CD Reviews 23
§ = World Première Recording
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Shostakovich: Complete Songs, Volume 5 – 1948-1974: Famous Vocal Cycles
From Jewish Folk Poetry, opus 79[a]; Suite on Verses of Michelangelo Buonarroti, opus 145[b].
Svetlana Sumatchova (soprano)[a], Marianna Tarassova (mezzo-soprano)[a], Konstantin Pluzhnikov (tenor)[a], Fyodor Kuznetsov (bass)[b], Yuri Serov (piano).
Delos DE 3317. DDD. TT 63:09.
Recorded in St. Catherine Lutheran Church, St. Petersburg, 19 and 20 March 1995[a], 26 and 27 February 2003[b].
All good things must come to an end, even as good a thing as Delos’ landmark survey of the complete songs of Shostakovich. This fifth and final release brings their much-acclaimed project – the first of its kind in recording history – to a close with two fitting capstones: the mighty From Jewish Folk Poetry and Suite on Verses of Michelangelo. How good it is to finally have in one comprehensive series the composer’s art songs of every period, from Krylov Fables of the student years to his penultimate opus, the Captain Lebyadkin verses, and everything in between. Well, almost everything; for example, missing are Dundee’s Romance from the incidental music to the comedy The Gunshot, opus 24, previously recorded only once for a 1995 BBC broadcast, and the never-recordedRosita’s Song from Salute to Spain, opus 44. However, one can hardly fault Delos for leaving out such obscurities in their claim to completeness. They have spared no effort in assembling a production of extraordinarily high calibre. Performances, recording, packaging, annotation, and texts have been superb throughout.
If Delos can be faulted at all it is only for failing to take promotional advantage of their own recording milestones. World premiere recordings of works in original or alternate versions appear throughout the series without a word of notice; a little advertising savvy in this regard would be a very good thing. With characteristic modesty, Delos fail to mention a worthy selling point of the current album: the orchestral versions of the Jewish Poetry and Michelangelocycles have grown so popular over the past decade that it has been at least as long since their versions with piano accompaniment have been recorded. Their restoration is long overdue.
One would think that the chamber-like quality of the piano versions might have made them more popular over the decades. Yet of the sixteen previous recordings of FJFP and the eight complete versions of the Michelangelo Suite listed in the Third Edition of the Hulme catalogue, only four of the former and three of the latter appear with piano accompaniment. The premiere recording of FJFP, which has been re-released numerous times (most recently on Eclectra ECCD-2067; reviewed below) lays claim to authoritative status by virtue of the composer being the accompanist and the vocalists those who premiered the work. It remains a vital rendition that touches a raw nerve with its immediacy, compromised only by its mono, mid-1950s sound quality. The next piano version came out of Germany in 1984 and was sung in the German language (Thorofon Capella LP MTH 267; deleted). It lacks the vocal quality, both individually and collectively, of its competitors. A better German language rendition, recorded at the 1980 Aspen Music Festival yet only released in 1995 (Bridge BCD 9048), features an all-star cast consisting of Benita Valente, Jan DeGaetani, and Jon Humphrey, with accompanist Samuel Lipman. They offer a strong, outwardly projected performance marked by good ensemble work. A fourth piano version sung in Yiddish and released in 1985 by B’nai Brith on cassette only (BB 001), has so far eluded me.
In the mid-1990s there emerged a succession of new recordings of the orchestral version of FJFP, as if the recordings of Sanderling, Svetlanov and Haitink, issued at least a decade earlier, had suddenly found sympathetic ears, stimulating freshly imagined interpretations focusing on less exploited shades of expression. Some conductors went to melodramatic extremes in their attempts to extract an operatic dimension from the work, as in the version by Polyansky (Chandos CHAN 9600; reviewed in DSCH 10) and the rather uneven performance by Rozhdestvensky (RCA 09026 68434-2; deleted). But a few pearls emerged from the harvest by way of the more balanced renditions of Spivakov (Music Masters 01612 67189-2; deleted; reviewed in DSCH 9), Yurovsky (rendered “Jurowski” on Capriccio 10 778; reviewed in DSCH 12), and a particularly fine interpretation by Järvi (Deutsche Grammophon 439 860-2; deleted).
This brings us to the current performance of FJFP where, for no specified reason, Delos abandon the cast of vocalists who have been featured in each of their previous four albums. Here, three new vocalists are introduced and make their first and only appearance in the series. The Delos team was perhaps well advised in adopting the trio in toto rather than in part since the voices blend particularly well together. This is evident in the various pairings throughout and especially in the songs that feature all three singing together (Winterand the final Happiness).
Marianna Tarassova is a real find, a mezzo-soprano with a rich authoritative tone that rises from the depths of her Russia bosom. She furnishes a genuine anchoring point to the ensemble. Her duets with soprano Sumatchova in the first two songs, Lament for a Dead Babyand Caring for Mum and Auntie (The solicitous mother and aunt), reveal a very pleasing blending of vocal tones. Her moment in the spotlight, the haunting Lullaby (No. 3), is delivered with heartfelt eloquence and made especially moving by the ritardandi she takes at the end of each phrase. Hers compares favourably to other notable renditions of this song: the evocative, world-weary version provided by Nathalie Stutzman in the Järvi edition; or the broadly flowing versions of Ludmila Kuznetsova (Polyansky) and Elena Svechnikova (Spivakov).
The husky tenor of Konstantin Pluzhnikov lends support with a firm tone and dramatic vibrancy. Listen to his stirring climactic interchange with Ms. Tarassova in No. 6, TheAbandoned Father. He also shines in his featured solos, shifting with agility between the jaunty outer sections and central cantilena of No. 7, the Poverty Song (Song of want). He also comes across well in the pastoral strains of TheGood Life (No. 9). A tenor of similar charismatic vitality, Arkadi Mischenkin, can be found in the Yurovsky release.
Svetlana Sumatchova is a soprano of buoyant energy who provides a compatible counterweight to the more earthy hues of her cohorts. Her wiry tone can at times sound a bit pinched, yet she brings off an admirable rendition of the soprano’s principal spotlight in this cycle, the beautiful Girl’s Song (No. 10). Compare the breadth and nobility that Luba Orgonosova brings to this number in the Järvi version; or the supple, full-bodied rendition by Nina Fomina in the Yurovsky. In the premiere recording, Nina Dorliak’s virtuosic ability to keep apace with Shostakovich’s brisk tempo warrants notice. Sumatchova is also effective in her other solo in No. 5, Warning.
The present performance shines with a lustre all its own. The combination of voices, clarity of enunciation, colourful nuances and detailed focus on the texts suggests that FJFP is something of a specialty of this particular trio. Praise is due to both performers and sound engineers for taking full advantage of the intimacy afforded by the long-neglected piano version. In contrast to the outwardly projected Aspen performance, close microphone placement and a tight ambient space make this very much a chamber interpretation of FJFP, the first of its kind in the digital era.
Shostakovich once commented to his son Maxim that the Michelangelo Suite could very well stand as his Sixteenth Symphony. Written in 1974, this vocal setting of eleven poems parallels the format, seriousness of purpose, and number of movements found in his Fourteenth Symphony, save the details of instrumentation and the inclusion of a soprano in the latter work. However, Shostakovich’s ultimate choice of the term ‘suite’ is appropriate given that the work lacks the inexorable forward drive that defines the symphonic form. If the songs collectively lack the cumulative tension of his final two vocal symphonies, the Thirteenth and Fourteenth, they offer pithy contemplations on a broad but no less lofty set of subjects that he took up in these symphonies and his other late-period cycles,Seven Romances on Poems of Alexander Blok and Six Songs on Poems of Marina Tsvetayeva. The universality and timelessness of the themes – art, love, death, immortality, morality – are reinforced by Shostakovich’s choice of verses written half a millennium before in a tradition way outside Russian culture. The anticipated celebration of Michelangelo’s 500th birthday in 1975 no doubt drew Shostakovich’s attention to these verses. The idea may also have been inspired by the 1940 settings of Michelangelo sonnets by Benjamin Britten, to whom Shostakovich’s Fourteenth Symphony is dedicated.
Musically the Michelangelo Suite is almost completely devoid of the dance forms, nervous rhythms, and catchy lyrical turns that we associate with Shostakovich. Its gestural lyricism may not be the most memorable, yet it represents word painting of the most deeply moving kind – one might call it Musorgskian, given its Russian language-based inflections. But as Fischer-Dieskau’s piano version (Teldec 4509 97460-2; deleted) uniquely demonstrates, the Suite is just as effective when sung in the Italian language. The sombre, hymn-like progressions that appear throughout have also inspired an arrangement for organ and bass (Le Chant du Monde LDC778 1124; reviewed in DSCH 14). While the idea works quite well for a number of the sections, the arrangement’s total lack of percussive edges has the effect of blunting its overall effectiveness.
There are three previous complete performances of the piano version: the solid and classical tones of Yevgeny Nesterenko accompanied by Yevgeny Shenderovich (Melodiya LP C10 06161-2; deleted); the richly blanketed, vibrato-laden voice of Fischer-Dieskau, in Italian, accompanied by Aribert Reimann; and one that I haven’t heard, John Shirley-Quirk with Vladimir Ashkenazy on piano (Decca LP SXL 6849; deleted). The first two are strong performances, as is the one on the current disc, the differences among them amounting to mere nuances.
Fyodor Kuznetsov is no stranger to the Shostakovich repertoire and appears in all settings that call for bass soloist in Delos’ five-volume series. His resonant bass is tinged with a metallic quality that imparts a nervous edge, well suited to the restless strains of the Michelangelo Suite. He captures the yearning tones of the opening song, Truth, as if reflecting the exasperation of unanswered prayers. He brings great expression to the soaring cantilena in the sixth song, Dante, in particular at the climactic utterance of the poet’s name. He also effectively brings out the vulnerable moods in songs such as Love and Separation. In the sadly beautiful Night, Shostakovich’s reflection on lost love that quotes Ustvolskaya’s Clarinet Trio, Kuznetsov imparts sensitivity, though here Fischer-Dieskau manages to capture more of the dark melancholy embedded within. So does Nesterenko, who begins and ends this song in hushed tones and in between only sparingly raises his voice. Fischer-Dieskau takes noticeably broader tempi in the latter half of the cycle and as a result illuminates more of the dark corners that inhabit the songs To TheExiled, Night, and Death. If Kuznetsov lacks some of the expansive probity of Fischer-Dieskau or the solid footing of Nesterenko, he excels in holding a taut line and building fiercely ascending arcs. Listen to the explosive vehemence he musters in Wrath and his fiery penetration of the To TheExiled. It is this fire in the belly above all that makes his rendition of the Michelangelo Suite worth seeking out.
Pianist Yuri Serov again proves himself to be the ideal accompanist, providing keen reflexes and just enough personality to arouse interest without overshadowing the vocalists.
So concludes a historic set of releases, one that deserves the widest circulation and the most enduring shelf life. For most listeners, the Delos set is highly recommended. For Shostakovich devotees, it is a must.
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Shostakovich plays Shostakovich, Volume 2
Piano Quintet in G minor, opus 57[a]; Four Preludes (Nos. 10, 15, 16, 24) from Twenty-four Preludes, opus 34, arranged for violin and piano by Dmitri Tsyganov[b]; From Jewish Folk Poetry (Poems), opus 79[c]; Guitars from The Gadfly, opus 97, arranged for piano by the composer[d].
Dmitri Shostakovich (piano); Beethoven String Quartet[b]: Dmitri Tsyganov (violin 1), Vasili Shirinsky (violin 2), Vadim Borisovsky (viola), Sergei Shirinsky (cello); Leonid Kogan (violin)[b]; Nina Dorliak (soprano)[c], Zara Dolukhanova (mezzo-soprano)[c], Aleksei Maslennikov (tenor)[c].
Eclectra ECCD-2067. A_D mono. TT 59:42.
Recorded on 29 March 1955[a], 2 February 1956[b], 16 January 1956[c], 28 May 1955[d].
One of the finest documents of Shostakovich’s skills as a pianist and the only example we have of him accompanying a vocal work, the premiere recording of From Jewish Folk Poetry makes its welcome return to the catalogue. This 1956 recital is of exceptional historical importance, featuring the cast who gave the public premiere a year and a day earlier, among them the soprano who first performed these songs seven years before in the necessary privacy of the composer’s home.
In Testimony, Volkov quotes Shostakovich as saying, “Jewish folk music has made a most powerful impression on me. I never tire of delighting in it; it’s multifaceted, it can appear to be happy while it is tragic. It’s almost always laughter through tears. This quality of Jewish folk music is close to my ideas of what music should be. There should always be two layers in music. Jews were tormented for so long that they learned to hide their despair.” This recording supplies an unparalleled revelation of these themes.
An obvious example is Song of Want, in which complaints of poverty ricochet off Shostakovich’s light and cocky piano work. Flipping to the other side of the coin, his reluctant, morose playing and Nina Dorliak’s wistful tone in Song of the Young Girl belie this happy tale of life on a collective farm. The sarcasm thickens throughout this song, and Shostakovich answers Dorliak’s final encouragement, “Sing it out, my pipe, give it more joy,” by facetiously dashing off the closing notes without a trace of cheer.
In Before a Long Separation Aleksei Maslennikov knowingly humours Dorliak’s tender sentiments with his own chaste recollections of moments with his beloved. His primary goal, however, is betrayed by the urgency of his entreaties for a kiss (the original Yiddish text revealed a more carnal intent).
Matching his manner to the material at hand, Maslennikov’s high, almost effeminate tenor in The Abandoned Father lends an ineffectually desperate quality to his commands to his daughter not to go off with the police officer, making him a far more sympathetic character than the stentorian Konstantin Pluzhnikov on the new Delos recording of From Jewish Folk Poetry (DE 3317; reviewed above). The listener thus feels more keenly the humiliation of this father, impotent in the face of state authority as his daughter contemptuously rejects him and her heritage, calling on her policeman to “throw this old Jew out.”
Dorliak recalled that Shostakovich could not abide emotional exaggeration in performances, and in the songs of mourning the singers stifle their grief, leaving much of the expressive burden to fall on the piano. Shostakovich’s powerfully accented delivery of the opening bars of Lament for a Dead Infant immediately establishes an atmosphere of dread, but Dorliak and Dolukhanova convey quiet resignation and abjure self-pity.
Listen too to Dolukhanova’s gorgeously steady enunciation in Lullaby. Ever mindful to keep a soothing tone in her voice for her dozing son’s benefit and thus unable to indulge her sorrow over her husband’s imprisonment in Siberia, she delivers an even more gut-wrenching experience than the less reserved Marianna Tarassova on the Delos disc.
The quality of the original recording was good for its age, but Eclectra have transferred it to CD approximately a quarter-tone flat. Most listeners will not detect a discrepancy this small but those with perfect pitch could find it disorienting. The 1998 release of this recording on Revelation (RV 70007; deleted) and the 1994 Russian Disc issue (RD CD 15 015; deleted) were both at the correct pitch.
Fortunately, transfer pitch is on target for the other major work on this disc, the Piano Quintet. Annotator Guy Marchand is justified in stating that this is “without a doubt the most remarkable” of the composer’s recordings. Unsurprisingly, it has been released on CD a half-dozen times, most recently on Doremi (DHR-7787; reviewed in DSCH 18). The performance is far superior to the same team’s uncharacteristically slow 1940 account, which is not currently available (Dante Lys 369-370; deleted).
The 1955 version was recorded more than 14 years after Shostakovich premiered the Piano Quintet with the Beethoven Quartet, and in this interval he played it in concert numerous times with various string quartets. The Glazunov Quartet’s cellist recalled, “We, the string players, wanted to ‘sing’, to play with more emotion. Shostakovich accentuated the structural, motor elements and achieved his effect through rhythmic precision. The emotional restraint of his playing led to a certain contradiction with the nature of the strings.”
That dialectic is preserved in this recording, Shostakovich’s obsessively percussive pianism contrasting with the vibrato-laden strings. This creates a sense of desperation in the hard-driven first movement. The following Fugueopens with patient, consoling interweaving of the strings, and the composer’s sharp-edged attack heightens the anguish of the central crisis, which is followed by an extended lament.
The sawing shrieks of the violins and Shostakovich’s wild exuberance paint a macabre scene in the third movement. It is almost a relief to move into the Intermezzo, its steady pulse creating the sensation of suspended time. However this movement is also fraught with emotion, as if bearing sorrowful witness to a great loss. The radiant, life-affirming entry to the finale rescues the listener and carries through without pessimism to a peaceful conclusion.
Wrapping up the programme is a movement from The Gadfly, representing the sole recording we have of the former cinema accompanist performing any of his film music. Unfortunately, Shostakovich’s emphatic style is ill suited to this lyrical piece and also overloads the microphone. Since the fault lies with the original recording, Eclectra have not been able to clean up the distorted acoustics any more than could Revelation (on the afore-mentioned RV 70002).
The interesting booklet notes draw together an impressive range of information and are generally accurate. Two minor quibbles: the Quintet is given an incorrect opus number in the notes but not on the CD cover or in the track listing, and the song cycle is given the opus number 79a, which applies to the orchestrated version, not this original configuration with piano accompaniment. Revelation did not provide the libretto in their release of From Jewish Folk Poetry, and it is a pity that Eclectra followed their example instead of that of Russian Disc, who included transliterated Russian texts and English translations of the songs.
W. Mark Roberts
Chamber Symphony, arrangement of String Quartet No. 8 in C minor by Rudolf Barshai, opus 110a[a]; Antiformalist Rayok, sans opus X[b], in chamber arrangement by Vladimir Spivakov and Vladimir Milman; Prelude and Scherzo, opus 11[c]; Schnittke: Praeludium in Memoriam Dmitri (Prelude in memory of Dmitry) Shostakovich[d].
Vladimir Spivakov (conductor)[a-c]/(violin)[d], Moscow Virtuosi[a-c], Alexei Mochalov (bass)[b], The Moscow Choir Theatre[b] (listed as Choir of the Academy of Choral Art, Victor Popov (chorus master)).
Capriccio 67 115. DDD. TT 57:43.
Recorded in the Great Hall, Moscow Conservatory, 15-17 May 2003[a,c,d]; venue and date unknown[b].
“From February 1st, this open restaurant will be closed. A closed restaurant will open here.” This witty lampoon, recounted by Maxim Shostakovich in Mikhail Ardov’s Dalekoe blizkoe, Kniga o Sostakovice (A Book About Shostakovich), typifies Shostakovich’s unique sense of humour. Dry and terse, with a delight for word-play and a distinctly political edge, it is a constant undercurrent in the composer’s works, but nowhere more abundant than in his infamous satire Antiformalist Rayok.
Rayok has long been a thorn in the side for Western experts who prefer to view the composer as a mild-mannered, soft-spoken, servile Communist loyalist. While the Testimony wars have brought this once-samizdat work into the limelight, Rayok‘s reputation has suffered as a result, it being regarded as more of a musical-political curiosity than a work with real merit (the present recording’s notes are a good case in point – more of this later).
As musicological battles run out of steam, it is perhaps time to appreciate Rayok on its own terms. I can think of no other composition by Shostakovich that is so spontaneously funny; from the oafish opening bars to the many musical jokes and the final can-can, it is the sort of work that only Shostakovich could have pulled off with such polish and high standards.
Written originally for bass soloist and piano, the work eventually grew in scope to include four basses and a mixed chorus, though for practical reasons a single bass soloist may sing the parts of the Chairman, Yedinitsin (Stalin), Dvoikin (Zhdanov) and Troikin (Shepilov).
The mixed chorus take the role of the musical functionaries witnessing the proceedings – they supply the mechanical laughter and applause, and provide some truly hilarious send-ups of Boris Godunov‘s coronation scene (“Slava! Slava!”) and Shostakovich’s own Lady Macbeth‘s wedding scene (“Thank you, Comrade Yedinitsin, thank you for your fatherly concern!”). Shostakovich hides himself amongst the functionaries in the form of his “DSCH” signature, laughing bitterly at the circus show around him.
Of the two orchestrations, Tishchenko’s better depicts Shostakovich’s darker colours. He preserves the very low Cs that make the opening of the work so funny, reinforcing with the contrabassoon the grotesque effect of this recurring leitmotif of stupidity. The following bars plunge us into the sinister world of Babi Yar by scoring the sinewy bass obligato in legato. Spivakov’s orchestration is lighter, more comical and his liberal use of percussion gives his version an air of theatrical slapstick. To put it simply, Tishchenko’s version is more authentic, but Spivakov’s is plenty of fun as well!
The new Capriccio release reissues this very same Spivakov recording, but curiously dates the recording as 2003 and credits a different chorus from the earlier issue. When contacted, Capriccio expressed surprise at my discovery, but were unable to provide an explanation since their director was not contactable as this issue of DSCH Journal went to print.
Intrigue aside, the disc is handsomely packaged and although the Chamber Symphony, opus 110a, is the main work in the programme, Rayok deserves to be the highlight. Spivakov gets into the spirit of a good spoof, taking some liberties such as throwing the melody of Tchaikovsky’s Waltz of the Flowers into Dvoikin’s rant “Let us welcome what is pretty, beautiful and graceful” (although the blame might go to Shostakovich for instigating matters with his insistent repetition of Tchaikovsky’s introductory vamp).
The woodwinds join in the fun with their own embellishments in Troikin’s “Glinka, Tchaikovsky” and the violins chime in with a reprise of Waltz of the Flowers, additions not found on the Russian Disc and piano versions, but which nevertheless are entirely in spirit with the proceedings.
As the soloist on both Levin and Spivakov’s recordings, Alexei Mochalov demonstrates sheer delight in the part, refining the little subtleties in comic timing and various vocal mannerisms, and digging deeper into the mimicry to serve up a hilarious account for Spivakov’s session. His mispronunciations of the composers’ names, the vocal warm-ups by Zhdanov (Dvoikin) and the mock-seriousness of the Chairman and Yedinitsin’s addresses are delightful from start to finish.
Spivakov’s chorus is not as spectacularly over-the-top as Levin’s, and being somewhat leaner and more forward in sound, they miss out on the wonderfully ironic grand tutti achieved by Levin’s forces. The latter is aided by Tishchenko’s uproarious vocal climaxes beefed up with timpani and trumpets to create that grand Coronation Scenetutti for maximum impact.
Levin also scores in the Finale (“Look out, look out, and eliminate our enemies”) with his Tchaikovskian fake ending a la Pathétique Symphony, the chorus’ stunning climax (“Yes, yes, in jail, and send him to a camp”) bringing home the bitter irony of mass celebration while “enemies of the people” are denounced by their peers and condemned to their deaths.
Even if Spivakov’s version is not as sumptuous as Levin’s, and at his more leisurely pace takes two minutes longer, it is all held together by Mochalov’s inspiring presence; and if the Finale’s tune sounds even sillier than the LeningradSymphony’s march, then full credit goes to the imaginative drummer for making a success of this closing can-can.
The CD notes are interesting if a little careless: the writer credits the libretto’s authorship to Lebedinsky (a claim challenged by Yakubov) but in the following sentence says that the composer performed the first version to friends in 1948 (which contradicts Lebedinsky’s claim). The writer’s remark, “There is nothing musically sophisticated in the work; it was private entertainment” is also callous, unenlightened, and surely unwarranted. The good news is that Capriccio include the libretto, which will allow you to appreciate fully the multi-layered irony of the work.
Spivakov delivers a sober performance of the Chamber Symphony, which succeeds particularly in the quieter outer movements. With a good feel for the overall structure of the work, the Moscow Virtuosi present a taut reading steeped in nervous fear, their poised reserve refreshingly free from overt dramatic gestures and symphonic breadth, conveying instead an intimacy that is rarely heard.
The Fifth Symphony quotation in the first movement is a fine example – bleached and terrified, it hardly breaks above a starved whisper. The solos are particularly moving – they practically shiver in their hushed tones as if breathless from the cold and wary of interrupting the oppressive silence. This makes the fifth movement fugue, and the choked sobs of the “Seryozha, my love” section in the fourth movement, especially heartbreaking.
The Moscow Virtuosi’s lean edge also brings a nervous Fourth-Symphony tension to the Octet, opus 11, where the almost baroque execution of the Prelude contrasts well with the claustrophobic Scherzo. The latter, reeling with terrifying sequences that gather like a whirlwind into a furious shower of rising glissandi, is truly stunning in their hands.
Schnittke’s Prelude in Memory of Dmitri Shostakovich completes the programme. Sounding uncannily as if time is slowing to a standstill, the violin plays around with distorted “DSCH” and “BACH” motifs suspended in the stilted tick-tock of the taped pizzicato, vividly capturing the spirit of the dedicatee in a musical equivalent of a pen-sketched caricature. This finally crystallises in the closing bars with “DSCH” whispered repeatedly sul-ponticello, returning the programme full circle to where it began. A brilliant stroke worthy of Shostakovich himself, this compact memorial provides a wonderful conclusion to an indispensable issue.
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Piano Sonata No. 2 in B minor, opus 61[a]; Prokofiev: Piano Sonata No. 2 in D minor, opus 14[b]; Medtner: Sonata Reminiscenza in A minor, opus 38, No. 1[c].
Tatjana Rankovich (piano).
Phoenix USA PHCD158. DDD. TT 62:36.
Recorded in the Patrych Sound Studios, the Bronx, New York, 9 and 18 December 2003[a], 3 and 18 November 2002[b], 15 and 29 September 2002[c].
Tatjana Rankovich, born in Belgrade in the former Yugoslavia and currently on the faculty of the Mannes College of Music in New York, has made a speciality of American music, particularly the works of the neo-Romantic Nicholas Flagello. This interesting collection represents her first recorded essay in Russian music, and it comes with the added bonus of enlightening programme notes from DSCH Journal contributor Louis Blois.
As reported by Sofia Moshevich in Dmitri Shostakovich: Pianist, Shostakovich considered his Second Piano Sonata to be his finest work for the instrument. Written while the composer was in evacuation in Kuibyshev in 1943, it can perhaps be heard as the first of the composer’s ‘symphonic’ chamber works. It would be followed over the next three years by the Piano Trio No. 2 and the Second and Third String Quartets, all similarly ambitious in terms of length, range of expression and seriousness of purpose, and together irreversibly expanding the scope of Russian chamber music. In contrast to many of his works from the 1940s, however, the Second Piano Sonata does not seem to comment directly on the War. It lacks the violence present in so many of the wartime compositions, and seems less obviously to invite narrative interpretation. Rather, it is warmly reflective and intimate, less sharp-tongued than much of the composer’s work. One clue to its character may lie in its dedication; it was written as a memorial to the composer’s much-loved former piano teacher, Leonid Nikolayev, who had recently died of typhus.
All three artists offer fine first movements, opening with impetuous cascades of semiquavers and building convincingly to dramatic peaks at the end of the first-subject section. Although Rankovich’s transition to the march-like opening of the second subject is somewhat awkward, she soon finds a delicious percussive acerbity (sounding very much like the composer’s own style), which she then gentles momentarily before moving into the closing and developmental material. As the movement progresses, her shadings, like Boris Berman’s, are richly varied and convincing, and she maintains her listeners’ interest through the development and lengthy coda where Clarke’s less nuanced playing at times seems to stagnate.
The Sonata’s slow movement is wonderfully unsettled. In its fragmented first section, there is only the fleeting wisp of a melody, which disappears almost before it has established itself. The challenge for the performer is to hold the listener’s attention through the music’s harmonic digressions, despite the lack of a sustained melody in the movement’s outer sections and any significant dynamic contrast or culmination in the movement as a whole. Boris Berman’s Largo sets a high standard, creating an extraordinary stillness that casts a spell over the rest of the sonata, drawing his listeners into a most intimate and tender exploration. He remains in its thrall throughout the finale’s theme and variations. Here his shadings periodically seem to refer back to the second movement’s exploratory questioning, giving the entire sonata an architectural and emotional coherence that is lacking in the other performances. Thus, for example, Berman’s statement of the finale’s long-limbed theme seems gentler, more questioning and less declamatory than that of the other performers, dwelling on the implications of each chromatic inflection. Transitions are never abrupt or harsh, even when the music becomes more percussive and rhythmic, and these sections seem only mildly mischievous under Berman’s hands. The final French-overture-style variation seems magisterial, and just when one expects it to build the sonata’s grand culmination, the music softens to a magical major-mode radiance that Berman holds, examines and cherishes fleetingly before its disappearance in the minor-mode coda.
Neither Rankovich nor Clarke is able to find comparable riches in the Sonata. Clarke, in particular, seems particularly weak in the slow movement, which he plays quite loudly and rapidly. In comparison, Rankovich’s hushed tone reflects the composer’s dynamic markings, but her rendering is also quite fast, moving quickly through moments where the music needs to breathe a little.
In the beginning of the finale, she emerges gradually, respecting the mood she has created in the Largo, but by the third variation her colouration has shifted to the jazzy percussive sound that is one of the most attractive features of her playing. She fills the ensuing variations with contrast, creating a persuasive montage. Although perhaps not as exquisitely prepared as Berman’s, her B-major arrival point is nonetheless grand. Overall, this is a fine and interesting interpretation, full of sensitive shading and imagination, although not able to achieve Berman’s intelligence and spellbinding power.
Rankovich’s CD will, however, be especially attractive to listeners who wish to sample the music of Prokofiev and Medtner, two other Russian master composers for piano. Although Prokofiev’s Second Sonata was written in 1912 while the composer was still at the Conservatory in St. Petersburg, it bristles with originality and imagination. While both Sviatoslav Richter (Praga PR 50015) and Boris Berman (Chandos CHAN 9119) are more compelling than Rankovich, particularly in the Sonata’s fine finale, Rankovich’s performance is nonetheless engaging. Her inclusion of Nicolas Medtner’s Sonata in A minor gives listeners a glimpse of the music of this early twentieth-century Russian composer-émigré, who sounds more restrainedly classical than modern, his harmonies fitting comfortably in the style of the early nineteenth century. The single-movement Reminiscenza is a subtle, appealing and finely crafted series of thematically connected episodes, autumnal in colouring as befits its subtitle. Its inclusion certainly adds to the appeal of this disc.
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Twenty-four Preludes and Fugues, opus 87.
Tatiana Nikolaeva (piano).
Nos. 1-24: Regis RRC 3005. DDD. 3-CD set TT 168:23.
Nos. 1-10: Moscow Studio Archives MOS19065. DDD. TT 59:56.
Nos. 11-16: Moscow Studio Archives MOS19066. DDD. TT 47:00.
Nos. 17-24: Moscow Studio Archives MOS19067. DDD. TT 61:35.
Recorded in Moscow, 1987.
There is no doubt that Tatiana Nikolaeva’s name will always be associated with the genesis and performance tradition of Dmitri Shostakovich’s Preludes and Fugues, opus 87. As a witness to their compositional process, she was often the first to hear them played by the composer and she had a unique opportunity to collaborate with Shostakovich during the preparation of her public premiere of the entire cycle in 1952, as well as on many other occasions. In addition, her editorial commentary to Volume 40 of Shostakovich’s Collected Works, which was published in 1980, includes a number of interesting comments by Shostakovich.
The Preludes and Fugues were a part of Nikolaeva’s life for more than forty years and she recorded them three times: in Moscow in 1962 and 1987, then in London in 1990, not long before her untimely death in 1992. Unfortunately, the London recording, made for Hyperion (CDA66441/3), is the least successful of the three. It is also unfortunate that her first Moscow recording, which is undoubtedly the best, has never been released in the West (Melodiya LP CM 02377-84; deleted). Luckily, the second Moscow recording from 1987 has been reissued on two labels: Regis, marketed worldwide, and Moscow Studio Archives, available only from vendors within North America.
According to Nikolaeva herself, she made the second recording of the Preludes and Fugues because by 1987 she considered her 1962 recording “outdated in some respects.” The 63-year-old veteran of the concert stage wished to capture on record her (then) current, and different, vision of the cycle. Her reconsideration of various interpretive details includes some noticeable tempo modifications. For example: the 1987 version of the C#-minor Prelude has a more moderate tempo (crotchet = 130) than the dazzling speed of her first recording (crotchet = 137). The opposite is true of the second subject of the E-minor Fugue, which she plays at a faster tempo (circa crotchet = 122) right from the beginning (bar 47); in the 1962 recording she establishes the new tempo gradually. Compared to the first recorded variant, the voicing in the fast part of the E-minor Fugue is much clearer. However, in the 1987 recording of the E-minor Prelude and the slow section of the Fugue the tone loses its warmth and the multi-coloured palette of sonorities disappears.
In the 1987 recording of the G-sharp-minor Prelude, the ritenutos are not as extreme and the tempo (crotchet = 77) is not as slow as that of 1962 version (crotchet = 74). We read in Nikolaeva’s commentary on this Prelude that in the autograph Shostakovich had originally marked this Prelude p and crotchet = 104, but after a concert performance, changed the markings to mf and increased the tempo to crotchet = 138. From this, we can guess that Shostakovich was not happy with Nikolaeva’s tempo, but evidently he failed to convince her: in the 1990 Hyperion version the tempo is even slower (crotchet = 74). Despite this, both of the Moscow recordings are exemplary as far as voicing is concerned and both have plenty of colour and fresh harmonic “discovery.” I like these versions no less than Ashkenazy’s (Decca 466 066-2; reviewed in DSCH 11) or Scherbakov’s (Naxos 8.554745-46; reviewed in DSCH 15) renditions of the same Prelude.
Nikolaeva’s 1987 recording of the D-minor Prelude is very romantic, though at times her rubati and forced tone seem exaggerated. Yet, as a prologue to the final monumental Fugue, it convinces me as much as Ashkenazy’s more understated version. In the slow part of the D-minor Fugue, Nikolaeva’s exceedingly slow tempo (crotchet = 73) is close to that of Shostakovich’s own recording (crotchet = 72; EMI 7243 5 62646 2 5 or Angel 7243 5 62648 2 3; reviewed in DSCH 20). However, while the composer is able to balance one extreme with the other by intensifying the dynamics and speeding up relentlessly throughout the next sections of the Fugue, Nikolaeva is not. Her frequent piano subito, over-careful accelerandos, and often dry pedalling (bars 262-267) interrupt the continuity and diminish the force of ever growing musical ‘lava’. Ashkenazy’s version is much stronger in building up and balancing the symphonic proportions of this Fugue. Still, Nikolaeva’s 1987 recording is more successful than her Hyperion take of the same piece.
Generally speaking, in technically demanding sections, particularly in octave passages (for example in the G-major and Db-major Preludes or the D-minor and G-sharp minor Fugues) Nikolaeva appears much weaker than Ashkenazy. However, when chordal or octave technique is not involved, her fingerwork is accurate and brilliant: listen for instance to the A-minor Prelude and Fugue, the E-major Fugue, or the Bb-major Prelude.
Ironically, Nikolaeva’s physical “shortcoming” – smaller hands – leads her to more interesting solutions in text distribution and voicing and actually makes her playing bolder and clearer than that of many pianists blessed with larger hands; take, for example, the C-sharp-minor Fugue or bars 79-87 of the C-major Fugue. Her way of handling the often-uncomfortable textures of the Preludes and Fugues can help hundreds of pianists to deal with similar problems. Thus, Nikolaeva continues to be not only a respected master-pianist but also an amazing teacher.
As long as Nikolaeva’s 1962 recording remains unavailable, the 1987 set is your best chance to become acquainted with her idiosyncratic style and to hear what kind of musician she was. While there is no difference in the sound quality between the two labels here, I definitely prefer the three different essays that accompany the Moscow Studio Archives CDs, which provide more information on both Shostakovich and Nikolaeva than the superficial notes in the Regis set. Moscow Studio Archives’ essays are well researched and beautifully written by Lawrence Cosentino, who lovingly calls Nikolaeva a “kindly keyboard knight”. I could not agree more.
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Symphony No. 4, arranged by the composer for two pianos, opus 43a.
Rustem Hayroudinoff, Colin Stone (pianos).
Chandos CHAN 10296. DDD. TT 59:00
Recorded in Henry Wood Hall, Glasgow, 12-14 May 2004.
World premiere recording of two-piano version.
Until its dramatic revival in Moscow in December 1961, Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony was known only to a select group of Soviet musicians. Of that select group, no more than a handful had heard the full orchestral version twenty-five years earlier. A few of the composer’s friends had attended the ill-fated rehearsals in the autumn of 1936, but it can probably be assumed from the negative reports of those rehearsals that no-one, not even Shostakovich, had ever heard a satisfactory complete performance. Despite the symphony’s wide circulation in piano reduction prior to its planned premiere, once it had been withdrawn it seemed almost at once to fade into oblivion. Shostakovich immediately began work on the Fifth Symphony, and the Fourth was, to all intents and purposes, forgotten.
Notwithstanding the dramatic success of the Fifth Symphony, Shostakovich did not forsake its rejected predecessor. In a letter to Boleslav Yavorsky dated June 1938, Shostakovich insisted that it was impossible to understand his creative work as a whole without knowing the Fourth Symphony, all but demanding that his friend should sit through a personal performance during his next visit. When Shostakovich’s post-war fame was at its height in 1945, he and Mieczyslaw Weinberg (Moisei Vainberg) performed the Fourth Symphony at a closed meeting of the Composers’ Union, and the duet score was published the following year in a limited print-run of 300 copies. Though the idea of resurrecting it as the Ninth Symphony was briefly mooted, all hopes of having it performed were quickly dashed by the events of 1948. During the many attacks on Shostakovich and his colleagues at this time, Khrennikov singled out the modest circulation of this ‘formalistic’ work as evidence of negligence within the ranks of the Union.
Thereafter, Shostakovich seemed to give up on his lost symphony. In a bland, diffident autobiographical article forSovetskaya muzika in 1956, he dismissed it altogether: ‘formally imperfect and overly drawn out and suffers, I would say, from “mania grandiosa”.’ Had Shostakovich really changed his mind about the Fourth Symphony? It seems not. Only two years later, writing to Isaak Glikman from hospital, he confessed: ‘I should so like to hear both of these works [Lady Macbeth and the Fourth Symphony] performed. I cannot say that I would expect much joy from the opera…. But the Fourth could perhaps be done.’ Only three years later he was granted the long-overdue satisfaction of hearing both works revived. While Lady Macbeth was subjected to scrupulous revision, the Fourth Symphony remained exactly as it was. Shostakovich found he did not want to change a single note of the score.
As the Fourth Symphony became a well-established feature of orchestral programmes, Shostakovich’s old duet version promptly fell into obscurity. It was only ever intended for the practical purpose of disseminating a work that was costly and difficult to perform in an age where large-scale orchestral works were routinely learned through the medium of piano reduction. Long after his younger colleagues had abandoned the practice of teaching repertoire this way in favour of using the gramophone, Shostakovich continued to insist that his students make piano reductions of scores and perform them in class. He clearly believed that such a ‘hands-on’ approach had a unique value that could not be replicated by listening to records. And it is true that playing orchestral music on the piano can be revelatory, especially in the case of mainstream ‘tonal’ 20th-century composers like Shostakovich. What sounds deceptively ‘normal’ played by an orchestra sounds very different on the piano. Stripped of the familiar cloak of instrumental sounds, the off-colour sharpness typical of his skewed diatonicism is often disconcertingly accentuated. In fact, this is so true of the Fourth Symphony’s piano duet reduction that it is possible to understand the negative reactions of Shostakovich’s contemporaries who had never heard the work in its full orchestral version. The menacing tread of the first movement becomes dryly percussive, while the haunting Mahlerian landler character of the second movement is lost altogether. It isn’t hard to imagine a Composers’ Union audience totally at sea in the finale, which can be baffling enough at first hearing even in a fine orchestral performance.
The piano duet arrangement on this CD is Shostakovich’s own of c.1936 (published 1946), re-published in 2000 as Volume 19 of the New Shostakovich Edition (DSCH, Moscow). Colin Stone and Rustem Hayroudinoff are worthy champions, with a phenomenal technique powerfully matched by musical insight. Still, Eric Roseberry’s suggestion (in his fine liner notes) that the arrangement is successful enough to make a ‘notable addition to the two piano concert hall repertoire’ may be overly optimistic. The duet version remains what it has always been: an arrangement for practical purposes. In the concert hall, it is a fascinating curiosity, not a viable addition to duet repertoire any more than duet versions of Mahler or Beethoven symphonies would be.
One could, however, add to that its value as a virtuosic exercise in sensitive duet playing; its demands on the performers are immense. One of the most impressive aspects of Stone’s and Hayroudinoff’s playing is that, while effortlessly coping with the technical difficulties of the score, they never allow themselves to be intimidated by their obvious knowledge of the orchestral score. They reproduce certain effects perfectly (such as the delicate harp interjections in the first movement’s second subject) and lovingly echo the timbral qualities of instrumental solos wherever possible. All melodic lines are exquisitely shaped with fantastic attention to detail; not an accent is misplaced or ignored, nor a single phrase spoiled by lumpy piano voicing. But equally, it is no surprise to find that the symphony’s massive climaxes sound pretty bare – two pianos cannot come close to capturing the excitement or the sheer force of such deliberately overwhelming music, and Stone and Hayroudinoff deserve full credit for not trying to. Still, the central climax of the first movement development is masterfully done, as is the resounding ‘Gloria’ first coda of the finale.
In short, given the pared-down nature of any duet version of a symphony, Stone and Hayroudinoff’s performance is as close to perfection as it is possible to get. Passages that most conductors have difficulty bringing off, such as the long breakdown of the first movement climax and the merciless Allegro section of the finale – effectively an extended crescendo to the D major peroration over 200 bars later – are managed with astounding success. Though many orchestras sag in these places, Stone and Hayroudinoff sustain a ferocious, unflagging momentum that is deeply impressive.
It’s inevitable that the pounding, often deliberately crude character of the first movement is better suited to the piano duet sound than is the elusive, ghostly second movement. However, the success of the finale is a more complex issue. Parts of it, such as the whirlwind Allegro and the first coda, are truly gripping in this performance. But there are depths in this movement that no piano duet could ever reach. The ending teeters on the brink of blandness in this performance, though a slower tempo might enable some of its haunting, desolate quality to be salvaged. And, rather perversely, the central divertimento episode doesn’t quite work either, though again, it’s possible to see how it could. The loss of that nostalgic Viennese string sound could only be compensated for by truly idiomatic piano playing. Stone and Hayroudinoff don’t quite capture its magic, and their rubato feels rather forced. But it seems unfair to pick on these perhaps inevitable failings when there is so much to admire overall. The very fact that this duet version succeeds where some orchestras have failed is a resounding testament to the musicality and intelligence of the Stone/Hayroudinoff partnership.
Whether Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony continues to be performed in this piano reduction beyond the initial flurry of excitement surrounding its revival remains to be seen. Certainly, were it to secure a lasting place in the duet repertoire (which seems highly unlikely), it would become a rather bizarre anachronism. But as the premiere recording of an arrangement that was, after all, the sole means by which the Fourth Symphony was known to most Soviet musicians for over two decades, this CD offers a fascinating step back in time.
Only two instrumental reductions of Shostakovich symphonies have previously come our way on disc, arousing enduring curiosity. The Derevianko arrangement of the Fifteenth Symphony for piano trio and percussion seems more popular now than when originally released a decade ago (Deutsche Grammophon 449 966-2; deleted; reviewed in DSCH 7), with the arrival earlier this year of both its Carnegie Hall debut concert and its reissue by Deutsche Grammophon (4775442; reviewed below). The four-hands piano reduction of the Tenth Symphony in the performance by the composer and Mieczyslaw Weinberg has become a classic, reissued many times (reviewed in DSCH 9 on Revelation RV 70002; deleted; currently available on Yedang Classics YCC-0164). The latter work was also taken up by Gräsbeck and Zelyakov in 1992 with a superb stereo recording (Bluebell ABCD 049; deleted).
A similar labour of love has now been provided by pianists Rustem Hayroudinoff and Colin Stone to what may seem the most unlikely Shostakovich symphony to fall to two keyboards. This unruly canvas of passions in wild flight is the embodiment of genius on the edge. No other Shostakovich symphony compares with the extremes of its emotionally charged episodes or its sheer abundance of musical ideas. Yet the animated lyricism and rich counterpoint that pervade the Fourth Symphony make it an especially attractive candidate for piano transcription. The same cannot be said for all Shostakovich symphonies; for instance, would the broader lines and thinner textures of the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies’ slow movements translate as successfully? Never mind that the Fourth’s emotional palette exceeds anything that a piano duo would ever encounter in the standard repertoire; or that this hour-long behemoth pushes classical form – and the performers’ endurance – to their absolute limits. In the hands of Hayroudinoff and Stone, the symphony acquires an unexpected gracefulness, even in its most barbaric moments.
Hayroudinoff and Stone are meticulous in following the tempo and dynamic markings of the score, every sforzando,tremolo and trill falling immaculately into place. Thematic layers and cross-rhythms are rendered with admirable precision. This is a performance aimed at accuracy and authenticity, casting into relief virtually every detail of the work’s rhythmic and harmonic complexities.
The ability of these pianists to capture the sonority and the spirit of the Fourth Symphony is remarkable. The opening flourishes, with their lashing double grace notes, pierce the air as sharply as we might ever have heard them. The gargantuan march theme that follows imposes its authority thanks to the duo’s uncompromisingly sharp accents. Throughout the first movement, where volatile eruptions alternate with moments of recoil and reflection, Hayroudinoff and Stone manoeuvre with passion and purpose. Listen to the throbbing pressure they build as the irregular filigrees beginning at Fig. 24 (5:20) culminate in a series of pounding quasi-timpani two-strokes; or to the hair-raising anxiety they bring to the climbing chromatic scale at Fig. 47 (11:44) and again at Fig. 92 (19:47). The power and coordination of their playing come to the fore when divergent rhythms pile on, such as in the section that leads to the strutting goose-steps of major second dissonances at Fig. 21 + 6 (4:47), and at the polyrhythmic high point of the central climax.
I was also impressed with the firm grip this duo has on the work’s rhythmic architecture. Pianists less attuned to the idiom might have been tempted to ‘stylise’ their performance with a more casual approach to rhythm. Not here. In the first movement, where major sections are propelled by ostinati – echoes, as it were, of the stompingmarcatissimo of the opening theme – the pianists establish connection by adhering to a steady, determined pulse as well as gaining expressive strength. There is similar solidity to their handling of the second movement’s obsessive rhythmic characteristics.
I cannot imagine a moment more miraculous in any Shostakovich transcription than the piano version of this first movement’s mighty fugue. Was there ever a more fleeting or mercurial fugue subject? Or one whose tachyonic existence so resists capture or comprehension (aside from the fact that we know it to be a freakishly diminished version of the opening march)? While some of the elastic snap that only strings can deliver is lost on the keyboard, the meticulous articulation and coordination that the pianists bring to bear on its layers of streaming 16th notes inpresto tempo is truly astounding. Listeners will note that the repeated notes of the fugue subject are transcribed as alternating neighbouring tones. Its furies still run just as wild. We hear the fugue’s four voices successively pile on with remarkable resolution. And still, the fully unfolded texture swarms with unfathomable complexity.
Hayroudinoff and Stone are just as effective in penetrating the first movement’s quieter yet equally disturbing psychological terrain. Listen to the stinging intensity they bring to the triple-forte outburst at Fig. 30 (7:01) and how quickly they become immersed in the dreamily tormented lyricism that follows. The broad, eloquent line introduced at Fig. 32 (7:54), originally for strings and taken by the first pianist, soars with passion and is brought to an intoxicating crest. The moments when harp and celesta drift phantom-like in and out of the spotlight lose none of their chilling effect.
The pianists display the same sensitivity to mood and motion in the second movement with its Bruckner-like obsession with short, repetitive figures. The movement may serve as a point of rhythmic equilibrium between the more turbulent outer movements, yet its pensive surface seethes with anxiety. This sense of urgency is well captured thanks to the duo’s detailed attention to the subtle yet constant undulation of dynamic levels. The movement’s dramatic punctuations stand out well. Listen to the vivid handling of the maniacal reiteration of the four-note phrase at Fig. 138 +1 (5:59), which escalates in volume and then suddenly drops to an anticlimactic whisper. The climactic utterance of the main theme here has a grandeur all its own, save the fact that a single piano note doesn’t quite capture the majesty of the four horns that play it in the original.
The third movement’s episodes are broader and less anxiety-reactive than those in the first, yet they cannot be any less challenging. Here the sections take us from funeral march to triumphant pageant to ecstatic march to deranged waltz to final peroration. They constitute one of the most labyrinthine journeys in all of Shostakovich. The duo pianists perform a remarkable feat in knitting together these confounding contrasts into a continuous, organic narrative. I was particularly impressed with the manner in which they handle the brief but pivotal junctures that separate different thematic areas. We find one just before the section that begins with the bassoon’s gleeful march tune (Fig. 201 + 5; 12:14); and another at the brink of the final climactic section (around Fig. 238; 18:50). These moments not only act as curtain raisers, signalling a turn in direction, but clarify the movement’s formal layout. I have heard orchestral performances of this movement that lose lustre for not having placed sufficient emphasis on these transitions and the new expressive spaces they open up. Here both aspects are handled with brilliant forethought and execution.
The extended allegro passage in the third movement beginning at Fig. 167 (5:51) after the funeral march bears special mention. This section consists of a prolonged succession of trailing and interlocking two-note figures that clamour their way toward a triumphant peak. The mechanical obsessiveness of this passage can wear thin in certain orchestral recordings. Here it takes on an invigorating life of its own. The piano textures not only bring fresh detail; they carry the uncanny sense that the passage belongs on the keyboard.
While the timing of each movement falls on the tidy end of recorded orchestral performances, coming closest to Previn’s in the first two movements (EMI 7243 5 72658 2 9), the last movement clocks in at 24:16, even tighter than those of Järvi (24:44; Chandos CHAN 8640) and Kondrashin (25:53; Aulos AMC2-043-1-10). The shortfall is concentrated at the outer ends of the movement, the opening funeral march and the closing pedal, where the leaner textures evidently invite the pianists’ faster than usual tempi. Both turn out effectively, however, especially the coda, whose registral extremes – low pedal set against trumpet and celesta entries – are fully preserved and exploited. Here the duo admirably conveys the poignancy and unearthly beauty of the work’s final pages.
There are invariably moments that call out for the original instrumentation. I miss those seven bars of brassy frulato that appear just before the first movement fugue (Fig. 61+1; 14:30), though it was Shostakovich who decided not to represent them in his transcription. One also discovers how much the timbre of the solo trombone lends in mediating the disintegration of line and mental state in the shifting winds of the last movement. The series of eight growling, ever more dissonant sonorities in the latter half of the first movement (starting at Fig. 90, 19:02) could have been dealt out with a bit more animal energy. And I’d again like to complain directly to Shostakovich for providing no representation for the cymbal crash two bars before Fig. 93 of the first movement (20:03); or for the percussive ticking in the final 22 bars of the second movement, though here the duo’s tactile sensibilities are wonderfully suggestive. And the final, tumultuous climax, powerful as it is here, nonetheless misses the percussion battery heard in the original score.
These minor reservations aside, this is a release destined to achieve a very special place in recording history. Rarely does a performance come along that is so readily recognisable as a masterpiece or that so quickly finds a place of distinction in one’s collection. It is certainly not for all tastes, and indeed, neither is the Fourth Symphony. But for anyone who has been intrigued by this work and wants to hear a brilliantly inspired performance in a thrilling transcription, this is your chance.
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Mischa Maisky and Martha Argerich in Concert
Sonata for Cello and Piano in D minor, opus 40; Stravinsky: Suite italienne from Pulcinella, arranged for cello and piano by the composer and Gregor Piatigorsky; Prokofiev: Sonata for cello and piano in C major, opus 119; Waltz from The Stone Flower, opus 118, arranged for cello and piano by Gregor Piatigorsky and Sviatoslav Knushevitsky (printed Kiushevitsky).
Mischa Maisky (cello), Martha Argerich (piano).
Deutsche Grammophon 00289 477 5323. DDD. TT 72:22.
Recorded live in Studio 4, Flagey Hall, Brussels, 6 April 2003.
Being an admirer of the artistry of both Maisky and Argerich but having been unable to recommend in DSCH No. 13 their wayward recital of Shostakovich’s Second Piano Trio with Gidon Kremer (Deutsche Grammophon 289 459 326-2), I am relieved to offer a far more positive assessment of their latest release, recorded at a charity concert.
The first movement of the Shostakovich sonata overflows with rubato, and though its opening is not as serene as the fine version from Petr Prause and Yakov Kasman (Calliope CAL 9326; reviewed in DSCH 21) it maintains a winning geniality. Argerich half-stumbles on one beat shortly before the first movement repeat, but that is as close as either musician comes to an error throughout the performance.
In keeping with the good-natured tone set thus far, the third movement is less troubled than in Rostropovich and the composer’s 1957 recording (EMI CZS 5 72295 2), and much less intense than the superb account from Pieter Wispelwey and Dejan Lazic (Channel Classics CCS SA 20003; reviewed in DSCH 21). It nevertheless convinces with its atmosphere of dense concentration, aided by Argerich’s touchingly tentative handling.
The mathematically minded may wish to know that Maisky and Argerich cross the finish line of the fourth movement in 3:53, around 10 seconds quicker than the average for other recordings, but not as breathless as such familiar teams as Lynn Harrell and Vladimir Ashkenazy (3:48; Decca 473 807-2; reviewed in DSCH 21) and Rostropovich with the composer (3:33).
But forget the statistics; what sets this performance apart from all others is that the fourth movement is blatantly inebriated, and not just tipsy but pickled to the gills! Its many abrupt ritardandi andaccelerandi do not represent arbitrary attempts to be different. Pauline Fairclough’s insightful booklet notes report that Maisky’s former teacher Rostropovich heard from Shostakovich himself that the middle section of the finale depicts a wild Russian party from which the guests stagger home. Only the dourest of listeners could suppress a chuckle at Fig. 57/1:47 when, in Maisky’s words, “the cello comes in with the [solo reprise of the movement’s first] theme and it’s like it’s four in the morning and he’s completely drunk!” Those with imagination can prolong this alcoholic scenario, as the cello creeps sheepishly upstairs while the piano broods darkly inside (Fig. 58/2:03). The drunkard is confronted as soon as he enters (Fig. 59/2:10), the piano laying into him with a torrent of semiquavers. After trying in vain to defend himself with feeble interjections, the flagellated cello surrenders with a flageolet whimper.
Notwithstanding the hint passed from the composer through Rostropovich to Maisky, it is unclear how authentic this interpretation of the finale really is. Certainly, neither Rostropovich nor the only other cellist with whom Shostakovich recorded this sonata, Daniil Shafran (Eclectra ECCD-2046; reviewed in DSCH 14), exhibited anything like Maisky’s intoxicated arrhythmia. Still, it is a delight to hear such an amusing and novel take on this familiar opus.
Two other Russian works precede the Shostakovich in this programme, opening with a suite from Pulcinella that Stravinsky arranged for another of Maisky’s illustrious teachers, Gregor Piatigorsky. The highly syncopated reading here impresses for the range of timbres that Argerich coaxes from her piano. The waterfall of notes in the Tarantellafourth movement is especially invigorating.
Prokofiev’s Cello Sonata is a frequent discmate for Shostakovich’s, appearing on the above-mentioned releases from Harrell-Ashkenazy and Wispelwey-Lazic, the latter being a stunningly intelligent and brilliantly executed rendition, the former rather disappointing. In Maisky and Argerich’s hands Prokofiev’s spiky offspring is more affectionate than usual. Rapt introspection pervades the first movement, expanded to 11:08 versus 10:30 with the hot-blooded Wispelwey and Lazic and a mere 9:32 with Harrell and Ashkenazy. Maisky and Argerich insert open spaces to create an airy second movement, and offer up an ebullient, lyrical third where the wit is conspiratorial and inclusive rather than sardonic and remote.
A short Waltz from Prokofiev’s last ballet, The Stone Flower, serves as an attractive encore. Enthusiastic applause follows each work, but Deutsche Grammophon have thoughtfully quarantined each ovation within its own CD track, so listeners may skip them if they feel that audience participation contaminates the musical experience. The acoustics are intimate and clear.
Although I would prescribe Wispelwey and Lazic’s darker performances for those who want only a single dose of the two sonatas, to all others I warmly recommend Maisky and Argerich’s uplifting concert for the brilliance, freshness and optimism of its music-making.
W. Mark Roberts
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Piano Trio No. 2 in E minor, opus 67; Rachmaninov: Piano Trio in D minor, Trio élégiaque, opus 9.
Dmitri Makhtin (violin), Boris Berezovsky (piano), Alexander Kniazev (cello).
Warner Classics 2564 61937-2. DDD. TT 79:28.
Recorded in the Singelkerk, Amsterdam, 12-14 October 2004.
The three musicians on this CD are nowhere on the cover or in the notes labelled as a practicing trio; indeed, they do not play as one – there are differences and difficulties of balance, tempo and phrasing throughout, spoiling the reading of both works. This is most evident in the Scherzo of the Shostakovich Trio, where the interpretation is never settled – the players sound undecided whether the music here is charm or sarcasm or something else.
Each musician seems strong enough individually, but even here there are problems. The Trio’s treacherous opening cello harmonics, posed high above the violin, are played with non-deliberate uncertainty and there are other intonation issues for each of the players, notably at the beginning of the Largo, with a clunker in the piano’s declamatory chords and several unsure notes from the violin.
After the opening, the Andante is treated as little of consequence. The Largo‘s passacaglia is played softly, without strength of meaning or an indication of the intense sorrow Shostakovich felt at the loss of his friend Sollertinsky. The Jewish themes are well emphasised in the finale, but even here the playing is much too tentative. The climactic build-up to the release in the piano’s flowing runs is underplayed and there is little continuity between the various sections of the Allegretto-Adagio.
Overall, this recording gives the impression that this was a run-through or rehearsal for a later performance. With so many finer versions of this popular work available, this is not one to turn to.
The quality of the playing in the Rachmaninov is similar to the Shostakovich. At least the very brief notes by Jeremy Siepmann are nicely done, and the recorded sound has appropriate ambiance.
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String Quartet No. 1 in C major, opus 49; String Quartet No. 4 in D major, opus 83; String Quartet No. 9 in Eb major, opus 117.
Jerusalem Quartet: Alexander Pavlovsky (violin I), Sergei Bresler (violin II), Amichai Grosz (viola), Kyril Zlotnikov (cello).
Harmonia mundi HMC 901865. DDD. TT 64:19.
Recorded in Teldex Studio, Berlin, July 2004.
This new release brings three energetic, uplifting and brilliantly played performances, to make a highly enjoyable and entertaining CD. It is of particular interest to me to review this programme of Quartets Nos. 1, 4 and 9, having stumbled some while ago upon the possibility that they formed part of an incomplete “musical signature”, based around “DSCH”. The keys of these quartets are C, D and Eb (S), and it also seems that there is a musical sequence from Quartet No. 8 onwards of ascending fourths in major and relative minor, leading one to believe that a 16th Quartet would have been in B major (H). This would mean that the four “square” quartets in the sequence of squares 1, 4, 9 and 16 would have spelled out an anagram of DSCH (CDSH). It’s therefore interesting to hear these three existing parts lined up, and to speculate (and all it can be is speculation of course), whether there are connections that join these proposed “signature” quartets together.
What can be said is that the First and Ninth Quartets have extremely exhilarating fast conclusions (the other quartet to do this is the Twelfth) in contrast to the frequent Shostakovich device of a morendo finish. One might also draw attention to the large-scale nature of the last movements of the Fourth and Ninth Quartets, although the finale of the Fourth dies away. Numbers 4 and 9 both make extensive use of the motive from Ustvolskaya’s Clarinet Trio. In the Fourth Quartet, this recurs as a hymn-like motive, first seen in the first movement. In the Ninth, the motive is hammered out right at the end, in this performance with a defiant and very satisfying heavy emphasis on the last note.
Additionally, auditioning these quartets in order of composition allows one to assess the evolution of the composer’s style, from the carefree simplicity of No. 1, via the more troubled nature of No. 4, to the complexity of No. 9.
Among the many touches that are pleasing to the ear in this CD, I particularly enjoyed the leisurely wind-down at the end of the first movement of Quartet No. 1, over the drone of the cello. For sheer exhilaration, it would be hard to imagine surpassing the Jerusalems’ rendition of the finale of the last movement of the First Quartet (other than their equally fine end of the Ninth). The booklet notes describe the last movement of the First as “unconstrained joy” – certainly an apt description here.
The performance of the Fourth Quartet is perhaps the weak link in this programme. The playing is brilliant, in particular within the last movement; the Jewish inflections in the Klezmer-like music are very prominent and demonstrate well this important aspect of the work. But the Fourth should appear as a more troubled work than the First, and this performance troubles me less than do others. The playing in the early part of the first movement is energetic, passionate and dramatic, building rapidly to a shrieking climax, but I sense more outrage and protest in the Fitzwilliam Quartet’s account (Decca 289455776-2). Compared with the Sorrels’ heart-rending account on Chandos (CHAN 9769; reviewed in DSCH 13), the moving second movement seems to be less emotional in this performance, almost giving a sense of being perfunctory.
The rendition of the Ninth Quartet, on the other hand, is much more satisfying, especially in the fast passages within the third and last movements. The latter is played with dazzling brilliance at breakneck speed (9:35); in comparison, the Fitzwilliams sound almost pedestrian in their tempo (10:55).A particularly satisfying and weird moment here (and the Ninth is full of weird moments), is the tremolo that accompanies the heavy pizzicato passages halfway through this movement. Here it is more prominent than in, say, the Fitzwilliam recording, with an eerily shimmering effect, almost as if it were alive.
To sum up, there is a great deal to enjoy in this recording, and the choice of quartets works well. However, I am not as moved or troubled as I expect to be by these works. Listening through the Fitzwilliams’ accounts of Nos. 1, 4 and 9 gives an altogether more ambiguous experience; even the apparently carefree nature of the First Quartet is veiled, offering a better impression of the nuances of light and shade, and a feeling of fragile nervousness.
On the other hand, one might say that to make Shostakovich too traumatic is to read too much into the music. The CD liner notes quote the composer on the First Quartet: “There is no special profundity to be looked for in the first quartet. It is gay, lively, lyrical. A good word for it would be spring-like.” The notes also refer to the Haydnesque nature of the Fourth Quartet, and describe the last movement of the Ninth as “cheerfully robust”. The Jerusalems have captured this beautifully, and have produced a delightful CD. If you prefer to be torn to emotional shreds by Shostakovich, then maybe this delightful CD is not for you, though perhaps you owe it to yourself to have a refreshing change.
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Chamber Symphony, arrangement of String Quartet No. 4 in D major by Rudolf Barshai, opus 83a; Symphony for Strings and Woodwind, arrangement of String Quartet No. 3 in F major by Rudolf Barshai, opus 73a.
Jean-Jacques Kantorow, Tapiola Sinfonietta.
BIS-CD-1180. DDD. TT 56:57
Recorded in the Tapiola Concert Hall, Finland, 2-5 May 2001.
Chamber Symphony, arrangement of String Quartet No. 8 in C minor by Rudolf Barshai, opus 110a[a]; Symphony for Strings, arrangement of String Quartet No. 10 in Ab major by Rudolf Barshai, opus 118a[b]; Chamber Symphony, arrangement of String Quartet No. 4 in D major by Rudolf Barshai, opus 83a[c]; Symphony for Strings and Woodwind, arrangement of String Quartet No. 3 in F major by Rudolf Barshai, opus 73a[d]; Symphony No. 15 in A major, arranged by Viktor Derevianko and Mark Pekarsky for violin, cello, piano, celesta and percussion, opus 141a[e]; Schnittke: Prelude (Praeludium) in Memoriam Dmitri Shostakovich, for violin and tape[f].
Rudolf Barshai, Chamber Orchestra of Europe[a-d]; Gidon Kremer (violin)[e,f], Kremerata Musica[e].
Deutsche Grammophon 00289 477 5442. DDD. 2-CD set TT 75:34+80:11.
Recorded in the Kammermusiksaal, Philharmonie, Berlin, March 1989[a,b,d], February 1991[c]; Kirche St. Konrad, Abersee bei St. Gilgen, Germany, August 1995[e,f].
With the recent deluge of opus 110a and 118a recordings it is easy to forget that Barshai also made chamber versions of the opus 73 and 83 quartets. In these, Barshai broadened his palette to include woodwinds and in opus 83a, brass and percussion, bringing a new dimension to Shostakovich’s “private” works.
Each might have his or her own opinions on how Barshai approaches the arrangements. For example, I would have thought that a bass clarinet would have been an obvious inclusion in the hurdy-gurdy opening of opus 73a and that the flute was a more idiomatic choice for the long cantilena of the opus 83a second movement. But that is precisely what makes such encounters so interesting – the way the orchestration plays on our expectations and challenges our musical thought; how it surprises, delights or shocks us.
The Third Quartet will pose no problems for purists – Barshai’s conservative approach employs the woodwinds quite sparingly to outline certain phrases and to create particular symphonic resonances. For example, the soundscape of the funereal passacaglia-like fourth movement of the quartet bears a kinship to the neighbouring Eighth Symphony, and the oboe solo in Barshai’s arrangement recalls the cor anglais solo in the symphony’s first movement recapitulation. The woodwind textures of the final movement also parallel that symphony’s finale.
Approaching the grating climax of the quartet’s fifth movement, the benefits of a full string section become obvious – nowhere in this cycle of transcriptions does the full ensemble sound so unnerving as in the explosion of plaintive cries of the high violin quavers against the reprise of the funeral march theme (at 5:18 in Barshai’s recording).
Barshai unleashes his vivid orchestral imagination on opus 83a, and while one may fault his orchestral excesses for being too gaudy, they are nevertheless stunning. His liberal use of percussion has obvious sources – the use of tuned toms in the march section of the third movement could find precedence in the Fourteenth Symphony (fifth movement – On Watch), which Barshai premiered, while the whip stick and gong splashes may come by way of the Thirteenth Symphony. The crisp xylophone lines and the low registers of the bass clarinet, bassoon and oboe also add a touch of Shostakovian authenticity.
Most startling of all must be the opening of the fourth movement, which calls to mind the Soldier’s arrogant trot in Stravinsky’s Le Histoire du Soldat with its combination of snare drum and trumpet: not quite Shostakovich’s colours since The Nose, but here Barshai’s adventurous orchestration brings a level of drama to this movement that one might not have imagined with the original quartet.
Barshai has an intimate relationship with the Shostakovich repertoire as both a performer of the quartets with the Borodin Quartet and as a conductor of some of his major works – remember that he added a little percussive spice to the concluding bars of the Fourteenth Symphony with the composer’s approval. In the case of opus 73a and 83a in particular, Barshai’s work serves to highlight the Jewish element so central to these quartets. These transcriptions can therefore be viewed as not only an expansion of the originals but also an insight into how a seasoned Shostakovich performer perceives the inner voices of his works.
It is interesting that Barshai in his 1989-91 recordings of these two works, reissued in Deutsche Grammophon’s 2CDseries, finds himself outdone by a new BIS release featuring French-born Russian conductor Jean-Jacques Kantorow and his Finnish ensemble, the Tapiola Sinfonietta. Kantorow extracts maximum excitement from Barshai’s scores with his sparkling, high-octane performances and in all the brisk movements beats Barshai hands down. Barshai conducts flawless accounts, but his tempos are a little sluggish by today’s standards – for example in each of the last two movements of opus 83a he takes a whole minute longer than Kantorow.
In both performances of opus 83a I would have preferred more gut in the opening violin melody, as demonstrated by Uri Meyer’s Israel Sinfonietta in their 1998 Arabesque recording (Z6711) and the Borodin Quartet in their early recording of the original score (Chandos CHAN 10064(4); reviewed in DSCH 19).
Barshai’s eloquence is nevertheless notable in the poignant slow movement, where the oboe’s phrasing conveys more subtlety and poetry than does Kantorow’s. Kantorow, however, finds the right blend of irony in the third movement with his flippant tempo and wry woodwinds. His menacing toms and abrasive bass clarinet impart a nasty bite to the march section, whereas Barshai’s band is uncharacteristically timid and the toms strangely recessed.
It is noteworthy that while Barshai’s bridge between the third and fourth movements employs the horn, both Kantorow and Meyer use a bassoon, creating a wonderful throwback to the Leningrad Symphony’s bassoon soliloquy.
The excitement Kantorow elicits from his band in the fourth movement is irresistible; with its Jewish dance element, this final movement becomes an orchestral tour de force and the highlight of the disc. Kantorow injects this delicious Finale with a swagger reminiscent of Fleischmann’s opera Rothschild’s Violin, bringing out the best in Barshai’s scoring. His snarling brass, the idiomatic violin phrasing and portamenti, the strident trumpet acciacaturas and the brittle xylophone in the tutti carry the work to a heart-stopping climax that finds Barshai unspectacular in comparison.
If you want the entire set of Barshai orchestrations (and then some) at one go, then DG’s mid-price reissue is hard to beat, packing three single full-priced issues into two discs. This set is insightful and thoughtfully conceived as a whole, if a little lacking in the life-and-death edge that we have come to expect from these works, for which I suspect the orchestra is to blame.
Barshai’s opus 110a and opus 118a performances are masterfully crafted, although for better or worse his Russian grittiness is tempered by the COE’s refinement. Considering his Borodin Quartet roots, his opus 110a Allegro molto is uncharacteristically slow (where’s the molto?), although not short on anger. His opus 118aAllegretto furioso is likewise not as furious as his competition – compare for example Juha Kangas’ take-no-prisoners approach (BIS CD-1256; reviewed in DSCH 17) or Lev Markiz’ spectacular clarity of attack (Challenge Classics CC72130; reviewed in DSCH 22). A leaner and angrier performance such as that achieved by Spivakov with his Moscow Virtuosi in opus 110a (Capriccio 67 115; reviewed above) would have been what I would expect from a veteran like Barshai.
The cycle is appropriately partnered with Gidon Kremer’s superlative performance of the Fifteenth Symphony (previously reviewed in DSCH 7), which in this reduction explores the chamber-like sonorities inherent in the original. There are moments that are strikingly reminiscent of Shostakovich’s Second Trio or Piano Quintet: for example, the opening section of the Finale with its piano against pizzicato strings, or the diabolical climax of the first movement. The bare-bones reduction also gives delicious prominence to the percussion, which get the spotlight in their infamous clockwork sections that underpin this symphony.
Kremer and his fellow soloists deserve credit for bringing a chamber suppleness to the score, and this is especially enjoyable in the central section of the third movement scherzo where cellist Clemens Hagen joins Kremer in some wicked portamento playing and comic rubato; pianist Vadim Sakharov completes this wonderfully responsive trio. Although the huge orchestral climaxes are no less impressive here, the soloists do not try to sound like an orchestra; indeed their chamber approach to the score illuminates how wonderfully flexible Shostakovich’s music is in its ability to communicate in any number of forms.
The programme is completed by Kremer’s passionate account of Schnittke’s memorial piece for violin and tape, which accompanied the original release of the Fifteenth Symphony. Kremer’s Schnittke breathes with life with his effortlessly fluent reading and an obvious delight in sonic textures: his final bars, for example, wheeze painfully like the composer’s last gasps of breath frosting in the icy air.
His flamboyance may not be to all tastes and has prompted criticism from at least one reviewer who called his performance “schmaltzy”. That critic may be more at home with Spivakov’s more severe version (Capriccio 67 115; reviewed above), with its awkward, deliberately stiff articulations and uncomfortable edginess that convey the musical equivalent of Shostakovich’s infamous mannerisms. Kremer on the other hand is more extrovert, and his enjoyment of the musical writing is obvious, translating into compelling listening.
The double disc set comes with the original CD notes, which include fascinating descriptions by Schnittke and Derevianko on their respective projects. DG would have done well to update the opus 110a notes provided by David Fanning in 1990, as his subtle anti-Testimony pleadings fashionable at the time are embarrassingly antiquated today.
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Four Generations of Russian Composers
Two Pieces for String Quartet, sans opus D, arranged for saxophone quartet by Johan van der Linden[a]; Glazunov: Saxophone Quartet, opus 109[b]; Denisov: Quintet for Piano and Saxophone Quartet (1991)[c]; Smirnov: Fantasia, opus 38[d].
Aurelia Saxophone Quartet: Johan van der Linden (soprano saxophone), André Arends (alto saxophone), Arno Bornkamp (tenor saxophone), Willem van Merwijk (baritone saxophone); Ivo Janssen (piano)[c].
Challenge Classics 72039. DDD. TT 60:34.
Recorded in Zwolle, The Netherlands, 10-12 March 1994[a,b,d]; Utrecht, 12-13 March 1994[c].
[a,d] Reissue (from Vanguard Classics 99154) of premiere recordings.
Glazunov’s exposure to the sounds and textures of the saxophone emanates from his time as resident of Paris, where he had moved in 1928, following his cultural mutation to France. He was astounded at the new registers of the instrument, at a time when Russian music was locked at something of a stylistic crossroads. This 1932 piece comprises eight movements (the earlier ones are very much the more attractive) and attempts to epitomise – not always successfully – the aesthetic development to which Glazunov felt able to contribute, via nods to Schumann and Chopin. The instrumentation is worked extremely well, the individual voices revealing their inter-complementary nature and, equally as important, their adherence to the music’s deep inner voice. As mentioned, I found the early sections to be of more interest than the final variations, which are festooned with obtuse stylistic references that sit uncomfortably with the 19th century echoes.
The Shostakovich is (at best) disappointing. The principal reason concerns the choice of material; here the Two Pieces for String Quartet (Elegy-Adagio from Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk and Polka from The Golden Age) are rendered passionless, the arrangement and the playing of the group contributing to a work that drifts in and out of banality.
The Denisov may or may not be your cup of tea; my notebook reveals ‘tedious’ and ‘atonal gesturing’. The work is well played; the musicians appear to believe in what they are doing, so I guess the Denisov lovers amongst you will arrive at your own learned conclusions.
Dmitri Smirnov brings some not-so-light-relief to the proceedings by evoking his own Fantasia world; this is tough music to get to know, let alone like, although Smirnov’s mastery of the ensemble writing is stunning.
A frustrating release overall – barely worth the full-price tag for the Glazunov, but a must-have if your tipple includes a splintered glass or three of Master Edison.
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Theme and Variations in Bb major, opus 3; Popov, Symphony No. 1, opus 7.
Leon Botstein, London Symphony Orchestra.
Telarc CD-80642 or SACD-60642. DDD. TT 65:24.
Recorded in Watford Town Hall, England, 5-8 April 2004.
According to David Fanning’s notes, Gavriil Popov began his studies at the Petrograd Conservatoire in October 1922, by which time Shostakovich may well have already completed his opus 3 Theme and Variations, composed in 1921-2 and dedicated to his recently deceased counterpoint teacher, Nikolai Sokolov. Despite the many parallels between the composers, it does seem a little unfair to pair such an early and overtly scholastic work of Shostakovich with Popov’s more mature first symphony, composed over an extended period: 1927-34. The two works inhabit starkly contrasting sound worlds: that of Popov one of modernistic dissonant expressionism, and that of Shostakovich one of predictable tonal harmonic and cadential formulae more typical of the mid to late nineteenth-century. This diatonic narodnost sound world was one to which Shostakovich returned periodically during his career (mostly through coercion), for example in the 1950 score to the film The Fall of Berlin, opus 82.
Theme and Variations was never performed during Shostakovich’s lifetime, which suggests that the composer would not have expected it either to be published (Collected Works, Volume 10) or recorded. Perhaps we are guilty of voyeurism (or its aural equivalent) by examining such a youthful work, but for those interested in the principle of variation, which is so central to Shostakovich’s craftsmanship, this work is fascinating. The outer sections of his theme decorate the first five notes of the B-flat major scale, with a central section in the relative minor. Fanning suggests the slow movement theme of Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto as a possible model, but the opening recalls for me Brahms’ opus 24 Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Handel, whose B-flat major theme is a decorated version of the first 6 notes of the scale. In terms of length, the variations are quite unpredictable, with only two out of the eleven (the first and fifth) keeping to the original twenty-bar structure. Some of the variations are miniature Tchaikovsky-like dances, recasting the theme in different generic guises, for example as a waltz (fourth variation) or a Russian folk-dance over a drone bass (seventh variation); others are more subtle fantasy variations in which individual melodic motifs are developed, particularly the opening phrase of the theme.
The only other work in Shostakovich’s opus list that features the word ‘variations’ in its title is Variations on a theme by Glinka (sans opus T), a collaborative set of piano variations including three by Shostakovich, composed for children in 1957 in commemoration of the centenary of Glinka’s death. However, there are numerous examples where Shostakovich used theme and variations as a structural principle, including the second movement of String Quartet No. 1, the fourth movement of String Quartet No. 2 and the fifth movement of Symphony No. 8. More abundant are special applications of the variation principle, chiefly passacaglia form (as in Symphony No. 2, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, the fourth movement of Symphony No. 8, and numerous quartet movements) and thematic transformation, a skill invaluable to him as a symphonist and film composer, especially in the many transformations of his own ‘DSCH’ theme.
This new release is only the second ever recording of Theme and Variations for full orchestra (Shostakovich also prepared a version for piano, opus 3a, recorded by Rimma Bobritskaya in 1983; Melodiya LP C50 20749 006; deleted). Rozhdestvensky made the original recording with the USSR Ministry of Culture Symphony Orchestra in 1982 (Melodiya C10 19103 004, Album 2 of From Manuscripts of Different Years; deleted), subsequently reissued in 1988 on Olympia (OCD194; deleted) and in 1998 on BMG/Melodiya (74321 59058 2; deleted; reviewed in DSCH 11), with varying combinations of other early opus numbers.
In comparison to Rozhdestvensky’s BMG/Melodiya reissue, Botstein and the Telarc sound engineers have created a more accurate reading of the opus 3 score in terms of dynamics, with some incredible pianissimo effects, subtle crescendos/diminuendos and superb audio quality. Rozhdestvensky’s fortissimos however are brighter, particularly in the finale, which is mainly due to the prominence given to the upper woodwind and percussion. Both performances take approximately fifteen and a half minutes, but within that there are some tempo differences, and some may prefer Rozhdestvensky’s more relaxed approach, particularly from the tenth variation onwards. Incidentally, track 18 in the Botstein recording, marked ‘Coda: Presto‘, does not match up with the section marked ‘Coda‘ in the score, but with the preceding Allegro section. The true coda begins about 40 seconds into the track.
If you are not a fan of Tchaikovsky ballet music or interested in the formal techniques of variation exhibited in Shostakovich’s opus 3, then buy the CD for the Popov! Not having heard this symphony before, I was quite simply bowled over by its power. In a review of the last recording of this work (Gennadi Provatorov and the Moscow State Symphony Orchestra, Olympia OCD576, 1995; deleted), the late Ian MacDonald described the idiom as one of ‘expressionistic catastrophism’, detecting a distinct Mahlerian influence. This may have been one of the factors that so fascinated Shostakovich, who greatly admired this symphony. The appearance of Botstein’s recording is quite timely, arriving shortly before the premiere recording of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 4, arranged for two pianos, performed by Rustem Hayroudinoff and Colin Stone (Chandos CHAN 10296; reviewed above). These two symphonies share not only some similarities in material, but also the dubious accolade of works suppressed because of their ‘formalist’ tendencies. In Popov’s case, this suppression led to the obscurity of his First Symphony and the destruction of his talent. Botstein and Telarc are to be congratulated for giving Popov’s First Symphony the attention it deserves, and with such astounding fidelity.
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Dmitri Shostakovich: Jazz & Ballet Suites – Film Music
Suite for Variety Stage Orchestra No. 1, sans opus G; Overture on Russian and Kirghiz Themes, opus 115; Suite for Jazz Orchestra (Jazz Suite) No. 1, sans opus E; Novorossiisk (printed Novorossijsk) Chimes, sans opus U; Festive Overture, opus 96; The Bolt Suite, opus 27a; The Limpid Stream Suite, opus 39a; The Golden Age Suite, opus 22a; Hamlet, Suite arranged by Lev Atovmyan, opus 116a; The Gadfly, Suite arranged by Lev Atovmyan, opus 97a.
Theodore Kuchar, National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine.
Brilliant Classics 6735. DDD. 3-CD set TT 50:45+55:48+72:11.
Recorded in the Grand Studio of the National Radio Symphony Orchestra Company of Ukraine, Kiev, 1-8 June 2004.
With only a couple of quibbling exceptions the playing and interpretation of this mass-strand album is perfectly good; the Ukrainian orchestra hasn’t quite the attack and bite of a Moscow or St. Petersburg counterpart; but brass is brash, strings sturdy and winds worthy of such repertoire.
The highly dashing ride through the Suite for Variety Orchestra No. 1 (formerly tagged as the Jazz Suite No. 2) is lively, occasionally lacking in tight ensemble (particularly in the first violins) but this really would qualify as a disproportionate nitpick. Rhythms are just about maintained to uniformity and the swaying lyricism of the Waltzes comes off brilliantly. I do prefer the overall light-heartedness and robustness of Riccardo Chailly’s version (Decca 4337022) but there is little to choose at most junctures. As with the majority of the album, the digital sound is clear but relatively lacking in bloom; metal replaces wood to no great aural detriment.
What might have threatened to become ‘yet another’ balletic visitation takes a hard swing to the Left in this release’s excursion; not only to distant Kirghizia but also to the outlying ventures in Novorossiysk, where (and don’t blink, or you’ll miss it) we are treated to the eternal chimes through which Shostakovich felt inclined to pen a ditty of 2:30.This same theme was taken up by many a Soviet broadcast through its outer guise as Fire of Eternal Glory to the poor, fettered West. Splendid to hear these under-recorded pieces in worthy performances; minor works they may be, but extremely Shostakovich they are.
The second disc presents three ballet suites, a rare and vital opportunity to assess this massively understated aspect of the ‘cyclic’ aspects of the composer’s oeuvre. The Bolt was the gem here for this listener (an offering of six movements), firmly set in the Rozhdestvensky mould (Chandos CHAN 9343(2)) and elegantly rounded by the Ukrainian forces. Limpid Stream was limp in places, trickling its way through an uncomfortable selection of only five pieces. Golden Age encourages a mere four movements, albeit the best of same; Overture, Adagio, Polka and Dance – only the Polka fails, largely through atypically poor balance and a percussionist with the dithers.
As for the film offerings, nought to have the planet spin out of control in the face of extraordinarily original programming. Hamlet is in vogue and Gadfly was never out of vogue. The former masterpiece is well tended here in a committed rendition (although in places I longed for more biting brass and for a dose of impetus dramaticus) whereas the latter is sublime; I can’t think of a better-played Romance (omnipresent or no). This is guaranteed to have even the most hardened exponent of the ‘Shostakovich never wrote good melodies’ school of idiocy revelling in the Russian lyricism in which the work is bathed.
Bravo to all concerned; given the ridiculously low price it would be simply irresponsible to resist!
Suite for Variety Stage Orchestra No. 1, sans opus G; Overture on Russian and Kirghiz Folksongs, opus 115; Suite for Jazz Orchestra (Jazz Suite) No. 1, sans opus E; Novorossiisk Chimes (The Fire of Eternal Glory), sans opus U; Festive Overture, opus 96.
Theodore Kuchar, National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine.
Brilliant Classics 7096. DDD hybrid multichannel/stereo SACD/stereo CD. TT 50:45.
Recorded in the Grand Studio of the National Radio Symphony Orchestra Company of Ukraine, Kiev, 1-8 June 2004.
Extracted from the three-CD set reviewed above, this programme arrives on a hybrid SACD disc that offers surround sound for technophiles but remains fully compatible with conventional CD players. The acoustics are bright and up-front.
As noted by Nigel Papworth, this rollicking performance of Suite for Variety Orchestra No. 1 can hold its head high even in the company of Chailly’s pioneering 1991 recording (Decca/London 433 702-2). Chailly has the edge in structural finesse, and the way he builds excitement at the end of Dance 1 is difficult to match. However, this is not serious music and Kuchar’s performance is all the more enjoyable for breathing the air of the dance hall rather than the concert stage. In Little Polka, for instance, Chailly’s rhythm seems over-controlled when contrasted with Kuchar’s infectiously jaunty gait.
Kuchar and Chailly invest roughly the same time in each movement, preferable to the perversely fast tempos often adopted by Dmitry Yablonsky (Naxos 8.555949; reviewed in DSCH 18). There is simply no room in Yablonsky’s supersonic Dance 2 to generate the punchy cadence that graces Kuchar’s account, which lasts two-thirds again as long.
Nobody spotlights the unorthodox instrumentation in this suite better than Chailly, though the accordion solo in Little Waltz is more colourful in Kuchar’s sweeping version. With an invigorating groundswell, the Ukrainian players make the beginning of the Finale akin to throwing open the windows on a sunny summer’s morning, and neither Chailly’s Concertgebouw nor Yablonsky’s Russian State Symphony Orchestra convey as much joy.
Incidentally, Kuchar sticks to the published order of the movements whereas both Chailly and Yablonsky rearrange them to maximise contrast between consecutive numbers. It matters little either way.
The Jazz Suite No. 1 from 1934 also fares well in Kuchar’s hands. His Waltz takes place in a disreputable nightclub full of oily characters who would neither gain entry to Chailly’s black-tie event nor wish to attend Yablonsky’s sleepy soiree. Kuchar’s Polka has more pep than either competitor. The ghost of Kurt Weill haunts all three versions of theFoxtrot; Yablonsky scores a point here with his eerily disembodied Hawaiian guitar. For both suites overall, however, Kuchar’s is the better of the two budget discs and makes a viable alternative to Chailly’s Jazz Music album.
The sole original work Shostakovich composed in the fallow year of 1963, Overture on Russian and Kirghiz Folksongscommemorates the centenary of Russia’s “voluntary incorporation” (i.e., annexation) of Kyrgyzstan. The wordless overture was completed four months after a trip to attend a music festival in Kyrgyzstan. Of his travels, Shostakovich wrote in Izvestia, “Not only were we enchanted by the natural beauty of Kyrgyzia, but we also could see for ourselves how rapidly its culture was developing, how much you could meet at every turn that was new, bright and full of joy.”
In reality, Soviet rule devastated Kyrgyz culture, barring master folk musicians from performing and declaring traditional musical instruments rudimentary, even imposing frets on the indigenous lute, the komuz, so that it would resemble a balalaika. Belying his Izvestia statement, the Shostakovich of Testimony was well aware of the damage inflicted on folk music throughout the national republics of the USSR: “I’m often invited to the republics for various gala performances of musical achievements, exhibits, plenums, and so on, and I often go. I act as the wedding guest and naturally praise everything in sight, or almost everything. But I see through it all, and my hosts see that I see. And both parties pretend that everything is fine.” Shostakovich and his Kyrgyz hosts can be seen pretending in a seven-second film snippet on the Chandos DVD-ROM (Chan 55001; reviewed in DSCH 15).
Testimony contains blistering criticism of the proliferation of inauthentic “national” works from the republics, which were actually ghostwritten by Russian composers. For this overture Shostakovich turned to genuine Kyrgyz folk material: Op maida, a song to accompany threshing, and Tyryldan, about a mythical creature. These are stirred in with the Russian folksong O, You Tramps from the Omsk region of Siberia.
Overture on Russian and Kirghiz Folksongs has had a hard time attracting friends and recordings alike. The orchestration feels bloated for the thematic material, probably because Kyrgyz folk music is entirely alien to Western musical tradition and does not wear such dress comfortably. The overture’s erratic rhythms are not immediately alluring either. Paradoxically, once familiar, it is likely to be the irregular, repetitive chant from Op maida that sticks in the memory as being worthy of repeat listening.
Kuchar’s enthusiastic performance shines a flattering light on the overture. Like a soundtrack to an imagined adventure in Central Asia, there is a powerful mood of discovery. The only currently available alternative, Neeme Järvi’s rendition with the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra (Deutsche Grammophon 459 415-2), is neither as muscular nor as exotic, lacking the Oriental accents put on by the Ukrainian musicians. Enrique Bátiz’ now-deleted version with the Royal Philharmonic (ASV CD DCA 707) was over a minute slower than Kuchar’s 9½ minutes (Järvi takes 10), stalling in the process.
The other rare bird on this CD, Novorossiisk Chimes, answered a request in 1960 from representatives of Novorossiysk for music to commemorate the Black Sea port city’s defenders of World War II. In September 1942, the German 17th Army captured Novorossiysk and held it for a full year before being driven out by fierce fighting. In February 1943, however, Soviet troops took and held a beachhead on the Eastern side of the bay, denying the Germans use of the port to ship war supplies, and repelling all attempts to dislodge them. For its role as a stronghold during the Great Patriotic War, Novorossiysk was later awarded the honorific of Hero City.
Novorossiisk Chimes takes its theme from the first two bars of an entry Shostakovich submitted unsuccessfully in 1943 to a contest for a new Soviet national anthem. The USSR’s loss was Novorossiysk’s gain. The lonely celesta intones the theme three times, the orchestra answering after the third call, lending comfort and strength, elaborating on the theme and swelling continuously to a triumphant close. It is everything an anthem should be: noble, stirring, and brief (2:40 in Kuchar’s recording).
In Shostakovich: A Life, Laurel Fay reports that the Novorossiysk officials had expected only that Shostakovich would choose appropriate excerpts from the standard classics, so they were overwhelmed when he presented them with this original tribute. Since September 27th, 1960, it has been played every hour at the Flame of Eternal Glory in the city’s Heroes Square.
No other recordings of this work are currently in print. Enrique Bátiz’ afore-mentioned ASV disc included it, but he did not achieve that special poignancy of the opening chimes found in Kuchar’s performance, which are liable to draw a lump to the throat. Bátiz’ cymbals are also excessively splashy at the end. Over its short lifespan, Kuchar’s account is surprisingly moving, and by the time the final fortissimo flourish is attained, many listeners shall think themselves accursed they were not in Novorossiysk, and hold their manhoods cheap that they did not fight with its liberators.
The ubiquitous Festive Overture pads the disc’s total time to just over 50 minutes. This is not the most polished example of opus 96, but the delicate passages nestled in its middle are handled with delicacy. De Preist’s entry with the Helsinki Philharmonic is more desirable for its shiny husk and tender, uniquely legato pith (Delos DE3089; coupled with Symphony No. 10). However, Kuchar’s interpretation provides more entertainment value than the congealed reading of Andrew Litton and the Dallas Symphony Orchestra (Delos DE 3246; reviewed in DSCH 14).
The only evidence of the super-budget status of this release is its annotation. The first three pages of notes are lifted from the booklet accompanying the Rubio Quartet’s complete Shostakovich cycle (Brilliant Classics 6898; to be reviewed in DSCH 24) and confusingly retain the title DmitriShostakovich: a life in fifteen String Quartets. The works on the present SACD are granted only one page written by David Doughty – Yves Senden is not credited for his notes from the quartet boxed set. Doughty’s contribution mixes up the Suite for Variety Orchestra No. 1, assembled by unknown hands at an unknown date, with the “lost” Jazz Suite No. 2 of 1938, reconstructed by Gerard McBurney in 2000 (Mandala MAN 5039; reviewed in DSCH 17).
Documentation aside, however, this release earns a firm recommendation.
W. Mark Roberts
Hypothetically Murdered, opus 31a, orchestral suite reconstructed and orchestrated by Gerard McBurney; Four Romances on Poems by Pushkin, opus 46, arranged by composer for bass and chamber orchestra (orchestration of No. 4 completed by Gerard McBurney)[a]; Five Fragments, opus 42; Suite for Jazz Orchestra (Jazz Band) No. 1, sans opus E.
Mark Elder, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Dmitri Kharitonov (bass)[a].
Signum Classics SIGCD051. DDD. TT 71:10.
Recorded in Symphony Hall, Birmingham, 16-18 December 1992.
If you enjoy the music of early Shostakovich then be prepared for a real treat. This reissue revives the very generous programme of a now-deleted 1993 Cala disc (CACD 1020), a sumptuous survey of the composer’s music written between 1924 and 1937. Mark Elder leads the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in polished, enthusiastic and often spicy performances of these works. There is never a dull moment, from the infamous vaudeville ofHypothetically Murdered to the hushed darkness of the Pushkin Romances to the cheeky fluffiness of the Jazz Suite.
The exuberant 1931 theatre work Hypothetically Murdered, premiered on the Cala CD in Gerard McBurney’s reconstruction, makes its comeback on Signum Classics complete with the original CD notes written by McBurney himself, updated with new biographies and a rare glimpse of the 1931 poster of the theatre production. Elder often opts for faster tempos, which helps to keep the spirit of this youthful work alive. There is a constant sense of controlled madness in the execution and Elder expertly manoeuvres the roller-coaster ride with a wonderful sense for the absurd without sacrificing the music’s darker undercurrents.
Elder’s orchestra sounds far leaner in comparison, but this lends the score a piquant flavour that is fully in character with its times. He whips up full excitement in the Bacchanalia, one of the finest moments in this work, and one that would eventually find its way – by no accident I am sure – into Aksinya’s Rape in Act 1 of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. Elder also delivers a masterful conclusion (the Finale to Act 1 which McBurney placed at the end for a rousing finish) with its swaggering string opening that slowly accelerates into one of Shostakovich’s zaniest melodies: Dance of the Temporary Victors. Again, Elder’s feel for theatre has the advantage over Fedoseyev’s symphonic sensibilities; in pushing the tempo up notch by notch the finale accelerates into an uproarious finish that would have brought the house down in 1931.
Since McBurney’s world premiere in 1993, not only have two more numbers from the original production surfaced (Overture and The Ruination of the City), but Derek Hulme has also revealed that the composer’s original full score has finally been located. It will be very interesting to compare McBurney’s work with the composer’s original, but until a recording is made this reissue will be essential listening.
What makes this disc even more irresistible is a fine performance of the orchestrated Pushkin Romances with the missing fourth song, Stanzas, completed by McBurney. McBurney does not stray in restoring the gloomy conclusion to this compelling early song cycle, working with the composer’s original configuration of strings and harp, but replacing the clarinet with its darker cousin, the bass clarinet. Stanzas‘ lumbering introduction on the bass line is played arco and underlined by the bass clarinet, recalling Bydlo from Musorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. The central section mirrors Shostakovich’s own work on Musorgsky’s Songs and Dances of Death, but the harp brings back a touch of 1930s colour to preserve a sense of continuity with the previous three orchestrated movements.
Soloist Dmitry Kharitonov lends operatic flavour to the performance with his dramatic bass, although he sounds somewhat lean compared to the darker Musorgskian tones of Sergei Leiferkus in his recording with Neeme Järvi and the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra (Deutsche Grammophon 439 860-2; deleted). Leiferkus delivered an intimate sense of hushed frostbitten fear and brooding tension in an atmosphere steeped with the bleakness of the Terror years. If Kharitonov sounds lightweight in comparison, his performance does seduce with its dramatic flair and flexibility.
Elder elicits appropriately theatrical playing from the nimble CBSO in sympathy with the soloist’s style, in vivid contrast to Järvi’s severity. The famous Regeneration opens with icy tones that connect with the Largo of the Fifth Symphony, while Foreboding under Elder’s quick baton acquires a sense of urgency which the violins take advantage of to create a delicious tension. Here Kharitonov rides the undulating rhythms with aplomb. He makes the strongest impression in Stanzas, finishing the cycle as it was perhaps intended – on a bitter, impassioned note.
The final two items on the programme each offer a rare insight into the composer’s artistic development during those turbulent years: the Five Fragments look forward to the canvasses of the mature symphonies (particularly in the final Fragment, whose violin theme appears in the finale of the mighty Fourth Symphony) while the Jazz Suite brims with the composer’s youthful cheek.
The action is frozen in a moment of near silence in the central Largo, where the CBSO strings project a bleached twilight glow, speaking in hushed whispers and nervous calm. The last movement’s wry violin solo waltzes awkwardly like a puppet on a string, edged on by the snarling bass clarinet and snare drum, before collapsing into silence.
The three short thea-jazz pieces of the Suite for Jazz Band No. 1 of 1934 (the CD track listing and jewel case liner misprint the date as 1924 although the notes identify the correct date) are amongst the more interesting of this genre, with their twists of melody and orchestration recalling the composer’s brilliance in his Tahiti Trot venture. The CBSO clearly enjoy themselves in this repertoire, judging by the enthusiastic strut with which they execute the campy final piece, Foxtrot (Blues), which McBurney sardonically observes in his excellent CD notes to be “neither a foxtrot nor a blues”. A cross between swing and tango, it comes straight out of The Golden Age. From the cabaret brass to the sleazy slide guitar, it simmers with conflicts – cheap and inspired, annoying and compelling, silly and serious, it is typically and endearingly Shostakovich, the perfect dessert for a jolly good meal.
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Symphony No. 1 in F minor, opus 10; Symphony No. 3 in Eb major, The First of May, opus 20.
Gennadi Rozhdestvensky, USSR Ministry of Culture Symphony Orchestra, Yurlov Russian Choir, Stanislav Gusev (artistic director), Rosalia Pergudova (chief choirmaster).
Moscow Studio Archives MOS 19061. DDD. TT 66:56.
Recorded in 1984.
Gennadi Rozhdestvensky is one of the greatest proponents of Shostakovich’s music and his enthusiastic performances, especially of unusual and little-known works, have always been a pleasure. This re-release of these two symphonies is a pleasure, allowing the rediscovery of Rozhdestvensky’s talent in bringing out important aspects of Shostakovich’s scores. These performances stress the joy and humour inherent in both symphonies – often underplayed or even left out – particularly in the Third. The melodic lines are clearly differentiated, which is partly due to the clean sound (almost too clean and lean in places).
In the First Symphony, this leanness highlights the opening’s sparkling freshness and opens up what are sometimes congested readings of the solo lines. Likewise, the piano’s contributions are clear, whereas they have been muffled in many more recent recordings. However, the piano’s loud whacks in the second movement and the solo timpani pronouncements in the fourth sound one-dimensional and overly shrill due to the bright acoustics.
Even with the stress on the sardonic and wit, the gravitas in the third movement is equally present with wonderfully played oboe, clarinet, trumpet, and violin solos. Rozhdestvensky does not stretch out the Lento (10:23) to get this effect, as he does in the massacre passage in the Eleventh Symphony (his being one of the best interpretations). In between the Finale’s baleful introduction with its beautiful choral sound, the trio-like return to the Lento‘s sorrow and later the timpani-heralded return of the same, the fourth movement is played with great gusto, undercut a little by the lean recording. The solo cello in the middle of the fourth movement, bringing back the Lento music, is a bit too maudlin for my taste – this is my only reservation about the musicians’ playing here. The climactic music is theatrical and dramatic, with great trumpet trills and a terrific ending. Here, more than in any other recording, we feel the impetuousness of Shostakovich’s youth and the excitement of experimentation.
Rozhdestvensky’s Third is a marvel to hear again after many years of experiencing other versions. He truly animates the score, rendering it exciting and full of edgy meaning. This is a performance to treasure, from the opening portentous clarinet solo developing into a duet, to the silly march, featuring horn, trumpet and snare. Note also the surreal Meno mosso with its ethereal background cut by sarcastic solos through to the overly serious choir finale.
The violin solo in the Lento is gorgeously played and here there is an ambiance that adds suddenly developed reverberation to the recording venue’s acoustic ‘bloom’. The martial section following the Lento cannot, even in the best hands, feel anything less than choppy, which may have been exactly what the impressionable young composer was attempting to reflect, culminating in the powerful Allegro molto which Rozhdestvensky plays all-out, as if life depended on the outcome. His playing of the immediately-following Andante is full of uncertainty, with bizarrely anxious lower-string glissandi brought to a true forte, rising to brief string lines with intensely ominous vibrato – this is the highlight of the recording. No other version comes close to revealing the passion and inventiveness of the composer.
The concluding chorus is performed as almost an obligatory add-on and, as such, it is done with reservation and a certain shrillness in the singing. The concluding measures, for orchestra alone, are perfunctory, without any exclamation on the very last whole note, a held tremolo. It’s as if Rozhdestvensky is saying, “This conclusion isn’t so important; however what precedes it is – very.” His attention to the composer’s wonderful writing is what makes these recordings must-haves.
The notes, by Andrew Farach-Colton, are quite informative and detailed.
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Symphony No. 1 in F minor, opus 10[a]; Symphony No. 5 in D minor, opus 47[b].
Karel Ancerl, Czech Philharmonic Orchestra.
Supraphon Gold Edition SU 3699-2 011. ADD. TT 74:06.
Recorded in Dvorak Hall, Rudolfinum, Prague, 7-10 April 1964[a], 11 and 14 October 1961[b].
Symphony No. 5 in D minor, opus 47.
Mstislav Rostropovich, London Symphony Orchestra.
LSO Live CD LSO 0058 or Hybrid multichannel/stereo SACD/CD LSO 0550. DDD. TT 46:58.
Recorded live in Barbican Hall, London, July 2004.
If, as Richard Taruskin asserts, Petrushka is a “profoundly unrealistic ballet” (Stravinsky and the Russian Traditions: Vol. I), then what are we to call the First Symphony of Shostakovich? Is an attempt to assimilate opus 10 into any Russian tradition simply a blindfold exercise in pinning a gaudy tail on a drab, pseudo-historical donkey? Taruskin also identifiesPetrushka as a catalyst for the exposure of “the issue of the hallowed canons of Russian realism versus the world of art.” Well, compared to a “real” Russian F-minor symphony like the Tchaikovsky Fourth, the Shostakovich First does seem to offer as much in the way of artifice, or living-puppet’s eye-view, as it does direct architectonic, strenuous emotionalism. Petrushka is also present in the soundworld of opus 10, of course, but the very special boy, cum father figure, cum ailing cinema pianist was already a master-puppeteer of formal procedure, mocking as he mastered, or was mastered in turn.
The First has survived both the efforts of Stokowski to turn it into a realistic symphony (Pearl GEMM CDS 9044 and EMI ZDMB 5 65427 2 3; both deleted), and the brilliant HMV recording in which Efrem Kurtz and the Philharmonia almost make it a profound and realistic ballet (EMI Red Line 7243 5 73518 2 9). In 1964 the finest non-Russian Shostakovich conductor, Karel Ancerl, could hardly go wrong. The Czech Philharmonic had the famed, characterful wind players, but also fine brass, lithe strings, and a real acoustic to die for. Supraphon used good mikes, sensibly placed, and the sound doesn’t look a day over 21.
At the time, Ancerl worked under a Soviet-controlled regime, and his records were issued in the West on LP pressings of varying quality. But virtually all his 20th century repertoire studio work from the ’60s remains dynamite. The music-making really matters (sorry to appropriate another Taruskin epithet, but it’s germane) in every bar.
The Rossignol-like slow march at the centre of the Allegro has the right, cool character, for the only time on records I feel, while the Petrushka-like end is scary, without melodrama. The pianist could be better, but all the way to the last timpani stroke of theAllegro molto this recording is as profoundly real (and artistically understated) in effect as the day it was made. This is among the most successful Firsts on disc, along with the unmissable Kondrashin (Aulos AMC2-043-1-10) and the unique Bernstein (Deutsche Grammophon 427 632-2). Ormandy also had it down pat (Sony Classical SBK 62642; deleted).
And then there’s Ancerl’s Fifth, a more celebrated reading, hailed since the ’60s. What kind of realism is apt for this symphony, once heard as an exemplification of all that might be acceptable, or deplorable, about the Socialist variety? Forty-four years ago, Ancerl seemed on the expansive side. Now, sounding as well is it ever has, this tape seems a child of its time. Whole worlds of eloquent, historical and personal feeling are distilled into the Largo‘s sad phrases, and there’s no question as to the tragic nature of the tale told by a wonderfully-played Allegro that is truly non troppo, without quite dragging its feet like a tired puppet. This is one of the best fifths ever, with Petrushka’s ironies assimilated and extended in a finale that balances the Russian traditions on a knifepoint, then twists.
With Rostropovich, it’s as if someone has turned-up the gain control on an oscilloscope, to make every peak a precipice, every trough suicide. Variable amplitude is twiddled too, so that phrase-endings are dragged-out and distended, especially in the Allegretto. The score certainly isn’t respected in its letter. In spirit, the work can take it, and perhaps the point is that the Fifth is “really” this expressionist piece (as openly satirical, at times, as opus 10), as well as being the classical version, which opus 47 often uses as a front. That seems a fair point, a more realistic account of human complexity, in symphonic form, than a more overtly and artificially complex piece could have provided.
This recording, though, with its trademark slow-tempo coda, boxed-in sound, and rough-and-ready live feel, suggests we’ve forgotten how to play the symphony, historically lost our way (which may of course be historically accurate and currently true). The Rostropovich example is an important one in the Fifth Symphony, but my caveat is that one could play any Romantic symphony this way. Play the coda of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth at half speed, and you have irony instead of energetic mania. Speed isn’t the thing: like any contradictory human being, the Shostakovich Fifth has a heart, and Ancerl goes straight to it. Irony and horror are not shirked for a second (Ancerl had seen it all), the end is disturbing, but the rewards are profound and real, trouncing the artifice of the recording process, but not of composition itself.
The controversy implies the study we lack: a Taruskin-scaled assembly of the back, middle, and foreground to this composer’s work. Of course you can’t do it: too many layers of irony, too much information lost, nothing stays still long enough to be defined, too many worlds of reality and ambivalence, well beyond realism and artifice, the horror, the horror, et cetera. But we should try. For the present, the recorded history of opus 47 helps, so given the good, resonant transfers (just a hint of digital paperiness at the outset, but no overloading), get the thrilling Ancerl today, and avoid the Slava, which also offers very short measure.
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Symphony No. 8 in C minor, opus 65.
Mstislav Rostropovich, London Symphony Orchestra.
LSO Live CD LSO 0060 or Hybrid multichannel/stereo SACD/CD LSO 0527. DDD. TT 68:45.
Recorded live in Barbican Hall, London, November 2004.
This is another “weighty” Eighth. Readers will have one or more of the Mravinsky Eighths already (reviewed in DSCH 11), or may have tired of my extolling the 1947 Leningrad recording, which is still unavailable. It’s like saying the Bible and Shakespeare are unavailable, but there you go. With Slava, there is no mistaking the sense of occasion, or the scale and stature of this symphony, and at the price it’s fair value, a good deal for newcomers.
Interpretatively, the Allegro and the Allegro non troppo are surprisingly restrained, the Largo anything but. The overall gloomy tone is impressive, the ambivalent Allegretto trumps the Adagio‘s climax, as it should, but that opening movement seems longer than it is. Rostropovich’s conviction probably wins the day (as it definitely did in his Eleventh; LSO Live LSO0030; reviewed in DSCH 18), though I know some musicians don’t accept his conducting credentials.
For me, this is too slow, too long, too heavy and too free with the score. Fedoseyev (Moscow Studio Archives MOS 19062; reviewed in DSCH 22) and Kondrashin (Altus ALT067; reviewed in DSCH 21) are good correctives or supplements, but all the recordings of opus 65 that I really like are deleted. Let’s hope for a bumper crop of reissues in the centenary year, and a new cycle from somewhere to beat all comers. In the meantime, faute de mieux, this LSO Live release has its place, as an inexpensive, powerful introduction to some great music. But Barshai is a better bargain bet (Brilliant Classics 6275; reviewed in DSCH 20).
That said, the recording is not to my tastes. The LSO in the Barbican sound better than this, and for some reason the hall resists effective microphone placement so all seems loud and closed-in, even when the playing is quiet. The climaxes impress, but the medium dynamics don’t sound right.
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Symphony No. 11, The Year 1905, opus 103.
Alexander Lazarev, Royal Scottish National Orchestra.
Linn CKD 247. DDD hybrid multichannel/stereo SACD/stereo CD (HDCD). TT 60:33.
Recorded in Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 22 and 23 January 2004.
Until only recently, Shostakovich’s Eleventh had been one of the least frequently performed of the fifteen symphonies. That is no longer the case this year; the work found its way into the 2004-2005 concert season of symphony orchestras far and wide – Royal Liverpool, City of Birmingham, Los Angeles, El Paso, Dayton, Munich, Lyon National, New Zealand… The surge in attention undoubtedly has everything to do with the fact that 2005 marks the hundredth anniversary of the Workers’ Uprising, the landmark event in Russian history that the Eleventh Symphony, The Year 1905, commemorates. In New York, Leon Botstein led the American Symphony Orchestra in a performance one Sunday in January, marking almost to the day the momentous events of ‘Bloody Sunday’. A few weeks later in the same city, Franz Welser-Möst led the Cleveland Orchestra in that ensemble’s first performance of the work in almost a decade.
The current disc is the first of what may be a bumper crop of Elevenths in this centennial year, and perhaps a foreshadowing of the boom to be expected in next year’s centennial of Shostakovich’s birth.
The listener will have no complaints in the departments of clarity and precision; the RSNO are in top form. Lazarev turns in a performance that benefits from state of the art sound reproduction, here released in hybrid CD and SACD format. Note the spacious ambiance of the opening movement, the crisp registration of timpani and harp, the sumptuously ominous gong strokes, the presence of the various wind and brass solos.
Still, the performance does not achieve immediate lift-off. Lazarev’s pace in the opening movement falls in the median range (15:58). Compare the more evocative results achieved in less time by Ashkenazy (14:34; Decca 448 179-2; deleted), or the hypnotic effect of Stokowski’s immortal Houston rendition (15:03; EMI CDM7 65206-2; deleted). In those traversals the divided strings of the Palace Squarewhisper their secrets from the inside, drawing in the listener with hushed yet ardent tones. In Lazarev’s string sonorities I miss the same sense of being submerged in mystery and anticipation, which here are compressed into the surface in too canny a fashion. There is something too palpable about this landscape, which seems to be described too calculatingly.
Similarly, I miss the immanent passions of the all-important instrumental solos throughout the movement: they make a world of difference! Compare Mravinsky’s 1959 rendition (Revelation RV 10091; deleted; reviewed in DSCH 9) where, early in the movement, the muted horn solo is delivered as per a matter of life and death. In Lazarev’s hands it sounds rather detached. The flute solos are reverential, but they lack the sense of urgency that portends later events. When the cross rhythms reach a high point of conflict in the middle of the movement (7:51), they are stirring, but not as much as in other versions, notably those of Ashkenazy and Mravinsky.
Lazarev fares better in capturing the sound and fury of the second movement, January Ninth. This is an aggressive interpretation with strong brass playing and athletically mounted crescendi. If he is a little too anxious to pull out all the stops, he gets good cooperation from winds and percussion in the moments of heated emotion. In the quieter interludes, in particular the passages beginning at 3:41 and 8:25, I wish there had been more contrast in tempo and mood as we find in the more textured reading by Paavo Berglund (EMI 7243 5 73839 2 9), overall one of the finest Elevenths on record. Also compare the engaging surges and releases in the well-conceived version by Rostropovich with the London Symphony Orchestra (LSO Live LSO0030; reviewed in DSCH 18), although his sanctimoniously slow pace in the opening movement may not be to everyone’s taste. The inner voices in the Lazarev are thrown into relief to good effect at the peaks and especially at the fugal melee. Here, cymbal crescendi, xylophone highlights and thunderous bass drum strokes make a strong frontal assault. One wonders why the major-minor tattoo on the timpani that locks in much of the rhythmic thrust of the climax is almost totally buried.
The most daring departure takes place in the slow movement, which is dispatched in moderato tempo, despite the score’s Adagio marking. Timing in at 8:50, it is the fastest performance on record that I know, topping Ashkenazy’s already brisk 9:41 (at the other end of the spectrum, compare Rostropovich and the National Symphony Orchestra’s 14:32; Warner Classics Elatus 2564-60443-2). If the pace at first hearing seems too breezy to convey the solemnity of a tribute to the victims of tyrannical oppression, listen again. Consider the fact that more than any competitor’s version, Lazarev’s most closely matches the pace at which You Fell as Victims, the folksong upon which the main melody is built, would actually be sung if each phrase were to fall into the span of a human breath. In that sense, Lazarev does maintain a life-blood connection between the symphony and its extramusical context. And he manages to do this with respectable dignity and a measure of heroic pride that is unique to this performance. In the central climax, however, where monumentality is the order of the moment, Lazarev puts across a massive percussive punch, with escalations in volume that border on the ear-numbing. Gains and losses taken into consideration, I was left a little less convinced.
Lazarev takes the final movement’s opening salvo broadly and defiantly, only gradually working up to full throttleallegro – to exciting effect. The playing is robust through and through. One of the finest moments on the disc takes place toward the end of the movement when, in a moment of unexpected sensitivity, Lazarev stills the tempo for the beautifully and expansively rendered English horn solo. The gong strokes that follow are powerfully resonant, though I wish that the bass clarinet’s keynote solo hadn’t been obscured. In the rousing finale, the chimes ring out with gratifying clarity where they do not in many other recordings. To the purist’s delight, they do not resonate past the final bar.
This is a forceful Eleventh that here and there contains genuine flashes of inspiration. Overall, however, it does not offer the most perceptive or thoughtful interpretation.
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The very title of this jewel-cased offering is calculated to catch the eye, turn the head or wrest the attention from more predictable occupations such as topping up one’s 24 versions of the Tenth Symphony. “Missing Symphony?!” a learned friend recently exclaimed in guarded disbelief; “Who, what, when…?” and his voice drifted off into wonderment.
So – a Sixteenth Symphony finally come to light? At least sketches thereof, notwithstanding Derek Hulme’s considered affirmation that the so-called Sixteenth actually corresponded to Shostakovich’s opus 145a, the orchestrated Suite on Verses of Michelangelo?
Closer inspection of the CD liner blurb or, better (or worse), putting our hole-in-middle friend in the unsuspecting CD player reveals quite another conception, ethic, soul. To be kind, let’s say that the fabricators of this monstrosity deliberately chose to titillate the discerning public through a play on the word “Missing”; the concept is so far off-target that the very concept of concept is indeed a totally missing allusion!
What? Why? Because the idea behind this issue is to fuse together all 15 symphonies, electronically, pulling and stretching their extrapolated waveforms in order to make them ‘match’; i.e., so that the different movements more or less begin and stop together. No matter that in so doing all considerations of tempo, pitch, rhythm and harmony get shot to pieces and above all, ‘what the heck!’ to any quibble regarding any aesthetic, artistic, emotional or musical values that might be sunk on the way!!
The ‘composer’ states:
All fifteen of Dimitri Shostakovich’s symphonies were downloaded digitally into a lap-top computer. The mean average [sic] in seconds of every symphony was worked out as being 2842 seconds. Each symphony dependent on length was either stretched or compressed to that length and then layered on top of each other to create a unique classical piece.
The result is staggering. The worlds [sic] first digital classical symphony. The worlds [sic] first symphony which cannot be replicated by classical musicians. Intense in its entirety. The result is “The Missing Symphony”.’
On the other hand, on the group’s web site we read:
‘V/Vm stretched and compressed all of Dmitri Shostakovich’s symphonies into one symphony entitled “the missing symphony“. Fragments of each symphony fight with each other for audio control making for an uncomfortable listening experience.’
The opening minute of the ‘work’ – an amalgam of Fourth and Seventh Symphonies, pounding over bedlam of noise – had my cat scuttling for the door, closely followed by my young child, hands over ears. Five minutes later, having gleaned dismembered snatches of Symphonies Nos. 9, 11, 12, 13 and 14, all vying for their own little niche of consciousness, I could take no more. Track 2? More of same, and so on.
But where did the music itself come from? No sources are credited, only a photographed glimpse of a Melodiya CD (USSR Ministry of Culture with Maestro Rozhdestvensky) gives the slightest clue as the origins of the collective din.
A wonderful 21st century exercise in the electrification of Russian-Soviet repertoire, or a grotesque effrontery to same? No prizes, at all…