto (Clerk/Guard/Sentinel), Vinicio Cocchiere (Porter), Marcello Munzi (Coachman/First Workman), Osvaldo Alemanno (Second Workman/Host), Alfredo Zanazzo (Priest), Lino Puglisi (Commissar), Florindo Andreolli (Nihilist), Maurizio Mazzieri (Old Convict), Anna di Stasio (Sonyetka), Giacomo Carmi (Officer/Third Workman).
Opera D’Oro OPD-1388. AAD. 3-CD set TT 2h:53min.
Recorded live Rome, 29 May 1976.
Oh, to be madly in love; it’s what most people live for – or in the case of Shostakovich’s anti-heroine Katerina Ismailova, die for. The San Francisco Opera, currently producing the original Lady Macbeth, opus 29, offers this convenient synopsis (www.sfopera.com): “[Katerina] murders her husband and his father to get her hands on their wealth and enjoy it with her lover. She’s found out, arrested and tried. She’s sent to a gulag, cheated and maltreated. And she dies.”
If you have read the few “authoritative” Western commentaries of the opera, you may be forgiven for thinking that Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk is a Limpid Stream with a touch of sex and violence, or a vaudeville revue with Leskov’s “horror story” grafted on, or else that it is as unremittingly grim and grey as Berg’s Wozzeck (with which Shostakovich’s opera is often compared).
Yet Lady Macbeth (and its 1963 revision, Katerina Ismailova) is none of these; it is a monumental work of genius. In a time when not just love, but life, was topsy-turvy, Shostakovich took love and turned it into a metaphor for a society quickly descending into decay and teetering on the edge of an epochal disaster. In the tradition of Musorgsky, the young Shostakovich observed the cataclysmic events unfolding before him and told the tale in a most colourful and original manner, in a language developed as much out of his music hall passions as his already maturing symphonic sensibilities.
There are two points in the opera where the inescapable fate of the characters, indeed, the entire Russian people, resounds with such terrifying intensity that Shostakovich’s insight in composing the opera leaves no doubts of his artistic intentions: the epic Passacaglia, as a premonition, and the opening chorus of convicts in Act 4, as the revelation of the true message behind this magnificent work of art. If the vast emotional breadth and originality of this opera do not blow you away, I suspect nothing in this composer’s oeuvre will.
Currently, the re-emergence of Rostropovich’s definitive 1979 recording of opus 29 (EMI 7243 567776 2 or Angel 7243 567779 2 7; reviewed in DSCH 18) and the continued availability of its only rival by Myung Whun Chung (Deutsche Grammophon 437 511-2) make the original 1932 score the natural first choice for experiencing this masterpiece. However, since the only previous CD issue of Katerina Ismailova, opus 114, from the Kiev Opera directed by Stepan Turchak on Le Chant Du Monde (LDC 278 1021/23), has long been deleted, anyone interested in sampling this revised version of the opera had nowhere to turn before the new release we have here. Opera d’Oro present a radio broadcast of a gripping performance by the famous RAI Orchestra and Chorus of Rome, conducted with white-hot intensity by Yuri Ahronovich.
How different, then, is Katerina Ismailova from Lady Macbeth? Despite Lady Macbeth‘s reputation as pornophony, this is one Katerina you can safely bring home to mother, not only because the naughty bits have been excised by the composer himself, but also because no libretto is supplied with this release and, of course, everything is sung in Russian. The insert notes are paper thin, but then this is a budget issue. Listeners who, in the composer’s words, have an “unhealthy interest” in the coarse naturalism of opus 29 will be somewhat disappointed with this “All-Audiences” version, but unless you understand Russian you wouldn’t really appreciate the textual cleanup, with the removal of such filthy language as “boobs” and “slut”. More noticeable would be the replacement of Boris’s obsessive “Nyet Muzhika, nyet muzhika” (No man, no man).
You would also notice the removal of the high B-flats in Katerina’s opening aria, “Tol’ko ya odna toskuyu” (I alone am depressed), which robs some of the exquisite danger of the original soprano part. A major loss is the rewriting of Katerina’s put-on lament for Boris in Act 2, Scene 4, “Akh, Boris Timofeyevich.” In the original, Shostakovich created a double-joke by quoting the text and melody from the opening chorus of Boris Godunov to serve his own Boris. DSCH readers will pick up on this, having read Eliezer Elper’s thesis The Last Yurodivy in recent issues, and will no doubt miss its humour with the more neutral revision. David Fanning, in his fascinating study of Lady Macbeth‘s leitmotifs, and Laurel Fay, in her useful comparison of the two versions of the opera, From Lady Macbeth to Katerina (in Shostakovich Studies; reviewed in DSCH No. 5), both make only a passing reference to this revision.
Then there are the major revisions in the interludes. The replacement of the first Interlude with a brand new one, with its chugging rhythm reminiscent of Babi Yar, gives the work an interesting – if schizophrenic – feel, where the more serious 1960s Shostakovich sits uneasily amidst the irreverent cheek of his earlier style. The same can be said of the rewriting of the Interlude after the Police Station scene (Act 3, Scene 7), which echoes the whirlwind terror of the Tenth Symphony Scherzo. As interesting as the new interlude is, I still miss – and prefer – the madcap original with its hilarious sidesteps, halts and back-glances, which are very much in the spirit of opus 29’s black humour.
By far the biggest loss for opus 114 is the complete removal of the notorious seduction music of Act 1 Scene 3, which is replaced by a brief, somewhat anachronistic “slow-fade” sequence based on material from the Police Station interlude, and along with it all the rude bits on the trombone. Call the original what you will – pornophony, muddle instead of music – the seduction scene and its infamous post-coital trombone glissandi are not only integral elements of Act 1 that spotlight the garish dichotomies facing Katerina and heighten the satiric commentary, providing essential contextual links to other scenes of brutality within the opera, but are also 123 bars of some of the best music in Lady Macbeth. Its frantic gallop, channelling a motoric violence so central in works like the Fourth Symphony, makes this a compelling piece of music that will be sorely missed. And without it, the rush of adrenalin that closes Act 1 on a high is mostly lost.
Revisions to the vocal tessitura and melodic line are subtler, but do give the opera a mellower, more melodic feel, smoothing over some of the harshness of Lady Macbeth. To this end, some of the orchestration is also toned down. While this has not been fully studied, one can hear for example in the Shabby Peasant’s drunken aria and the ensuing Interlude the stripping away of some of the cacophony by removing the raucous suspended cymbals, metallic horn stabs, colourful harp glissandi and gong splashes. Most significantly, the reassigning of the high clarinet lines and brittle xylophone writing to softer instruments erases the very spicy, trademark sound of 1930s Shostakovich. Interestingly the historic 1964 recording of opus 114 by the Moscow Stanislavsky/Nemirovich-Danchenko Musical Drama Theatre Orchestra and Chorus led by Gennady Provatorov (Angel/Melodiya LP RCL-4100) uses a slightly tamer version of the original orchestration.
Why then listen to opus 114 when excellent recordings of opus 29 are available? Firstly, we certainly need more than two recordings of this great work, and recordings of opus 114 have been just as illuminating, contributing to the ever-expanding depth and breadth of the music and characters. Secondly, the toning down of the tessitura makes for more comfortable listening, and is not without merit. Then there’s the watering down of the content rating from R to PG, which should encourage more delicate ears to experience this marvellous opera.
This latest offering has practically no competition unless you manage to acquire the deleted 1983 Le Chant du Monde set. That spacious stereo recording, well balanced and possessing excellent clarity, serves up a powerful, incisive orchestral performance, but is let down by a Wagnerian cast who over-sing most of the way, and feel they must e-nun-ci-ate e-ver-y word for the sake of lucidity. It makes an excellent companion to those studying the score (no other recording provides such precise detail, for example in the Nose-like quarrel between Katerina and Zinovy or the capricious orchestral backdrop to Sergei’s lament on Zinovy’s impending return). While I give the orchestra top marks from start to finish, the passionless Gizela Zipola’s big-breasted Brunnhilde of a Katerina and Alexander Zagrebelny’s Wotan of a Boris can really get on your nerves with their Valhallan forcefulness. While there are rare moments of inspired singing, for example in Katerina and Sergei’s bedroom scene after Boris’ death, it is not enough to make this performance satisfying overall.
If one recording of opus 114 approaches Rostropovich’s supremacy in opus 29, it is the 1964 LP set from Provatorov and the Stanislavsky/Nemirovich-Danchenko Theatre, the team who premiered the revised opus under Shostakovich’s supervision. That this has not been reissued on CD is a tragedy – Klaus Heymann, how about this for Naxos Historical? Captured with superb clarity (and in stereo, too!) the orchestra attack the score with maniacal enthusiasm for every note and serve up razor-sharp precision that puts even the London Symphony under Rostropovich to shame. This performance has revealing freshness and transparency, the lighter texture giving the work the kind of tangy fizz that must have excited audiences in the 30s. The cast complement the excellent orchestral playing with high precision singing that often reminds one of the opera’s proximity to The Nose. This brings electric excitement to the Aksinya rape scene, a true ensemble tour de force that reveals the intricacy of this complex scene while whipping up maximum emotional and dramatic power. The soloists – featuring Eleonora Andreyeva as Katerina, Eduard Bulavin as Boris and Gennady Yefimov as Sergei – are engaging and sympathetic to their characters, although Lev Yeliseyev’s Shabby Peasant takes the prize as the most annoying on record.
Without either Turchak’s or Provatorov’s set, we are left, not unfortunately at all, with this new issue, which is well worth hearing. This live performance must have been a thrill for the audience, who erupt into enthusiastic applause after each act, often even before the last note has had time to die off. Ahronovich conducts a taut and well-paced performance that has just the right measure of drama and excellent structural poetry, and he is well supported by the impressive lead cast headed by one of the great voices of the time, Gloria Lane.
Lane, who started her career as a mezzo in Gian Carlo Menotti’s The Consul (1950), had only recently made the switch to dramatic soprano (in 1971) when she delivered this superb Katerina. She has raw power and passion, no doubt owing to her rich mezzo tones. She delivers a searching account of the heroine that is dappled with many shades, from the passionate to naive to downright vitriolic. Unlike the blushing Juliet of Chung’s Maria Ewing or the Brunnhilde of Turchak’s Zipola, Lane approaches Vishnevskaya’s dynamic intensity with an added touch of vulnerability. She is particularly good in the duets, displaying great chemistry with all the lead characters, especially Boris. Just listen to their deliciously heated confrontations, for example “Ty smyeyesh!… Smyeyu!” (How dare you … I dare!) and her sarcastic “Gribkov, znachit, na noch poyeii” (Well, you had mushrooms … many people die after eating them) from the scene of Boris’ poisoning.
Lane opens the opera with a solid delivery of the first aria, but struggles at the very high Ab-Gb midway in the line “Tol’ko mney odnoy” (But I alone have nothing to do). She struggles similarly at the apex of “The foal runs after the filly”, marring an otherwise outstanding effort. Happily, perhaps having thoroughly warmed up after these two rough spots, Lane delivers an accurate and solid reading to the finish. Throughout she commands sympathy and attention, and often delights the listener with little nuances, for example in her Act 1 Scene 3 bedroom encounter with the predatory Sergei, “Shtozh ty nye zhenishsa?” (Why don’t you get married?). In the large scenes she also holds her own, bringing the audience to their feet with her electrifying conclusion to Act 3 (one that in my mind outdoes even Vishnevskaya), and conjuring up a truly shattering sense of surrender in her cataclysmic crescendi in the taunting scene of Act 4.
A towering performance as well from Finnish baritone Kari Nurmela, whose Boris resonates like a fallen God, spiteful and beastly, his gleeful terrorising of Katerina so palpable he elicits contempt from the very start. In Acts 1 and 2 he nearly steals the show from Katerina. His well-crafted dramatisation is marred just twice: in Act 1, where he sings several lines starting from “Nyet unas naslyednika kapitalu” (We have no heir to leave our fortune to) an entire tone higher, having entered at the wrong pitch; and similarly in the Viennese waltz sequence, where he sustains several bars a semitone higher. You would probably not notice, for Nurmela is thoroughly compelling (what a delight it would have been to hear him sing the original texts in the “nyet muzhika” passages). In comparison, Turchak’s Alexander Zagrebelny delivers the most unattractive of solos in this passage, singing the last stanzas as if he conducting a lesson in pronunciation.
Sergei receives sympathetic treatment from William Cochran, who paints him less as a bastard than (as Shostakovich is said to have suggested) a man whom women simply could not resist. There is a shade of naivety and innocent recklessness in his character; take for example the calculated melodrama of his “balcony scene” parting from Katerina, which is affecting for its somewhat transparent pretence. Here Sergei conjures the world of La Boheme even as the opera veers on the brink of Wozzeck, and we actually feel sorry for him. We warm up to his Sergei, so that we forgive him even as he leaves Katerina out in the cold for Sonyetka. There is less of the snide and devilish manipulator than we find in Rostropovich’s Nicolai Gedda or Provatorov’s Gennady Yelimov.
Zinovy also gets a fair deal with Georgi Chokalov’s well-rounded performance, although the tradition of the weedy, wimpy, non-performing husband sticks like glue. But what a struggle he puts up in his confrontation with Katerina just before his fatal encounter with the candlestick (Act 2 Scene 5)! Here he shines above most Zinovys recorded thus far: listen for instance to his indignant accusation “Skazhi mnye pravdu” (I demand the truth).
The supporting cast, presumably Italian, is generally competent. Although the chorus make an especially strong impression for their shabby ensemble singing, in context of their characters as either lazy drunken workers or lazy drunken policemen, this can be appropriately funny. The Police Station scene – led with gusto by Puglisi’s swaggering Sergeant, an altogether more entertaining lout than Turchak’s very unfunny bunch of law enforcers – is truly comical in this respect. Both the men and women make a mess of the calculated rhythmic chaos (especially the rhythmic laughter) of the Aksinya rape scene and the taunting of Katerina in Act 4 respectively, and the men are particularly lazy in the worker’s song of Act 2 Scene 4. To their credit the ensemble deliver an intense first chorus “Zachem, ze tu uyezzayes” (Why are you leaving us, master?), while the Act 4 choruses ache with a resonance of impending doom. Here the Stanislavsky chorus is comparatively thinner, but this makes for marvellous clarity in the complex mob sequences.
Anastasia Schepis’ Aksinya throws in some especially memorable squeals as she gets her udders pawed (or in this sanitised version, has her dignity compromised, wink wink), while Ana di Stasio as Sonyetka plays the weary victim who gets what she wants (although she does not sound nearly as beguiling as Provatorov’s Nina Isakova). Together, Stasio and Lane deliver one of the opera’s more hair-raising screams as they plunge into the icy river, a moment that tends to sound comical on audio recordings (especially with Rostropovich and Turchak – the former sounds utterly put on, while the latter evokes a drowning cat). Here in these closing pages the chorus paint a severe atmosphere of almost purgatorial bleakness around the suicide-murder, finishing off perfectly with the newly extended solo for the Old Convict to the accompanying trudge of col legno strings.
The shabbiest performance comes from the Shabby Peasant himself, who despite a promising start gets most of his entries wrong in his disastrous Act 2 Scene 6 solo. He comes in an entire beat late in “Budu pitya tsey vyek” (singing’s fine when there’s something to drink) and, rushing to catch up, never truly recovers as he chases the orchestra before finishing an entire half bar behind at the start of the galloping Interlude.
The orchestra are also guilty of some occasionally messy ensemble playing, critically in the exposed Act 1 Interlude between Scenes 2 and 3, and often in the very complex sequences such as the mercurial orchestral backdrop to Sergei’s aria about the return of Zinovy, or the final confrontation between Katerina and Zinovy. A particularly weak point is the wedding fugue (Act 3 Scene 8), which is uncharacteristically lazy. At this point of the opera, a tempo nearly half that of opus 29 is observed in all three recordings of opus 114, but the sluggish RAI Orchestra paint the wedding’s introduction as more of a garden-party than a grotesque last-supper, as served by Rostropovich and Chung’s opus 29.
Yet although even in these moments of imprecision the orchestra deliver a powerful and enthusiastic offering, individual musicians playing with audible commitment. From piccolo to tuba, each moulds its lines with loving care (hear the latter in an impressive pedal towards the end of the Aksinya rape scene).
Ahronovich shapes the opera with a keen ear for Shostakovich’s timbres, bringing out the rich festering lower registers (especially in the bass clarinet and contrabassoon) that underpin the entire score, and unearthing little gems in the score such as the Musorgskian accompaniment to Katerina’s Act 4 “Stepanych, let me through” and the knocking motif (quoted in the fourth movement of the Eighth Quartet) that accompanies the dying Boris as he points his accusing finger at Katerina.
But before you pop the champagne, a small caveat: although this recording dates from 1976, it is, unfortunately, in mono. The disc nevertheless sounds remarkably well on two speakers – just sample the frightening bass drum thwacks and the dramatic sheen of the chorus in the final scene (“On your feet!”), the pungency of the woodwind chords in Act 1, or the chamber-like clarity of the first Interlude. The sound is clean and spacious, and there is enough perspective to allow various instrumental details to shine through. The dynamic and tonal range is also impressive.
We will probably not be seeing any brand new recordings of opus 114, now that the original opus 29 score is readily available on CD. Despite Laurel Fay’s pleading, there is no unambiguous evidence that Shostakovich preferred the revision to the original – Glikman’s claims and several public comments from the composer to this effect were made at a time when the revival, and indeed survival, of his opera was at stake. Any new recording of opus 114 will have to confront the fine versions of opus 29 head-on, a task that I believe could be fulfilled definitively by a CD reissue of the 1964 Stanislavsky recording. Until then, this budget issue will do more than just fill the gap; it will be a recording you will enjoy listening to time and again, despite its flaws. And after each act you are as likely to erupt into applause as spontaneously as the Roman concertgoers did in 1976. Opera d’Oro’s Katerina is a bargain not to be missed.
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It all began in another world, on Christmas Eve, 1960, in the village of West Linton, Scotland. JFK had beaten Richard Nixon in the race to succeed Eisenhower in the White House. Khrushchev was in the Kremlin, selling oil to Fidel Castro. Castro was by turns delivering four-hour speeches to the United Nations to medusa-like effect, and storming out of his New York hotel in disgust. Cassius Clay, also disgusted, hurled his Olympic Gold Medal into the Ohio River, when he found a Louisville restaurant still wouldn’t serve him as a black man, the greatest or not. More sedately, Harold Macmillan consolidated Conservative power at No. 10 Downing St., but continued the dismantling of Empire by granting Nigeria independence, and all that entailed. Dmitri Shostakovich had joined the Communist Party and written the Eighth Quartet, with a Lenin Symphony supposedly still on the stocks. In September, he had visited SuperMac’s London with Rostropovich, met Britten, and spoken to the British press about the victims of fascism, in connection with his new, DSCH-laden Quartet.
Whether Ronald Stevenson, composer, scholar, virtuoso pianist, broadcaster and teacher, born in Blackburn, England, and aged 32 at the time, followed this Shostakovich trip, I don’t know. Certainly his engagement with worldwide current affairs, and with left-wing politics, was beyond doubt. But by that Christmas, he was settling down at the piano at home in his adopted Scotland, and starting to fool around with the DSCH motif on his own terms, turning this topsy-turvy post-War world of ideas and events into musical notes. By May of 1962, Stevenson’s private musings had mushroomed into one of the longest continuous pieces of instrumental music ever written, an enormous Passacaglia for solo piano which occupies 141 pages in the printed score, and which in performance just about fits, as you will see in the header above, within the Red Book limits for a single CD’s duration.
It’s something of a pity, then, that at 83 minutes the composer’s own commercial recording, for Altarus (AIR-CD-9091(2)), narrowly exceeds this limit and thus is spread over two discs, with other Stevenson works as makeweights, mirroring the original 2-LP issue. Anyone seriously interested in the work will want to hear what the composer has to say, but the Altarus set makes for an expensive introduction.
Stevenson takes a broadly Romantic, dramatic approach to a work that sounds nothing like Shostakovich nor, indeed, much like anything else in the piano repertoire. Frankly (and at the time it was written, unfashionably) tonal throughout, the Passacaglia on DSCH evokes the spirit of Stevenson’s beloved (and then equally unfashionable) Busoni in its grand design and ambition, in three parts ending with a gigantic triple fugue; but it rarely sounds like Busoni, and whilst the DSCH motif is made to conjure echoes of anything from a Chopin Polonaise to African drumming, it is the individuality of Stevenson’s writing that leaves the strongest impression – together with the feeling that whilst inside the Passacaglia, time stands still and no other piece of music exists.
Descriptions of the piece tend to be either technical or historical, and can make it seem forbidding. In fact it is nothing of the sort, holding the attention in a lucid and enjoyable fashion. Regardless of the Shostakovich connection, and sidestepping for the purposes of this review the issue of the history of the composers’ perceived political views, it’s clear that Stevenson was striking an early blow for compositional expressiveness in the teeth of Darmstadt by writing this vast, approachable and memorable work, and dedicating it to a composer he described as having “preserved the lineage of the great masters.”
That quote comes from the speech Stevenson made when presenting a copy of the score to a rather embarrassed-looking Shostakovich in Edinburgh in 1962. Altarus reproduce the speech in full, a fascinating historical document now. Stevenson asserts: “Since 1914 the terrain of Western music has been a no-man’s-land. Melody’s rainbow has been dispersed in fragments. I want you to know that some young Western composers look to you with gratitude and hope.”
Sadly, decades would pass, as would Shostakovich, before such sentiments could once more be deemed acceptable by the musical, let alone political mainstream. The Passacaglia itself, though, never quite went away. Following the 1963 premiere, the composer made a private recording, issued in an edition of 100. It was succeeded by John Ogdon’s EMI studio account from 1965, sponsored by the British Council; a two-LP set that taught the work to my generation (EMI ASD2321/2322). The composer continued to play the work, and a new generation of pianists has taken up the cudgels.
Raymond Clarke in 1993 and Murray McLachlan in 1999 (his version having taken four years to come to market) both worked closely with the composer on the Passacaglia in advance of making their respective recordings for Marco Polo (8.223545) and Divine Art. With the composer’s studio account, a 1990 CD issue, this gives the prospective purchaser a choice of three current Passacaglia recordings. Each recording features “little differences” to the printed score, thanks to Stevenson’s view of the continuity of the creative process, and his encouragement of the performer’s input. But they all present the Passacaglia as a big, convincing whole.
The work derives from a seven-bar theme, repeated hundreds of times without transposition of pitch, though it sometimes vanishes into the surrounding pianistic maelstrom. Stevenson takes the DSCH motto, repeats it with two B-naturals at the end, then plays DSCH backwards. That’s the theme: 13 notes; though as John Riley once pointed out, the rhythmic profile of the very first DSCH in the opening three bars of the Passacaglia seems to offer a characterisation of the great composer, as well as his monogram.
Right from this beginning, Raymond Clarke gives a commendably straight presentation of the score. Despite his performance apparently being assembled from disparate takes at differing venues, on different pianos, the final edit not fully representing the pianist’s wishes, it does hang together very well, thanks probably to Clarke’s long association with the work, and certainly to the familiar polish of his clean, superlative piano technique. The opening is cool, the acoustic dry, but the attention to the quieter, reflective music that follows is matchless, a perfect foil for the troubled nature of much of the more overt writing in the Passacaglia. The result is a moving, classical performance that gradually draws the listener in.
By contrast, Murray McLachlan projects the work’s opening Sonata with a dark energy that recalls Scriabin, or Beethoven at his tetchiest; the start of a journey with real sweep and grandeur, the Passacaglia swallowed whole, as it were. McLachlan is stunning in the Fugue. Unfortunately the piano lets him down, and the upper octaves often don’t sound quite in tune in quieter sections. This is a shame, as in Lisztian passages such as those on pages 11 and 12 of the score he visits worlds of fantasy and virtuosity his two competitors do not often approach. In McLachlan’s hands, we’re always made to appreciate the Passacaglia as a meaningful, pertinent piece of contemporary music, rather than as an anachronistic freak-show.
Stevenson’s spaciously-recorded Altarus recital is more expressive, moment-by-moment, than those of Clarke and McLachlan, and is marginally the slowest performance. In a sense the Passacaglia was written to be played by a generation of pianists long dead at the time of composition, to whose Romantic, questing or cerebral spirit it forms a memorial. Stevenson plays in a manner that gives that spirit life, his technique making a softer approach to the piano’s keys. Edges can seem blurred, and the work’s nocturnal, twilit sections sound more phantasmagorical, pointing to the serious concerns that lie behind the music, transcending notions of pianism, or the Classical tradition. Parts of the work are labelled To Emergent Africa, In memoriam the six million, and Lament for the Children. At the dark heart of a dark century, Stevenson was not only writing unfashionably approachable music, dedicated to an unfashionable genius; he was also suggesting that music should be involved in the world around it, a world perceived idealistically as a single dwelling place, for all men and women. The tragic uncertainties of real life are every much present here, though, and the idealist is no idle dreamer.
What was fashionable in the Passacaglia, however, were the brief passages when the score demands unorthodox playing techniques; not just under and on the lid and strings, but also weird “swell” effects on a couple of individual notes, to be engineered electronically if possible, and a huge welling-up of bass-sounds in the Emergent Africa section. These do now sound like period features, linking Stevenson in an incongruous manner to his exact contemporary Stockhausen, similarly world-music inspired, but at the opposite musical pole. For a fleeting moment we think of Mantra, Stockhausen’s epic piece on a similar scale from a decade later, written for two pianos and ring modulators. Then normal service is resumed.
Some commentators have found these tiny sections embarrassing, and they don’t seem to add much to the work but distraction, whatever the version. Nonetheless, Stevenson was once more trying to suggest the existence of other worlds, inspired in part by the beginnings of space flight; and it is nice to think of the very first, respectable Cape Town audience being a bit horrified by those supposed jungle-drums. They sound nothing like them, actually, but the sense of threat to the norm is there. Clarke’s Africa, using differing pianos, is the best, for what it is worth.
Clarke’s notes to his own release are, as always, excellent, and he calls the Triple Fugue the “highlight” of the Passacaglia. After more hearings than I care to admit, I’m no longer sure I agree. As a sustained contrapuntal achievement, it is hard to think of many serious competing works written since Bach and Beethoven’s opus 133; it is more than a match for the great efforts of Liszt and the various schools of organ composers in this regard. But Stevenson does incorporate the Dies Irae at the end, and since hearing Berlioz’s and Liszt’s comprehensive workouts for this plainchant, it has been my personal, if frivolous view that the menacing tune is due for retirement. Pianistically the final fugue section is absolutely stupendous, Clarke and McLachlan neck-and-neck in the virtuosic stakes, with the composer a little more approximate but magnificent in effect and control of colour.
This is not the end of the masterly compositional road, however, and the Final Variations suggest a grandstand-finale that does not materialise, the actual close being quiet and equivocal. The extra four minutes the Clarke recording takes over McLachlan’s is accounted for in the main by his slow tempo in these last sections, which do indeed thereby become the highlight of his performance, a 13-minute coda with depths not hinted at by the bald-sounding opening; true in spirit to the composer’s current conception of the Passacaglia as a birth-to-death piece. The composer’s playing is more drawn-out and ethereal, spectral even in this section, and less visionary than Clarke, ending with an unfathomably low bass note of indistinct pitch, courtesy of his piano.
McLachlan is much faster then the others in the Final Variations, a tortured conclusion for his compelling, storm-tossed reading of the whole work. It’s this ending above all that makes you realise the true quality of the music you’ve just lived-through and which, believe it or not, makes you want to go back to the start and hear it again!
This huge work has proved strong enough to survive the years, and very different pianistic approaches; the important thing is that you get to know it. So to the prospective purchaser’s, and the Editor’s nightmare. I suspect I may now have heard it more times than just about anyone, and the position with regard to a final recommendation is not clear. Altarus provide only one track on disc two, which contains the bulk of the Passacaglia. This is extremely unhelpful, and both competitors offer more than 30 tracks for the work, referenced either to the notes, or to listings, with appropriate title headings for each of Stevenson’s sections; though there is some confusion in the matching of tracks and sections in the otherwise fine booklet from Divine Art. Properly indexed, Stevenson’s version would carry obvious appeal and authority, especially as the sound quality is good, and the composer finds plenty of light and shade (mainly shade) in his own work.
You may be less worried than I about the piano tuning that mars McLachlan’s riveting conception of the Passacaglia. His performance is filled with excitement, feeling and belief, and superbly executed. Clarke’s sound may be less good, and the pianist may well deserve another stab at recording the work in a more cohesive manner – he still has the Passacaglia in his live repertoire, and his view will have matured – but his existing recording is still the most reliable choice at present. Perhaps a transfer from Marco Polo to Naxos would ensure a new lease on life for Clarke’s commanding ten-year-old version, which achieves real profundity by the end. Which certainly isn’t to say that it’s a ‘budget’ interpretation; it is a remarkable achievement.
The classic commercial recording of the Passacaglia on DSCH is that made by John Ogdon in the 1960s. But unless you are prepared to cash in your life-insurance to buy a second-hand LP copy and a turntable to play it on, you can’t hear it. The old cliché of the unavailability of a recording being a scandal is in this case simply true. Ogdon was one of the supreme pianists of the age, and this was one his finest achievements, forming one of the greatest recordings made of any repertoire whatsoever in the 20th century. The sound is a little dated, but the sense of Ogdon being there at the keys of a real grand piano is both palpable and moving. It is a magical experience. Where has it gone? Will EMI, or whoever now owns the rights please liberate this astonishing monument to musicianship and piano playing from the realms of limbo, at least for long enough for all those interested to investigate? This performance should be celebrated by the industry, not buried by it.
Perhaps by Christmas Eve 2004, Journal readers will not only have become more fully acquainted with the Passacaglia on DSCH through one or other of the excellent current recordings, but also be looking forward to finding the remastered Ogdon waiting in their stockings. It seems extremely unlikely, however, that this will happen, and interested readers are urged to investigate the work, and its alive-and-kicking composer now, before the axe falls on current versions of the Passacaglia too.
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Twenty-four Preludes, opus 34; Aphorisms, opus 13; Piano Sonata No. 1, opus 12; Three Fantastic Dances, opus 5.
Konstantin Scherbakov (piano).
Naxos 8.555781. DDD. TT 66:34.
Recorded Potton Hall, Suffolk, UK, 12 and 13 February 2001.
Shostakovich’s piano music continues to gain in popularity and appreciation. The present Naxos disc matches his ever-popular Three Fantastic Dances and Twenty-four Preludes with the Piano Sonata No. 1 and Aphorisms, which are both far less well-known but by no means inferior works.
The Preludes, opus 34, are first on the programme. Scherbakov’s interpretation of the set leaves no doubt that here is a thoughtful and intelligent musician. Prelude No. 5 is brilliant and effortless, as is No. 11. I am impressed most of all by his rendition of the preludes of a lyrical and dance-like character, such as Nos. 8 in F#, 17 in Ab, 18 in F, 19 in Eb and 22 in G. His palette of soft and delicate sonorities is rich and he creates poetic and varied images within a dynamic range of quiet to very quiet. One word of caution, however, is that the recording itself has a very wide dynamic range, so that when mf-f passages sound fine, sections played p-pp are barely audible, requiring immediate readjustment of the volume control.
Scherbakov’s attention to subtle detail is remarkable, although at times it leads to tempi that are excessively slow for my taste, with chopped lines and phrasing. This mars his interpretation of, for example, No. 6 in B minor, making it pretentious instead of humorous, No. 10 in C#, taking away its inherent semplice, No. 15 in Db, losing its propulsion and drive, and No. 24, destroying its continuity. The familiar No. 14 is also disappointingly monotonous, because its inflexible agogics do not correspond to the drama and intensity of the music. However, despite some less convincing interpretations, the cycle as a whole is refined and musical.
In the next work, Aphorisms, Scherbakov demonstrates less imagination and sparkle than one might expect. His best performances here are No. 7, The Danse Macabre, played at an excitingly fast tempo and with an appropriately ironic flavour, and No. 4, Elegy, performed with warmth and beautiful tone. However, more often than not, I find that Scherbakov’s interpretation lacks boldness and temperament. For example, the Nocturne, No.3, never reaches the required appassionato or ffff; the Funeral March, No.5, has little contrast between mp and ppp and sounds with little or no pedal where Shostakovich specifically requested pedal al segno from bar 9 to bar 22. Some odd pedalling and too-timid tone and dynamics impoverish the last, gorgeous piece, Lullaby. The only other currently available recording of this work, by Raymond Clarke (Divine Art 25018; reviewed in DSCH 18), is much preferable.
Shostakovich’s Piano Sonata No. 1 remains one of the most difficult pieces in the piano repertoire and also one that still has no traditional interpretation. It appears that Scherbakov consciously denies its romantic roots and chooses to interpret it in a similar style to Aphorisms. It is otherwise difficult to explain why the f-ff climaxes from bar 170-197 have so little pedal and sound so anaemic, why there are so many unjustified ritenutos throughout, and why the Lento section is practically twice as slow as indicated. Although I find in this performance many enchanting (albeit often eccentric) sonorities, they do not add up to form a work representative of the young Shostakovich. This piece requires a firmer structural grasp, more daring and romantic virtuosity and colours, and, most of all, much more emotional spontaneity. Raymond Clarke’s splendid recital is a better choice (Athene ATH CD18; reviewed in DSCH 11).
On the other hand, Scherbakov’s Three Fantastic Dances are charmingly performed. These are among the strongest performances on the disc, and contribute to making it a good buy overall, especially at the budget price.
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Twenty-four Preludes, opus 34, arranged for violin and piano by Alexander Blok (Nos. 4, 7, 9, 14 and 23)[a] and Dmitri Tsyganov (all others); Violin Sonata, opus 134; Three Fantastic Dances, opus 5, arranged for violin and piano by Harry Glickman (listed as G. Gliekman).
Ilya Grubert (violin), Vladimir Tropp (piano).
Channel Classics CCS 16398. DDD. TT 74:57.
Recorded Frits Philips Music Hall, Eindhoven, Netherlands, April 2000.
[a]World premiere recording of arrangements.
Violin Sonata, opus 134; Twenty-four Preludes, opus 34, arranged for violin and piano by Lera Auerbach (Nos. 4, 7, 9, 14 and 23)[a] and Dmitri Tsyganov (all others).
Grigory Kalinovsky (violin), Tatiana Goncharova (piano).
Centaur CRC 2636. DDD. TT 66:43.
Recorded College of Staten Island Performing Arts Center, New York, 10-12 May 2002.
[a]World premiere recording of arrangements.
Violin Sonata, opus 134[a]; Nineteen Preludes from Twenty-four Preludes, opus 34, arranged for violin and piano by Dmitri Tsyganov[b].
Rostislav Dubinsky (violin)[a], Eleonora Turovsky (violin)[b], Luba Edlina (piano)[a], Peter Pettinger (piano)[b].
Chandos Classics CHAN X10087. DDD. TT 60:21.
Recorded St. George the Martyr, London, June 1983[a], Snape Maltings Concert Hall, Aldeburgh, England, 13-14 November 1986[b].
Nineteen Preludes from Twenty-four Preludes, opus 34, arranged for violin and piano by Dmitri Tsyganov; Janacek: Violin Sonata; Prokofiev: Violin Sonata No. 1 in F minor, opus 80.
Kai Gleusteen (violin), Catherine Ordronnau (piano).
Avie/Crear Classics AV0023. DDD. TT 67:00.
Recorded Crear, Argyll, Scotland, 2-4 September 2002.
Violin Sonata, opus 134; Prokofiev: Violin Sonata No. 2 in D major, opus 94b; Shchedrin: Humoresque; In Imitation of Albéniz (both arranged by Dmitri Tsyganov).
Vesko Eschkenazy (violin), Ludmil Angelov (piano).
Gega New CD 269. DDD. TT 63:26.
Recorded Auditorio de Los Rozas, Madrid, 23 and 24 April 2001.
Violin Sonata, opus 134[a]; Viola Sonata, opus 147[b].
Oleg Kagan (violin)[a], Yuri Bashmet (viola)[b], Sviatoslav Richter (piano).
Moscow Studio Archives MOS19064. DDD. TT 67:50.
Regis RRC 1128. DDD. TT 67:59.
Recorded live[a]/studio[b] Grand Hall of the Moscow Conservatory, 17 May 1985[a], 26 September 1982[b].
I honestly couldn’t tell you what cosmological alignment might be responsible for the recent appearance of no fewer than four separate releases of Dmitri Tsyganov’s arrangement for violin and piano of nineteen of the Twenty-four Preludes, three of them coupled with Shostakovich’s Violin Sonata. This embarrassment of riches is further gilded on two discs by different and never-before-recorded transcriptions by other hands of the five Preludes not set by Tsyganov. Also on the menu are two additional recordings of the Violin Sonata, one of the Viola Sonata, and a smattering of attractive works by other composers.
Shostakovich appreciated Tsyganov’s opus 34 arrangement sufficiently to perform it himself, and can be heard with the illustrious Leonid Kogan on violin in Preludes Nos. 10, 15, 16 and 24, recorded in 1956 (Revelation RV 70002; deleted; reviewed in DSCH 9). Through no fault of his own, the composer was very much the poor cousin in that duo – as first violinist of the Beethoven Quartet, it is understandable that Tsyganov uniformly assigned the choice melodies to his instrument, relegating the piano to a supportive role. It is, therefore, primarily the violin performances that differentiate the contestants here.
Violinist Eleonora Turovsky is an erstwhile student of Tsyganov’s, so brings a special authority to her performances of the nineteen Preludes on Chandos’ reissue. This manifests itself as a commanding grasp of each of the widely divergent moods inherent in these brief movements. Her notes may not always be as precise as those of her competitors in the current crop of recordings (take bar 35 of Prelude No. 10, for example), but there is an unfettered drama and an affinity for wry, Shostakovian humour to her readings that make the exceedingly few technical quibbles one might raise evaporate. No complaints adhere to Peter Pettinger’s responsive backing on piano.
Latvian Ilya Grubert also comes with an impeccable pedigree as a former Kogan student, and his generally slower take on these pieces is marked by exquisitely pure tone. In Prelude No. 3, for instance, he handles multiple stops more cleanly than Turovsky. As revealed in the three entertaining pages of notes he contributes to Channel Classics’ release, Grubert is well acquainted with the Shostakovich-Kogan recordings (which he dates, I believe incorrectly, to 1947), yet he has chosen tamer tempos than his heroes in all but No. 15. He and partner Vladimir Tropp are also generally slower than their contemporary competitors, at times to the detriment of the proceedings, as in Prelude No. 12, whose arpeggios feel positively sedated, and No. 19, where Tropp’s phrasing seems wilfully hesitant.
The new duo of Canadian violinist Kai Gleusteen and French pianist Catherine Ordronneau take the opposite approach in their first recording, with a fittingly youthful, winningly innocent interpretation. Although they do not match the speed of Turovsky and Pettinger’s slithery No. 5 (which would make an apt soundtrack to a centipede’s foraging expedition), they are elsewhere much fleeter of foot.
Grigory Kalinovsky and Tatiana Goncharova, both connected with the Pinchas Zukerman Performance Programme at the Manhattan School of Music, are just as successful as Turovsky and Pettinger at uncovering the ironic core in many of these pieces. Their recital is also appealing for its operatic sweep, and Kalinovsky’s lyricism is at times evocative of the human voice, as in Prelude No. 12.
In Preludes of a jaunty nature, Grubert and Tropp are handily bested by the other teams. Take Prelude No. 13, where Turovsky and Pettinger as well as Kalinovsky and Goncharova are deliciously angular – Indians on the warpath! – and Gleusteen and Ordronneau, swift yet soft. By comparison, Grubert and Tropp appear rather stodgy. Listen too to No. 16, where Turovsky’s cheekiness overshadows the fact that she is not spot-on accurate, much preferable to the joyless, deliberate reading of Grubert and Tropp. Here Gleusteen and Ordronneau also pose stiff competition with their hearty, athletic effort, as do Kalinovsky and Goncharova with their cocky ebullience. Or again, No. 20, Allegretto furioso, where the Chandos and Centaur teams are eye-wateringly acidic, Avie’s pair, effortlessly nimble, but Channel Classics’ duo, ponderous.
Turn to Preludes of a more passionate cast, however, and the rivals are more evenly matched. The movement that shines most ravishingly in its embroidered instrumental garb is the Ab major Prelude, No. 17. With Turovsky and Pettinger we have a boudoir scene, perhaps some summer morning, dozing in and out of sleep next to a beloved, when one has neither need nor inclination to arise anytime soon. Less languid, Kalinovsky and Goncharova depict a soothing pastoral scene. Gleusteen and Ordronneau are equally tender but more ardent: Romeo and Juliet at the balcony. Grubert and Tropp paint with indigo a backdrop to a no less appealing but more urbanely romantic soiree.
The Channel Classics disc regains even more ground once Alexander Blok’s transcriptions of Preludes Nos. 4, 7, 9, 14 and 23 are considered. While these Preludes are less ingratiatingly tuneful than those set by Tsyganov, Blok reveals deeper strata within them via arrangements that are more modernistic and freely inventive than Tsyganov’s. A prime example is No. 23, in which ethereal figurations on violin shadow similarly disembodied triplets on piano. As a composer-pianist (and former student of Vladimir Tropp’s at the Gnessin Music School in Moscow), Blok is also more democratic in his apportioning of melodic meat between violin and piano, especially in the polyphonic Nos. 4 and 7, which both make imaginative use of pizzicato. Best of all is the funereal No. 14, where Blok enhances the gravity of the violin’s voice with scordatura. The powerful and weighty character of this piece meets a perfect match in these performers, as does the marvellously muscular No. 9, Presto.
By comparison, the young composer-pianist Lera Auerbach’s transcriptions of these five pieces – a commission from Kalinovsky – are a more straightforward setting of the original score, and thus differ significantly from Blok’s. In her 2000 score, Auerbach follows similar logic as did Tsyganov in his 19 arrangements to allocate notes between violin and piano. Most strikingly, in Prelude No. 7, the violin and piano roles are almost exactly reversed in Auerbach’s and Blok’s arrangements. Set beside Blok’s Prelude No. 14, Auerbach’s version sounds rather histrionic, but her take on No. 9 is at least as attractive as his, especially given the whirlwind performance it receives from Kalinovsky and Goncharova.
Whereas Chandos and Avie group Tsyganov’s 19 transcriptions following the jumbled sequence in his published suites, Channel Classics and Centaur present all 24 Preludes in numerical order.
Acoustics for all four recordings of the Preludes are first-rate, though others than I might find the occasionally audible breathing of Channel Classics’ performers distracting. The spacious but not agoraphobic soundstage of the Crear studio in Scotland heard throughout the Avie disc is truly outstanding, justifying the “Crear Classics” suffix on the label.
Unfortunately, it takes some getting used to the cavernous, reverberant acoustics of Chandos’ recording of the Violin Sonata, made in a different venue and three years earlier than their Preludes. The ear does adjust, however, and even comes to find that the metallic reverberation fits the harsh style of Rostislav Dubinsky and Luba Edlina (for those keeping track of degrees of separation, this couple founded the Borodin Trio with Eleonora Turovsky’s husband, Yuli).
Fitting, too, for that matter, to the correspondingly harsh mien of the Violin Sonata, a work that no novice would attribute to the composer of the likeable opus 34 Preludes. This music casts the listener adrift, alone, on a steel-grey sea of twelve-tone series and intervals of inhumane dissonance. Now and then, for a brief instant, hope of rescue dares rise, only to submerge as promising tones prove to be a fleeting mirage. Such moments occur just twice in the first movement: the compound major tenth that shimmers at Fig. 9, only to be swept away by a callous second, so that when it reappears at Fig. 20+4, this time augmented, we know better than to trust it – and are soon proven right not to have done so. There is no eye anywhere in the stormy second movement. The third movement is, if anything, even crueller for the way the striving peak of its dodecaphonic idée fixe is made to crumble into depressive, aimless low notes.
It comes as no surprise that Dubinsky, the founder of the powerhouse Borodin Quartet, channels with assurance the raw masculinity of the first movement’s dissonant double stops and the glassy dreamworld of its tranquillo section. Those following the score will note that he does not always play by the book, but the only deviation worth mentioning is the missing acciaccatura at Fig. 59-2, which is needed to clear the air for the first statement of the third movement’s main theme. Edlina more than holds her own, and her granitic bass chords and right-hand scales in the climax of the grudgingly revealed third movement are implacable, following which Dubinsky’s demisemiquavers are like the shrieks of a wild creature caught in a leg-hold trap.
Grubert and Tropp phrase the Violin Sonata more musically, with effective rubato that suggests a thorough working out of the work’s proportions. Grubert’s technique is cleaner than Dubinsky’s, and his sul ponticello trills more forceful. At times he appears to be reticent, especially in the second movement, where he underplays his glissandi at Fig. 29/0:15. That this is an interpretive decision is made plain by the forceful close to the movement. Still, there are times when Grubert’s notes are virtually inaudible, as with his slurred Gs at Fig. 25/9:35 of the first movement, and, more harmfully, his tremolo B-E exhalations in the closing bars of the sonata – yes, these are pianissimo to the forte E-A inhalations, but one should not have to turn up the volume control quite so much just to hear them.
No fear of missing any notes in the hard-driven recital of the Violin Sonata from Bulgarians Vesko Eschkenazy and Ludmil Angelov. Eschkenazy, the concertmaster of the Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam, has an equally steely violin tone as Dubinsky, but like Grubert, superior enunciation. He has been performing with prize-winning pianist Angelov since 1995, and their coordination is particularly impressive in their terse second movement. Their performance is perhaps the bleakest, most inanimate under consideration here. Paradoxically, it is also the most emotionally wrenching.
A rather cinematic alternative is presented by Kalinovsky and Goncharova, who deploy expressive rubato and extreme tempos. They expand the first movement more than any of their competitors here, but at just under six minutes, their breathless second movement is around a minute shorter than all but Grubert and Tropp, who take over a minute and a half longer. This Allegretto is as dazzling a display as one might imagine from the timing. Kalinovsky’s style throughout is bold and colourful, without sacrificing precision; indeed, when called on to sound a long note while double-stopping shorter ones, only Eschkenazy sustains the held note as steadily. Goncharova’s dramatic manner is also impressive, especially in her solo work in the Largo, though she does merge her three semiquavers at Fig. 49/3:55 of the second movement into a single hammer blow. As exciting as this performance is, chilly elements such as the tranquillo theme of the first movement seem a few degrees too warm.
The last Violin Sonata recording on the table arrives from two different directions: the American Moscow Studio Archives label and the UK’s Regis. This document, from Oleg Kagan and Sviatoslav Richter, last appeared on Olympia, and is in all respects preferable to that duo’s 1988 concert on Live Classics (LCL 183; reviewed in DSCH 11). This one too is a live recording, and though the audience are much more considerate than on Live Classics, they betray their presence now and then. The performance itself is brash and extroverted; there is white-hot urgency to the second movement, and Kagan is downright soulful in the third. However, synchronisation between the players is not flawless, and Kagan commits some wince-making mistakes, especially in the first movement.
The partner to this recording is also identical on Regis and Moscow Studio Archives (it comes from the same Soviet stable). This is to both labels’ credit, since you won’t find a more compelling recital of the Viola Sonata anywhere and the engineering is commendable. Richter and Yuri Bashmet convey the alternately questing and ineffectually flailing mannerisms of the first movement, and are pungently energetic in the second, Shostakovich’s extended instrumental setting of music from his aborted opera The Gamblers. While one might suspect that the ailing composer recycled these lines because he lacked the strength to compose an original movement from scratch, I prefer to think that he could not go to his grave without first resurrecting this beloved project, albeit on a smaller scale than originally envisaged. Having done so, he bids farewell in an unsentimental but unequivocally valedictory final movement, delivered with heart-rending empathy by Bashmet and Richter.
Back to Grubert and Tropp for the remaining Shostakovich work in the pot, the youthful Three Fantastic Dances, via arranger Harry Glickman. In their hands these nuggets are unusually soft-edged and not especially fantastical, though they remain enjoyable enough in a wistful way.
The Violin Sonata is the only Shostakovich opus supplied by our Bulgarian team, but Eschkenazy and Angelov sandwich it between works not far off in spirit from the Twenty-four Preludes. Prokofiev’s Second Violin Sonata, an irresistible transformation for David Oistrakh of his Flute Sonata, wins an effervescent performance, full of colour and not a few affectionate winks. Dmitri Tsyganov also puts in an appearance as arranger of two jaunty pieces by Shchedrin. Depending on your viewpoint, these are either far too slight to succeed the Violin Sonata, or exactly what’s wanted to haul you back from the brink.
Gleusteen and Ordronneau follow Shostakovich’s opus 34 transcription with Prokofiev’s First Violin Sonata, which he originally composed for these forces. It is a more substantial work than the Second, full of spiky gestures and alien textures, and Avie’s duo rise admirably to its challenges. Also on the agenda is Janacek’s Violin Sonata, a delicious concoction of the composer’s unique sounds and rhythms. The young musicians deserve top marks for adapting their musical language so fluently to the three very different personalities on their album.
If you must have both the Violin Sonata and the Preludes on a single CD (though, why?), I would suggest either the Chandos or the Centaur CD over Channel Classics’. If Tsyganov’s arrangements of the Preludes are your main concern, Chandos would be my choice, although Centaur’s entry runs an extremely close second in these 19 transcriptions, and for many buyers Auerbach’s more-than-satisfactory completion of the cycle will tip the scale. Anyone tempted by Alexander Blok’s creative transcriptions should not be dissuaded from the Channel Classics disc, as Grubert and Tropp’s music-making has much to recommend it. Avie’s submission should not be counted out either, and with its attractively diverse programme, this is the disc most likely to please the generalist buyer. For the Violin Sonata on its own, I believe that listeners with iron in the soul will find that among the current candidates the Gega New recital best rewards repeated listening, though only the Kagan-Richter performance comes with strong caveats. On the other hand, the Bashmet-Richter Viola Sonata alone is well worth its low asking price on both Regis and Moscow Studio Archives (the pressings are identical in sound quality).
W. Mark Roberta
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Shostakovich: Complete String Quartets, Vol. 4
String Quartet No. 2 in A major, opus 68; String Quartet No. 14 in F# major, opus 142.
Sorrel Quartet: Gina McCormack (violin 1), Catherine Yates (violin 2), Sarah-Jane Bradley (viola), Helen Thatcher (cello).
Chandos CHAN 10114. DDD. TT 65:23.
Recorded Snape Maltings Concert Hall, Suffolk, 6-8 May 2003.
The fourth volume in this highly distinguished cycle of the Shostakovich string quartets by the Sorrels brings together two of the least often played: the energetic and large-scale Second and the enigmatic Fourteenth. The contrasting nature of the two works makes for a fascinating coupling. All the hallmarks of the Sorrels’ previous recordings in this set are present in the new release: exceptional clarity and precision, electrifying outbursts with great intensity and sustained emotion in the quiet passages. These are complemented with fine acoustics and an excellent recorded sound.
The Second Quartet is one of the longest in the set, if not the longest, on this recording clocking at 37:49, almost as long as Beethoven’s opus 131. It is a tour de force: the highly energetic outer movements are combined with the long and intense Recitative and Romance second movement, and the mercurial, disturbing third movement Waltz. The Sorrels capture all the moods of this challenging work with great style. From the start, the crescendi on the modal chords that accompany the first violin stand out crisply, producing a pronounced resonance. As played here, this is a movement of frenetic energy and great excitement.
However, the highlight of this performance of the Second Quartet is Gina McCormack’s superb playing in the recitative passages in the second movement, utterly hypnotic and obsessive, with the repeated phrases played with gradual accelerando and increasing volume. In contrast, other recordings – for example the Borodins on BMG/Melodiya (74321 40711 2; deleted) and Virgin Classics (5616302), and the Fitzwilliams (Decca/London 289 455 776-2) – tend to pull the tempo about more freely, as might be expected of a recitative. However, the technique of smooth variation of the tempo seems perfectly judged, resulting in a distinctive and easily appreciated shape to each phrase, giving the feeling of obsession, as opposed to the more violent waves of grief of other recordings. There is of course no “correct” way to play this piece, and this very distinctive approach should be assessed. Other recordings also tend to make more use of vibrato in the playing to emphasise the emotional impact, and yet the intensity of the solo violin playing in the Sorrels’ recording never diminishes; the quiet concentration is particularly noticeable in the passages towards the end. It seems that all this intensity has been captured naturally, without trying to force the issue.
The clarity of the performance works well in the disquieting, chilly Waltz that follows. Again, great energy is demanded of the players in the last movement, and the players are fully equal to the task; the tension builds up superbly towards the climax during this helter-skelter set of variations, subsiding quite naturally into a pretty and humorous lilting variation towards the end. There are few moments in the string quartet literature that are as magnificent as the final grandiose statement of the theme. In this recording, the chords have an organ-like quality that brings a high seriousness and gravity to the conclusion. Particularly noticeable is the cadence from the first phrase of the theme, where at the end the penultimate note is sustained over a passionate arching motive by the viola. The fact that this is a drawn-out cadence is brought out with great clarity here, bringing the work to an emphatic and defiant conclusion.
The Fourteenth Quartet that follows this high drama is a complete contrast, beginning with an almost trivial tune for the cello. During the unfolding of the movement this tune is subjected to various extreme distortions and parodies of itself, sometimes humorous, sometimes resembling terrifying shrieks, as if losing control, and sometimes reaching feverish intensity. To use an oxymoron, it could be said that when the Sorrels “go out of control”, they do it with devastating precision, bringing out fully the highly disturbing nature of this music.
Following this, the second movement has a kind of unearthly calm. Especially beautiful is the passage of overlapping pizzicati of the three other instruments accompanying the cello’s song, leading to the impassioned passage that Shostakovich referred to as “my Italian bit”. The Sorrels play the opening of this passage with the utmost delicacy and lightness of touch, with the pizzicati bringing to mind gentle flecks of snow landing on a window, before gradually swelling in volume and agitation. Once again, the intensity and concentration are held right to the end of the movement, in the regretful-sounding final bars, with a sense of the icy chill of indecision as the violin wanders aimlessly between B# and C#.
This sense of stasis is broken as the third movement starts, and again the music initially has the schizophrenic qualities of the first movement, with sudden disturbing outbursts. The precision of the Sorrels’ playing is particularly effective in the passage where the music is tossed about chaotically between the four instruments, first in two-note, then three-note, then four-note figures. This passage sounds phenomenal through headphones as the stereo separation picks out the four different instruments as the argument jumps about in rapid succession to different places inside one’s head. Following this, the excitement dies down, and one has the sense of the composer patiently drawing all the threads together in order to achieve the final tranquil conclusion, a poignant farewell that draws out playing of great tenderness and understanding from the Sorrels.
How does this new recording compare with others that are available? For some listeners, the sheer technical polish of the Emersons (DG 463 284-2; reviewed in DSCH 13) will be hard to beat, though to my ears the Emersons are less engaged with the emotional impact of these works than the Sorrels. There again, few recordings can match the Borodin Quartet performances for emotional commitment (the Virgin Classics set only contains No. 2 for comparison). The Borodins certainly play with an extraordinary electricity and excitement, almost as if their lives depended on it. It could be said that the Sorrels combine the best aspects of the Emersons and Borodins, or that this recording lies somewhere in the middle. But to do so would be to make a one-dimensional comparison, whereas the real situation is more akin to three different vertices of a triangle. The disc brings fresh insights into this music, highlights new aspects that I had not noticed before and carries the distinctive hallmarks of the Sorrels’ playing in the previous volumes of their cycle, which have earned them high praise from many critics so far. The new volume therefore earns the same warm commendation as the previous ones, and leaves me impatient for more.
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Great Recordings of the Century
Piano Concerto No. 1 in C minor, opus 35[a]; Piano Concerto No. 2 in F major, opus 102[b]; Three Fantastic Dances, opus 5[c]; Five Preludes and Fugues from Twenty-four Preludes and Fugues, opus 87 (No.1 in C major[d], No. 4 in E minor[d], No. 5 in D major[d], No. 23 in F major[d], No. 24 in D minor[e]).
André Cluytens[a,b], Orchestre National de la Radiodiffusion Française[a,b], Dmitri Shostakovich (piano), Ludovic Vaillant (trumpet)[a].
EMI 7243 5 62646 2 5 or Angel 7243 5 62648 2 3 (Americas and East Asia). ADD mono. TT 76:05.
Recorded Salle Wagram, Paris, 24-26 May 1958[a,b], 30 May 1958[c], 12 September 1958[d]; Moscow, 5 February 1952[e].
A historic document of Shostakovich’s performance of his own piano music, recorded in May and September 1958 in Paris, has been reissued and presented on this EMI disc. Although Shostakovich often played his piano concertos, only two recorded performances of each are available. This disc contains the later recordings of both works, and are also the only ones made and released outside of Russia.
Shostakovich’s first Russian recording of the First Piano Concerto was a live concert performance, conducted by Samuil Samosud in November 1954 in Moscow (Classical Treasures CT-10022; reviewed in DSCH 17). Although almost four years separate it from the French recordings, they have much in common. On both recordings, Shostakovich shapes the phrases and longer sections in a similar way. His dynamics, pedaling and many other interpretive details are also comparable. By the same token, the tempos in the Paris recording are much closer to the Moscow recording than to those indicated in the score of 1933. Of course, without a recording from that epoch (aside from a brief film excerpt from 1940 included on the Chandos DSCH CD-ROM and DVD-ROM, CHAN 50001 and 55001; reviewed in DSCH 15), we cannot know whether or not Shostakovich played in those tempos back in the 1930s or 40s. However, by comparing the 1954 and 1958 recordings, we see that as the years passed, the tempos changed to a calmer pace. This is true not only in the fast movements, but, surprisingly, in the slow second movement as well.
Contrary to this, in the Paris recording of the Second Piano Concerto, then only recently written, the tempos do not differ much from either the score or the first recording under Alexander Gauk, made in February 1958 in Moscow (Classical Treasures CT-10022). In both recordings, Shostakovich demonstrates his impeccable sense of structural proportion and never compromises the extremely fast tempos. His performance of the slow movement is my favorite; it has a typical Shostakovichian sincerity of expression and unpretentious, subtle and poetic agogics. Mozart might have played like this; simple yet inimitable.
The Three Fantastic Dances, opus 5, were first recorded by the composer in Prague in 1947 (Doremi DHR-7787; reviewed in DSCH 18). The performance on EMI’s disc is Shostakovich’s second recording of the work, which was made on 30 May 1958 in Paris. Unlike the practically flawless first recording, the second is a sad testimony to Shostakovich’s progressing illness, which prevented him from playing at ease or even cleanly. Nevertheless, there are some interesting details in this performance as well, as for example, his pedaling and his tempos (the score indicates none of these).
Of the five opus 87 Preludes and Fugues included in the disc, only four – Nos. 1, 4, 5, and 23 – were recorded in Paris – on 12 September, 1958. The fifth is the D minor Prelude and Fugue, No. 24. Although EMI list the place and date of the recording as “unknown”, it was in fact recorded on 5 February 1952 in Moscow by producer David Galkin and sound engineer Margarita Sereda. There have been numerous other releases of this same Prelude and Fugue, but all originate from the same Moscow recording. Shostakovich never recorded it again.
It is a great disappointment that the other Preludes and Fugues recorded in France during the same sessions, namely Nos. 6 (B minor), 13 (F# major), 14 (Eb major), and 18 (F minor), have not been reissued on disc. The first and, as far as I know, only publication of these was the LP issue by Columbia (FCX 771), now an extreme rarity. Why could the publishers not use the eleven minutes of space occupied by the D minor Prelude and Fugue for any of the other French recordings? There is no doubt this would enrich the collection. Hopefully, one day we will have all of them on a disc as acoustically fine as the present EMI reissue. For now, however, if you missed the first issue, this disc is a must.
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Piano Concerto No. 1 in C minor, opus 35[a]; Piano Concerto No. 2 in F major, opus 102; Ustvolskaya: Concerto for Piano, Timpani and Strings.
Charles Mackerras, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Ingrid Jacoby (piano), Crispian Steele-Perkins (trumpet)[a].
Dutton Laboratories CDSA 4804. Direct Stream Digital hybrid 4-channel/stereo SACD/CD. TT 57:36.
Recorded Watford Town Hall, Hertfordshire, UK, 21-23 January 2002.
Piano Concerto No. 1 in C minor, opus 35[a]; Piano Concerto No. 2 in F major, opus 102[b]; Twenty-four Preludes, opus 34.
Hannu Lintu[a,b], Helsingborg Symphony Orchestra[a,b], Oleg Marshev (piano), Jan Karlsson (trumpet)[a].
Danacord DACOCD 601. DDD. TT 76:52.
Recorded Konserthuset, Helsingborg, Sweden, 29 July – 2 August 2002.
Piano Concerto No. 1 in C minor, opus 35; Piano Concerto No. 2 in F major, opus 102; Shchedrin: Piano Concerto No. 2.
Andrew Litton, BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Marc-André Hamelin (piano), Mark O’Keeffe (trumpet)[a].
Hyperion SACDA67425. DDD Stereo hybrid SACD/CD. TT 63:13.
Recorded Caird Hall, Dundee, Scotland, 31 March and 1 April 2003.
A windfall season of Shostakovich piano concerti is marked by three contrasting and colourful new versions, each paired with an equally colourful programme filler: the opus 34 Preludes on one disc, and another piano concerto each on the remaining two, one by Rodion Shchedrin, one by Galina Ustvolskaya.
Of the two Shostakovich piano concerti, the Second is the one that can claim greater structural clarity and expressive focus. It is arguably the better piece of music. But it is the youthful First Concerto, with its mischievous departures from concerto protocol that offers pianists far more interpretive possibilities – a fact that may explain its greater popularity over the years. The current set of performances reflects the wide range of interpretive possibilities available. It also demonstrates how the quality of the performance by the same artist with similar interpretive parameters can vary from one concerto to the next.
Ingrid Jacoby approaches the First Concerto almost as if it were a work from the 19th century. Rather than the rascal-on-the-run quality that many pianists bring to its playful pages, Jacoby tends toward the grand gesture, placing emphasis on the work’s classical foundations. Her keyboard style is of the high Romantic sort, noble and imposing, heavier in the touch and rather formal in execution – features that one might call Germanic. She manages to knit together the various episodes of the outer movements with a Teutonic discipline that is both elegant and good-humoured. While this can harness in some of the work’s devil daring, Jacoby’s performance shines with strength and intelligence. The inherent humour is not only preserved, but is cast in fresh, dignified tones. The seasoned listener may be caught pleasantly off guard. Note, for example in the last movement, the ceremonious pauses that start each phrase of the Rage Over a Lost Penny quote; and the honky-tonk insert in the concerto’s last page, which comes off sounding as if it were one of Brahms’ Hungarian Dances. In the slow movement, the sweeping gestures of the climax also acquire a Brahmsian grandeur. My only disappointment is with the weak presence of the trumpeter, who, whether by conductor’s, audio engineer’s, or soloist’s doing, should be heard more prominently. Even in the spotlight of his Ach du Lieber Augustine solo in the final movement, he sounds as if he’d rather be someplace else.
Jacoby carries herself with similar aplomb in the Second Concerto. If the exposition of the opening movement is not as airborne as it could be, its themes are presented with a stately and jovial elegance. Throughout the movement Jacoby and Mackerras maintain buoyancy and purposefulness, steering the music toward its climactic destination with an infallible sense of proportion. Jacoby may have a heavy hand, as no doubt one will hear in the first movement’s cadenza and elsewhere; but what a wonderfully solid grip she has on the keys! In the slow movement she favours poise and forward motion to the almost total exclusion of sentimentality. The finale is impeccably paced and yields rousing results. Though it may lack some of the wildfire that other pianists have brought to the work, it is one of the most pleasingly balanced renditions of the Second Concerto I have heard. Jacoby and Mackerras make a harmonious musical partnership in a set of performances in which energy, vigour, and solidity abound.
In complete contrast to Ingrid Jacoby’s classical demeanour at the keyboard, we have the daring impetuousness of Oleg Marshev. He gives the kind of take-no-hostages performance of the First Concerto that perks ears and raises eyebrows. If Jacoby tends to consolidate the work’s contradictory sections, Marshev relishes every opportunity to accentuate their differences. With a flair bordering on the flamboyant, he reacts exuberantly to each shifting episode, imparting colour and character with effortless virtuosity. It is Marshev’s sheer physicality and spontaneity that drive his performance forward. In the slow movement, he caresses the keys and is generously expressive. The climactic section ascends with broadly lunging gestures to splendid effect. The final movement provides just the sort of pianistic playground that Marshev seems to cherish. His enthusiasm for the work is infectious.
Marshev exhibits the same robust virtuosity in the Second Concerto, yet with some shortcomings. He is especially good in bringing out the lyrical innocence of the opening themes and articulating the details of the passage work with model clarity and virtuosity. He is also eloquent in the final movement as he casts the spring-loaded themes, including the Hannon exercises, into splendid relief against the orchestra. What I found lacking in his performance is the sense of direction that would have added impact to the peak moments. I found the climactic section in the first movement less than effective; and likewise, a lack of cumulative gaiety in the finale. The shortfall is partially due to conductor Lintu, whose pacing is not always optimal. For example, rather than picking up on the momentum built by Marshev in the cadenza of the first movement, Lintu instead resumes at a slower pace, thus taking the elevated spirits down a notch. Conductor and pianist also seem to be at odds in the slow movement. Here Marshev plays with a dreamy reverence, yet to the point of detachment. For a pianist who seems to thrive on the spontaneity of the moment as much as he does, perhaps the classical poise of the Second Concerto does not provide the best showcase for his considerable talents. This is a performance whose individual parts impress more than its entirety.
Marshev’s colourful personality seems to excel with music that invites greater interpretive liberties and that allows more wandering room for his imagination. The opus 34 Preludes provide him with just those opportunities. In these miniatures, his pianism is imaginative throughout, and descriptive of physical motion. It is also infused with a sensuality and spur-of-the-moment impulsiveness that further lends to these preludes an engaging dance-like quality. Listen to the gestural grace and rhythmic freedom he elicits from the first two Preludes; the tiptoe agility of the shifting patterns in No. 8; the dreamy swaying in No. 17; even the fugal No. 4 is brought to its crest with broadly flowing gesture. In No. 16, marked by dotted Schubertian rhythms, Marshev emphasizes lyrical delicacy. The sombre No. 14 may have lost some of its weight in his hands, but he does imbue a graceful, arc-like fluidity to its funereal tones. In the final prelude, the alternating scurrying and halting tempi lend an appealing conversational quality.
These are by far the most choreographic interpretations I have heard of these Preludes. In Marshev’s version, they are turned into what one might call Shostakovich’s Scenes de Ballet.
The third recording of the Shostakovich piano concerti is another distinguished performance of these well-worn favourites, especially for those who like them played on the fast side. Marc-Andre Hamelin is a pianist with a vibrant, fresh presence. From the opening bars of Shostakovich’s Second Concerto, he projects a coiled energy and edgy exuberance. The notes of the expository melodies bounce off his fingers with as much staccato lightness as one could ask for. In the moments before the development section – when the ferocious quadruple octave vamp jumps to the fore – Hamelin softens the tone to a crouching, anticlimactic hush, then lets loose with all force. In the final movement, he gives distinction to the other fiery quadruple-octave outburst by placing particularly heavy emphasis on the downbeats of the figure. This is a performance with real character. The path of ascent to the all-important climax of the first movement is well steered and leads to a satisfying crest.
Hamelin and conductor Litton also seem to have a good collaborative rapport, especially with regard to matters of rhythm. In the fast passages there is a distinct, accented quality inherent in Hamelin’s playing with which Litton’s baton style seems in complete accord. Unlike the other pianists mentioned in this review, Hamelin is not afraid to wear his heart on his sleeve in the Andante. As a result, he gives a most touching rendition. The timpani’s cadential punctuations of the many metric changes in the finale are heard good and strong in this performance, adding to the excitement. Though the cumulative effect of Hamelin’s breakneck speed here is genuinely exhilarating, some of the lyrical and textural details – such as the Hannon exercise passages – are a bit blurred in the dispatch. In all, though, a very satisfying performance.
Hamelin also works up considerable speed in the First Piano Concerto where he generates a good deal of high spirits and fast flying merriment. Yet there can be too much of a good thing. His fast tempi work well in the more unified fabric of the Second Concerto. However, the varied episodes of the First Concerto’s outer movements at times sound crowded together when played at such dizzying velocities. A little more individual attention to these passages would have been welcome. As in the Second Concerto, he excels in the slow movement where he is touchingly sensitive to mood and splendidly effusive in the climax.
One of the standout features of the performance is the way in which the hurried tempo of the finale suddenly brakes to a casual walking pace for the duration of the trumpet’s humorously derisive solo, after which it resumes its winged flight. It’s a nice, twisty touch. And it’s gratifying to at last find in this concerto a trumpeter with personality. Mark O’Keeffe takes subtle but spirited liberties with his solos so that he becomes part of the merrymaking rather than just a background accessory to it. He is a definite asset to this very lively, if fidgety, performance.
Galina Ustvolskaya’s music has been receiving increasing recognition over the past decade, the early Piano Concerto being one of her most frequently recorded works. The musical and personal connection between her and Shostakovich, as student and teacher, as colleagues, even as possible lovers, has also received a fair amount of attention. Shostakovich admired Ustvolskaya’s music; he even claimed to have been influenced by it. His well-documented quotation of one of her themes in his Fifth Quartet and again in his Michelangelo Suite testifies to the teacher’s lifelong admiration for his former student. If Ustvolskaya’s youthful works bear the influence of Shostakovich, her mature works could not be more removed from it. She became a musical renegade of the first order, adopting a style that shuns almost every tradition of Western classical music. In the astringent, often forbidding manifestations of religious ardour her music came to embrace, listeners may find a disturbing yet fascinating universe.
Ustvolskaya’s Piano Concerto (1946) was written around the time of her post-graduate studies with Shostakovich. The influence of the teacher, as one might imagine, is virtually unavoidable. Immediately apparent are the similarities in scoring and textural treatment to Shostakovich’s First Piano Concerto. And to some, the work’s principal motif, a heavily accented, two-note figure, may recall the jagged notes that open Shostakovich’s Fifth and Eighth Symphonies. Despite these parallels, Ustvolskaya’s one-movement concerto still manages to hold its own ground. It is a serious bravura work that shuns the playful shenanigans of its purported model. Alternating dramatic gestures and reflective passages, its seriousness of purpose reaches beyond its quarter of an hour length. After a pensive central section, the return of the two-note figure in the final section provides an overall sense of symmetry. In the finale, the obsessive repetition of the figure with hammering rhythms looks ahead to the severe aesthetic that Ustvolskaya would eventually adopt in her maturity. Those interested in exploring her music further are recommended the authoritative and comprehensive survey by Oleg Malov on a series of Megadisc CDs from the 1990s.
The premiere recording of the concerto, with soloist Pavel Serebryakov and Yuri Serebryakov leading the Leningrad Philharmonic CO (paired with Shostakovich’s First Concerto on Melodiya SM 02439-40, rerelreased on BMG/Melodyia Musica Non Grata 74321 49956 2; deleted) is memorable. With percussive attacks and accentuated tempo shifts, Serebryakov drives a tense, sharp edged performance wherein urgency borders on desperation.
Taking the extreme point of view, however, is not the last word in interpretation. Ingrid Jacoby and Sir Charles Mackerras offer up a version that penetrates the work’s depths without being nearly so high strung. Jacoby brings out the concerto’s bold statements with menace and majesty, but with a greater sense of expanse. She also fleshes out the reflective moments with a lyrical warmth missing in the rather icy Serebryakov reading. Mackerras directs his string players sympathetically, savoring the slower sections and sparing no fury in the climactic sections. In the final pages, though the timpani strokes are thunderous, I still found myself missing the apocalyptic fury captured by the Serebryakovs. Yet throughout, Jacoby and Mackerras convey solidity and sensitivity – qualities that are spot on for this music.
Rodion Shchedrin, born 1932, emerged as one of the principle figures of the modernist movement, along with Edison Denisov and Alfred Schnittke, during Russia’s cultural “thaw” of the 1960s. With a spectacular flair for orchestration, he became the leading colourist of his generation, melding Russian folk music and elements of jazz into a contemporary musical language that was both widely appealing and academically daring. A number of orchestral tours de force, such as his Carmen Variations and Naughty Limericks, established an international reputation, as did his formidable piano works, which to date include six piano concerti.
Shchedrin’s Second Piano Concerto dates from 1966 and falls into three movements entitled Dialogues, Improvisations, and Contrasts. Like his other works in that form, it poses no small virtuosic challenge. The material tends to be gestural, freely incorporating tone rows and clusters within a rhythmically lively lyrical framework. It is never cerebral music but rather communicates a broad array of moods and emotions, mostly of a playful sort. The third movement, for example, incorporates a jazzy accompaniment with pizzicato bass line, marimba, brushed cymbals, and plenty of syncopated riffs. Fans of Naughty Limericks, written the same decade, will recognize the stylistic fingerprints. On listening to the concerto again, I was struck by a number of similarities between it and one of Shostakovich’s early pianistic forays into modernism, the ten-part Aphorisms of 1927. Not only are there textural similarities in the opening piano solo, but the entire second movement of the concerto is based on a theme very similar to that of the seventh section, Dance of Death, of the Aphorisms cycle. Even if one considers the movement a kind of “variation on a theme by Shostakovich”, the rest is pure Shchedrin: defiantly virtuosic, gesturally audacious, with brilliant colouristic effects.
Some readers may be familiar with the CD of Shchedrin’s first three piano concerti with the composer, himself, as soloist, and Yevgeny Svetlanov conducting the USSR SO (Melodiya 74321 36907 2, issued in 1996 from Melodiya LPs dating from the 1970s; deleted). Compared to Hamelin, Shchedrin sports a more hard-edged, steely tone at the piano. There is something mischievous in the way he engages the roaming filigrees of the first movement, almost as if he is daring to ponder forbidden realms. Hamelin is just as earnestly engaged, but takes less of a predatory and more of a gracefully athletic approach. Sensitive to the ever-shifting course of moods and textures, he is as crisp in the dark and rugged pages of the first two movements as he is in the overtly jazz inflected tones in the third. His ability to effortlessly switch back and forth between the jagged and the jazzy in the finale again shows his complete mastery of the idiom. In the conducting department, while Svetlanov stands in a class by himself, Litton leads an astute and lively rendition that captures every nuance.
Sound quality on the three discs is excellent. Piano and orchestra have a close, up-front presence on the Dutton CD. Both the Dutton and Hyperion discs are encoded with the Super Audio/DSD technology for those with the equipment to enjoy it. The choices are brimming with variety.
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Summit Brass Live
Four Preludes from Twenty-four Preludes, opus 34 (Nos. 6, 13, 14 and 20) arranged for brass by Brian Buerkle[a]; Richard Strauss: Vienna Philharmonic Fanfare; J.S. Bach (arranged for brass by Michael Allen): Fugue in G minor, (Little); Air, from Orchestral Suite No. 3; Traditional: Doina Fantasy arranged for brass by Don Elam; Eric Ewazen: A Western Fanfare; Symphony in Brass; Allen Vizzutti: Prism: Shards of Color for Brass.
Summit Records DCD 380. DDD. TT 66:32.
Recorded live Macky Auditorium, University of Colorado, Boulder, June 14, 2003.
[a]World premiere recording of arrangement.
The Summit Brass is a large ensemble of brass virtuosi (usually about 17) from various American and Canadian institutions, mainly universities. This is their tenth CD, on their own label. The sound quality is absolutely stunning when heard on studio monitors, and fairly good on expensive headphones, which I take to mean that the bass range for the tuba, euphonium and trombones was particularly well captured by the microphones. It sounds just as well as a studio recording, which makes the applause heard at the end of every piece a little unwelcome.
The CD begins with a fanfare by Richard Strauss, followed by two transcriptions of well-known Bach pieces, then an arrangement of Jewish folk songs and dances.
In the middle of the programme are the four Shostakovich transcriptions, arranged by Brian Buerkle. No. 6 in B minor, a sardonic dance movement, contains a xylophone doubling the soprano line (melody or accompaniment, about half the time), which regrettably recurs, sometimes tremolo, in all the other transcriptions. The xylophone is often overly loud, in the right channel only, and undermines all four transcriptions, except when it is drowned out by multiple brass in the upper range. Other percussion sounds occur in No. 13, but they are an enhancement, not a detraction.
Preludes Nos. 13 and 14 are played without an intervening pause, which gives an interesting and rather logical effect, since the A# that ends No. 13 is happily re-interpreted as the fifth degree of the Eb minor tonic chord that begins and ends No. 14.
The latter is the most effective of the four transcriptions, partly because the irritating xylophone is not heard until halfway through. Shostakovich’s opus 34 is clearly modelled on Chopin’s Preludes, but the Russian composer’s natural inclination for orchestral writing usually shines through, making opus 34 usually much different in gesture than Chopin’s often more idiomatic arpeggio textures. No. 14 very strongly evokes Wagnerian harmony and rhythm, something I was little aware of until I heard this transcription. The climax of this number is strongly reminiscent of the sound and texture of Parsifal, making strangely audible Shostakovich’s possible source of inspiration.
Prelude No. 20 in C minor, Allegretto furioso, is over almost too soon to be enjoyed, but is expertly scored except for the xylophone.
The most effective numbers on the CD are the original multi-movement compositions, all by contemporary American composers, which will make those listening with cheap speakers seriously consider buying better ones, and those with good speakers seriously consider buying very expensive replacements and additional sub-woofers!
Indeed, the programme notes are full of immodestly laudatory comments such as “incredible monster brass”. The Shostakovich numbers are described as “expertly transcribed…[to] provide perfect vehicles for displaying the playful and sometimes hugely dramatic qualities of brass scoring”. But of course this is almost expected for people “blowing their own trumpet” all the time!
The ensemble work is clean, emotional and convincing. Again, the sonic impression is extremely good and this CD as a whole will make a handsome addition to any collection where the owner wants to show off his or her hi-fi equipment.
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Symphony No. 5, opus 47[a]; John Alden Carpenter: Sea Drift (revised version)[b]; Mendelssohn: Scottish Symphony opening[c]; Gershwin: An American in Paris[d].
Leonard Bernstein, New York Philharmonic Orchestra [a-c], RCA Victor Symphony Orchestra [d].
Symposium 1295. A_D. TT 77:45.
Recorded live 28 January 1945[a-c], studio 1947[d].
Leonard Bernstein’s 1945 recording of the Fifth Symphony bears testament, if any were needed, to the prowess of the then 27-year-old wunderkind. The quality of the recording is low by modern standards, in particular the high strings and flutes, which take on a sibilant, peevish quality, but one can hear the authority of the performance all the same. It is by no means faultless (the percussionist comes in embarrassingly late a few bars after Fig. 39, the horns have a momentary hiccup before Fig. 61 in the second movement, and the pizzicato string passage before Fig. 67 gets slightly ragged), but overall, the playing is assured and crisp.
The Scherzo and Finale especially are brisk and energetic, underscoring their respective Mahlerian and Tchaikovskian leanings. The Largo suffers a little at the hands of the recording, needing the more sumptuous sound of modern engineering to sustain its length. Certain details, such as the percussion after Fig. 121 in the Finale, get buried in the rumbles and crackles.
For those seeking a Bernstein performance of this symphony in better sound, an obvious choice is his 1979 live recording from Tokyo (Sony Classical MDK 44903), which also evinces masterly control and contains wonderful moments. The piano and pizzicato strings at the beginning of the first movement’s development section are chillingly evil (Bernstein consistently achieves this in all his recordings of this work) and the balance between the strings and brass in the stretto section creates a marvellous sensation of two uncompromising poles pulling at each other for supremacy.
Sadly, while the impact of individual passages in the 1979 concert is beautiful, dramatic or spine tingling, the impact of the whole – of the symphony as a continuous narrative – is sacrificed. This comes down to tempi, particularly in the first and third movements. As can be seen if his 1959 recording is also taken into consideration (Sony Classical SK 61841), over the years Bernstein broadened his tempos with remarkable consistency across all four movements. Given his legendary verve and energy, one would have to ascribe this to a maturing artistic conviction rather than slowing with age.
The 1979 recording is the longest, and in so being creates the most problems. I cannot escape the feeling of two movements of quicker tempo being dwarfed by two grey, monolithic requiems. Expanding the Largo to Brucknerian scale (15:58, as compared with 14.10 in the 1945 recording) seems to me to place an onus on the Finale to aspire to similar dimensions, which it simply was never designed to do. The same can be said of the 1959 performance. Even though there the Largo is slightly shorter (15.32), so is the Finale, so the same problem of proportion arises – it is in fact more keenly felt, given the Finale‘s relative brevity. Perhaps in the 1979 recording Bernstein broadened the Scherzo and Finale in an effort to balance the other two movements, though in the case of the former, at the expense of some of its vivacity.
In my review in DSCH 16 of the 1973 Mravinsky live recording of the Fifth Symphony (Altus ALT-002), I noted the tendency towards an arguably erroneous performance tradition of this Largo similar to that of the Adagietto from Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. As set forth in Gilbert Kaplan’s 1992 article in the New York Times (“A Dirge? No. It’s a Love Song”), Bernstein was largely responsible for this misguided performance tradition by extracting Mahler’s movement from its symphonic context and performing it in memoriam, firstly for his mentor Koussevitsky and then senator Robert Kennedy. Many conductors hastily added it to their programmes to mark Bernstein’s own passing. Kaplan’s argument is that the movement was in fact a musical love letter to Mahler’s future wife Alma and that, on the evidence of performances by Walter and Mengelberg (emanating from the composer’s own performance practice or approved by him) it should last about 8 minutes. Bernstein in concert could stretch it out to almost double that length!
Perhaps similar forces are at work with Bernstein’s 1979 interpretation of Shostakovich’s Largo, for he had only a few years earlier, at the Salzburg festival, extracted this movement to memorialise its composer’s death. While the distortion is nowhere near as great as his reported 15-minute version of Mahler’s Adagietto, the same argument could be applied – that Bernstein saddled it with a funereal tone that had more to do with recent events than the composer’s initial intentions. The ritardando leading up to Fig. 96 is histrionic verging on the ridiculous. In contrast, Mravinsky’s 1973 Largo imparts a “bowed but not beaten” attitude, an intermingling of reverie and protest, which to my mind is certainly what the composer intended. Mravinsky’s first movement too had a greater sense of urgency and didn’t steal the Largo‘s thunder by masquerading as an adagio itself.
The Symposium CD also contains the first performance of the revised version of Carpenter’s Sea Drift and a 1947 studio recording of An American in Paris. The latter is, sadly, of even lower technical quality than is the symphony, having a pianissimo snare drum roll of hiss that gradually gets louder as the performance continues. Nevertheless, we can hear what a fine, swaggering performance this is, with Bernstein’s devotion to American music leaking out of every pore.
On the whole, the appeal of the Symposium disc would probably be limited to Shostakovich completists, Bernstein fanatics, Carpenter scholars, those interested in the history of conducting or those old enough to appreciate the trip down memory lane supplied by the pre-concert announcements and station IDs between tracks (“This is the armed forces radio service!”). It is a wonderful historical document and is, to my ears, the most compelling of Bernstein’s interpretations of the Shostakovich work. The Carpenter is interesting and the Gershwin is great fun, though the recording is obviously a product of its time.
There isn’t a great deal to choose between Bernstein’s 1959 and 1979 interpretations, though the earlier recording strikes a better balance between form and expressive content. It is coupled with a fluent performance of the Ninth Symphony, though this lacks a little verve in the outer movements to my ears – his 1987 live recording with the Vienna Philharmonic (DG 419 771-2; deleted) has a little more zest and wit. I would however recommend the issue with the 1979 recording less for the symphony than its coupling, the Yo-Yo Ma and Eugene Ormandy rendition of the Cello Concerto, which is worth the price of admission for the cadenza alone (superb!) and the excellent playing elsewhere.
If however, you would like to own a live performance of the Fifth that doesn’t pursue momentary effect at the expense of narrative integrity, buy the Mravinsky.
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Symphony No. 5 in D minor, opus 47; Symphony No. 6 in B minor, opus 54.
Oleg Caetani, Orchestra Sinfonica di Milano Giuseppe Verdi.
Arts Music 47668-2. DDD. TT 79:14. Also available as 5.1-channel/stereo DVD-Audio disc 45001-6.
Recorded live in the Auditorium di Milano, 2001[a], 2002[b].
It’s true, neither conductor nor orchestra exactly leaps to mind when one thinks of Shostakovich. Expectations are little raised after reading in the accompanying booklet Oleg Caetani’s rather meandering account of his discovery of the composer’s oeuvre. Yet the raw material here is more promising than one might at first suspect. The son of respected conductor Igor Markevitch, Caetani is a graduate of the Moscow Conservatory, where he studied with Kondrashin. The mismatch in surnames between father and son is praiseworthy; Caetani took his mother’s family name to avoid riding on his father’s coattails, so that he would know that his accomplishments were due to his own musical abilities. Though formed only in 1993, the extravagantly titled Milan orchestra boast Riccado Chailly as music director, and have made several highly praised recordings for Decca.
The collaboration proves to be largely successful. Caetani delivers an intelligent, concentrated account of the Fifth Symphony, with clear, long-distance vision of the dramatic line. The orchestra have no difficulty responding to his direction. Instrumental personalities are distinctive and, for the most part, well matched to the drama – delightfully so in the interplay between the bloated, buffoonish first theme and cheeky second theme of the second movement. Execution is accurate aside from a rather startling wrong note on clarinet in the first movement.
While climactic moments are suitably daunting, what impresses most throughout this Fifth are the quieter, more introspective passages, handled with mature restraint. Without resorting to extremes, Caetani’s listless pulse in the first and third movements generates palpable uneasiness. Take, for example, the coda of the first movement, a highlight of the performance, with superb handing off of the solo voice from a bone-chilling, glassy flute to a stifled piccolo to a violin positively haemorrhaging tremolo. The first violins also deserve special mention for their muted catatonia in the aftermath of the third movement’s climax.
The Sixth Symphony does not receive quite as emotionally compelling a reading as the Fifth, due to phrasing that errs on the side of sluggish. While the first movement is appropriately morose, one senses the players champing at the bit; the English horn comes in a beat too soon at Fig. 22+2/10:00. Caetani also appears reluctant to press forward in the second movement, and although the third is as spectacularly floor-pounding as one could wish, its galloping principal motif feels a mite lethargic.
Both works were recorded in concert, though the audience are miraculously inconspicuous until the applause that falls hard on the heels of each symphony. Close miking is likely to be thanked for this, though there are a few less felicitous side-effects, such as the clacking of the double basses and over-bright xylophone in the first movement of the Fifth Symphony, and a woefully plinky celesta at the close of the third movement. But these are quibbles; overall both recordings are sonically impressive, with wide soundstage and clear detail.
Indeed, they can be uncommonly so if instead of the CD you opt for the DVD-Audio version of this album, which can be played in 5.1 surround sound or stereo on either a DVD-Audio or a standard DVD-Video player (only a static image of the conductor appears onscreen). You will, however, need a DVD-Audio player to take full advantage of this high-resolution audio format. A minor point: when playing the DVD-A disc in a DVD-Video player, tracks are cued a second or so late, so that if one skips to the start of a new movement, the first note or two are shorn. Unlike the competing SACD format, which is often implemented as a hybrid disc that can be played on either a SACD player or a standard CD player (at standard CD quality), DVD-A discs will not play in a standard CD player.
This is the first entry in a projected complete symphony cycle. On the evidence of the Fifth Symphony in particular, it will be one to watch.
W. Mark Roberts
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Here we have an authentically Russian performance of Shostakovich’s finest symphony, from infrequent visitors to the composer’s discography. Fedoseyev and his long-time Ostankino companions (the Moscow Radio Symphony Orchestra, to their friends) could until recently be heard in this symphony in a 1998 recording on the Swiss label Relief (CR 991047; deleted). By then the same band was going by the alias Tchaikovsky Symphony Orchestra of Moscow Radio, though the honorific seems not to have inspired them to greater heights – there is fatal frailty in brass and woodwinds.
Performance quality is superior in the earlier recording before us here, though it still does not challenge the finest available. The crucial clarinet solo in the first movement at Fig. 5/2:54 is muffled, and coordination between string and wind banks in the fourth movement is not always precise. String ensemble could also stand to be sharper in the third movement climax. That said, instrumental pigments richly render the exotic Oriental hues of this symphony. Fans of Soviet-era braying trombones will not be disappointed, and the percussion boom fabulously deep and resonant. Most important, the orchestra play with crimson-blooded commitment, inspiring a high degree of emotional engagement in the listener.
The 1987 recording also trumps its remake as an interpretation. The oddly genial later conception is notable for extreme rubato. Fedoseyev’s tempo decisions were less idiosyncratic in the earlier performance, mercifully so in the reprise in the third movement of the first movement’s opening theme, which crawls like plate tectonics in the 1998 recording. Admittedly, some slow passages do sound measured in the present recording, but climaxes are as vehement as one could wish.
Moscow Studio Archives’ source for this recording did not reveal whether it was a digital or analogue master, though faint hiss may betray the latter. In any case, the engineering is commendable. Andrew Farach-Colton’s readable notes meld history and musical description, and make a decent introduction for the non-specialist (there is a minor inaccuracy in dating the Piano Quintet).
Overall, this release does not challenge the synoptic architectural vision of Herbert von Karajan’s resilient 1966 recording (DG Galleria 429 716-2), which carries a comparable mid-price entrance fee. But with Rozhdestvensky, Kondrashin and the best of Mravinsky currently missing from the catalogue, this all-Russian contender earns a qualified welcome.
W. Mark Roberts
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Symphony No. 13 in Bb minor, opus 113, Babi Yar[a]; Symphony No. 14, opus 135[b]; Symphony No. 15 in A minor, opus 141[c].
Neeme Järvi, Göteborgs Symfoniker, National Male Choir of Estonia[a], Anatoly Kotscherga (bass)[a], Ljuba Kazarnovskaya (soprano)[b], Sergei Leiferkus (bass)[b].
Deutsche Grammophon 474 469-2. DDD. 2-CD set TT 73:40+80:17.
Recorded Konserthuset, Gothenburg, November 1995[a], May 1992[b], September 1988[c].
All three recordings in this double-CD set are re-issues: the most recent performance here is the Thirteenth Symphony, recorded in 1995, and the oldest is the Fifteenth, from 1988. The quality of Järvi’s interpretations is attested to by the critical acclaim these recordings have already received. The playing of the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra is superb throughout, treading a knife-edge path between brittle, metallic severity and the most tender, lyrical warmth. The fact that they do this so well should not be taken for granted, since it is exactly this duality that pervades much of Shostakovich’s late music and which can easily be lost with over-eccentric intonation.
Almost nowhere else in Shostakovich’s output is this peculiar quality so pervasive as in the Fourteenth Symphony. Bass Sergei Leiferkus and soprano Liuba Kazarnovskaya deliver the first and fourth songs with a haunting, frozen immobility. Yet even here there are moments of terrifying intensity, as in the chilling third stanza of Three Lilies (The Suicide), the closing bars of which must rank amongst the most desolate music ever written.
Järvi grasps Shostakovich’s macabre tone with equal authority, especially in the grotesquely distorted laughter of Madam, look! where the lethally sparse textures and gestural simplicity throw themselves entirely on the mercy of the performers’ ability to deliver them with the necessary intensity.
Kazarnovskaya is outstanding in the furiously compassionate On Watch, where her voice takes on a childlike, intimate quality. But not all of this death-haunted work is about anger and pain: O Delvig, Delvig! enters with a sweeter, more consoling tone, as one artist’s loving benediction on another. Järvi shapes its caressing Mahlerian phrases with complete understanding.
Some of this duality is already felt in the Thirteenth Symphony and in the first movement, Babi Yar, in particular. Possibly there was something in Yevtushenko’s poem that unlocked this special brand of unquiet, spectral stillness in Shostakovich’s late music, though its roots surely go back to the solo recitatives of the mid-period symphonies and quartets. But performances that capture this quality are elusive, and rarer still are those that can balance it with climaxes that don’t just overwhelm the listener but move them as well. In every movement, Järvi digs deeply into the musical fabric, suffusing the shuffling inexorability of In the Store with a quasi-religious halo of strings and harp, yet building to a climax of awe-inspiring moral severity.
Here too, as in the Fourteenth Symphony, Shostakovich allows his latent wry sense of humour freer rein in the final movement, Career, with its mockery of pragmatic ambition and its beautiful orchestral epigraph to artistic integrity. It is moments of radiance such as this, however fleeting, which suggest that Shostakovich managed to exorcise the demons of his past and find a kind of peace.
The Fifteenth Symphony performance shows Järvi at his symphonic best: a master of long-term pacing and control combined with the same instinct for both Shostakovich’s abrasive and his tender musical halves. Though vividly characterised, Järvi’s account never slips into eccentricity, and his willingness to sacrifice some orchestral polish in his search for a rougher, more brittle, sound never once invites ugly playing.
These CDs come with full transliterations and translations of the Russian texts, and four separate English, German and French essays, with authors including David Fanning and Detlef Gojowy. Strongly recommended.
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Complete symphonies on a budget
No. 1 in F# minor, opus 10[a]; Symphony No. 2 in B major, opus 14, To October[b]; Symphony No. 3 in Eb major, opus 20, The First of May[c]; Symphony No. 4 in C minor, opus 43; Symphony No. 5 in D minor, opus 47[d]; Symphony No. 6 in B minor, opus 54[e]; Symphony No. 7 in C major, opus 60, Leningrad[f]; Symphony No. 8 in C minor, opus 65[g]; Symphony No. 9 in Eb major, opus 70[h]; Symphony No. 10 in E minor, opus 93[i]; Symphony No. 11 in G minor, opus 103, The Year 1905[j]; Symphony No. 12, opus 112, The Year 1917[k]; Symphony No. 13 in Bb minor, opus 113, Babi Yar[l]; Symphony No. 14, opus 135[m]; Symphony No. 15 in A major, opus 141[n].
Rudolf Barshai, WDR Sinfonieorchester, Rundfunkchor[b,c] (West German Radio Symphony Orchestra and Chorus[b,c]), The Choral Academy Moscow[l], Sergei Aleksashkin (bass)[l], Alla Simoni (soprano)[m], Vladimir Vaneev (bass)[m].
Brilliant Classics 6275. DDD. 11-CD Set TT 11h 09m 54s.
Recorded Philharmonie, Cologne, 1992[f], 1994[a,c], 1994-95[g], 1995[b,e,k], 1995-96[h], 1996[d,e,i], 1998[n], 1999[j], 2000[l,m].
Ladislav Slovak, Czecho-Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra (Bratislava), Slovak Philharmonic Chorus[b,c,l], Magdalena Hajossyova (soprano)[m], Peter Mikulas (bass)[l,m].
Naxos 8.501102. DDD. 11-CD Set TT 11h 39m 13s.
Recorded Concert Hall of the Slovak Radio, Bratislava, between November 1986 and March 1991.
Either of these slimline super-budget sets of the greatest symphonic Odyssey to be undertaken by a composer born in the 20th century will take up less of your living space than a paperback version of the Homer original, and though each costs less than the price of a single concert ticket, new friends of Shostakovich need not feel they will be short-changed by the interpretations. Both conductors worked directly with the composer: Rudolf Barshai’s long creative association with Shostakovich is well-documented, but Ladislav Slovak, too, studied the symphonies with the composer, whilst acting as Yevgeny Mravinsky’s assistant in Leningrad.
For some listeners the epic journey has at times seemed closer to Hollywood than to Homer, with Dr. David Doughty, note-writer to the Barshai set, for example, saying of the Twelfth Symphony, “Music here indeed seems to be subservient to a propagandist programme aimed at education,” and of the Eleventh, “…undoubtedly a step backwards for Shostakovich.” The great thing about hearing all these symphonies together – especially if you don’t read the booklets first – is that an overall, tragic story does come across, regardless of detail. I can’t imagine new listeners pointing to this or that work as being a weak link, after hearing either of these recorded cycles complete.
All symphonic cycles are uneven and so, implicitly, are all recorded versions of them. But as John Travolta so rightly pointed out, it’s the little differences that distinguish between telling the full epic tale and churning out pulp fiction. One not-so-little difference here is that Slovak takes around 37 minutes longer over these symphonies than Barshai, a fact that appears linked to a more fundamental difference; that is, the quality of orchestral response between the two sets. Slovak has a broad, compelling and authentic vision of the Shostakovich sound-world, but time and again, his violins sound strained or lacking in weight.
The sound in both sets – each recorded over a number of years – is very good, but variable, with some spotlighting of individual instruments. Barshai’s recordings can have a stunning impact, with huge range and plenty of hall-ambience, but there are times when Slovak is given the more natural orchestral balance.
The Brilliant booklet contains no texts or translations. Slovak’s set does have texts, but this isn’t all gain; the words translated for the Fourteenth Symphony are not always those that Shostakovich set, and in the case of the Thirteenth there is a dark little secret lurking in the Naxos white box, of which more anon.
For Dr. Doughty, the extraordinary First Symphony is “an admittedly conventional work” but it’s hard to hear how. Barshai is electric, dark and tense, benefiting from the live conditions in which all these WDR recordings were apparently made, though the second half does sound a bit rushed. Slovak is slower and more balletic, with duller sound than in most of his cycle. The virtuosic Scherzo second movement proves the acid test, with Slovak’s strings uneasy, even at the steady tempo set by the conductor.
Performances of the Second Symphony are almost as rare as a sensible written commentary on either this brief work or its longer successor. Slovak’s chorus sound less than enthusiastic at the end of the Second, but elsewhere his version is well-characterised and convincing. Here I find Barshai a little bland – not an adjective one could apply to his sensational reading of the Third Symphony. The WDR players and their conductor are sure guides to the Second Symphony’s uneasy progress, ahead of a choral ending that stays dark and strange, before making a sudden last-minute U-turn towards Weill’s Weimar. Slovak’s approach is much slower, and less virtuosic, though equally serious. Either version gives the lie to Doughty’s bizarre description of the symphony as “a basically positive, even joyful work with little originality.”
In Barshai’s performance, the Third Symphony appears as a clear preparation for the huge, sectional canvas of the Fourth, with its more convincing emotional architecture and its manifold Mahler references. The cycle as a whole here reaches its first big climactic sections, Scylla and Charybdis in the form of a whirlpool fugue for strings and a truly monstrous peroration. Barshai drives the fugue as quickly as we are ever likely to hear it and after this Slovak’s players inevitably sound as timid as water running out of a bath. It becomes clear that Barshai’s vision of the whole cycle does not exclude the psychotic. That said, neither conductor quite delivers in the final pages, which are also rushed by Barshai (also released separately as Regis RRC1103).
Perhaps even newcomers will already own a recording of the Fifth, but if not, neither Barshai or Slovak will disappoint in this most popular symphony. Both make the ending slow and tragic, in line with the “our business is rejoicing” comment in Testimony, the composer’s disputed memoirs. But before that, Barshai gives the opening section of the finale with as much passion and energy as I’ve ever heard on disc, and the players respond as if they’ve just discovered the music. Most of these discs are also available separately, and Barshai’s Fifth would make a competitive individual bargain choice (Regis RRC1075). It’s coupled with the marvellous Sixth, the symphony that starts with a tombstone and ends with a hoe-down. Whilst Slovak directs an impressive and literal opening Adagio, Barshai approaches the following two quick movements with the ultimate in vigour and character, and the orchestra almost always keeps up with him: a fine version on its own terms.
The Finale of the Sixth in Barshai’s hands recalls similarly giddy passages in the finale of Mahler’s Seventh Symphony, but in Shostakovich’s own Seventh, both our conductors temporarily run aground. The start of the second movement is a case in point; with Barshai the string passages are unaffectionate, and the oboe solo uninflected, with many of Shostakovich’s indications for phrasing and dynamics disregarded (also available separately as Regis RRC1074). Turning to Slovak, the oboe at least observes most of the composer’s phrase marks, if not the hairpins, but the result is nowhere near the level of sophistication or affection needed to project the music properly, here or elsewhere. Interestingly, though, Semyon Bychkov’s slightly more lively recent version, also with the WDR orchestra, and taped in the same hall as Barshai’s but ten years later, offers less distinguished recorded sound (Avie 0020; reviewed in DSCH 19).
Listeners to the cycle as a meta-symphony might by now feel the need for another climax to match the emotional force of those in the Fourth. For some, the mini-Odyssey of the Eighth, at the cycle’s centre, provides that climax. For the late Shostakovich commentator Ian MacDonald, the Eighth didn’t quite deliver what it promised, especially in the first movement, following its incomparable first-half preparation. I don’t think he would have been moved to change his mind by the Slovak performance, which features some rhythmic insecurity from the start, a third movement that opens at what sounds like a rehearsal tempo, a Passacaglia that is dour and literal with shaky woodwind ensemble, and a finale with odd shifts in balance, the bassoon seeming suddenly to have its own acoustic. Barshai has had a long association with this work, having made a fine recording of it in his Bournemouth days, and he again inspires an involved and involving reading, which will not disappoint (that is, until you hear Mravinsky, reviewed in DSCH 11).
As Ian MacDonald also said, the Ninth Symphony belonged to Kirill Kondrashin (BMG/Melodiya 74321198462; deleted), and these performances don’t change that, either. Slovak is weighty and slow once more, with not enough character in the woodwind solos, but I’d prefer his recorded sound here to Barshai’s, whose brilliant version sounds rushed in the second movement, and tiresome by the end; though it’s all in keeping with the manic edge this conductor has underlined in the music, ever since the opening of the First Symphony all those hours ago.
There’s plenty of life in Slovak’s view of the greatest Tenth Symphony ever to have been completed by its own composer, but predictably the violins lack the necessary weight to carry off their climactic role in the first movement. These cruel passages challenge most orchestras to the limit, as surely they are meant to. This movement may portray depression, but there’s no need for the flutes to sound so dull at the end of it, as they do with Slovak; or for the whole movement to sound so matter-of-fact, as it does with Barshai. The rest of the symphony fares better, Barshai being able to drive his orchestra harder and faster in the memorable Scherzo.
Both conductors take the Eleventh Symphony a good deal more seriously than the propaganda work some commentators perplexingly consider it to be, and both are well-recorded. The third movement, taken slowly, is the highlight of the Slovak performance, which otherwise features some odd gear-changes in the second movement and a fine, measured finale in which the bell is, sadly, almost drowned out. Barshai’s bell couldn’t be clearer – he lets it ring on at the end, in the style of Mstislav Rostropovich (LSO Live LSO0030; reviewed in DSCH 18) – and the gruff first half of the finale goes especially well, its aggression evoking some of the menace, scary power and gigantist absurdity of Kustodiev’s painting The Bolshevik. The ensuing cor anglais solo seems appropriately numb, and overall this, too, would make a reasonably competitive version, as a separate release.
Not so Barshai’s CD of the Twelfth Symphony, which features only 37 minutes of music. Readers of the notes to the two cycles will find absolutely no mention of the work’s hurried re-composition, and how it was that Lenin came to be the recipient of one of the composer’s most bitter, satiric and wilfully bathetic works – or a complete turkey, depending on your point of view. Barshai is powerful and intense in a generalised way, with excellent sound. Slovak is slower and straight, with a suitably disjointed first movement. With the Twelfth, in my view, the composer, instead of flying the Red Flag, waves goodbye to the Soviet aesthetic for the rest of his symphonic career, and not with the most polite gesture. Whether or not we like the Twelfth, there are thematic links with the Thirteenth, and even the opening of the Fourteenth.
Following the belated premiere of the Fourth, the symphonic cycle’s concerns turned towards mass graves, state terror, anti-Semitism, suicide, death rattles and skeletal dances. The great Thirteenth Symphony usually makes its powerful presence felt, and these are two well-sung, well-conducted versions, though Slovak’s chorus sounds too small. His soloist is secure and characterful, especially in the Humour Scherzo, but unfortunately when he comes to sing his opening lines in Babi Yar … well, he doesn’t. The Naxos booklet prints the original text, the one always used nowadays, but soloist and choir actually sing the old, toned-down version imposed on composer and poet for a time by the Soviet authorities, who subsequently banned the work anyway. It’s performed with some intensity, and may make the disc a collector’s item, but Naxos should at least print both texts. Fortunately this hour-long all-male symphony is another real highlight of the Barshai set.
Barshai’s previous studio recording of the Fourteenth Symphony (currently unavailable) followed his conducting of the world premiere in 1969, and it’s a tough act to follow. Here he takes a brisk view, emphasising symphonic sweep. The old version was just as vivid in terms of recorded sound, and featured sharper playing in the percussion department, as well as more involved-sounding vocal soloists. But this modern version is still fine at the price, and preferable to the well-sung, slow Slovak, whose percussionists are another division below the WDR players.
In the Fifteenth and final symphony, Odysseus and Telemachus meet up: father and son, old composer and his younger selves. It’s a final, final climax, and for Barshai it occupies the same unhinged mental territory as much of the rest of the cycle. His performance is very fast, and in the second movement too much so, shaving two minutes off even Mravinsky’s time, in his brisk 1976 account (BMG/Melodiya 74321-25192-2; deleted). It’s the most obviously “live” of these Barshai performances, with some audience noise, and quite a few mishaps in the orchestra. Disturbing right to the finish, the world it revisits at journey’s end is a world gone mad, without consolation. Slovak’s tempi are more conventional – i.e., somewhat slower – but violins are still not happy in the opening movement. He takes no performing point for granted, and the recording quality is very fine. The result sounds more of a chamber piece, and is ultimately quite upbeat in its effect.
I’m jealous of anyone who has yet to get to know all this music, and of the voyage of discovery ahead of them. Clearly with a much better orchestra in some departments and an overall higher voltage, Barshai’s set looks like the obvious “best-buy”. With good sonics and a disturbing overall vision, it makes a fine calling-card for the composer in the new century. Slovak’s very different and imposing interpretations always seem better than you remember them, and sometimes his sound is preferable, too. But there is the often scrappy playing, and careful tempi, to set against some fine solo work, and the conductor’s dedication. And that fine, angry but bowdlerised Thirteenth. Picky enthusiasts, with an eye on the detail of the scores or on local colour, will find fault with both these sets, and point to Bernard Haitink’s more expensive boxed set (Decca/London 444 430-2), or all the old now-deleted classics from Mravinsky, Kondrashin – and indeed Barshai: recordings which should also be made permanently available, at Brilliant/Naxos-type prices. Whichever set you choose, it should prove an inspiring, lifelong companion, wherever your own voyages on the wine-dark sea might take you.