CD Reviews 21
§ = World Première Recording
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Great Artists of the 20th Century: Galina Vishnevskaya
Seven Romances on Verses by Alexander Blok, opus 127[a]; Satires (Pictures of the Past), opus 109[b]; Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, Act I Scene III[c]; Musorgsky orch. Shostakovich: Songs and Dances of Death[d].
Galina Vishnevskaya (mezzo-soprano), Mstislav Rostropovich (cello)[a], (piano)[b], (cond.)[c, d], Nicolai Gedda (tenor)[c], Dimiter Petkov (bass)[c]. London Philharmonic Orchestra[c,d].
EMI 7243 5 62829 2 6 or Angel 7243 5 62830 2 2. ADD. TT 78:25.
Recorded 1976[a,b], 1977[d], 1978[c].
Magdalena Kozená: Songs
Satires (Pictures of the Past), opus 109[a]; Ravel: Chansons madécasses (Madagascan songs)[b]; Respighi: Il tramonto (The Sunset)[c]; Erwin Schulhoff: Drei Stimmungsbilder, opus 12[d]; Britten: A Charm of Lullabies, opus 41[e].
Magdalena Kozená (mezzo-soprano), Malcolm Martineau (piano)[a,d,e], Paul Edmund-Davies (flute)[b], Christoph Henschel (violin)[d], Jirí Bárta (cello)[b], Henschel Quartett[c]: Christoph Henschel (violin 1), Markus Henschel (violin II), Monica Henschel-Schwind (viola), Matthias D. Beyer-Karlshøj (cello).
Deutsche Grammophon 471 581-2. DDD. TT 63:47.
Recorded Max-Joseph-Saal, Residenz, Munich, March 2003[a, c-e], Studio 1, Abbey Road Studios, London, June 2003[b].
EMI have at last collected on a single disc studio performances of Galina Vishnevskaya singing works by Shostakovich. The programme would seem to be one of necessity: three of the four works therein – the Blok Romances, the Satires and the arrangement of Musorgsky’s Songs and Dances of Death – are personal dedications. For those who have yet to hear these classic renditions dating from the 1970s and once spread across as many individual albums, a rare treat is in store. No one can claim a more privileged vantage point for the interpretation of this music than Vishnevskaya herself. The many years of close friendship that she, along with her husband, Mstislav Rostropovich, enjoyed with Shostakovich, combined with their remarkable musical gifts, allowed both a unique and authoritative perspective on the man and his music. The current disc offers a tribute to Ms. Vishnevskaya’s artistry, with accompaniment in various forms by Rostropovich, in an all-Shostakovich vocal programme that is part of EMI’s Great Artists of the Century series.
Readers may recall a BMG/Melodiya CD (74321 53237-2; deleted) with nearly the same programme, with Prokofiev’s Akhmatova cycle replacing the Lady Macbeth selections, issued a decade ago, featuring Vishnevskaya in series of live concerts dating from the 1960s. That recording has historical value in documenting the world premiere of the Blok Romances with an all-star cast of performers: cellist Rostropovich, violinist David Oistrakh, and composer Mieczyslaw Weinberg on piano. While the excitement of those live performances is hard to match, the studio sessions with EMI find Vishnevskaya in superior technical control and her musical insights more fully sharpened.
Vishnevskaya is at her most impressive in Musorgsky’s Songs and Dances of Death. Shostakovich’s celebrated orchestration of 1962, used here, considerably broadens their expressive range while remaining idiomatically faithful to the original piano score. In their new garb they are all the more conducive to an operatic style of interpretation and, appropriately enough, to Vishnevskaya’s dramatic instincts. That combination works ideally in these four mini-dramas, which are given as operatic a treatment as one will find anywhere. In the opening Lullaby listen to Vishnevskaya’s agility in taking on the quickly shifting roles in the dialogue between Death and the mother, or her menacing edge as she brings Death’s message to an exhausted wanderer in the following Trepak. There is a disquieting radiance to the soaring lines in Death’s Serenade. Vishnevskaya is again fierce in the final Field Marshal, where the broad tones of Death’s final conquest are uttered with chilling intensity. Some listeners may find Vishnevskaya’s brand of vodka a bit too strong for their taste. But rarely will one find an interpretation of this deeply Russian work that shines with as much dramatic vitality. She is well supported by Rostropovich leading the LPO in a recording that gives her favourable prominence, even if the orchestral image is a bit vague. Listeners may be interested in another fine, richly expressive, if not as extreme performance of this music that is given by Brigitte Fassbaender, whose commanding presence and immaculate tones are found on the Järvi/Gothenberg survey of Shostakovich’s vocal music (Deutsche Grammophon 437 785-2GH; deleted). The details of Shostakovich’s orchestration are registered with exemplary clarity in this version.
Another classic performance follows with the Satires cycle. These black humoured verses of Sasha Chorny take aim at a number of favourite targets of Shostakovich and the Rostropoviches: art critics, Philistinism, and the new Soviet idealism as represented in the liberalizing cultural climate of 1960. Here, the music’s offbeat modulations and accented dance rhythms find Shostakovich at his most wryly irreverent. If sung with too much classical poise, as even a distinguished a singer as Irina Bogacheva demonstrates in the orchestral version under Rozhdestvensky (Melodiya C10 22267 009; deleted), the humour can be fatally leaden. Vishnevskaya had it right when she said that the work is ideally suited to “a music hall singer with an operatic voice” (this is exactly the quality of her great voice). Here she brilliantly straddles both worlds, the straight lace of art song and the swagger of cabaret, and to wonderful effect. Without batting an eyelash, Vishnevskaya moves from cantilena to enunciated verse to flying waltz rhythms with a kind of stoic reserve of mockery that is characteristically Russian. The style may be a bit heavy handed; yet it’s suitably supported by Rostropovich’s nimble but hard-knuckled accompaniment. The sense of parody is very much alive without being excessive, and everywhere present. Vishnevskaya lays out the schmaltzy and climactic episodes of Spring’s Awakening and Misunderstanding on a grand silver platter; and she keeps the racing waltz of Descendants on a high emotional plane to the very last yelp.
The soft edged, Franco-Slavic sensibilities of Magdalena Kozená’s mezzo-soprano (she is Czech by birth) bring a quite different set of values to these Satires. Kozená’s freely taken tempo shifts make for a lively performance, where pronounced accelerandi – as in the giddy finales of the third and last songs – and liberally applied rubati emphasize the contrasting sections in these settings with good results. Her segues, especially across the odd juxtaposition, are effortless, and lend what one might call a foxy elegance to her performance. Note the magisterial tempo with which she takes the Red Army-style march in the fourth song, Misunderstanding, whose syrupy cantilena section she sings with eloquent sincerity. The tones of derision are nicely spun. If some of the Russian weight of these Satires is lifted in this rendition, Kozená misses no detail of their intended whimsy. Neither does pianist Malcolm Martineau, whose crisp, cabaret sensibilities provide a perfect foil.
The Blok Romances occupy a unique place in Shostakovich’s oeuvre, in part for their piano trio accompaniment, used piecemeal, with an unrepeated instrumental combination in each song; and in part for the uncommon poignancy and eloquence with which they take up issues of morality and artistry – ongoing themes in Shostakovich’s music. A further level of integrative unity is achieved by the expressive layout of the songs that, by alternating moods, attain progressively deeper emotional states as the cycle unfolds. The childlike vulnerability of the first and third songs, for example, is offset by songs of anger, outrage, and lamentation. The contrasts are at last gathered together, like the collapse of galactic arms toward a common centre in the last three songs, leading to the final song’s dramatic crux, providing the shattering and inevitable moment of epiphany. The cycle is a work of unparalleled unity and cumulative power among Shostakovich’s cycles and for that reason deserves to be called his masterpiece in the genre.
Perhaps more than any other Shostakovich cycle, the interpretive demands made by these Romances have resulted in very few totally satisfying performances. One of outstanding merit of recent years is given by soprano Natalia Gerassimova (Saison Russe RUS 7288088; reviewed in DSCH 14) whose exquisite pacing is as memorable as her unmatched tenderness and power. Gerassimova also receives particularly strong support from the Moscow Trio. Vishnevskaya’s interpretation succeeds more on its visceral than psychological penetration of the Blok verses. The mournful quality of the opening Ophelia’s Song and the sensitivity of We Were Together are superb. Her deep feeling for the cantilena in The City Sleeps leaves a lasting impression; likewise her robust tones in the heightened drama of Gamayun and The Storm. As the last two songs move into that crux, so does Vishnevskaya with fervent intensity. The climactic summary in the final Music, especially as delivered by the artist to whom the work is dedicated, has an arresting effect. How could it not? Technically and emotionally, it is far more seasoned than the live version on Melodiya previously mentioned.
The last offering on the EMI disc is Act One, Scene III from Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, surely one of Vishnevskaya’s landmark operatic roles. She once again shows herself to be a soprano of impressively broad range, at first with a touching rendition of Katerina’s lament over her joyless life. This is followed by an incomparably lusty version of the infamous seduction scene. Heard in all of its splendour is the opera world’s first “pornophonic” episode, from the initial rapping on Katerina’s door, through a lot of thrilling rhythmic activity, to the detumescent trombone slides and the orchestral postlude. Vishnevskaya and the appropriately virile tenor Nicolai Gedda as Sergei are in top form in a sequence that is guaranteed to bring a smile and accelerate the pulse.
For its direct connection to Shostakovich’s inner circle and moreover, its set of infallibly idiomatic performances of essential repertoire, this Vishnevskaya recital disc is one that cannot be passed up.
I would be remiss if I did not mention the remaining pieces on Magdalena Kozená’s recital disc by Ravel, Respighi, Britten, and Schulhoff. Each is sung in its original language – French, Italian, English, and German. The linguistically gifted Kozená has a particular affinity for songs from the lesser-known corners of the catalogue, and with the exception of the Shostakovich Satires (which is sung in Russian) to songs of a moody and sensuous nature. Her colourful programme is well tailored to her gifts. Case in point is Ravel’s now seductive, now barbaric Madagascan Songs for voice, flute, cello, and piano. She shows particular versatility conveying the idiosyncratic moods of Britten’s Charm of Lullabies; and much sympathy in Respighi’s intimately expressive Sunset with string quartet accompaniment; and again with the melancholic and inward looking Three Atmospheric Portraits by fellow Czech, Erwin Schulhoff.
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Shostakovich: Piano Works
Piano Sonata No. 2 in B minor, opus 61; Three Fantastic Dances, opus 5; Five Preludes, sans opus B; Lyric Waltz from Dances of the Dolls, sans opus S; Guitars (listed as Short Piece) and Spanish Dance from The Gadfly, opus 97; Nocturne from The Limpid Stream, opus 39; Aphorisms, opus 13; Polka from The Age of Gold, opus 22.
Vladimir Ashkenazy (piano).
Decca 470 649-2 DSA. Hybrid multichannel/stereo SACD/stereo CD. TT 68:14.
Recorded Lyndhurst Hall, Air Studios, London, March and April 2003.
Ashkenazy’s return to the piano stool has been welcome, not least because one of the composers he is concentrating on is Shostakovich. His traversal of the Twenty-four Preludes and Fugues, opus 87 is an obvious front-runner, so what of this collection: the Second Sonata and a constellation of smaller pieces?
Shostakovich dedicated this sonata to the memory of his piano teacher Leonid Nikolaev, but it is an enigmatic piece, not as demonstrative as the Piano Trio he would dedicate to Sollertinsky the next year. Commentators have tended to be respectful rather than enthusiastic, but it’s a work that grows with acquaintance, and even without making an apparent mark on the repertoire has notched up over two dozen recordings.
Despite a relatively long first movement (7:30) Ashkenazy opens with a fairly quick tempo, smoothing out the downward spiral and turning it into a simpler (and slightly headlong) rush. Among the other contenders, Gilels (BMG 09026 63587) bounces down each of the steps, leading more naturally into the re-echoing first subject, while both Stone (Brilliant 6137-5) and Yudina (Arlecchino ARL 13; deleted) take a more tiptoe approach. Overall in this movement Ashkenazy lacks the ferocity of Gilels but emphasises the architecture.
The second movement (and especially the opening) needs a strange, halting quality, while still keeping up the momentum. The ‘modernist’ fourths-based harmony and combination of erratically rhythmic counterpoint and simple melody-plus-block-chords can make it reminiscent of early Shostakovich, and (perhaps influenced by the other repertoire on the disc) this is Ashkenazy’s view, carrying it through into the more overtly melodic section and the following jerky waltz. But where Gilels makes this, the least immediately attractive of the three movements, thoughtful and contemplative, Ashkenazy sometimes drifts off into mere aimlessness.
The finale is a magisterial set of variations; perhaps a tribute to Nikolaev’s own set which Shostakovich performed as a young man. Starting with a monophonic unravelling of the thirty bar theme, it shifts through many moods though quickly turns away from some of the most heartfelt moments as if they are too painful to bear, before going back to accept death, with the return of the opening material bringing final closure. This kaleidoscope of moods, and especially the desolate penultimate section, is where Ashkenazy scores over Gilels who, in the more withdrawn parts, projects mournfulness rather than being mournful.
After the seriousness of the sonata there are several shorter pieces, beginning with the early Three Fantastic Dances and Five Preludes. The former are traversed rather deliberately but the Preludes work better; the bell effects of the second piece almost make you forget its melodic paucity, while the silvery textures of the last (with its pre-echo of the Eleventh Symphony) work beautifully.
Next up: four transcriptions. But, in the maze of reworkings and retitlings, Decca get confused, claiming the source as the Dances of the Dolls. Only the Lyric Waltz comes from that set (via the Ballet Suite No. 2 to The Limpid Stream). The next two are from The Gadfly (post-dating the alleged source); what is unimaginatively called Short Piece is Guitars (also the first part of the film suite’s No. 7, Prelude), while Spanish Dance is better known as People’s Holiday or Folk Feast. The Nocturne is, as claimed, from The Limpid Stream. So where are these versions from? Various publishers’ transcriptions have been recorded: volume 42 of the old Collected Works contains Guitars, and Shostakovich himself recorded it in 1955 (Revelation 70002, deleted, under the bogus title Main Theme; reviewed in DSCH 9). Inger Wikstrom introduced me to it as Melodic Moment on her 1981 LP (Bluebell Bell 126). Whatever the attribution, none would make the list of Shostakovich’s profoundest utterances but all are enjoyable. I did miss the orchestra occasionally, especially in the Spanish Dance, perhaps because there is no feeling of the danger of careering off the road; but they all come off well enough.
After these individual bagatelles, the thirteen and a half minutes of the Aphorisms constitute the other major part of the disc. These (in Ronald Stevenson’s opinion ‘unpleasant’) pieces have caused no end of trouble and not just for the composer. Both Weichert (Accord 202812; deleted) and Varvarova (LDC 278 1012; deleted) mangle most of them, symptomatically missing the point of the fanfares in the Marche Funebre. But it hasn’t all been bad news for the cycle; Raymond Clarke (Divine Art 25018; reviewed in DSCH 18) does a fine job. Ashkenazy brings out the desperate trying on of masks; his rendition of the Canon makes me wonder what he would make of real Webern. One problem seems to be that people regard this as Avant Garde music with a capital A and G, and therefore to be played completely without humour. Ashkenazy can’t be accused of that; his Marche Funebre features fanfares of over the top violence, but he brings a slyer wit to the opening of the Recitative, as if he can’t quite believe what he’s reading, while the Dance of Death (the title of which Shostakovich used for a scatological pun), with its perfunctory Dies Irae has an appropriately madcap quality. Yet the cycle has some tolling bass lines and fractured melodies that hint at something deeper than brittle humour, and it finishes with a genuinely affecting Lullaby. However, the bell sounds again drift away, leaving us slightly disconcerted.
Finally, with a complete change, the much arranged Polka from the Age of Gold, a frequent encore piece. There are many recordings of this, even in its solo piano incarnation, perhaps the least satisfying as it is shorn of the comic glissandi. Ashkenazy doesn’t pull it around too much, letting the melody and harmony do the work, making us momentarily forget the orchestral version. It is a great way to finish the disc.
Collections of Shostakovich’s piano music are not uncommon and the buyer’s choice will depend to a degree on the repertoire. Ashkenazy’s disc would make an almost ideal introduction, representing the whole of the composer’s career outside opus 87, and a wide range of styles from the weird Aphorisms to the intensely serious Sonata, with a sprinkling of charming lighter pieces to leaven it all. Their rapidly shifting moods are sketched with lightning rapidity and accuracy (ironically, rather like the finale of the Sonata). But if that was the idea, the ordering doesn’t quite work. Perhaps listeners would like to experiment with programming their CD players to give a more satisfying sequence because, with the weighty Sonata (almost half the disc’s length) at the start, the rest can seem like a winding down or a series of encores of Kissin-ian length. But don’t let that put you off the disc as a whole.
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Piano Music for Children
Children’s Notebook, opus 69; Murzilka, sans opus S [not separately listed]; Bartók: Ten Easy Pieces, Sz. 39 (Nos. 4, 5, 8, 7); Mikrokosmos, Vol. 6, Sz. 107 (Nos. 142, 143, 146, 147); Stravinsky: Les cinq doigts; Prokofiev: Music for Children, opus 65; Khachaturian: Pictures from Childhood; Copland: Piano Album (selections)[a]; Webern: Kinderstück.
Raymond Clarke (piano).
The Divine Art 25022. DDD. TT 77:18.
Recorded King’s Hall, University of Newcastle upon Tyne, 1 September 2001 [a], 16 December 2001[all others].
Raymond Clarke’s commitment to 20th century music is in no doubt and here he ranges over a variety of ‘mainstream moderns’ in music for children (and less experienced older pianists). The opening Bartók selection is a wistful group and An Evening at the Village, one of his most evocative mini tone poems comes off particularly well though without the composer’s extreme rubato. The album ends with some of Bartók’s more turbulent pieces, rounding the disc off with a deliberately clumsy march.
One or two of Stravinsky’s Cinq doigts have a slightly mechanistic quality but that’s at least partly down to the composer. Prokofiev too had his motoric side, but in these pieces it’s played down (little hands are hardly ready for something akin to the Toccata!), which isn’t to say that there aren’t some lively moments. The important thing is to set the mood almost immediately and Clarke mostly succeeds though there’s a hint of defiance in Regrets.
There is also a rare chance to hear some piano music by Khachaturian. Pictures from Childhood from 1947 includes My Friend is Unwell, strikingly evocative of a child’s experience of grief, and the gently withdrawn A Glimpse of the Ballet, a two-part transcription of the adagio from Gayaneh, while underneath all the activity the Study has some Spartacus-like harmony, as does the following Legend. The pieces themselves are variable, sometimes a little anonymous, but on this showing Khachaturian’s piano music could bear some more investigation. He wrote sixteen other pieces for children and a spattering of other piano works.
In the CD’s most striking contrast this is followed by Copland’s Young Pioneers, a sign of solidarity with the Soviets, but ironically it takes only a few notes to identify it as the work of an American musician and then to home in on Copland. The semi-hymning In Evening Air, one of Copland’s last pieces, is equally typical. Wrenching us back across the Atlantic is Webern’s Kinderstück. Though not intended as an introduction to analysis, the serial technique is elementary but the usual Webernian minefield of performing instructions would merely bewilder many children. Clarke of course has the experience to make sense of the unperformable and while the work won’t enter the slender body of Webern’s regularly performed pieces it is interesting to hear how he thought the technique could be applied to children’s music.
After its publication, Shostakovich had second thoughts about his Children’s Notebook, and when he recorded it in 1946 he swapped the third and fifth pieces round and added the then unpublished Birthday. opus 69 was a celebration for daughter Galina, despite her managing only to premiere the first piece before stumbling, at which point dad took over. Most pianists follow the published order, tagging Birthday onto the end but Clarke follows the composer’s re-formed cycle of fifths, leading him to speculate that Shostakovich was planning a cycle of 24 but abandoned it when he realised that the later key signatures might prove too hard for the young. Reinforcing this theory, Clarke adds the little Murzilka that Shostakovich wrote around this time and which fits the new key scheme. It’s a weird moto perpetuo that looks back to his earlier style of piano writing before coming to an abrupt halt. Whether Clarke’s theory is proved right (perhaps there are more pieces awaiting discovery?) it certainly fits well and brings the newly enlarged cycle to a satisfying close.
The difficulty in discussing music for children is that technically and emotionally it can lack depth, though much of this disc proves that this is not invariably so. But what can be said about Shostakovich’s March, just thirty seconds long and apparently of no musical interest? Obviously this isn’t biting satire, but we can simply enjoy its brainlessness. Clockwork Doll reworks (again) the Scherzo, opus 1, compacting it down to less than a minute, while the fanfares that open Birthday would do service again in the Festive Overture. All this bespeaks works that were tossed off in a spare minute or two, but they’re enjoyable enough to warrant an occasional return visit, especially in Clarke’s hands.
Some of Divine Art’s records have been marred by imperfect tuning; but not here, perhaps because the smaller, lighter pieces tested the piano less. The recording is slightly recessed. It is a mystery why it has taken over two years to be released. Clarke’s own notes are a real bonus, discussing the pieces from the inside, and explaining some of the (relative) stumbling blocks. Obviously the Shostakovich is only a small part of the disc: just 6:29 out of 77:18, but few would make that their sole purchasing criterion. The range of styles on display ensures that the disc never outstays its welcome, although with 52 tracks, none even reaching four minutes, there’s an occasional feeling of short-windedness. Perhaps dipping in is the way to enjoy it.
Levon Ambartsumian (violin)[a]/(viola)[b], Anatoly Sheludyakov (piano).
Phoenix USA PHCD 155. DDD. TT 59:48.
Recorded Hugh Hodgson Hall, University of Georgia Performing Arts Centre, Athens, Georgia, USA, April 2003.
Cello Sonata, opus 40, arranged for viola and piano by Viktor Kubatsky; Suite from The Gadfly, opus 97a, arranged for viola and piano by Vadim Borisovksy[a]; Viola Sonata, opus 147.
Lars Anders Tomter (viola), Håvard Gimse (piano).
Somm SOMMCD 030. DDD. TT 71:11.
Recorded Christ Church, Sutton, UK, 12 and 13 December 2003.
[a]World premiere recording.
Viola Sonata, opus 147; Cello Sonata, opus 40, arranged for viola by Annette Bartholdy[a].
Julius Drake (viola), Annette Bartholdy (piano).
Naxos 8.557231. DDD. TT 63:07.
Recorded Henry Wood Hall, London, 10-12 May 2001.
[a]World premiere recording.
Here’s an unusual assortment of recordings of the string sonatas – with the viola and violin sonatas played by the same musician, and 2 different versions of the Cello Sonata for viola.
Levon Ambartsumian plays both violin and viola well – for him the violin came first, at the age of 3, whereas the viola’s appearance in his life is not specified in the CD’s liner notes. The disc was recorded in Athens, Georgia (US) in April 2003, following an intense all-Shostakovich concert in the Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall on 23 February 2003. He played the opp. 134 and 147 as on the CD reviewed here, plus Five Preludes for Violin & Piano from opus 34 arranged by Dmitri Tsyganov, and the New York premiere of From Jewish Folk Poetry, opus 79, arranged for violin by Sergei Dreznin. In that concert, Ambartsumian did not impress favourably (I had not heard him before), appearing tenuous and shaky, perhaps ill. His performance of the Violin Sonata was marred by an overly pedantic approach, poor intonation especially on the G-string and an absence of the needed hushed mystery in the andante. The live Viola Sonata, after the intermission, was very wobbly; Ambartsumian played almost without vibrato, making his frequent lapses of intonation even more glaring, and played the allegretto much too fast for his technique. Best on the programme were the Five Preludes, back on the violin, and the Jewish Folk Poetry, a wonderful arrangement by composer Dreznin of six of the opus 79 songs, with a very slapstick ending for Happiness, full of dissonance and dark humour. Ambartsumian’s playing was so rapt that he broke a string and had to start up again after a brief repair. Sad to say, neither this work nor the Five Preludes are on the CD – I’d much rather have them here than the Viola Sonata.
Ambartsumian’s CD performances are much better than the aforementioned New York concert – assured playing, much less of the pedantic carefulness and a more warm and measured approach especially in the Viola Sonata, although still generally faster than many. The Viola Sonata still comes off as the more secure performance. An unfortunate flub by the editor has virtually no break between the end of the Violin and start of the Viola Sonata. I remain forever loyal to the Oistrakh and Shostakovich version, despite its less-than-professional recording, Oistrakh’s strained and even gasping playing, and Shostakovich’s crippled right hand desperately trying to make the notes in the grand piano solo in the third movement (Eclectra ECCD-2046; reviewed in DSCH 14). This ferocity of music making was also evident in Ambartsumian’s concert performance of the Jewish Folk Songs, and I wish this occurred more in the sonatas on the CD.
The title of the Somm CD as The Two Viola Sonatas is unfortunate and misleading. Shostakovich dedicated his opus 40 to cellist Viktor Kubatsky, who performed the premiere of the work and later made, “with the composer’s encouragement and approval, an edition of the cello part for viola” (quote from Robert Matthew-Walker’s good but brief liner notes). Lars Anders Tomter’s recording is billed as the “first recording in the western world” and is, as far as I can find, the only recording of this arrangement since Yuri Yurov and Mikhail Muntyan’s on Melodiya in 1975. The arrangement sits rather well on the viola, with little alteration of the cello part in adapting to the instrument. Even the much-loved harmonic glissandi in the second movement come across quite well, and certain passages emerge in a relief not otherwise heard. On the whole, however, the sound is rather constricted when played on viola, and the lack of the cello’s lower register hurts the range of the piece, particularly in sections such as the beginning of the third and fourth movements. Tomter’s playing is generally excellent, as is that of his pianist Håvard Gimse, with sharp colours, depth of intensity, and good sense of wit. The brief bumblebee passage in the fourth movement is especially good. Tomter’s and Gimse’s approach to the Viola Sonata is freer and rather more detached than Ambartsumian’s and Sheludyakov’s, certainly more relaxed in tempi in the second and third movements. Indeed, the allegretto comes across as too laid-back in parts and therefore too episodic – more removed from The Gamblers unfinished opera than it should be, although Tomter’s strummed arpeggiated pizzicati do sound like the opera’s balalaika.
This CD’s gem is the Suite from The Gadfly, opus 97a, arranged by the Beethoven Quartet’s violist Vadim Borisovsky “with the composer’s full approval”. The recorded Suite consists of Scene, Intermezzo, People’s Holiday, and Romance, the latter so familiar on numerous violin recordings. For this world premiere recording, it is most unfortunate that the musicians did not include the other five parts of Borisovsky’s arrangement: the Overture, Contredanse, Barrel Organ Waltz, Galop, and Nocturne. To add these, the Viola Sonata could have been kicked onto another disc. In the four brief pieces here, Tomter and Gimse play very well, and the People’s Holiday (Folkfest) is fun: all-in-all, a good work with which to close a programme, but here inserted between the two sonatas.
Violist Annette Bartholdy made her own arrangement of opus 40 for viola – she is familiar with Kubatsky’s arrangement as well as another by violist Yevgeny Strakhov, but chose to make a very similar one herself, in which she brings out a few sections more sharply. The score of her arrangement is now available from Boosey & Hawkes. Bartholdy’s world premiere recording of her arrangement is technically very good but largely on the slow side, which is most glaring in a glacial end to both the moderato and the largo. Bartholdy’s tone in the allegro is strident, and this stridency is not sufficiently overcome by Julius Drake, the pianist, due to his own terse phrasing. Bartholdy’s harmonic glissandi in the second movement are less convincing than Tomter’s, which can also be said for the entire performance.
Slowness also rules Bartholdy’s Viola Sonata, with her moderato being almost three minutes slower than Tomter’s and two minutes more than Ambartsumian’s (although her adagio is 1.5 minutes faster than the record slowness of Bashmet & Richter on Moscow Studio Archives MOS19064 or Regis RRC 1128; reviewed in DSCH 20). She adheres well to what Shostakovich desired in the first movement of his String Quartet No. 15 – for even flies in the room to drop dead out of the air from boredom – but the sonata’s music is not served by this approach. The moderato loses focus and cohesion and I find myself drifting off each time I listen. Although her allegretto is a full minute slower than Ambartsumian’s, Bartholdy manages to convey a nice vocal sense to the viola line, but fails to “channel” the balalaika with her too-dense pizzicati. Her adagio again is overly stretched out, and doesn’t evoke for me the intense sadness and longing that the other versions – and Bashmet’s even slower version – readily do. The recording’s tone, from three days at Henry Wood Hall in London, is excessively dry and shallow in both works. David Nice’s liner notes are superb, although given in very tiny print.
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Cello Sonata, opus 40; Viola Sonata, opus 147, arranged for cello and piano by Daniil Shafran.
Petr Prause (cello), Yakov Kasman (piano).
Calliope CAL 9326. DDD. TT 64:09.
Recorded Studio Arco Diva, Prague, June 2002.
Russian Cello Sonatas
Cello Sonata in D minor, opus 40[a]; Moderato for cello and piano[b]; Two pieces for string quartet[c]; Piano Quintet in G minor, opus 57[d]; Rachmaninov: Cello Sonata in G minor, opus 19[e]; Five pieces for cello and piano[f]; Prokofiev: Cello Sonata in C major, opus 119[g].
Lynn Harrell (cello), Vladimir Ashkenazy (piano), Fitzwilliam String Quartet[c,d].
Decca 472 807-2. DDD. 2 CD set TT 78:05+68:41.
Recorded Orchestra Hall Chicago, May 1988[a,b,g]; Henry Wood Hall, London, December 1983[c]; Kingsway Hall, London, August 1983[d]; St. Barnabas’ Church, London, September 1984[e,f].
Cello Sonata in D minor, opus 40; Prokofiev: Cello Sonata in C major, opus 119; Britten: Cello Sonata in C major, opus 65.
Pieter Wispelwey (cello), Dejan Lazic (piano).
Channel Classics CCS SA 20003. DDD hybrid multichannel/stereo SACD/stereo CD. TT 69:31.
Recorded Doopsgezinde Kerk, Deventer, Netherlands, September 2002.
Shostakovich Cello Sonata is full of enigmas: why the muted Largo at the end of the first movement? Why the mechanistic repetition in the second movement, and the alternation of frenzied mania and slightly inebriated tiptoe music in the fourth? Is this a work of high tragedy or irrepressible puckish humour? Does this 1934 work represent the composer’s turn to a new and simplified lyricism, or is it a slightly sardonic commentary on lyricism? Two new releases and Decca’s re-issue of a 1988 Lynn Harrell/Vladimir Ashkenazy disc all present distinguished playing; a choice between them would depend in part upon how each listener prefers to resolve the puzzles posed by the work.
Mstislav Rostropovich’s reading with the composer presents a tough standard for new performers to meet (currently available as EMI Classics 5 72295 2 4). Rostropovich is at his warm-hearted best here, his sound open and free, but it is the composer’s imagination that makes this recording special. The piano accompaniment stands determinedly apart from the cello’s lyricism in Shostakovich’s interpretation; it is astringent, imaginative, a bit kinky and thoroughly modern. When the cello veers toward melodrama at the largo ending of the first movement, the composer’s staccato is anti-romantic, almost mischievous.
Shostakovich is especially wicked in the second-movement Scherzo; I have heard no other pianist who even comes close to his percussiveness. The finale is taken at an insanely fast and uneven tempo (initially about crotchet = 190, although the composer’s tempo markings call for crotchet = 176) and it seems even dizzier because Shostakovich seems always to be pushing Rostropovich’s tempo. This impetuosity makes the ending sound even more sudden and unexpected, underlining all the lovely incongruity of this work. Perhaps I am reading too much into all of these tempi however: Rostropovich reports in his booklet essay that “we took some passages rather on the brisk side; the weather was beautiful and Shostakovich was in a hurry to visit someone in the country”.
The greatest contrast to this interpretation can be found in the Decca re-release with Harrell and Ashkenazy. Here the Shostakovich Sonata is coupled with a lush performance of the Rachmaninov Cello Sonata, a particular favourite of Harrell’s, along with several Rachmaninov encores. But Harrell and Ashkenazy play Shostakovich as if they were playing Rachmaninov, and Harrell’s portamenti are a bit cloying for my taste. The tempi for the Shostakovich Sonata are much slower than those taken by Rostropovich and the composer, increasing the sonata’s total time by about 25 percent (33:20 vs. 25:37). Ashkenazy seems unaware of any humour in the work; he plays it all as high tragedy. Although both Ashkenazy and Harrell are fine players, this approach takes the edge off both the Shostakovich and Prokofiev Sonatas, and presents neither Harrell nor Ashkenazy at his best.
However, listeners might want this CD for its super-romantic Rachmaninov, or for a recording of the Shostakovich’s brief Moderato for Cello and Piano, which was stored with the autograph manuscript of the Cello Sonata and discovered only after the composer’s death. Harrell and Ashkenazy made the first recording of the Moderato, but other performers have recorded it since, including Gary Hoffman and Philippe Bianconi on Le Chant du Monde (LDC 2781112; reviewed in DSCH 13), Raphael Wallfisch and John York on Black Box (BBM1032; reviewed in DSCH 18), and David Geringas (who premiered the work) and Tatyana Schatz on Es-Dur (ES 2021).
Its title notwithstanding, Decca have filled their two-CD set with recordings of Shostakovich’s Two Pieces for String Quartet (the Polka from the Age of Gold, and an Elegy from Lady Macbeth), and the Piano Quintet, played by Ashkenazy and the Fitzwilliam Quartet. The Quintet performance is probably the best part of this set, and merits a brief digression from this discussion of Cello Sonata performances. Ashkenazy and the Fitzwilliams present a carefully conceived reading, apparently modelled – judging from tempi – on the composer’s own 1955 recording with the Beethoven Quartet (Doremi DHR-7787; reviewed in DSCH 18). The Ashkenazy/Fitzwilliam performance is cleaner and better controlled than the composer’s recording, but it seems a bit studied, stagnating especially in the slow movements, perhaps because the performers were trying so carefully to reproduce the composer’s own interpretation. While the Ashkenazy/Fitzwilliam performance is capable, there are persuasive and interesting alternatives available, and I would not recommend purchase of this set solely for its version of the Piano Quintet.
Petr Prause and Yakov Kasman’s Calliope CD returns us to Cello Sonata performances. Prause, from the Czech Republic, is a member of the Talich Quartet, and Kasman was silver medallist in the 1997 Van Cliburn competition. Like Harrell and Ashkenazy, they hear no opposition between piano and cello. Although their tempi are not as sluggish as Harrell/Ashkenazy, Prause and Kasman still add several minutes to the Rostropovich/Shostakovich recording. Their approach is especially effective in slow sections of the Sonata, and the third movement’s introductory recitative, meditative and still, is a real high point of this reading. The performers cannot, however, seem to let go of their wistfulness in the second and fourth movements, and as a consequence this interpretation seems a little monochromatic, losing some of the work’s humour.
Nevertheless there is very fine playing on this CD, particularly in the Viola Sonata, opus 147, here in its arrangement for cello and piano made by Daniel Shafran. Although Prause, unlike Rafael Wallfisch (with John York, on the aforementioned Black Box disc), uses a full cello sound in this work, he still manages to capture some of the throatiness of the viola. The performers’ ability to capture an extraordinary stillness creates a special sense of repose as the work reaches its final C-major resting place. Prause and Kasman hold their own in comparison with any performance of this version of the Viola Sonata I have heard.
The performances by Dutch cellist Pieter Wispelwey and Dejan Lazic, a 26-year old pianist-composer from Zagreb, are jewels. The cellist’s imaginative approach to the Shostakovich, Prokofiev and Britten Sonatas is reflected in his booklet essay, itself almost worth the price of the CD. Here, for example, are some of his thoughts on the Shostakovich Sonata:
‘What all three [sonatas] possess, in my perception, is an element of alienation: in Shostakovich’s case, it’s the tension between romanticism and modernism, in Prokofiev’s the balancing on the verge of parody and in Britten’s it’s the alchemistic way in which he makes the music undergo all kinds of metamorphoses.
‘… At the core [of the Shostakovich Sonata] lies the contrast between a wholeheartedly romantic sentiment (the cello) and the surroundings (the piano) in which that sentiment has to express itself. The counterpoint is often inflexible, compulsive and not harmony-oriented, while a melody searches for a way out. Characteristic is the opening of the sonata: for a moment we hear a traditional 19th-century accompaniment that then rapidly derails causing the initial sense of security to evaporate. Another example is the slow movement after the cellist has taken off his mute to start his grand song: his broad meandering is ‘accompanied’ by an obstinate and stoic voice in the piano’s left hand that quasi-autistically goes its own way.’
Like the composer, Wispelwey seems to relish the enigmas in the Cello Sonata, and this interpretation leaves them all delightfully unresolved. Although the cello’s sound is fat and gorgeous (but never cloying), the piano remains cool, disinterested. The Largo at the end of the first movement retains all of its strangeness because of the piano’s sneaky-sounding staccato. Time seems to stop as the first movement closes, making the sudden opening of the Scherzo, taken at a mad clip (crotchet = about 200, much faster than the composer’s crotchet = 176 marking), all the more effective. The finale is quite wacky and funny, although not taken at the off-the-charts tempo of Rostropovich/Shostakovich.
Wispelwey suggests in his essay that the Prokofiev Sonata could easily be a portrait of Rostropovich, and it is certainly designed to showcase a great, generous cello sound. Wispelwey and Lazic do it full justice, again contrasting the cello’s warmth with a more distant piano accompaniment.
Do any of these three releases of the Shostakovich Cello Sonata warrant preference over the Rostropovich and the composer? The Rostropovich/Shostakovich recording comes as part of a two-CD set, including superb renditions of both Shostakovich cello concerti, and world premiere recordings of sonatas by Karen Khachaturian and Dmitry Kabalevsky, with each sonata accompanied by its composer. I still prefer this deliciously quirky version of the Shostakovich Cello Sonata, despite its poorer sound quality. But both the Prause/Kasman and Wispelwey/Lazic performances are fine, with interesting couplings, and each one would be a worthy addition to any collection.
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Preludes and Fugues Nos. 1-9, 12, 15-17 and 19 from Twenty-four Preludes and Fugues, opus 87, arranged for reed quintet by Eduard Wesley.
Calefax Reed Quintet: Oliver Boekhoorn (oboe), Ivar Berix (clarinet), Raaf Hekkema (saxophone), Jelte Althuis (bass clarinet), Alban Wesly (bassoon).
Musikproduktion Dabringhaus und Grimm MDG 619 1185-2. DDD. TT 73:53.
Recorded Evangelische Kirche Lienen, Germany, 2-5 June 2003.
World premiere recording of arrangement.
The Preludes and Fugues should be no stranger to Shostakovich fans who have the luxury of a number of notable recordings in the current catalogue to choose from, including Hyperion’s Nikolayeva (CDA66441/3), Decca’s Ashkenazy (466 066-2; reviewed in DSCH 11) and Naxos’ Scherbakov (8.554745-46; reviewed in DSCH 15). The chance to hear this Shostakovich opus in new light is always welcome, especially when it involves such consummate artists as the Calefax Reed Quintet.
The Calefax Quintet have previously recorded Bach, Debussy and Ravel; their impeccable playing, combined with sensitive phrasing and wonderful tonal blending, gives this performance a very suave finish. This Dutch ensemble differs from the traditional wind quintet by the absence of the flute and the horn. In their place: an alto saxophone and a bass clarinet, resulting in quite a different palette, lacking the bite provided by the brassy horn and softer textures of the flute. In their place the saxophone evokes a nostalgic 1920s Shostakovich sound. Remember that opus 87 is a child of Zhdanovshchina, the very dark years post-1948, when the composer appeared to have abandoned the instrument in his serious works. Nonetheless, the presence of the bass clarinet more than compensates for this timbral schizophrenia, adorning the arrangements with a distinctive Shostakovichian darkness. Indeed, clarinettist Jelte Althuis provides some of the most exciting and characteristic performances from within this band of outstanding musicians.
These wonderfully colourful and idiomatic transcriptions are credited to the former Calefax oboist Eduard Wesley, who illuminates the contrapuntal structures of the opus with imaginative instrumental shading. This disc presents fourteen of the Twenty-four Preludes and Fugues assembled largely in the original order (Nos. 1 to 9, 15 to 17, 19 and 12). No. 12 is a fitting Finale, while juxtaposing No. 9 with No. 15 brings out an interesting perspective, truly creating (as the arranger Wesley says) a “new landscape”.
The programme opens with the wistful C major Prelude, taken with understated, distinctly Bachian poise. The accompanying Fugue in A minor is similarly genteel, the soloists easing into each entry with loving care. The Bachian atmosphere is hard to shake, and continues into the spectral yet witty Prelude No. 2, which showcases the saxophone’s dexterity in a flurry of arpeggios in this surprisingly effective arrangement.
The prominent bass clarinet in the grimly bombastic Prelude No. 3 reminds us that this is Shostakovich, after all, but the other players are audibly reluctant to follow suit. Here the Calefax need to abandon their finesse and inject some bite into the repetitive staccatos and strident declamations. After this manicured affair the Fugue enjoys a bit more gusto, the technical agility of the players giving this complex piece the distinctive feel of a mad dance.
The saxophone leads the Calefax’s warm, comforting timbre in Prelude No. 4, characteristic of nostalgic moments from Shostakovich’s film scores. The closing bars are some of the more heartfelt in the programme – here a sense of the darkness and grief of the late 1940s surfaces. The Fugue continues the atmosphere of lament and inconsolable grief; but where sorrow should turn to defiance in the faster second half, the group lacks a degree of anger, merely scratching the surface of the intense emotions contained within. The closing bars are rousing in grandeur but leave raw nerves untouched. Prelude No. 5 aches with similarly poignant shades of twilight, spiced by deliciously delicate tonguing in the staccato phrases.
In No. 6 the composer identifies himself in a defiant “DSCH” figure, and perhaps recognising this drives the musicians to momentary madness. With the pinched high oboe screaming the theme to the blare of the reedy low bass clarinet and the gruff lower end of the saxophone exploited to good effect, they achieve an inspired moment of sympathy with the composer. The nocturnal Fugue, led by the marvellous bassoon and bass clarinet, re-creates the darkness of Lady Macbeth in one of the most authentically Shostakovichian instrumentations in the set – a triumph for Eduard Wesley and a compelling moment for the listener. After such intensity, the solitude of Prelude and Fugue No. 7 comes as welcome relief, and a whiff of Bach re-emerges, especially in the ambivalently major-key Fugue.
It’s hard to mistake the Jewishness of No. 8, which finds the oboe enjoying outbursts of irony in the high leaps and the sinuous descending seconds. Althuis’ bass clarinet again underpins the performance (listen to the harrowing forte growl in the middle of the fury), confirming him as the most intuitive Shostakovich interpreter of the five.
Eduard Wesley’s invocation of Shostakovich’s theatrical dramatisation is best illustrated in Prelude No. 9. Here the ‘question and answer’ between the low and high registers of the piano is played out by the bassoon and the oboe, reminiscent of the “parroting” conversation between the same pair in the march of the Seventh Symphony’s first movement. One might imagine this to be Shostakovich’s portrayal of the infamous 1948 Conference, the two instruments playing the part of authority and artist engaged in a farcical discussion on Soviet music, with the following movements providing the composer’s mocking answer. Unfortunately, the players do not make the most of the potential humour, although the upbeat Fugue hits a truly sour ending on the defiant clarinets.
Launching straight into the mocking jollity of Prelude and Fugue No. 15, the performers serve up a fair measure of sarcasm in the dance parody of the Db major Allegretto, one of their more brilliantly grotesque displays. The impeccably played Fugue, however, fails to unleash the sense of horror that we hear in Nikolayeva’s flawed but compelling piano recording on Hyperion. The Calefax Quintet players concentrate too much on the complex fugal lines, softening one of opus 87’s most terrifying moments.
After the furore, Prelude No. 16 in Bb minor is an oasis of contemplation that contrasts the lyrical reed choir against a diaphanous flurry of running notes. The extensive six and a half minute Fugue serves as a development section where fragments of earlier themes in the cycle make their appearance, their character heightened through Shostakovich’s scoring. The players’ delicacy throughout is a joy to behold, especially the moody saxophone which forms the heart of these two movements.
The wry No. 17 is delightfully characterised by the players, particularly the double reeds, evoking a conversation between Shostakovich and Bach, while the dark No. 19 set in Eb major contains some very piquant staccato playing as the clarinet, saxophone and oboe seem momentarily possessed by the spirit of Shostakovich in one of his ‘meaner moods.’
The sorrowful nostalgia of Prelude No. 12 in G# minor acts as a perfect postlude to the shades of dark and light of the preceding movements, the Calefax delivering one of the most touching moments in the entire performance. The forceful Fugue intrudes on this heartfelt farewell with a display of brashness that again pitches Shostakovich against Bach. Shostakovich wins the day with one of the sourest chordal codas in the cycle. As the programme draws to a close, the Calefax players finally give some sense of the ugliness that inhabits the world of Shostakovich. Allowing some unrefined behaviour in their fugal entries, they come close to realising the dark world of 1951, when Russian life was slowly being consumed by a fresh wave of Terror.
Though there are moments of fury, on the whole the harsh and grotesque are lacking from the Calefax palette. Their lovingly moulded phrases tend to play to their disadvantage; every so often there is a need for more grit and toughness and a good measure of anger. With the exception of the bass clarinettist, they are unfortunately reluctant to sound ugly, in terms of attack or timbre and fail to highlight some of the essential grating dissonances. Compare this performance with the Nederlands Blazers Ensemble’s scathing execution of the Allegro from Dmitri Smirnov’s wind transcription of the Eighth Quartet (Meladina Record MRCD0021; reviewed in DSCH 16) and you will find the Calefax a shade too well behaved.
This is however a small complaint for such an exquisite performance; it should pose no impediment to enjoying this disc, which has been recorded with excellent fidelity to produce a glowingly warm sound with exciting clarity in the busier passages.
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Russian Wind Band Classics
March of the Soviet Militia, opus 139; Glière: Solemn Overture for the Twentieth Anniversary of the October Revolution, opus 72 (ed. Robert Grechesky)[a]; Stravinsky: Circus Polka, composed for a young elephant; Prokofiev: Marches for Military Band, opus 69[a]; Anthem for Military Band, opus 98 (ed. James Gourlay)[a]; Rimsky-Korsakov: Concerto for Trombone[b]; Khachaturian: The Battle of Stalingrad, Suite from the film by Vladimir Petrov, opus 74a (ed. Robert Peel)[a].
Clark Rundell, Royal Northern College of Music Wind Orchestra, Jacques Mauger (trombone)[b].
Chandos CHAN10166. DDD. TT 69:27.
Recorded Studio 7, New Broadcasting House, Manchester 24 & 25 February 2003.
[a]World premiere recordings.
Despite its popularity amongst wind players and fans of wind music in general, music for wind orchestra has yet to achieve the status of its richer cousin “classical music”. Ironically, the wind music scene is a thriving one, with highly developed schools of composition in America and Western Europe. New works appear annually and are greeted enthusiastically by performers and audiences alike; but their composers, such as Alfred Reed and Jan van der Roost, are practically unknown outside wind music circles. It is only when a “serious” orchestral composer enters the concert band repertoire that classical music listeners sit up and pay attention. In this respect, composers like Holst and Vaughan Williams have lent authority to an otherwise overlooked genre.
A recent series by Chandos featuring the excellent Royal Northern College of Music Wind Orchestra wanders cautiously into this niche, surveying the wind music of the English, French and Nordic regions. This instalment takes the English band to Russia and injects a few more big names, including Prokofiev, Rimsky-Korsakov and Khachaturian into the wind music repertoire. It can also be considered a follow-up to a 1996 release entitled Russian Concert Band Music (CHAN 9444) with the Stockholm Concert Band conducted by Gennady Rozhdestvensky, which features a remarkably similar line-up.
That earlier disc presented a varied and interesting programme, representing the best of Russian wind music with its inclusion of Myaskovsky’s Symphony No. 19 and two Rimsky-Korsakov concertos. This newcomer, while receiving a much more polished performance, is considerably heavier on the marches. As a wind player I found the selection a disappointment, particularly considering the announcement in the liner notes to Russian Concert Band Music that “band music has such prestige in Russia…. there are so many excellent compositions for band by composers from Russia and the other former Soviet republics.”
Where are these excellent compositions? The present CD’s notes report the difficulty of obtaining scores from the former Soviet Union; for example, only one of the four Glière overtures in the catalogue was traceable. This lone Glière discovery, the Solemn Overture for the 20th Anniversary of the October Revolution, opus 72, is perhaps one of the disc’s most attractive works, exploiting the contrasting timbres of the different brass and wind sections of the ensemble (which, in contrast to the wind section of a typical symphony orchestra, employs larger choirs of a wider range of instruments such as the cornet, euphonium, saxhorn and the complete range of saxophones) and exploring the many possibilities of wind scoring from rhythmic excitement to lyrical beauty. Glière’s Overture is built on attractive melodic material that has instant appeal, with contrasting sections of declamation and lyricism, heroism and quiet sustaining interest in this 8-minute Overture.
It is worth noting that this 1937 October tribute has more than a touch of Rimsky-Korsakov in it, especially in the central dance sequence on woodwind. In fact, Glière sounds even more like Rimsky-Korsakov than Rimsky-Korsakov himself in the latter’s Trombone Concerto. This rather dull outing reads like an exercise piece containing not the slightest trace of the usually colourful and exotic Russian master. The central slow section hints at Tchaikovsky, while the finale is somewhat reminiscent of the finale of Vaughan Williams’ English Folk Song Suite. This is a far cry from the more idiomatic Concertstück for Clarinet and Military Band and Variations for Oboe and Military Band featured in Russian Concert Band Music. The Trombone Concerto’s rarity on disc undoubtedly earned it a place here. It may satisfy the completist, but I would much rather hear the transcription of Scheherazade mentioned in the notes to the earlier release.
Stravinsky adds value to the programme with his rollicking Circus Polka, which bursts with the neoclassic quirkiness of his Dumbarton Oaks concerto. Despite its frivolous title and subtitle, it is a marvellous miniature that shows off what a small band of wind instruments can achieve.
To this impressive roll-call of Russian composers comes Shostakovich with a disappointing one-and-a-half minutes’ worth of music. His March of the Soviet Militia, opus 139, is an innocuous miniature written between the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Symphonies. Placed in the middle of the programme, this trifle is easily upstaged by the surrounding works to the extent that without the minimum of attention you’d miss it altogether. It takes the form of a rousing military march dominated by a grandiose, Rossinian fanfare-like melody on the trumpets, with a typically strident second subject on the lower brass in a deliberately elementary A-B-A construction. A fleeting four-bar introduction on trilling woodwind and horns on a two-note utterance opens proceedings, the trumpets carrying the tune throughout in an insistent fashion. Section repeats are generously applied, and the work ends as unceremoniously as it begins. If Tahiti Trot took the composer 40 minutes to dash off, then I would guess this march took him 10!
The CD notes are just as brief on background information to the work. The annotator of Russian Concert Band Music, where it was also programmed (under the title March of the Soviet Police), refers to it as a “witty and ironic” work that according to Galina Vishnevskaya was written upon request of the despised Minister of Soviet Police, Nikolai Shcholokov. Fay’s biography Shostakovich: A Life (reviewed in DSCH 12) efficiently describes the work as a submission for a competition in 1970 that won first prize. Volkov’s Testimony further claims that the work was written with its dedicatee Zoshchenko in mind – the famed writer had once worked on the police force.
How much irony one can actually detect depends on the execution. Rozhdestvensky’s trumpets press the point home with emphatic playing, underlining their omnipresence with their constantly high, somewhat strained register. His band also outlines clearly the simplistic nature of Shostakovich’s upper melody and the blockish tutti accompaniment on the lower winds. As is apparent in the premiere recording by N. Zolotaryov and the Model Orchestra of the Moscow Kremlin Guard (reproduced on Chandos’ DSCH CD-ROM/DVD-ROM; CHAN 50001/55001; reviewed in DSCH 15), which extends the work with even more repeats in the second and final sections, to diminishing returns, the wit is at best subtle; this march has the potential to sound annoying and ridiculous if played with overt enthusiasm.
Zolotaryov’s recording makes us appreciate the brevity and light touch applied by the Royal Northern College Wind Orchestra, who render this a harmless, upbeat, made-to-order march that is over in a blink of the eye. Despite its brevity it does bear the hallmark of the composer’s impeccable craftsmanship: the efficiency of his method, the simplicity of the building blocks.
Prokofiev makes a more substantial contribution with his Marches For Military Band, opus 69, which ups the marching band quotient of the programme, for better or worse. The disc also includes his Anthem, opus 98, submitted for that notorious 1943 competition, which with its great tune and warm subtlety I found far more interesting. The opus 69 marches are more garish in comparison. Chandos here present the world premiere of the complete set of four, with previous cuts reinstated. Each march has a distinct character, and they are peppered with typical Prokofievan insolence. Deliberately or not, his melodies tend to overstay their welcome (the saccharine Cavalry March tune is a perfect example). While they are nowhere near as delightful as his opus 99 March found on Russian Concert Band Music (a work that displays the charm of the March from Love for Three Oranges), the contrasting individuality of each march will certainly be of interest.
The set opens with a rather flippant March for a Spartakiade, whose key melody could fit right into Shostakovich’s Moscow, Cheryomushki. It’s saved from excessive banality by imaginative instrumentation and an interestingly delicate trio (a military band term for a third, more lyrical section of a typical two-subject march). The second Marching Song is more typically pompous, with a stately melody in triple time that might have accompanied military march-pasts or slow marches and a subtle sour twist or two, courtesy of the incorrigible Prokofiev. The third march, written for a competition and the longest of the four, is all pomp and circumstance, with a main tune that I quickly found becomes an irritation. Its saving grace is the lyrical second theme and its two trios of contrasting character, one featuring a solo trumpet and a second, originally cut, starting on the clarinets and developing through various sections such as tuba and saxophones. The final Cavalry March has more than a tinge of irony in it, with its whimsical child-like tune passing from solo trumpet to tuba to woodwinds against a fluffy carnival backdrop complete with trotting triangle and cymbals, recalling Lieutenant Kije. The orchestra perform these marches with a lightness of touch and wonderful solo playing.
Khachaturian closes the programme with the most substantial offering here, a premiere recording of the 30-minute band arrangement of his film music from The Battle of Stalingrad. You can’t get more Socialist Realist than this: the touch of Spartacus in Invasion sounds utterly surreal in this overtly bombastic venture. The music is unmistakably Khachaturian, and there are moments where the fingerprints of Gayane are unmistakable (for example, compare Battle, one of the high points of the suite, with Gayane‘s Storm). There are redeeming moments from the bombast of it all, for example, in the dark central movement; The enemy is doomed, where against a plodding accompaniment the low woodwind and brass take turns to intone mournful passages reminiscent of the third movement of Shostakovich’s Eleventh Symphony.
The band sound truly is stunning in the best moments of the score, even through the more hard-driven sections, and on the whole their performances on this disc are highly recommendable. They possess a more transparent and flexible sound than the Stockholm band under Rozhdestvensky, and their trademark lightness (especially noteworthy in the percussion) and crisp articulation give this programme a wonderful shine. If your tolerance for marches and Socialist Realist music is high enough, this could be an enjoyable excursion after all.
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Hamlet film music, opus 116.
Dmitry Yablonsky, Russian Philharmonic Orchestra.
Naxos 8.557446 CD or 6.110062 hybrid multichannel/stereo SACD/stereo CD. DDD. TT 62:28.
Recorded Studio 5, Russian State TV & Radio Company KULTURA, Moscow, 6-14 February 2003.
Premiere recording of the complete published film score.
Naxos’ new recording of the Hamlet film music, often heralded as Shostakovich’s greatest work in the genre, is bound to stir some excitement. This is not just another issue of the suite that has been a standard of the catalogue for the past 40 years. This is the deluxe edition: the world premiere recording of the complete published score. The fuss is well worth making.
After a few listenings to this new disc, one might argue that Lev Atovmyan, arranger of the suite, left out some of the best parts. Just think of what more the suite offers: a score of monumental sweep and emotional breadth, embodying the grandeur, pathos, and humour of its noble Shakespeare subject. One can imagine how Shostakovich might have assembled the never-written ‘Hamlet Symphony’ from its weighty and not so weighty parts: an opening movement drawn from the Overture and the ‘ghost’ segments, a scherzo from the Palace Ball and In the Garden, a slow movement built out of the Ophelia sequence, and a finale fashioned from Hamlet’s Duel and Death. Though lacking in the kind of developmental continuity implied, there is something grand and comprehensive in this full score version that leaves a sense of having scaled music’s Olympian heights. Perhaps that has something to do with the creative stakes involved. The film, made in 1962, was undertaken as a collaborative effort between composer and director Grigori Kozintsev where music and visual image were conceived as coequals. I frankly don’t recall the music taking on such significance in the film. Never mind, nor do I recall so much impressive music turning up as on the current recording.
Only two past recordings have offered music outside the standard eight-part suite. The notable Chailly/Concertgebouw version (Decca 289 460 792-2; reviewed in DSCH 11) includes two non-standard cuts lasting less than a minute each. Likewise, a Denon release of a few years earlier (CO 18004) featuring the I Solisti Italiani taps into the original score for a few non-standard cuts. Dmitri Yablonsky, who has recorded a fair number of Shostakovich orchestral works for Naxos over the past few years, hereby offers a generous 23 tracks, encompassing all of the original score’s 34 cues. Those acquainted with the suite will find it incorporated here, along with a good number of wonderful surprises.
Yablonsky’s pace is a little faster, more assertive, and less monumental than one might be accustomed to in the opening Overture. But he sets Hamlet afoot with a dauntlessly advancing tempo. Ever attentive to instrumental colour and backed by the strong playing of the Russian Philharmonic Orchestra, he takes on the score with an appropriate sense of mission. One of the interesting aspects of the full score is how thematic material and action relate to each other in a larger context. The recurrence and interaction of main themes suggest a symbolic significance for each; a fate motif, a death motif, a Hamlet motif, etc. The variety of instrumental and rhythmic roles the themes take on represents a feast for the ears. For example the same theme that announces the Ghost in colossal gesture and parallel octaves is later chopped into smaller divisions, ostinato style, and squeezed into parallel minor seconds in the Scene of Poisoning. And then there’s Hamlet’s powerful motto theme that recurs throughout the score, with its Stepan Razin-like hammer strokes, heavy on brass, percussion and strings in the opening Overture. A curious variant appears in track 8, Hamlet’s Parting from Ophelia in a very Shostakovian setting for bassoons with xylophone punctuation. Another variant, a subdued arrangement for clarinet and low strings in track 12, provides the setting for Hamlet’s monologue. Yablonsky’s attention to detail in these cues is exemplary.
Then there’s Hamlet’s potent atmospheric content. Shostakovich’s mastery of orchestration is used with a supernatural vengeance in this regard. Two of the most impressive tracks on this new release involve ghostly appearances, and Yablonsky is magnificent in evoking a bone-chilling atmosphere. Making its world premiere is The Story of Horatio and the Ghost, track 5, where the combination of tremolo strings, celesta, and low harp recalls the expansive shades of the Eleventh Symphony; likewise the tuba part with bass drum thundering recalls the Fears movement of the Thirteenth Symphony. The Ghost, track 7, also receives sumptuous treatment, opening with an alarmingly grand spectre, then leading into some squirming sul ponticello sonorities and concluding with ominously hushed snare drum and timpani cross rhythms. The combination of Yablonsky’s luxuriously slow tempi and Naxos’ brilliantly clear engineering fairly well outdoes any previous rendition of these cues. Indeed it compares favourably to Bernard Herrmann’s memorably spacious rendition of Hamlet’s Ghost (Decca/London 455 156-2; deleted). The Naxos CD, incidentally, is released in two forms, regular CD format and the new SACD format, the latter with multi-channel, two-channel, and standard stereo encoding. Even on standard CD player, an enhanced richness in the lower frequencies on the SACD disc is evident.
The most intriguing new material is no doubt the Ophelia sequence in the latter part of the score, tracks 18 to 21. Here Shostakovich sketches a vivid, touching portrait of this tragic character. He restricts his palette to strings and a most unlikely solo instrument, the harpsichord, the latter representing Ophelia. As far as I know, it’s the only appearance of the instrument in Shostakovich’s entire oeuvre. The sequence is also notable in representing the score’s only moments of pathos, the feminine counterbalance, so to speak, to the heroic-tragic material associated with Hamlet’s character. Throughout these riveting cues, registral and timbral extremes are eloquently exploited. Ominous low string figures cast into sharp relief a sequence of poignant harpsichord entries, each of which introduces material that traces the successive stages of Ophelia’s decline. In track 18, Ophelia’s Descent into Madness, the harpsichord at first sings a courtly, if slightly off-centred gavotte; tentative material follows in the next entry. The sequence continues in track 19, Ophelia’s Insanity, where the instrument takes up the harmonically vague ticking figure that returns in her death music. Only in the final section of this cue are harpsichord and strings at last heard at the same time and playing the same material, a progression of funereal chords. The music is deeply moving.
The standard suite entry of Ophelia’s Death follows, a sweet, solo violin melody that quickly evaporates (‘Ophelia, we hardly knew ye’) into the ticking motif over a darkly sustained pedal. After a climax of rising trills, a roaming bass figure punctuated with chime strokes brings this blackest of cues to its conclusion. In the final track of this sequence, Hamlet at Ophelia’s grave, another variant of the Hamlet theme emerges, this time on strings with harpsichord interspersions. Before concluding, the thematic roles of the instruments, symbolically enough, are reversed.
Once again, it is remarkable how Shostakovich achieves such a high degree of narrative and emotional communication with a medley-like treatment of material. Yablonsky is again superb in handling the delicate fabric of these cues and bringing out the pathos in all of its eerie darkness.
The standard final cut, depicting the Duel, Death and Funeral of Hamlet, is replete with agitated eighth notes in the low strings with broad brass overlays and percussive discharges that recall the epic melee in the finale of the Eleventh Symphony. Yablonsky again rises to the occasion.
I do have some reservations about the current performance in key places. The truth is I have yet to discern a distinct interpretive style for Yablonsky. Even though the Palace Ball is on the lighter side, I miss in Yablonsky’s reading the spiky edge that makes this a jumping number in other performances. And in the track with the most developmental heft of the lot, the mighty Poisoning Scene, Yablonsky is more preoccupied with local colour and instrumental effects than with the broad sweep of climactic ascent. For a prime example of the kind of symphonic treatment this movement wants and deserves, I strongly recommend the aforementioned Chailly disc. But I hasten to add that I have yet to hear a Poisoning Scene more exciting and solidly assembled than the one led by Nikolai Rabinovich on a long-expired 10-inch Melodiya LP (C10-09508).
Among the non-standard cuts are a variety of short fanfares and snippets for small groups of instruments, a few of which deserve mention. One of particular interest is No. 17, The Flutes Play, a set of perky variants on the theme of the Palace Ball movement. Another is the second to last cue, No. 22, The Cemetery, where flute, violin and tambourine latch onto a distinctive gypsy theme that would resurface a few years later (1964) in the third movement of the Ninth Quartet. Odd how this turns up here, as the theme otherwise appears nowhere else in the score. There are also string passages in Ophelia’s Descent that anticipate the sul ponticello sections of the opening movement of the Tenth Quartet. The discerning ear will no doubt find other thematic allusions.
John Riley’s excellent liner notes provide the historical context and describe how each of the cues relates to the action on the screen. Yet no visual images are needed for this album, which I unofficially nominate as the Shostakovich CD of the year. Shostakovich’s Hamlet sustains itself quite sufficiently as an independent musical experience. For those who have never heard any of this music, and likewise, for those who have always wondered about the treasures lying beyond the well-trodden suite, your moment has arrived.
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The Film Music of Dmitri Shostakovich, Volume 2
Suite from The Golden Mountains, opus 30a; Suite from The Gadfly, opus 97a; three movements from Volochayev Days, opus 48[a].
Vassily Sinaisky, BBC Philharmonic.
Chandos 10183. DDD. TT 66:08.
Recorded Studio 7, New Broadcasting House, Manchester, 8 & 9 April 2003.
[a]World premiere recording.
In his 1931 article Deklarasia obiazannostei kompositora (Declaration on the tasks of a composer), Shostakovich stated that only his symphonies and his instrumental music deserved to take their place in musical history and that the works that he composed for the theatre or to accompany films were not comparable, as they had no meaning of their own. This bold statement was made at a time when the authorities severely restricted instrumental music as being “Formalist”, referring to the tendency of placing greater emphasis on the form rather than on the contents of a work. Indeed, Shostakovich evidently considered that some of his compositions destined for use in the cinema might have a role beyond that of pure accompaniment or illustration if given new form; around a third of his works in this genre also exist as orchestral suites.
However almost none of this music was arranged into orchestral suites by the composer himself, but rather by his friend Lev Atovmyan. The suite derived from the music to Yutkevich’s 1931 film The Golden Mountains was an exception to this rule: here Shostakovich himself assembled the six-movement suite that comprises the suite. Notable is the composer’s choice to exclude certain prominent lyrical moments from within the film’s score – in particular the title-song, If Only I Had Mountains of Gold – in favour of music of a purely instrumental nature. Shostakovich also chose to include the Fugue (the third movement of the Suite), which had been censured by the Soviet authorities on the grounds of Formalism.
In contrast to the rather bombastic introduction to the suite, the waltz that follows reflects its role as a purely thematic caricature. In the film this passage depicts characters who embody the notion of capitalist decadence. Whereas here the movement takes on the altogether inoffensive allure of a simple dance figure, the starkly eccentric nature of the instrumentation used by Shostakovich, including a Hawaiian guitar, produces a distinctive air of strangeness. In the suite, the waltz is heard in three parts, in a long symphonic form which holds the themes together, while on the sound-track the third part works as a Leitmotiv, which is “played” from a watch (a symbol for luxury and corruption in the movie, but without particular meaning when taken out of this context) and which actually is a variation of the waltz.
The extremely energetic interpretation Sinaisky adopts in this new recording employs tempi that are resolutely in line with the orchestral nature of Shostakovich’s concert-hall version, albeit significantly faster than in the original sound track. The tempi are also faster than in the earlier version of the suite from Mikhail Jurowski (Capriccio 10 561).
The twelve movements chosen by Atovmyan to constitute the very familiar suite to The Gadfly, more or less unified by the work’s component transitions and transpositions, form an altogether more natural, even symphonic whole, moving well away from the oft-heard harsh contrasts engendered by the visual discipline of cinema music writing, in a way that is totally in line with the composer’s aesthetic. The nationalistic character of certain movements that illustrate the romantic hero (in the form of a brave Italian resistance worker confronting the Austrian invader) is, however, ultimately only clearly audible to the informed listener.
Once more, Sinaisky’s rendition reinforces the altered nature of this music: it’s as if through his vigorously dynamic approach the conductor is intent on spelling out the score’s revised role, no longer as a picture accompaniment, but as a stand-alone dramaturgical entirety.
The final suite on the CD is a much-too-brief compilation of three movements from Volochayev Days, a film with screenplay and direction from the Vasiliev brothers – Georgi and Sergei – from 1936/7. The selection barely lasts nine minutes and at best offers only a brief taster of the score written for this two-hour film based on Russian-Japanese conflicts in 1918. Shostakovich mixes pentatonic scales with trombone glissandi to attain an effect of estrangement, reminding us that through his experience as a silent movie pianist coupled with his talent for improvisation he was particularly adept at depicting on-screen atmosphere. Unfortunately, and even granted that one of the film’s intentions was to paint caricatures of Nippon militarism, the too-prevalent fanfares that dominate the meagre extracts constituting this suite make it too bombastic to enjoy. While the lively interpretations of Golden Mountains and Gadfly free them from their merely illustrative role, Volochayev Days does not succeed in this. Nevertheless, the CD presents a good sampling of Shostakovich’s film music with new accounts of two known film scores and a foretaste of an unfamiliar one, recorded for the first time.
|London Shostakovich Orchestra|
Symphony No. 4 in C minor, opus 43.
Christopher Cox, London Shostakovich Orchestra.
Dunelm Records DRD0216B. DDD. TT 63:39 (without applause 63:18).
Recorded live St. Cyprian’s Church, London, 8 November 2003.
Here’s a wonderfully visceral, fully committed performance of the great Shostakovich Fourth Symphony, the “Grandiosomania” Symphony. By disclaimer, I must say that I was a participant in this recording, made at St. Cyprian’s Church in London on 8 November 2003: that’s me applauding (well, yes, with many others) in the final 21 seconds captured here. Quite a few contributors to this Journal participated in this way as well, with two psychiatrists present to study the grandiosomania, a raconteur, and the editor too. We all feared for chaos instead of music, as this gargantuan work requires the utmost of an orchestra – tremendous skill, stamina, and endurance.
When the first movement fugue hit, we all held our collectivist breaths, and then held them longer as the strings went at it with astonishing virtuosity, a truly amazing feat for an orchestra that plays together once or twice a year, and practices for the concert only the Saturday the week before and a tad the day of. Most of the rest of the work held up to this high degree of playing: a full-throttle opening, wondrous thwacking, the hallmark fugue, the clacking timepieces ending the second movement, the mordent funeral march, the drunken and demented oration, the thundering climax and final ur-ending, all stunningly captured in this live recording. Of course, in such a recording there are a few clunkers – a loud shout or cough in the ostinato in the first movement, a few horn flubs in the high solo in the second, a tired-sounding ostinato in the third (the gigantic and obsessive one), some not-quite-in-tune string standouts, a mistimed solo flute, and a too-distant celesta at the end. These are really tiny distractions from the strengths and power that come across throughout the performance and recording. It’s an exciting document, not to replace the milestone performances by Kondrashin, Ormandy, and Semkov (sorry, the latter with the Detroit Symphony was never released), but a suitable compliment, a CD I’ll spin again with anticipation, and not just to hear myself at the end. Although that bit’s OK too.
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Mravinsky in Moscow 1965
Symphony No. 6 in B minor, opus 54; Glinka: Overture to Ruslan and Ludmilla; Musorgsky: Dawn on the Moscow River; Lyadov: Baba Yaga; Glazunov: Raymonda Entr’acte Act 3; Wagner: Lohengrin Prelude to Act 3; Ride of the Valkyries; Mozart: Overture to Le Nozze di Figaro; Sibelius: The Swan of Tuonela, opus 22 No.3; Symphony No. 7 in C major, opus 105; Hindemith: Die Harmonie der Welt; Stravinsky: Apollon Musagete; Debussy: Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune; Bartók: Music for Strings, Percussion & Celesta; Honegger: Symphony No. 3 Liturgique.
Yevgeny Mravinsky, Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra.
Scribendum SC031. A_D. 4 CD Set.
Recorded live Moscow, February 1965.
Kondrashin in Japan: Vol. 4
Symphony No. 6 in B minor, opus 54[a]; Violin Concerto No. 1 in A minor, opus 77[b].
Kirill Kondrashin, Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra, David Oistrakh (violin)[b].
Altus ALT046. ADD. TT 58:55.
Recorded live Bunkakaikan Large Hall, Tokyo, 4[b] and 18[a] April 1967.
Symphony No. 1 in F minor, opus 10[a]; Symphony No. 6 in B minor, opus 54[b].
Stanislav Skrowaczewski, Hallé Orchestra.
Hallé CD HLL7506. DDD. TT 61:05.
Recorded Bridgewater Hall, Manchester, 1 November 1996[a] and 7 November 1997[b].
Enhanced CD provides link to Hallé Orchestra website when played in a computer CD-ROM drive (PC only).
The Scribendum Mravinsky box documents a single week of intense, live music-making in the Soviet Union, at the end of February 1965. Arriving just a little late for last year’s celebration of the conductor’s centenary, the four CDs are sure to impress anyone new to his art, or to the sound of the Leningrad Philharmonic at the time. Mravinsky and his players pursue musical passion and truth, as though each of these Moscow winter concerts was their last chance to play live.
These were also great days for other partnerships across the world: Ormandy and the Philadelphia; Karajan in Berlin; Bernstein in New York; Klemperer, slowing but sure, with the Philharmonia. The Beatles made Rubber Soul, too, and never did better. The very same week that Mravinsky and the Leningrad players were greeting a bronchial-sounding public at the Grand Hall of the Moscow Conservatoire with this brilliant, yet musically sane account of the overture to Ruslan and Ludmilla, the Beatles flew to the Bahamas, and were well into the shooting schedule for Help.
No such luck for the chesty Muscovites, who are as integral a part of the sound of these recordings as the orchestra itself. Without them, the terrific nervous charge would be all the less hair-raising, so the coughs are worth the bearing. There are some thumps, and other noises, but often the orchestral sparks fly so high that the collective breath must just be held in wonder. We don’t hear playing like this anymore, anywhere, and the experience, on its day, was unsurpassed by any of the other starry pairings listed above, though Ormandy and his band could run them close, live, in the popular Russian favourites heard here.
These are familiar recordings, and many collectors will have owned some or most of them on LPs from Melodiya, Angel, or HMV; or on CD issues, including those from Olympia. The Scribendum transfers are equal to most of those. The hall itself sounds very fine, and some sense of its acoustic has survived the various remastering stages pretty well: it is a bright, atmospheric, if dated stereo image. Thumps are clearer than strings, but it is a little late now to move the mikes backwards, just a touch. The Lohengrin extract remains almost unlistenably shrill – a real ear-bleeder, as owners of the Olympia transfer will already know. Treble is boosted to accommodate the cymbals (which you will not miss) while bass is non-existent. The result is un-equalisable and sounds ludicrous. Otherwise, sonically, things are fine, though I would be very happy to hear straight transfers of the HMV/Melodiya analogue remasterings of this, and other Russian-recorded repertoire.
The audience do not sound disappointed, their vigorous applause breaking in just a fraction too early for repeated comfort, on many occasions. An exception is the Sibelius Seventh Symphony. Maazel and the Vienna Philharmonic made a memorable and acclaimed recording of this, in the ’60s and in glorious Decca sound, but it wasn’t as good as this. Mravinsky redefines the work, and raises its stature. There are ‘imperfections’ and the inimitable Leningrad solo trombone timbre to live with, but this is the greatest recorded interpretation of the Seventh that I know. Here your reviewer for once feels on reasonably safe ground in his judgement, having heard pretty much all the myriad commercial versions, and more than a few airchecks. Collins, Karajan, Beecham, Ormandy, Davis, Berglund… the list of distinguished Sevenths is long. The competing accounts nearly all offer more indulgent string tone, longer timing, more sustained intensity, sometimes of a Brucknerian nature, and very impressive too. Mravinsky finds instead in the work a kind of gruff modernism, which he and the players combine with the sort of local colour that made their Tchaikovsky symphony performances so distinctive. On this showing, it is not unreasonable to think of the Finn as being in part a Petersburg composer, and one imagines as a result the entire Sibelius repertoire, performed in this fashion, in the mind’s ear. If only someone would come close to this striking, idiomatic approach, in modern sound. The opening is usually made into an epitome of stepwise tonal progression, an evocation of profound depths and mysteries, or eternal logic. Here it is just as if a stranger strides up to you, no nonsense, and sets you to work right away on a brief, urgent symphonic agenda that could so easily have changed the course of music, given a less serially inclined mid-century. Koussevitsky knew how the piece should go too, and is hors concours, but at the end, Mravinsky and the LPO beat even his live BBCSO account for stark, earthy impact. The audience can’t believe what they have heard, and forget to clap for a moment. The Swan sails away even more atmospherically than in the various Stokowski recordings, though she has a coughing Muscovite on her back just when you least want to hear one. Nonetheless, two of the greatest, most disconcerting Sibelius recordings ever taped.
The Mozart performances are excellent too, scrupulously prepared, and affectionate, while Stravinsky’s Frenchified version of German Classicism in Apollo for once sounds Russian, and the better for it, from the Leningrad strings, reminding us of Arthur Lourié’s possible influence on, and admiration for this beguiling score. The remaining major “foreign” works bring some disappointments. In the case of the Hindemith Harmonie der Welt symphony, the disappointments certainly don’t relate to the performance, which surpasses those by Furtwängler and the composer himself, but to the work, which is not wearing well. The Honegger is fine, but not among the greats; the Debussy sounds a little uncomfortable; while the Bartók is rather slipshod, for once, and no match for Reiner or Fricsay. The encores feature glorious, rumbling and rambling bassoon figuration in Baba Yaga, real passion in the Raymonda extract, and an inspiring Dawn on the Moscow River. The alternate “takes” from different concerts the same week are neither here nor there. The Valkyries ride in and out as brutally and brilliantly as the noisy Lohengrin wedding guests, with similar recording values. Better tonal and dynamic range has been heard in most other places, even through the use of this music for Bugs Bunny purposes.
Maybe there is just a hint of Fritz Freleng about the Presto of the Shostakovich B minor Sixth Symphony, especially as heard here, really up to speed for once, with everyone on board, in what may be the work’s most famous, most highly esteemed recording. For many, including I believe our recordings editor, this account is the Sixth; the one we all grew up with. There isn’t really much that I can add: if you like Shostakovich, you need to hear this version of opus 54. With Stokowski/Philadelphia, it is the best, most compelling, and disturbing recording of a still-underestimated symphony. In other hands, it doesn’t sound the same work.
What we hear on the disc, according to Scribendum, is a composite performance: the Largo and Allegro come from the concert on 21st February, 1965, while that unmatched Presto was taped a week later. Kenzo Amoh’s discography disagrees, placing the whole performance on the 21st.
Mravinsky’s Largo has all the gravitas and sustained grief lacking in Kondrashin’s account, taped two years later in Tokyo, in the age of Sgt. Pepper this time, and now released on Altus. The Sixth brought a consistent approach from this conductor, too quick in the Largo and lacking the sheer forward thrust and fantasy of Mravinsky in the two quick movements that follow. In variable sound, this account may be preferable to his Melodiya studio version, but Shostakovich admirers will have to buy this disc anyway, thanks to the outstanding live performance of the First Violin Concerto. Oistrakh with Kondrashin must be heard, along with Oistrakh and Mravinsky, Oistrakh and Mitropoulos, Oistrakh and Maxim. The orchestra is inspired, the soloist on fire, and the listener is left speechless by the work’s greatness. The recording is cavernous, but this aspect is quickly forgotten.
However most collectors will want an account of such works in modern sound, and in the case of the Sixth, Skrowaczewski and the Hallé look a tempting bargain, coupled with a straight, serious reading of the First Symphony. Great character in the Allegro of opus 10 and splendid playing, driven on by one of the most experienced of all Shostakovich conductors, whose recordings date back to a famous Fifth on Mercury, from 1960. This account of the First comes from 1996, and, like the Sixth, it was recorded in Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall, to atmospheric, and sometimes spectacular effect. The orchestra sounds in great shape, and steeped in these scores. There are some tempo changes in the Lento of opus 10 which will strike some as over-confident, but the conductor does not underplay the work’s symphonic strengths. Kondrashin is king here with Kurtz, Bernstein, and maybe Barshai as alternatives. But Skrowaczewski’s is no routine run-through; it is one of the best, even if the very end could have more of a snarl about it.
The Sixth has been less lucky on records in recent times, and this slightly earlier performance is not quite as convincing as Skrowaczewski’s First Symphony. I’m not sure the composer wrote a finer symphonic first movement than the Sixth‘s Largo. This version takes a few minutes to wake up, then generates some genuine Mahlerian tension for the long, lonely Winterreise of the central sections. As sound, it is beautiful, with lovely winds, recorded quite closely. Previn and Berglund found a bleaker setting here, but no one matches the first Stokowski for atmosphere, or Mravinsky for tension. Rozhdestvensky would have made a fine choice, had the sound been better; Temirkanov is good, but arguably too affectionate. Skrowaczewski once more uses indulgent rubato at the start of the recapitulation in the Largo, and later. Something a little straighter pays dividends in this movement, preparing us for the chill of that closing pianissimo.
Skrowaczewski attempts a Mravinsky tempo in the Allegro, which challenges the orchestra, but rather this than a lumbering approach. The Presto is played in classical fashion, without the vivid, differentiated characterisation and sardonic wit of Mravinsky, or the Leningraders’ flexibility, but with close attention to the score it makes for a convincing finale. Barshai is better in both last movements, but his Largo is not up to scratch. This inexpensive Hallé disc is recommendable, especially for newcomers.
Complaints? I have a few. But not today, and too few to mention. Stan Laurel died that same week, in February 1965, but he could not possibly be blamed for the fine mess Scribendum have gotten the track ordering into, for their Mravinsky box. A chronological layout, concert-by-concert, would have made far more sense. And if this Sixth is indeed a composite, where are the missing movements from the two performances? Notes are fine as far as they go, but some more research into these specific, historic occasions would have made very welcome reading.
So should you buy the Scribendum set anyway? Well, it comes at mid-price, and features two unbeatable versions of standard repertoire pieces, along with a host of other interesting, powerful interpretations, and the sound is good. If you have the core performances already, there is no need to get this set, just for completeness’ sake. A single disc of the Shostakovich, Sibelius, and short Russian works would tell most of the story. But if you have none of the recordings, and don’t trust the industry to produce a better presentation of this historic material in the near future – which it richly deserves – then acquire the box and start spending your evenings in a scintillating time-warp, just four months into the Brezhnev era. Once you have it, you won’t let go.
Kondrashin in Japan: Vol. 7
Symphony No. 8 in C minor, opus 65; Musorgsky: Prelude to Khovanshchina.
Kirill Kondrashin, Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra.
Altus ALT067. ADD. TT 57:27.
Recorded live Bunkakaikan Large Hall, Tokyo, 20 April 1967.
The Eighth was never the most memorable entry in Kondrashin’s Melodiya cycle of the Shostakovich symphonies – still the most distinguished complete survey on disc, despite these occasional reservations. Alongside Mravinsky, especially the 1947 account, Kondrashin sounded a touch less involved, the interpretation on a different scale. This live account from Japan does little to change that customary outcome in the Eighth Symphony stakes – Mravinsky all the way – but there are some striking, memorable passages.
The opening sounds impetuous, Beethovenian, even, and the string colourations in those opening paragraphs are magnificently controlled and varied. These Moscow violins were unmatched for intensity of attack. Kondrashin pushes ahead throughout, and the effect is neurotic, rather than inexorable. It’s an expressionist, restless, modernist Eighth. The first movement climax is violent, and even more so when it returns in the closing Allegretto: fast, ferocious, ugly, and convincing. The big cor anglais solo flows, and sounds just right that way, in context, while the immediate response of the strings evokes the quiet urgency of human speech. These closing minutes of the Adagio are outstandingly expressive and subtle, summing up the harmonic arguments for the moment, in readiness for a quiet resolution of the tonal issues at the end of the work.
Elsewhere, we have problems. Ensemble is all over the place at the start of the Allegro, while Kondrashin delivers the fastest Largo you could hear. He brings it home in 6:31. I’ve heard it take three times longer! The flute sounds really hurried, and not everyone is comfortable in the final Allegretto, either side of the ear-splitting climax.
Having said all that, Kondrashin’s determination to get the symphony over and done with in fifty minutes makes it sound all the more extraordinary, and non-Soviet, as an orchestral piece. This symphony has rarely sounded closer to its C minor companion, the Fourth, which Kondrashin had premiered just a few years before this 1967 performance. Another Fourth, the irascible one by Vaughan-Williams, seems to share a kindred spirit with the violence Kondrashin finds in the fast middle movements, but by the end of the Allegro this conductor and the Moscow players are in a class of their own for orchestral aggression. They sound quite taken aback by the sheer force of their own playing in the Allegro, as the Largo then makes a slightly wobbly start, and drifts on its brief, Bergian progress towards the “pastoral” opening of the final movement.
It may be worth remembering that the Eighth would have been quite a rarity in 1967. The revival in the West, spurred by Previn, Haitink, Barshai, and others, bolstered by some incomparable live accounts from Mravinsky, was some years away. The live Fedoseyev, at around an hour, is a good modern “average”. That later “tradition” is almost always slower and weightier in effect than this Kondrashin, and live Eighths seem to be getting slower and weightier as years go by. Most make the opening ten minutes more of a threnody, and allow flickers of light near the end of the work. The current performance might best be heard as part of a “lost” tradition; the Eighth as sharp, brutal, shocking, and free of consolation. Not so much a war symphony, as a brusque fight for grim death. More specifically, the literal phrasing, generally brilliant playing, quick tempi and stark colours combine, to re-present the work for us as a compact, steely orchestral masterpiece, with a unique expressive curve. We are very unlikely to hear it this way again. It is a single-breath Eighth: the end here is like being drained, rapidly, of blood. There is no applause, and I can imagine many listeners being completely alienated by the matter-of-factness of this version. Recommended by me, all the same.
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Symphony No. 7 in C major, opus 60, Leningrad.
Dmitry Yablonsky, Russian Philharmonic Orchestra.
Naxos 8.557256 CD or 6.110020 hybrid multichannel/stereo SACD/stereo CD or 5.110020 multichannel/stereo DVD Audio. DDD. TT 75:17.
Recorded Studio No. 5, Moscow State Broadcasting and Recording House, February 2003.
Though the days when the Leningrad Symphony was struggling to live down its massive wartime popularity are over, it is still a work that presents considerable problems for a conductor. Attending a live performance can be a shattering experience in the hands of a conductor who really has the work within his or her grasp, but otherwise it can feel like an awfully long seventy minutes.
Oleg Caetani is currently in the process of recording all of Shostakovich’s symphonies with the Orchestra Sinfonica di Milano Giuseppe Verdi, founded in 1993. Caetani’s performance has the advantage of advanced technology, using 24-bit/96 kHz processing; each piece of recording equipment down to the last cable is proudly listed on the inside cover. There is a vast difference in sound quality between Caetani’s Arts Music CD and Dmitri Yablonsky’s cheaper Naxos release. This gap widens considerably when comparing it with Mravinsky’s classic 1953 mono recording with the Leningrad Philharmonic (BMG/Melodiya 74321 29405 2; deleted). It is a pity then that Arts Music did not ensure that their liner notes would at least be of comparable quality to those in the Naxos and Melodiya recordings, of which Sigrid Neef’s for Melodiya remain easily the best.
Superior sound quality aside, Caetani’s performance is fine enough at least to please anyone who is not well acquainted with Mravinsky’s or Kondrashin’s readings of this symphony. The orchestral playing is warm and sensitive and Caetani is particularly well attuned to the gentler spirits that inhabit the middle movements. In this respect he has the edge over Yablonsky and the Russian Philharmonic, who aren’t always as alert to some of the subtler nuances that flow through the most tender passages.
Yet it is in these very movements that Caetani’s performance suffers most in comparison with Yablonsky’s. Problems begin with the entry of the E-flat clarinet in the middle section of the second movement; whereas Yablonsky captures its grotesque playfulness perfectly, Caetani is inexplicably and frustratingly tame. Even the stark opening of the third movement is far more hard-hitting in Yablonsky’s performance. Caetani handles this far too gently for it to be truly moving, and subsequent quiet entries of the opening theme lack momentum.
The first movement poses more serious problems for Caetani, whose liberal attitude to Shostakovich’s tempo indications goes far beyond even Mravinsky’s. A case in point is the central build-up to climax, which makes or breaks any performance. Mravinsky may start slower than indicated, but by the time he applies the brakes at the Moderato climax point, he has accelerated far beyond Shostakovich’s suggested speed. He doesn’t rush the simplicity of the quiet entry of the invasion theme, but reserves energy for the final push to climax – an extreme but highly effective way of controlling a long and repetitive development. In contrast, Caetani is significantly faster than indicated and actually slows down as everything else – pacing, texture and harmony – intensifies. This has both advantages and disadvantages. Yablonsky, who adheres rigidly to the original tempo, loses intensity quickly after the Moderato, possibly because Shostakovich’s metronome mark of crotchet = 88 feels too fast without the kind of dramatic force that Mravinsky’s accelerando achieves. Whilst Caetani sustains the climax well, his more cautious pacing robs it of its emotional power.
However, there is a lot less to choose between Caetani and Yablonsky in the finale. Yablonsky sticks steadily to Shostakovich’s indicated speed. Caetani’s finale is a good two minutes shorter than Yablonsky’s 20 minutes, though Mravinsky still beats him at just over 16 minutes. In terms of sustained momentum and quality of orchestral playing, Caetani’s finale fares slightly better than Yablonsky’s, which sags around the middle and suffers from some rough intonation. The rather flaccid playing of the Orchestra di Milano in the middle movements is dramatically transformed in Caetani’s superbly paced finale, which has all the grip and intensity of Yablonsky’s with an overall higher standard of playing. Whether this compensates for disappointments in the middle movements is a matter of personal taste, though Caetani’s superior sound quality and the extra frisson that comes from his live performance will be enough to sway some listeners. But Yablonsky’s Naxos recording shouldn’t be regarded as a lesser, cheaper option; though he doesn’t take Mravinsky’s risks, it is no bad thing to hear a performance of this symphony that adheres so literally to the composer’s tempo indications. On balance, his fidelity to the score and to the spirit of classic Russian Shostakovich performances produces a finer performance than Caetani’s.
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Radio France is the source of this bright, splashy, rather bass-light document of Shostakovich veteran Kurt Sanderling guest-conducting an ensemble for which opus 93 was hardly core repertoire. The live concert was performed just shy of a year after Sanderling and his own Berlin Symphony Orchestra took the score into the studio for Berlin Classics (0090182BC). It is a pity that his earlier recording is no longer in the catalogue, as it was a compelling account, featuring as extreme a Scherzo as any before or since. On its own terms, this new release has selling points, but for anyone seeking an authoritative Tenth Symphony recording it lags a fair distance behind the version on Berlin Classics.
On the plus side, this is undeniably an exciting performance, justifying the audience’s enthusiastic applause that follows hard on the heels of the final tutti. Sanderling considers this to be “an anti-Stalin, anti-regime symphony”, an interpretation made visual to the prospective buyer by Naïve’s attractive packaging, with its cover photo from 1990 Budapest of the dismembered head and boot from a massive Stalin statue being hauled away on a hand cart. Showing no mercy to Radio France’s orchestra, Sanderling works up a lather in the shrill second movement – a portrait of Stalin, in his view – and maintains high tension elsewhere.
The musicians deliver some noteworthy moments, particularly the strings, which default to sweeping gestures in climactic sections, in marked contrast to the clipped, punchy enunciation of the Berlin players. The French orchestra’s oboist is particularly fine, delivering a most affecting solo in the finale. Most delicious of all are the fervent tambourine shake rolls in the climax of the third movement from Fig. 127/7:38; simple whacks on the instrument’s head are all the score requests here, but this improvisation certainly adds to the surrealism of the scene!
Unfortunately, there are negative aspects to this concert. The horns are occasionally shaky, and sound rather winded when voicing the Elmira motif of the third movement. Oboe aside, woodwinds are weak, with imperfect coordination between clarinets following the first movement’s climax, and sloppy piccolo work throughout (coincidentally, an indistinct piccolo trill at Fig. 165 in the fourth movement of the Berlin Classics recording is one of very few blameworthy moments in that performance). The woodwinds interrupt the unfolding of the first movement by pausing for breath in what should be a continuous transition from 2/4 to 3/4 time at Fig. 27-4/8:43.
Though the acoustics are serviceable, coughing obscures quiet passages from time to time, and there is insufficient pause between first and second tracks on the CD. On balance, then, this release is not top tier.
W. Mark Roberts
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Few recent Shostakovich CDs have generated as much anticipation as James DePreist’s new recording of the Eleventh Symphony, updating the 1988 release that many regard as a benchmark for this opus (Delos DE 3080). DePreist considers this symphony to be very close to his soul, and his interpretation is informed not only by study of the score but also of other key recordings, both historic and contemporary. It is of no small interest, then, to hear how his conception has changed in the intervening 15 years.
The record label remains the same, but the Helsinki Philharmonic are here replaced by the Oregon Symphony, an ensemble DePreist has directed since 1980 (he relinquished the reins to Carlos Kalmar this season, but remains the orchestra’s Laureate Music Director). Another difference is that whereas the Helsinki performance was set down in studio, this recording is compiled from three live concerts. Not that one would ever guess this, mind; Portland concertgoers must be the best mannered anywhere, judging by their blessed silence throughout.
The most obvious change to DePreist’s interpretation is his contraction of tempo. Track timings imply that the Oregon performance is eight minutes shorter than the expansive Helsinki recording, with the first movement (Palace Square) accounting for half of the total time savings, and the second (Ninth of January) and third (Eternal Memory or In Memoriam) shaving off around two minutes apiece.
Actually, one could argue that the overall difference is closer to nine minutes, because, like Rostropovich in his critically acclaimed live recording with the London Symphony Orchestra (LSO Live LSO0030; reviewed in DSCH 18), DePreist now allows the final tam tam clash to resonate long after the symphony’s final bar. Although Shostakovich’s score calls for the tam tam to sound only a quaver in unison with the last note of the other instruments, DePreist cites a venerable precedent for this tweak: “In 1976 I obtained a copy of Stokowski’s score for the symphony. The score is fascinating for the markings of Maestro Stokowski and his personal indications. Among the markings was an indication to let the tam tam vibrate. In my new recording I used this ‘Stokowskiism’. It is not effective in concert performance because of applause.” Indeed, audience applause following hard on Stokie’s 1958 concert with the Moscow Radio Symphony Orchestra engulfs any resonance that the shoddy recording might have transmitted (Russian Disc RD CD 15 001; deleted). Stokowski’s studio recording with the Houston Symphony Orchestra from the same year offers far better acoustics, and the tam tam is audible for three seconds after being struck (EMI CDM 5 65206 2). But DePreist’s parting blow (which must have been recorded in a patch session rather than in concert) takes an awe-inspiring 42 seconds to decay, making even Rostropovich’s 18-second reverberation seem half-hearted by comparison.
Although my preference remains for the tam tam to sound as originally scored – and as played in DePreist’s Helsinki recording – allowing it to resonate imparts an intriguing change to the aftertaste of the symphony. As scored, The Year 1905 closes with a peremptory challenge, defying the tyrants alluded to in The Tocsin‘s revolutionary song quotations. There are no emotional shades of grey and a victorious outcome is inevitable. In contrast, the resounding gong perturbs this cathartic experience, introducing more disquiet the longer it lingers; now one doubts that the conflict prophesied in the symphony’s closing bars will be so decisively resolved.
But what of events before this final note? On its own terms, DePreist’s new Eleventh is a persuasively structured interpretation that supplies steady forward momentum. It also boasts some fine individual performances; highlights include the bare-fanged growls of the cellos and double basses in Ninth of January, the fabulously dark flute reprise of the Listen theme at Fig. 95/18:15 of the same movement, and the haunting English horn in the finale.
DePreist’s new entry does not, however, compete in the same league as his Helsinki recording, which crackled with higher voltage despite its more deliberate tempi. I am reluctant to ascribe this to a difference in the emotional engagement of the two orchestras, although I imagine that the Oregon players appear to more easily accept the casualty list in Eternal Memory. Less subjective reasons relate primarily to the outer movements. Palace Square is not only more spacious in DePreist’s earlier recording but also chillier by several degrees, due to a high-frequency frosting on the Helsinki strings that eludes their Oregon counterparts (or perhaps the recording engineers). The warm, almost pastoral tone of the Oregon violins fails to generate the requisite frissons, most regrettably after the trumpets draw their line in the snow at Fig. 25/12:15.
As for The Tocsin, again I miss the ability of the Helsinki performance to raise the hairs on the back of my neck. In the countdown to the final climax, the Oregon percussion expend too much power too soon with fortissimo strokes at Fig. 167/12:19. Here Shostakovich’s dynamic indication is only mf, clearly intended to allow the progressive swelling of noise and tension that one hears to such terrifying effect in the Helsinki recording. Without an equivalent ramping up of volume, the Oregon Symphony’s climax is significantly less gripping. Those vital bells in the closing bars are also quite indistinct on the new Delos disc.
In short, DePreist’s earlier account remains my top recommendation in this opus; it is one of those rare recordings where everything clicks, completely immersing the listener in its unique world from first to last note. As an Eleventh to live with, I do not believe it has been equalled, let alone surpassed, by any of the recordings that have appeared in the decade and a half since it was first released, including DePreist’s own remake. Rostropovich’s risk-taking LSO version is larger than life in scale, scope and decibels, an innovative and undeniably exciting reading that deserves the praise it has received in our pages and elsewhere. Ultimately, however, I find its steroid-enhanced bulk less appealing than the more aesthetic muscularity of DePreist’s Helsinki performance.
While the annotation to the new release is decent, it does not replicate the useful musical examples included in Delos’ previous booklet. It is not unprecedented for a label to decide it needs only one recording of a particular symphony by a particular conductor in its stable; if Delos entertain such thoughts, I strongly urge them to stick with DePreist’s 1988 Eleventh.
W. Mark Roberts