CD Reviews 26
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The Film Music of Dmitri Shostakovich Volume 3
Assault on Krasnaya Gorka from The Unforgettable Year 1919, opus 89[a]; Suite from Five Days and Five Nights, opus 111a (arr. Lev Atovmyan); Suite from The Young Guard, opus 75a (arr. Lev Atovmyan); Suite from Hamlet, opus 116a (arr. Lev Atovmyan).
Vassily Sinaisky, BBC Philharmonic Orchestra, Martin Roscoe (piano)[a].
Chandos CHAN 10361. DDD. TT 79:47.
Recorded at New Broadcasting House, Manchester, October 2004.
At first glance at its cover, this new Chandos release appears to contain three film suites (from Five Days and Five Nights, The Young Guard and Hamlet) and an unnamed extract (with solo piano—huge hint!) from The Unforgettable Year 1919. The accompanying booklet confirms the latter to be the popular Assault on Krasnaya Gorka; it also reveals that two of the film suites (Hamlet and The Young Guard) are incomplete.
The liner notes by John Riley (also available in German and French) give a chronological overview of the changing political and personal situations within which Shostakovich composed his scores, from the 1948 “Formalist” denunciation that overshadowed his work on The Young Guard score—forcing the composer onto an exhausting treadmill of populist and cinema work—to failing health in the 1960s when he penned his Hamlet masterpiece. Riley also places the films within the framework of other collaborations between Shostakovich and the relevant directors (Gerasimov, Chiaureli, Arnshtam and Kozintsev) and—with the exception of Chiaureli—their shared artistic roots in FEKS (the Factory of the Eccentric Actor) during the 1920s and 1930s.
It is questionable how well the suite from The Young Guard (arranged by Atovmyan) represents the music from the soundtrack, since there are both important omissions and possibly extraneous material. For example, David Nice, in his liner notes to the Mnatsakanov recording, described Song of the Young Guardsmen (No. 5) as an “Atovmyan-orchestrated supplement.” In the film, the imprisoned Young Guards sing this song in patriotic defiance of their German captors, initially unaccompanied but with orchestral accompaniment towards the end of the scene (barely audible on my DVD copy of the film, a re-edited version from 1964; Retro Club 540, 2005), so maybe it is Shostakovich’s orchestration after all. Such queries will eventually be resolved once the suite is compared to the full film score, to be published in volume 132 of the New Collected Works, Series XIV.
The full 7-movement Suite from The Young Guard has been released twice on CD: in 1987 (Grigori Gamburg and the USSR Cinematograph Symphony Orchestra, recorded in 1956; Olympia OCD 201; deleted) and 1996 (Walter Mnatsakanov and the Byelorussian Radio and TV Symphony Orchestra, recorded in 1995; Russian Disc RDCD 10 002; deleted). Frustratingly, the new Chandos recording includes only three movements from the suite (Nos. 2, 4 and 5). These are far superior to their equivalents in the recordings by Gamburg and Mnatsakanov in terms of dynamic range, general intonation (particularly poor with the Byelorussians), balance, clarity, and precision of attack. Sinaisky’s selection provides contrasting orchestrations to showcase both the orchestra and the superb recording quality: the intimate strings in By the River, the perfectly-balanced brass chords in the opening of Turbulent Night, and the amazing reverberations of every cymbal crash and drum roll in the Song of the Young Guardsmen, marred only by some dubious intonation when the trumpet plays the main theme.
Surprisingly, given the popularity of The Assault on Krasnaya Gorka on easy-listening classical radio, there are only two previous CD recordings: by pianist Dmitri Alekseyev with the English Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Jerzy Maksymiuk (EMI Classics for Pleasure 382 2342), and Ellena Alekseyeva with the Moscow Symphony Orchestra conducted by Adriano (within the first complete recording of the Suite, opus 89a, from The Unforgettable Year 1919; Marco Polo 8.223897; reviewed in DSCH 18). Martin Roscoe’s performance is an ideal vehicle to showcase the “Chandos sound” (using 24-bit technology to make the master recording), executing the flamboyant arpeggios across all registers of the piano with equal clarity. However, its inclusion comes at the expense of music omitted from both theHamlet and Young Guard suites.
The music from Five Days and Five Nights has suffered various inexplicable cuts and splices during its recording history, many of which Derek Hulme has carefully documented (Dmitri Shostakovich: A Catalogue, Bibliography, and Discography; Oxford: Scarecrow Press, 2002; reviewed in DSCH 18). Before 2006, the most recent recording was by Theodore Kuchar and the National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine (Naxos 8.553299, 1996); though appearing to contain the full 5-movement Suite, the first movement repeats the opening material, skips the central contrasting section completely, and jumps to the closing material, itself a shortened reprise of the opening. That makes James Judd’s 1990 recording with the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra (Capriccio 10 341/42; 2-CD set; reissue of excerpts reviewed in DSCH 12) the only CD release of the full suite prior to this new Chandos recording.
Fortunately Sinaisky makes only rare and subtle interventions in the score, as, for example, in Dresden in Ruins, where he ignores a diminuendo marked in the viola part (5 bars after fig. 3) and instead tastefully accentuates the change of harmony, rather than hiding it; he also removes Atovmyan’s rather vulgar 2-note bassoon link into the reprise of the movement’s opening material before figure 11. Whereas Riley compares Dresden in Ruins (central section) with “the tensely chilling opening of the Eleventh Symphony,” the string trills pinpoint its model as the end of the second movement from that same symphony. A comparison of the Judd and Sinaisky recordings reveals a vast leap forward in audible dynamic range (although Kuchar’s recording comes close to the latter). Sinaisky’s quieter sections have an impressive attention-grabbing clarity—for example the oscillating figure in the violins that opens the suite—and the orchestra at full throttle are exhilarating, as in the Presto of Liberated Dresden (second section), with its exciting cross-rhythms between brass and percussion.
The only movement that disappoints is No. 8, Duel and Death of Hamlet, where I did not find the ending (for Hamlet’s funeral) sufficiently impressive. The main theme, played in octaves by the trumpets and trombones, is marred by a mismatch in balance and intonation; a few bars before the end the trumpets even appear temporarily muffled.
My main complaint with the Hamlet Suite is that it is tantalizingly incomplete by little over two minutes of music, lacking No. 4, In the Garden. Those interested in Shostakovich’s film music have to be grateful for whatever morsels are recorded, but, given the ambitious vision of this Chandos series, this surely is a lost opportunity not to have recorded more suites in their entirety.
Gripes regarding content aside, this disc certainly delivers value for money, containing nearly the maximum 80 minutes for a conventional audio CD. Sinaisky’s recordings of Five Days and Five Nights and The Young Guard are the best yet, his Hamlet better than anything released since Chailly’s, and Martin Roscoe’s performance of The Assault on Krasnaya Gorka may well oust Dmitri Alekseyev from the classical radio listings.
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Violin Concerto No. 1 in A minor, opus 77 (listed as opus 99)[a]; Sonata for Violin and Piano, opus 134[b].
Sakari Oramo, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra[a]; Leila Josefowicz (violin); John Novacek (piano)[b].
Warner Classics 2564 62997-2. DDD. TT 68:58.
Recorded (live[a]) in Symphony Hall, Birmingham, 11 and 13 January 2006[a]; American Academy of Arts and Letters, New York, 25-26 March 2006[b].
Violin Concerto No. 1 in A minor, opus 77 (listed as rev. 1955 as opus 99); Violin Concerto No. 2 in C# minor, opus 129; Romance from The Gadfly, opus 97 (arr. Lev Atovmyan).
Maxim Shostakovich, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Daniel Hope (violin).
Warner Classics 2564 62546-2. DDD. TT 77:55.
Recorded at Studio 1, BBC Maida Vale Studios, London, 7-9 November 2005.
Violin Concerto No. 1 in A minor, opus 77; Violin Concerto No. 2 in C# minor, opus 129.
Maxim Shostakovich, Tchaikovsky Symphony Orchestra, Dmitri Kogan (violin).
Delos DE 3363. DDD. TT 71:38.
Recorded at Studio 5, Russian TV and Radio Broadcasting Company, “Kultura,” Moscow, 17-20 September 2005.
These three recent recordings of Shostakovich’s First Violin Concerto all feature fine violinists who have already demonstrated their commitment to the composer’s music.
The best of these releases, by Canadian-born violinist Leila Josefowicz, benefits from the superb partnership of Sakari Oramo and the City of Birmingham Symphony, who are beautifully subtle in this live performance at Birmingham’s Symphony Hall. Oramo keeps his band hushed at critical points, giving the soloist freedom to breathe and to create extraordinary stillness. Josefowicz’s second-movement Scherzo, though not perhaps as gutsy and impetuous as it could be, nonetheless builds with the CBSO’s support to an exhilarating conclusion. Both the first-movement Nocturne and third-movementPassacaglia are filled with warmth and lyricism. At the close of the Passacaglia, the orchestra give Josefowicz a moment of hush to begin her cadenza, and she takes full advantage of it, spinning out a monologue of extraordinary drama and poise that must have had her Birmingham audience holding its breath. The Burleska-finale is light and fun, with jazzy accents. The few intonation problems—understandable in a live performance—are more than compensated for by the spirit and spontaneity of a soloist and orchestra obviously inspired by each other’s work.
Coupled with the First Concerto on this disc is the Violin Sonata, the last of Shostakovich’s three works (along with the two Concertos) for David Oistrakh. Josefowicz opens with a numb, vibrato-free sound, deathly pale. It rarely warms up in this performance, which has—quite intentionally, I am sure—a soulless, marionette-like quality. Here again, Josefowicz has chosen a fine partner in pianist John Novacek, whose subtle colouring gives her all the room she needs to explore the surreal landscapes of this sonata.
The stomping Allegretto takes the place of one of the composer’s more humorous inner-movement scherzos. Occasional snippets of the scherzo-that-might-have-been are drowned out in virtuosic fury, delivered convincingly by Josefowicz and Novacek.
The passacaglia-finale opens, after an introduction, with the cold pizzicatos that haunt late Shostakovich chamber works, sounding, as Beethoven Quartet violinist Dmitri Tsyganov once said, like “sinister music, as if death itself is walking.” Josefowicz delivers these in an appropriately ghostly fashion, but gradually gentles her tone to accompany Novacek, who also begins starkly, but soon moves into a loving Bach-like counterpoint-homage, the first beautiful music in the sonata. The performers demonstrate the versatility demanded by the finale’s variations, which move from the tender neo-Bachian sound to surreal harmonics and the devilish trills of a Tartini sonata. Josefowicz uses vibrato sparingly, so that any warmth, when it does appear, seems almost estranged. The work ends with icyponticello tremolos and empty oscillating fifths, and the two performers leave their listeners with a stunning, unflinching and imaginative portrayal of the Sonata’s imagery. This recording is highly recommended.
The releases by Daniel Hope and Dmitri Kogan include both of the Shostakovich Violin Concertos, and each soloist is partnered with an orchestra conducted by the composer’s busy son, Maxim. Both Hope and Kogan are sensitive players, but seem to lack Josefowicz’s imagination. This is something of a partial judgement, however, since both are hampered by orchestral accompaniments that seem leaden and insensitive, allowing them little flexibility as to tempo or dynamics. Attempted whispering entries at the beginning of the First Concerto’s Passacaglia by both violinists are defeated by the orchestras’ heavy ground bass.
Similarly, as the Passacaglia ends and the music moves into the cadenza, Kogan again begins quietly, but needs to increase his sound to be heard over the Tchaikovsky Symphony Orchestra’s plonky pizzicatos. The Tchaikovsky orchestra members (or their conductor) are sometimes insensitive to Kogan’s slight tempo changes, resulting in ensemble problems and a sense that they are rushing him. The BBC Symphony players treat Hope a little better, but are still too loud to allow him to establish a moment of true stillness.
In the Second Concerto, the violin is heard throughout the first movement over orchestral undercurrents, but both orchestras’ heaviness defeats any attempt the soloists might have made to create the composer’s spare “late style” texture. In many passages, both soloists show a capacity for warmth and lyricism, but confining orchestral accompaniments lead to results that seem more conventional and less interesting than the work deserves.
Daniel Hope’s recording also includes the Romance from the composer’s film music for The Gadfly, arranged for violin and orchestra by Atovmyan. Hope’s jacket note describes this light music as a “seemingly romantic interlude between two giants (the concertos)” and justifies its inclusion “because the film’s subject matter deals with a freedom fighter whose activities ‘stung’ the authorities.” This seems to be stretching a point, since the film’s revolutionary context is a highly conventional one for Soviet times. This popular work’s triviality seems out of place on this disc, but it is certainly competently performed.
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Cello Concerto No. 2 in G major, opus 126[a]; Prokofiev: Symphony-Concerto[b].
Gerard Schwarz, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, Lynn Harrell (cello).
Avie AV 2090. DDD. TT 72:22.
Recorded live at Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool, England, 27 and 28 May[a], 25 and 26 May 2005[b].
Gerard Schwarz’s ventures into the Shostakovich repertoire are so few and far between that his most worthy efforts may have gone unnoticed. As Music Director of the Seattle Symphony Orchestra for more than two decades, Schwarz has amassed a recording legacy highlighted by an acclaimed series of symphonic works by contemporary American composers. His association with other orchestras, such as the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, which he has directed since 2001, has brought him similar accolades.
Schwarz’s blockbuster recording of Shostakovich’s Execution of Stepan Razin, recently released on Naxos (8.557812; reviewed in DSCH 25), shows the kind of stuff his musicality is made of: bedrock stability, a durable set of tempi that avoids exaggeration, and at its best, a deeply anchored hold on the music that captures the essence of Shostakovich’s thorny, emotionally charged universe. All of this flows apparently unforced from Schwarz’s baton with admirable spontaneity. Despite bass-baritone Charles Robert Austin’s lacking the guttural resonance that comes easier to native Russian singers, the Seattle Orchestra and Chorus more than compensate with a mighty performance that delivers the unflagging drama found in the best interpretations. The same album supplies a superior rendering of Shostakovich’s October tone poem, which gives the versions of Järvi (Deutsche Grammophon 459 415-2) and Ashkenazy (Decca 475 7431) a run for their money. These favourable impressions led me to track down the rest of the Shostakovich works in the Schwarz discography.
I was equally impressed by Schwarz’s rendition of Shostakovich’s Sixth Symphony (Artek AR-0017-2, released 2004). Like the highly acclaimed Järvi version (Chandos CHAN 8411), it makes its way through the grandly meanderingLargo with uncommon poignancy. Järvi’s sonic spaciousness favours a more distant evocation, whereas Schwarz, exploiting the clarity and warmth of Seattle’s Benaroya Hall, focuses more on individual solos and the movement’s contours of tension and relaxation. Ensemble work shines throughout. The soloists in the Largo are especially concerned with achieving the sense of mystical intensity. In the subsequent movements the Seattle Symphony again get to display their outstanding sectional playing; brass and percussion merit special mention.
In the First Violin Concerto, with which the Sixth Symphony is paired, again Schwarz’s choice of soloist, as in theStepan Razin cantata, is not entirely satisfactory. Violinist Elmar Oliveira’s infallible intonation and beautifully flowing lyricism work especially well in his moving account of the third movement Passacaglia, which soars to lofty heights. Yet, in the more weighty opening movement, more digging is required to reach the music’s troubled demons. Likewise in the emotionally charged Scherzo, Oliveira’s polished tones might have contained more grit. Though the Seattle musicians provide sturdy support, the whole effort relies somewhat too heavily upon the soloist.
Despite their fine musicianship and their recording’s well-honed acoustics, Schwarz and the Seattle SO do not quite succeed in their interpretation of the Eleventh Symphony (Koch-Schwann 3-7414-2, released 1997; deleted), the result, I imagine, of a shortage of rehearsal time. The all-important instrumental solos in the opening movement fall short of achieving the spirit of proud defiance found in the best performances, such as those of Ashkenazy (Decca 448 179-2; deleted), Berglund (EMI 7243 5 73839 2 9; deleted), Kondrashin (Aulos AMC2-043-1-10), Mravinsky (Revelation RV 10091; reviewed in DSCH 9; deleted), and Rostropovich’s slow-boiling LSO version (LSO Live LSO0030; reviewed in DSCH 18). The result is music that suffocates from too much reverence. While there’s no shortage of passion in the January 9th movement, I would have preferred less spontaneity and more structure in order to keep its climactic sections in better proportion. It is only in the third movement, In memoriam, that the Seattle players at last display the power and depth required. With slow dignified tempi, they build to a radiant central climax.
The Second Cello Concerto enjoyed a boom of recordings after 1990. Natalia Gutman’s hard-edged renderings, one with Yuri Temirkanov and the Royal PO (RCA RD 87918; deleted) and the other an earlier, even more driven version with Dmitri Kitaenko and the Moscow PO (Live Classics LCL 202, reviewed in DSCH 15), are consistent with the assertive style of interpretation as exemplified by Rostropovich. Some critics find the version with cellist Frans Helmerson and the Russian State SO under Valeri Polyanksy (Chandos CHAN 9585, reviewed in DSCH 10; deleted; reissued as CHAN 10040X) on the cool side, but its tight tempi and take-charge address confer upon it an appealing clarity of purpose. Mischa Maisky with Tilson Thomas and the LSO (DG 445 821-2) take a more deliberate approach that at times gets caught up in details, but never so much as Kyrill Rodin’s floundering version with Konstantin Krimets and the Russian PO (Arte Nova ANO 496880), which gropes in vain for a convincing point of view.
The Second Cello Concerto differs notably from its predecessor in its untraditional layout of movements and in its shadowy content typical of Shostakovich’s later style. Though less popular than the First Concerto, it is arguably the greater work in terms of construction. Marked by complex emotional detours, the formal layout of the Second is conceived broadly and simply as a vast monolithic wedge of increasing tension. After an embolismic bottling of emotion in the first movement and an escalation toward a withheld climax in the second, revolving around the folk song Bublichki, everything collapses into the explosively tragic return of the Bublichki theme in the finale. Here Shostakovich condenses all the work’s tragic energy into a single moment of release ingeniously deferred to the very last bars. The acknowledgement of this basic floorplan is key to a successful performance. Interpreters must not only make sense of the concerto’s unusually cryptic material, even by Shostakovian standards, but at the same time respond to its tightly knit formal elements. In many performances these two variables either compete with each other for pre-eminence or remain incompletely assimilated.
Schwarz’s hit and miss track record in Shostakovich would not seem to bode well for the Second Concerto’s labyrinthine intrigues. However I’m happy to report that he joins cellist Lynn Harrell in what turns out to be a partnership of remarkable compatibility. Harrell steps beyond the music’s shroud of mystery with a disarming level of intimacy. Rather than the aggressive wrangling with the work’s conflicts found in the Russian performances, Harrell offers a more subtle set of responses. Throughout he conveys vulnerability mixed with wonder and a refreshing, entirely original openness. His interiorised approach is more closely allied to Western performances such as those of Truls Mørk (with the London PO/Jansons; Virgin Classics 4820192) and Torleif Thedéen (with the Malmö SO/DePriest; BIS CD 626). Though his tone lacks the weight and forward projection found in these accounts, his strength lies in the humanity he brings to this music and to his uncanny ability to carve a wealth of detail into each phrase.
In this opening paragraph, then, Harrell establishes a stirring rapport with the listener. In the more rhythmic second thematic group, as in the faster passages elsewhere in the concerto, Harrell prefers short, light bowings that are no doubt his way of micromanaging the contour of each phrase. At the movement’s stark culmination, in between the bass drum’s thunderous pounces, Harrell’s explosive defiance is felt in the angry traipses of his pizzicato chords and in the anguished exhortations of the most wrenching double-stopped howlings into the wind.
The staccato notes with which the solo cello opens the second movement also take on a unique personality. The obliquely receding tones that Harrell produces in these otherwise unassuming phrases parallel his entering gestures in the first movement. Once again he seems to anticipate with trepidation the turbulence ahead. And indeed he heads directly for the troubled undercurrents of this deceptively giddy scherzo. The long-wired glissandi, portrayed like stretched candy by Rostropovich and especially Thedéen, are in Harrell’s hands more like bracing skids of the soul. While some of the irony of the proceedings is lost, Harrell compensates with superb manoeuvring through the mercurial shifts of mood and the increasingly strained utterances of the Bublichki theme—all this against a backdrop of violent timpani punctuation and hectoring woodwind skirls. Schwarz’s rhythmic stability, supported by the fine musicianship of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, brings out a wealth of detail. Conductor and soloist are in marvellously pulsed unison as they ratchet up the tension and commandeer the movement toward its bizarre anticlimactic cul de sac. The elephantine fanfares that suddenly appear, Shostakovich’s masterstroke of misdirection, announce their arrival with confounding pomposity.
The final rondo is comprised of an even more bewildering chessboard of incongruities. Schwarz and Harrell shift from one vignette to the next without batting an eyelash: the romantic windowpane of melancholic reverie; the sweet cadential phrase tethered to a trill; the hollowed-out march theme that follows the restatements of the fanfare motif; and so forth. At the same time they never lose sight of the substrate of tension that eventually erupts in volcanic fury.
A few reservations: I found Harrell’s sudden acceleration in tempo a little disruptive in the tortured solo cadenza leading to the climax. It is a surge that, while seemingly spontaneous, interrupts the section’s larger rhythmic framework. On the conductor’s side, I wish Schwarz had taken more of a ritardando, per Shostakovich’s instructions in the score, in the poignant breath that separates the two-part utterance of the final climax. The slight clipping takes some of the wind out of his otherwise powerful culmination. Conductor and soloist bring the work to its haunting conclusion. Some cellists, notably Rostropovich, like to emphasize the slight hook at the end of the final sustained note. Harrell barely raises the voice of his instrument at this final moment, mirroring the soft-spoken tones with which he begins the previous two movements.
The same strength and intelligence is brought to Prokofiev’s extroverted Symphony–Concerto. One will find slightly more meaty cello tones in the recording with Rostropovich and Rozhdestvensky leading the USSR State SO (Revelation RV 10102; deleted). Yet once again, Harrell demonstrates his ability to personalise while holding the line in another beautifully crafted performance.